How Then Shall We Pray?
“How Then Shall We Pray”
October 15, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Matthew 6: 9-13; Romans 8: 15-17, 26-27
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 6: 9-13
‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Romans 8: 15-17, 26-27
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
On the sheet I just gave the children, I’m encouraging them to think about how they could pray the Lord’s Prayer in their own words. This week we’re focusing on just the first line of the prayer. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. One of the prompts asks them to think about what name they might say for God and this reminds me of a joke. Maybe you’ve heard it….
A Sunday school teacher asked her second graders if anyone knew another name for God. She was picturing answers like 'Lord' or 'Almighty'. After a long moment of silence, a little boy raised his hand and said, "Howard." "Howard?" replied the confused teacher. "You know," continued the boy, "Our Father, who art in heaven. Howard be thy name."
Do you remember the first time you ever said The Lord’s Prayer? If you grew up in a tradition where this prayer was said in church regularly, chances are you probably don’t remember the first time you said it. But you probably do remember a point at which you realized you had somehow learned to string some words together out of your mouth that sounded roughly like what everyone else in the room was saying. Perhaps it was only when your parents overheard you one day say something like “Our Father, who does art in heaven. Howard be thy name.” OR "Give us this steak our jelly bread." OR “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from E-mail.” OR “forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.” Perhaps it was only then that you realized you were learning the prayer in one way or another.
The Lord’s Prayer is often a prayer we’ve fallen into, rather than prayed with much intention. It’s almost so routine and familiar we forget that it’s there, we pray it out of tradition and habit, under our breath, blending our voice into the voices around us.
I was eating breakfast one day toward the end of summer with June, my 8-year-old, when out of the blue she asked: “can you teach me the Lord’s Prayer?” I was pretty surprised by such a seriously theological question before I’d even finished my caffeinated beverage. But I was also amazed at two things: 1. Teaching a prayer to my child that we say every single week had never occurred to me and 2. She actually wanted to learn what the phrases were so that the prayer could make sense to her.
This is the thing about tradition. When something is so ingrained as a tradition, we can take it for granted. We assume everyone knows about it somehow, some way, magically on their own, and we do it every week whether we really know what it means or not.
I love traditions. They are rich and life-giving and the Lord’s Prayer has always been a source of comfort for me. It’s the prayer my family has turned to in moments of deep grief. It’s the one thing you can start saying at a Christian gathering and guarantee you will be joined by others almost immediately. It’s a prayer that we don’t have to think about, it just comes out. This isn’t a prayer we choose; it chooses us.
And yet, even though I love the familiarity of this prayer, I also want for this to be a tradition that is shared with new ears, not simply by osmosis, but with intentionality. What if everything that’s essential to our Christian faith is all right here in this prayer? Shouldn’t we teach that?
I decided at breakfast that day that my daughter was probably not the only person who might want to learn the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the more I thought about it, I also wanted to learn this prayer, you know, in a new way. A way that would help give it more substance and meaning for me.
So for the next 6 weeks or so we’re going to take the prayer phrase by phrase. And I think what we’ll find is that this will basically also be a 6-week overview on what it means to be a Christian. When the disciples asked Jesus, “how then should we pray?” Jesus didn’t say, “okay, everybody now close your eyes and bow your heads and clasp your hands together just so.” No! He didn’t give step by step instructions on how to literally make a prayer. What he did when asked, was model a good prayer for us to use. In a classic Jesus move, he didn’t teach us—he showed us.
We’re going to go through the prayer week by week, as I said. And as we go through this, we’re going to be using the standard translation of Jesus’ prayer from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as our jumping off point. Bear in mind that what we hear as our familiar wording of the Lord’s Prayer is actually an English translation of the Greek New Testament, which was itself a translation of the original version Jesus spoke which would have been in a language called Aramaic. We speak it in English so that it’s familiar and meaningful, but because of the many times this prayer has been translated, it’s important to hold our version in relationship with other versions that are also trying to be true to the original meaning. In other words, let’s hold onto our traditional language, but with a loosened grip.
So what was the beginning again? Oh right, the part about Howard being God’s name.
Right, not exactly. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
This is the beginning of a conversation with God, right? And normally when we start a conversation with anyone, we begin by addressing our remarks in a particular direction to that person. We don’t send a letter in the mail without first putting an address on the envelope. We don’t write a text message without first putting a 10-digit phone number into the “to” line. No meaningful conversation ever started by saying, “hey, you!” No. When we have something to say to someone we take care in addressing them intentionally.
Prayer is no different. The hard part about prayer is not knowing we need to address God specifically; it’s knowing what language to use. Father? Lord? Creator? Mother? Friend? Big guy in the sky? All of our language seems incomplete because it’s human-made language.
If I’m completely honest, sometimes it feels like the opening language of “Our Father” doesn’t quite sit well with me. I struggle with language for God that’s gendered when I think God is bigger than gender.
So I want to share two interesting things I’ve learned about as I’ve dug deeper into this prayer.
The first, as I mentioned before, is that our traditional language of “Our father” is a translation of the original. And the original, original, the Aramaic that Jesus spoke has a much bigger meaning for this line.
Here’s a transliteration of the first line from Aramaic:
(can you say it with me?)
One way to translate this is: O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos/ you create all that moves in light.
Another way: Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes, who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration. May Your light be experienced in my utmost holiest.
Even though translations may vary, what’s the important thing that Jesus is trying to get across with this first line? God is bigger than us. Soooooo much bigger. God is a God that not only pre-existed our being, but helped to make us who we are. God is a God who is so incomprehensible and transcendent, heaven is the only space that holds this magnificent entity. God is a God who makes the light itself. Even when we don’t know what name to use, we know that the name of God is holy, hallowed, and sacred.
It's beautiful to see this wider meaning of the tradition, isn’t it? So that’s the first thing I want to mention.
The second thing is that even though the literal translation of this opening line is inherently ungendered, wide and expansive, almost immediately the name of God in this opening line began to be translated as Abba, Father.
But why? This week I’ve spent time reading John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Greatest Prayer, in which he tried to put the Jesus prayer into its 1st century Palestinian context. That land and the time in which Jesus lived as a Jewish man.
What we find when we look back at this time and place is that it was a patriarchal society. This probably doesn’t surprise you. Men were the ones who had power. They owned the land, they headed their households, they earned wages, they managed the finances. Historically, this is the way it was. Men were always the ones put in charge of handling the welfare of others. Father was not just the title of the man in the household. Father was the name of the one who legally managed the household, and managed it well, hopefully.
So when the Lord’s prayer invokes the name of a household manager as its title for God, what does that mean? Let me ask you this: when you walk into someone else’s house… maybe visiting relatives at Christmas or having dinner with friends… can you tell if the household is being managed well? What are the signs? The house is warm against the cold weather. The inside lights provide brightness. There is food on the table and it’s nourishing. Everyone in the house is safe. At the dinner table there is space for each person and no one is talked over. Problems are talked through and the household works together. In short, there is enough. Everyone is taken care of.
So this is the thing. When the Lord’s Prayer uses a name for God that means Head of Household, we have to imagine that Jesus was invoking the name of a God who is something of a cosmic “householder,” head and chief manager of a heavenly kingdom. And that heavenly kingdom is a beautiful, well-cared place where justice and mercy rule. Where everything is cared for and where there is always enough.
I like this metaphor of God as the great Householder. It feels relatable and aspirational. We want to address our prayer to this kind of God because deep down inside we long to be connected with this kind of God so that some of this justice and mercy and good householding might … rub off on us.
In fact, when Paul wrote about the Abba prayer in Romans, he said that we don’t just pray this prayer, we inherit its message. From the reading that we just heard…..( “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Spoiler alert. The next line of the prayer, the one we’ll look at next week, is this: “Thy kingdom come. They will be done.” Where? “On earth as it is in heaven.”
If we believe that God is the great orderer of a transcendent realm (heaven) where everyone has enough and there is peace and grace for everyone, and if we are, as Paul says, the children of God, heirs of God’s ways. Then of course we want to adopt God’s values and bring them into this giant household of humanity that we call earth.
In order to understand the magnitude of who God is and what we’re asking when we want earth to be like heaven, we must first know that ours is a God who makes heaven into a well-run, equitable household. And in God’s household there is no war. There is no hunger. There are no debts. There is no lingering resentment. There is only enough. Enough food. Enough peace. Enough grace. Enough love. This is just who God is.
This has been a week in which earth feels very far away from heaven. A week in which the land where Jesus sat and first uttered this prayer has become a warzone, more violent than any of us have seen in recent memory. It’s become abundantly clear, as if we needed another reminder, that whether we call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Christians, or Israelis, or Palestinians or Americans, we have not yet fully grasped what it could mean to live in the household of God where there is enough for everyone. We still think violence can give us what we need. We turn to politics and weapons, military spending and border walls to give our earthly home order and “justice.” But that will never be enough. That creates an earthly household where there will always be someone on the other side of the wall or the weapon or the treaty who doesn’t have enough.
We need the Lord’s Prayer because we are easily distracted. We need the Lord’s Prayer because we quickly get disoriented. We pray the Jesus prayer to remind ourselves whose we are. We say “Our Father who art in heaven” because we are and always will be children of a God who works tirelessly to keep the household together. We are the heirs of this work. We are the children of this love. Our task, as we will see spelled out in the rest of the prayer, is to not let ourselves be distracted from God’s ways. To not forget what kind of world we have been tasked with making.
We pray the Jesus prayer as a cry for help. A gasp of fresh air in a polluted world. A life-line of hope. A familiar hymn. A whisper of intimacy with the Almighty. We pray the Jesus prayer because we know the dividing lines are not between nationalities and cultures and religions, but between those who seek violence as a means to an end and those who seek another way. We pray to a God who longs to give us that other way. And that God is listening.
Let us pray,
Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes, who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration. May Your light be experienced in my utmost holiest. Your Heavenly Domain approaches. Let Your will come true - in the universe just as on earth. Give us wisdom for our daily need, detach the fetters of faults that bind us, like we let go of the guilt of others. Let us not be lost in superficial things, but let us be freed from that which keeps us from our true purpose. From You comes the all-working will, the lively strength to act, the song that beautifies all and renews itself from age to age. Sealed in trust, faith and truth, I confirm with my entire being. (A translation of the original Aramaic “Our Father”)
Grace and Peace,