Jesus taught no creed, wrote no manual, and certainly didn’t dictate a formulaic Prayer

Scripture Reflection
and Communion
with Bob Cramer,
Sunday, July 29, 2007.
First Congregational
United Church of Christ,
(Open and Affirming),
Santa Rosa, California.

Father, your name be revered.
Impose your imperial rule.
Provide us with the bread we need for the day.
Forgive our debts to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.

–The earliest form of The Lord’s Prayer, according to The Complete Gospels, edited by Robert J. Miller, Polebridge Press, 1994.

Is there anyone who has never wondered why, in public worship, some churches insist upon saying “debts” instead of “trespasses?” In our congregation, for example, we slide easily over the “debts” without hearing “trespasses” until the longer alternative phrase slows us down a bit while visitors can be heard saying “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In our congregation, we follow what we imagine Jesus told us to say at the end – a doxology or praise-phrase: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Not all Christian churches do that. They leave all that off – because (look in your Bibles!) – Luke and Matthew don’t include that; and Mark and John don’t tell us about it at all.

Our pastor, David, is right in noting that the words of the prayer may not be as significant as the introduction to it in the biblical texts. One of the disciples asks Jesus to help them pray. Indeed, the New English Bible, the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version all translate the Luke 11:1-13 text this way – Jesus is asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s not “teach us how to pray,” David says: “It seems to me that these are two fundamentally different questions – one [is] a question of technique; the other a question of orientation as if to ask, ‘teach us to live with open hearts’.”

Despite the fact that my primary teachers, the Jesus Seminar, read the Greek as having said “teach us how to pray,” I side with David and the standard translations on this. The question isn’t even asked in Matthew’s version, where, instead, Jesus warns against promoting oneself as ostentatiously practicing piety. In Matthew, Jesus makes a big case against the professional practitioners of public piety. So David’s interpretation really grabs me.

I don’t know how David is going to present this later this morning, but he did promise us in his e-mail message to the congregation last week that he’s arranged today’s worship around “the theme of prayer with a few twists along the way.” (We’ve got a twist or two, too!)

We get to look at the Lord’s Prayer, now, before David’s worship service. So here’s what I’d like us to do as we meet at our table looking forward to communion with Jesus who taught us no formulas, only a lifestyle. At the beginning of our worship I shared with you the Q Gospel from which scholars think both Luke and Matthew took their stories. Both those evangelists felt quite free to embed their report within a good deal of liturgical embroidery. Because of that, Christians continue to feel quite free to do the same. Let us pray, then, as some others have prayed.

1 At the beginning of the 17th century an Anglican writer, Lancelot Andrews, noticed that elements essential to the most traditional renderings of the Lord’s Prayer already existed in Torah, the especially sacred first five books of Hebrew scripture. Please pray with him:

Let thy name be called upon us. Be thou our shield and our exceeding great reward. What word soever proceedeth from thee, let it not be in us to speak aught against it, whether good or bad. Give us bread to eat and raiment to put on. And now pardon the iniquity and the unrighteousness of thy servants. And, O Lord, let us not think anxiously in our hearts all the day long. And let no evils take hold of us.
(Genesis 426; Genesis 15:1; Numbers 24:13; Genesis 2:8-20; Numbers 14:19; Deuteronomy 28:32; Deuteronomy 31:17.)

2 The illustration I’ve shared, from an indigenous Australian artist, differs from the way we usually think of the elements of communion. We know some early Christians shared fish at Eucharist along with bread, and sometimes used milk mixed with, or instead of, wine. It may help us understand one of the ways we’re told some indigenous people pray;

You are our Father, you live in heaven, we talk to you; Father, you are good. We believe your word, Father, we your children – give us bread today. Others have done wrong to us and we are sorry for them, Father, today. We have done wrong. We are sorry; teach us, Father, not to sin again. Stop us from doing wrong, Father; save us all from the Evil One. You are our Father, you live in heaven, we talk to you; Father, you are good. Amen.