An Illustrious Master

Luke 11:1-2
August 28, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Two friends were having coffee and the discussion turned to the subject of religion.  After listening to his companion extol his knowledge of all things spiritual, the first man challenged the second, saying, “If you are so religious, let’s hear you quote the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, I bet you $10.00 you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer.”

The second responded, “Sure I can: Now I lay my down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

The first man shook his head sadly, then pulled out his wallet and handed over a ten dollar bill, muttering, “I really didn’t think you could do it!”

I’m guessing that most of you here can recite the Lord’s Prayer or at least you would recognize it when you heard it, because we say it every week in church and we don’t even put the words in the bulletin.  The only help you get from the printed program is the warning that we use “debts and debtors,” though even then, periodically we catch a few trespassers in the sanctuary. Most of you can say the Lord’s Prayer, and most of you know that some churches say “debts” and some say “trespasses,” and I suspect that a lot of you even know that Catholics finish praying before Protestants since the Catholic version stops before the phrase: “for thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  (And every Protestant can remember the first time they learned that visiting a Catholic mass when they were the only one still talking as the Priest continued with the liturgy.)

The reason for those variations in traditions has to do with the Greek manuscripts used by different biblical translators.  When Jerome, for example, in the year 405 produced the Vulgate, a Latin Bible that went on to be used in the Catholic mass, he based his work on a set of Greek manuscripts that ended the Lord’s Prayer at the phrase, “deliver us from evil,” which is why that’s where Catholics stop, but later translations used by Protestants, such as the King James Version, were based on a different set of Greek manuscripts which included the verse “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”  Most scholars today think that the last verse was added to the gospel of Matthew by an overzealous copy editor who was used to ending other prayers in church with the phrase so he stuck it in here after Jesus’ prayer. 1  It’s not, however, original to Jesus and most of today’s Bibles have taken it back out.  So score one for the Catholics.

On the other hand, the word “trespasses” came into use in the 1500s when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English and chose to use the word “trespasses” to translate the Greek word ὀφειλέτης.  Many English speaking people used Tyndale’s translation, including English speaking Catholics, and so they learned to pray, “forgive us our trespasses.”  The Greek word ὀφειλέτης, however, means literally, “forgive that which is owed to us,” so the word “debts” used in the King James Version of 1611 is actually more accurate.  Score one for Protestants, or at least we low church Bible Believing Protestants who have lots of debts!  I can’t speak for you Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists — I don’t know where you went wrong.

Anyway, as I said, I’m assuming that most of you recognize the Lord’s Prayer, and most of you know that different churches say slightly different versions of it (and now you know why), but what you may not have known before today is that there are actually two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible, one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the Gospel of Luke.  The one Christians use in church is from the gospel of Matthew because it has a better poetic meter; it has a nicer liturgical sound.  The version in the gospel of Luke is rather bare bones.  It’s as if Luke had to tweet the Lord’s Prayer — or for you old folks, it’s as if he was sending a telegram and was counting his pennies — so he stripped the prayer done to its bare essentials retaining the meaning while trimming away the fat.  To our ears, used to a lifetime of Matthew’s version, Luke’s Lord’s Prayer feels blunt and stark, but it’s that very “no frills” feel that makes it so helpful to us as we try to understand Jesus’ answer to his disciples when they asked, “How then shall we pray?”  Here in Luke, we are likely closer to Jesus’ real response to his disciples; the liturgical niceties are gone and we are left with only Jesus’ core concerns.

And his first word to us when we ask “How shall we pray?” is that when we begin to pray, we should start with God.  Start with God, not with you, to remind yourself that it is God who gives you your life and your purpose, who is the ground upon which you stand and who is the heaven to which you stretch your soul in longing.

“Begin here,” Jesus says, “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.”  Jesus devotes the first half of his prayer to God, describing the nature of God’s character and the intent of God for the world. Of course, today, we don’t get any farther than the first word of his prayer before we hit controversy and confusion.  In the last few decades, there has been a lot of discussion about the use of the term “Father” for God as feminist theologians rightly point out that painting God as masculine contributes to continuing patriarchal dominance in the church and ignores the many biblical images of God which are equally feminine.  It’s important to note, then, that when Jesus told his disciples to address God as father, he wasn’t choosing the word ‘Father’ in order to describe God’s gender but chose it to describe our relationship to God as members of God’s household.  In Jesus’ world, people’s status was determined by their father.  People were known by their first name and the name of their father linked by the word “Bar” meaning “son of” or “Bath” meaning “daughter of,” so Bartimaeus is literally son of Timaeus, Bartholomew — son of Tholomew, Bathsheba, daughter of Sheba.  Your standing in first century society depended heavily on your father’s standing and people knew their rank and they knew their neighbor’s rank, and so they also knew whether they stood above or below each person around them.  When Jesus told us to address God as Father, he wasn’t simply giving us a warm fussy way of talking to God, he was deliberately challenging the entire Roman system of class and social status by claiming that we are all children of the same household and therefore all on equal footing as children of God.  The theologian Marjorie Suchocki says that “By instructing us to pray to God as Father, Jesus didn’t promote a patriarchal society but rather actually overturned a patriarchal society, by conferring upon everyone equal privilege as equal children of God.” 2

When you begin your prayer with “Father,” you begin by reminding yourself that the only identity that matters is your identity as God’s child and moreover, that the person standing next to you praying, “Father,” is equally God’s child and thus is your brother, your sister, and a member of your household to whom you owe your attention and care.

And, Jesus continues, when you pray, remember that the God to whom you pray, to whom you owe your identity, is not a weak kneed God who you can manipulate and use for your own self promotion but is a holy God, whose ways are higher than your ways and whose thoughts are higher than your thoughts.  This is a God before whom we can only kneel in humility, whose greatness, righteousness, and love is deserving of our complete respect: “Father, hallowed be thy name.”

In the 1800s, the missionary James Hudson Taylor went to China to establish a Protestant ministry but unlike other missionaries of the time, Taylor was unique in showing sensitivity to the Chinese culture.  He adopted Chinese dress, and he included the working class and women from the communities in the leadership of his missions.  He campaigned tirelessly against the opium trade and over half a century of work, he helped to establish 125 schools throughout China.

When not in China, Taylor traveled extensively speaking at churches to highlight the needs of the Chinese people.  One Sunday, at a large Presbyterian church in Melbourne, Australia, the worship leader introduced Taylor in effusive terms, describing his great work in China and listing all of his accomplishments.  He ended his introduction by presenting Taylor as “our illustrious guest.”

After this introduction, Taylor stood quietly for a moment, and then opened his message by saying, “Dear friends, I am but the little servant of an illustrious Master.” 3

“Father, hallowed by your name.”  Jesus told us to remind ourselves every time that we pray that any status we have comes from our inheritance as a child of the one living God without whom we would be nothing, without whom we could do nothing.

“May your name be made holy,” we pray, “because we are but little servants of an illustrious Master.”

And finally, before we turn to our needs in prayer, Jesus leaves us with this last phrase about God:  “Thy Kingdom come.”

Honestly, this is perhaps the most difficult phrase of the Lord’s Prayer for those of us who are committed to social justice, because Jesus deliberately includes it not in the section of this prayer dedicated to our response to God but in the section of the prayer dedicated to God’s work.  We who strive to bring equality to the disenfranchised, who build houses for the working poor, who dig wells to bring clean water to the people of Haiti, who volunteer at the food pantry, who write letters to our congressional representatives protesting environmental neglect, who give money to help Syrian refugees, and who give our time to help disadvantaged children learn to read — we who are committed to the work of God’s Kingdom and believe that our faith should be expressed through the care of the least among us — can easily make the mistake of believing that God’s Kingdom will not come without us.  And so when our efforts fail to make a difference, or when we get so tired that we are not sure we can lift a hand to help one more soul, when we are filled with doubts and question the effectiveness of what we do, we are weighed down not only by our fatigue but by our fear that our failure has doomed the Kingdom; that we have failed not only ourselves and our community, but even God.

Jesus told us to pray, “Your Kingdom come,” to remind ourselves that we are not God and we are not steering the world.  We are just one small part of something much larger than ourselves that God has been unfolding for millennia and that God will continue to unfold long after we are gone.  God’s Kingdom is here among us every time we demonstrate it in our own lives, living among our neighbors with the whole hearted compassion with which Jesus first loved us, but God’s rule is also not yet complete.  God is still at work, weaving together the efforts of countless lives committed in faith, and we have to trust that God will bring a harvest that we cannot and probably will not see.  We don’t have to save the world: we are called to announce that God is at work saving it.  Jesus calls us to paint a picture through our words and deeds of what God wants the world to look like, and to participate in the Kingdom’s becoming, but ultimately to understand that the final creation is God’s, not ours.

Mallory McDuff, a professor of environmental education and writer for Sojourners magazine, wrote an essay called, “Why I Made My Teenager Go to Church.”  McDuff writes, “[Sometimes I have to drag my daughter Maya out of bed on Sunday morning and argue her into the car, but I do it because] I want Maya to know that those people [in our church] working to confront poverty, inequality, and environmental injustice… are acting for the greater good in spite of their questions…. I believe that we need common spaces, more grounded than the corner Starbucks, to discern right actions in a world faced with crises like climate change and stark economic disparities. Our teenagers and our children must shape these sacred spaces where we can grapple with our questions but act in faith through practices of forgiveness, feeding, hospitality, and care of creation.”

McDuff adds, “[One Sunday] after making Maya go to church, I took my daughters to an interfaith creation care vigil that night in downtown Asheville, N.C….When we arrived, one of the volunteers gave Maya a basket of candles, which she helped to distribute to the 250 people gathered for the vigil.   As she passed out candles at dusk, [a visiting reporter] asked her, “Do you know why you are here?”

“I’m not really sure,” she said, laughing. “I’m just the candle person.”

McDuff concludes, “I made Maya go to church because we may not know why we are here, but we can pass along a little light to others on the journey. And maybe that’s what we need to create a little heaven on earth.” 4

“Father, hallowed by your name, your Kingdom come.”  We are here to light candles in spite of our doubts, to create sacred spaces where God’s love is made manifest, to declare God’s presence both now and in the future, whether we are here to see that future or not.  We begin our prayer always with the reminder that we are but little servants of a most illustrious God.

Next week, we will turn to the second half of the prayer and hear what Jesus believes our prayers should say about us.

Footnotes:

1. The phrase is found in a first century Christian work known as the Didache as part of the prayer liturgy. Such phrases, known as “doxologies” or statements of praise were often added to the end of a prayer; I Chronicles 29:11 has a similar wording in a prayer of David. Since the earliest biblical manuscripts we have don’t include the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and it only appears in later manuscripts, it’s likely that the phrase was being used in the church liturgy and that a monk copying the biblical manuscript added the phrase to the passage in Matthew.

2. In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer, Dr. Marjorie Suchocki

3. W. Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, p. 243.

4. “Why I Made My Teenager Go to Church,” from Sojourners online, by Mallory McDuff 05-06-2013