Toorak Uniting Church

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The Greatest Prayer of All

Matthew 6:9-13
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
9 March 2014

Dominic Crossan, in his book The Greatest Prayer, on the revolutionary message found in the Lord’s Prayer, states that of all the diverse aspects of the Christian Faith, this prayer is possibly unique in that every person who calls themselves Christian is able to say this prayer in unison. With our many divisions, diverse theologies and manifold creeds, the Lord’s Prayer can be said by evangelicals and liberals; by Pentecostals and Russian orthodox; by fundamentalists and progressives. It remains our greatest link to unity and harmony between Christians.

But it is also a prayer that many who are not Christian can recite with authenticity. It is by and large a prayer for humanity. But that doesn’t mean that it is clear and simple in its understanding. Nor does the mere recitation of this prayer fulfil the divine requirements. In fact, it is true that familiarity can cause at worst contempt and at best a weary ritualism. I chose to put a different version of the Lord’s Prayer in the order of service today just to stir the pot and wake us up to the words we are saying.

The Our Father
Many will know that in the Catholic tradition this prayer is known as the "Our Father" taken from the first words of the prayer. And in the traditional form, it is either debts or trespasses that must be forgiven rather than our sins. The use of the word trespasses always intrigued me as a child learning this prayer. I would try to think of the times I had "trespassed" on someone’s property and really couldn't come up with any recollection of doing it. The truth is of course that words change their meaning with time, and even today the word "sin" is moving and taking on a different meaning.

Another perplexing note is the phrase which we use in saying the Lord’s Prayer (but often not used in the Catholic expression of faith) "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen"; it doesn’t appear in more recent translations of Matthew 6:13. It does appear in the King James Version but it’s omitted from more recent translations because scholars feel it was a later addition by an enthusiastic scribe. There remains some debate about that.

Nevertheless it is the greatest prayer in the Christian tradition and perhaps one of the few passages of Scripture that most Christians can recite from memory. Many years ago I was asked to visit an elderly man in the local psychiatric hospital. My first church was in the area that had a large state prison and Queensland’s largest "Mental Hospital", as it was called in the late 70s. I found the man in the visiting area and introduced myself and asked him how he was doing. I was told a long and fanciful story about leaving tomorrow for a world trip that would last many months and visit all the continents of the world. After some time I asked if he would like me to pray with him. He said yes, so I began with the Lord’s Prayer. After I said the first few words he opened his eyes and said, "I know that" and proceeded to recite the prayer with me. I reflected later that in the midst of his confusion the words he had learned as a child returned to him and hopefully gave him some solace.

A prayer for the union of heaven and earth

Our Father who is in Heaven
Hallowed be your name….
Your kingdom come
Your will be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven

You may have heard it said before that Jesus used the intimate version of father to address God. These first words place us in the position that we are not the centre of the universe. That there is a mystery greater than us and that it is a benevolent presence that wills the best for us and our world. This is reflected in this poem about prayer.

To pray is to make a connection.
A connection with God, the sacred, or the divine
To connect with those we name
to connect with ourselves
For when the heart speaks the head can listen in

To pray is to sigh, to murmur, to tremble
To voice the wordless
And speak the unintelligible

To pray is to say, "I am not alone"
It is to say, "I am not the centre of the universe."
A prayer is a plea to all that is beyond us
All that is not understood
All that we cannot control

And in prayer we know the one to whom we pray
Is for us and not against us.

The author Parker J Palmer has paraphrased it this way:

Heavenly Father, heavenly Mother,
Holy and blessed is your true name.
We pray for your reign of peace to come,
We pray that your good will be done,
Let heaven and earth become one.

It is not easy to strip away thousands of years of religious varnish, nevertheless it is important to say that heaven is not a place, but a state of being where hope and the future; grace and justice; trust and joy for all creation are held. "Let heaven and earth become one….."

A prayer for daily needs
Now taking the words of Matthew’s gospel

Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

We hear the call for support, strength and encouragement to go about our daily lives and also to grasp a bigger vision of the world. Yes, we need our daily bread, but doesn’t everyone else need their daily sustenance? Perhaps it is important to recognize that the prayer says "give us" not just "give me."

Give us this day the bread we need,
Give it to those who have none.

In a world of such awful inequality, it would be immoral to ask that my needs are met regardless of the needs of others.

But our daily needs are greater than just the food we eat. While food sustains and nourishes our bodies, it is our relationships that nourish and sustain our souls. There are only three rules when buying real estate….. Location, location, location…. Well, there are only three rules when it comes to living the Christian faith…. Relationships, relationships, relationships…. Again from Parker Palmer’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer:

Let forgiveness flow like a river between us,
From each one to each one.

And forgive us our debts, (trespasses, sins)
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Remember earlier in the Sermon on the Mount:

…. if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar and go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Why are relationships so important to the gospel writers? Because our relationships are an outward sign of an inner change. It takes a lot of courage to initiate a conversation where you ask for forgiveness from someone you have wronged or who has wronged you. But it is also because it is the relationship we have with the Spirit of Christ and with God the creator that names us.

Finally, Temptation and Evil

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

It seems peculiar that the prayer asks God not to lead us into temptation. I have no simple answer to our understanding of this statement. Other than to say that all that comes to us comes from the hand of God. Both beauty and terror; hope and despair come from the loving presence of God. There is not, in my mind, a force for good and a counter force for evil. So the one who prays is offering a prayer from the heart, a plea for strength; and a plea that life will not be so difficult or demanding that I might fall under its weight.

Let me finish with this completely different paraphrase of our greatest prayer, that can help release us from a ritualistic reciting of the Lord’s Prayer:

Retranslation from the Aramaic

O Breathing Life, your Name shines everywhere!
Release a space to plant your Presence here.
Imagine your possibilities now.
Embody your desire in every light and form.
Grow through us this moment's bread and wisdom.
Untie the knots of failure binding us,
as we release the strands we hold of others' faults.
Help us not forget our Source,
Yet free us from not being in the Present.
From you arises every Vision, Power and Song
from gathering to gathering.
Amen -
May our future actions grow from here!

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.