A Tutorial on Prayer

Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Luke 11:1-13

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

 

11:1 “He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2 He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’ 5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’” (Luke 11:1-13, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of heaven and earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord you have taught us how to pray. Keep us faithful, O God, in daily prayer and in daily life—always asking and searching for signs of your coming kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

It happens every week, actually every Sunday. We get to that moment in worship as we are praying the Lord’s Prayer when it happens, the pause, the brief silence before some of your say “debts and debtors” and others of you say “trespasses and those who trespass against us.”   In that moment we hear one of the differences in denominations, traditions and up-bringing comes out.  It is a curiously wonderful moment.

 

I have been asked to offer sermons about a few of the differences in our liturgical traditions over the next month.  We start with the Lord’s Prayer, later this summer I will cover the Apostle’s Creed, especially the statement about Jesus and his descending into hell.

 

The Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus is teaching his disciples how to pray.  It was not uncommon for a rabbi to teach his disciples to pray.  John taught his disciples and now Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how.  What he teaches them is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.

 

Most people don’t like to pray in public or out loud.  We might say prayers to ourselves, say grace before a meal, or read the prayers printed in in the bulletin, or in the Prayer Book but we don’t often say prayers out loud for each other.  Because most of us were never taught how.  And, most of us are uncomfortable trying things that we don’t know how to do.[1]   I like many of you have apprehension about it but it is one of the occupational hazards because the pastor typically needs to be ready to pray at a moment’s notice.

 

Prayer is not about doing it right or even well, it is about relationship with God.   If you are more comfortable with a formal prayer, rather than an impromptu, off the cuff prayer that is fine. There is power in the liturgy, the words used in worship.  Those prayers matter.   Case in point, there is a tremendous strength and comfort in the words of the Lord’s Prayer.   We say them every week and it is learned and engrained, good and fitting words that stay with us for our entire lives.   So when you don’t know what to pray the Lord’s Prayer is a great place to start.   The key to prayer is persistence.   Jesus even mentions this in his parable about knocking on the neighbor’s door in the middle of the night.  Keep praying, especially when we are disappointed in prayer, keep at it, continue to pray, ask, plead, demand of God, it is after all biblical.  Especially as we live in the midst of all of the strife and violence in our world today.   There is no small prayer.  There is no wrong way to pray.  There is no wasted prayer.  And as we pray – individually or corporately, silently or out loud, God is eager to hear and receive and respond because God wants to be in relationship with us.

 

What we do here in worship matters.  Worship demonstrates the unity we have in Christ more than any other Christian activity.  Gathering around the table or the Alter is a visible sign of our unity in Christ.  Offering prayers for the world, our community, the sick and dying, and offering thanksgiving for all of our many blessings brings us together. But, at the same time, worship can expose the many differences between Christians as well.  That same gathering around the table or Alter can also show our divisions, as when Roman Catholics and Protestants cannot share the bread and cup together.  Deep divides over the meaning and traditions of the sacraments and who can participate.

 

Another but far less important difference shows up whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer or what Catholics call the “Our Father.”   Most of us learned the Lord’s Prayer using the King James Version of the prayer which dates back to the 1600’s.  In settings, like weddings and funerals it happens.  Everyone begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name . . .” We are all on the same page, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian.  But as we move through the prayer, the wonderful, unified sound becomes a cacophony as “forgive us our debts” and “forgive us our trespasses” are sounded together.[2]  If you have ever been with a majority of Catholics praying the prayer then you have found yourself performing a solo, because they have all stopped and you of course keep right one going with a lone voice, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”  Any of you with any experience with Catholic tradition know that they end the prayer at “deliver us from evil.”  They do not include the doxology, “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”[3]

 

So why all the differences?

 

Well, the Roman Catholics are the most faithful to the text more so than Protestants – but they only use what was in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 6:9-13).  The “Doxology” (the kingdom and the power and the glory line) has been used in the Eastern Christianity, in Orthodoxy, since the second or third century.[4]

 

The next difference and the one that we deal with here at the Indian Hill Church is “Why do Presbyterians say debts and debtors instead of trespasses like everyone else?”

 

The official answer comes from the seventeenth century.  The main reason behind the choice of interpretation and the use of debts or trespasses was which English translation of the Bible the church leaders who made the decisions were using.   When Thomas Cranmer and other the Anglican leaders first created the Book of Common Prayer (1549), they were using William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible.  Tyndale was inspired by Martin Luther and he acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s German New Testament in 1522.  Tyndale’s translation was the first English language translation to directly interpret from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek and Tyndale translated the Matthew 6:12 as “trespasses.”

 

Later, when John Knox, the father of the Presbyterian Church and other Scottish Reformers created the Book of Common Order (1560), for Presbyterian worship in Scotland, they followed the Geneva Bible, which was produced in 1557, which was the first translation to translate the Matthew 6:12 as “debts and debtors”.    Some fifty years later when the King James Version of the Bible was published, the translator used “Debts and Debtors.”    In 1643,  the Westminster Assembly, a council of theologians and members of the English Parliament met  with the intention of  restructuring the Church of England they adopted the King James Version of the Bible and its translation of Matthew 6:9-13, and Presbyterians have stubbornly held on to our debts and debtors ever since!

 

Presbyterians have stubbornly held on to debts for two reasons.   First, it is the most literal translation of Matthew 6:9-13.  Secondly, the language of debt and debtor is language that fit well in a Calvinist culture and theology.  So, the reasons some of us say debts and others of us say trespasses is because of theology and church politics and stubborn tradition.

 

Whether we say debts or trespasses is ultimately not as important as it is that we pray.  Praying is much more important than the words we use or the traditions behind those words.  I noticed this week that something else is important about this clause in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” or “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it is the reciprocal nature of the statements.

 

I         t is in our being forgiven, that we are able to forgive others.  If I pray for my own forgiveness it doesn’t mean much unless I also pray that I may forgive others.  Being forgiven and being a forgiving person are linked:  If you don’t feel forgiven, it is hard to forgive others. If you do not forgive others, you are not grateful for being forgiven.

 

So, what did Jesus mean when he taught his disciples to pray for forgiveness of our debts or trespasses?  I offer an example from an attorney who used a metaphor to explain what Jesus meant by asking for forgiveness.  She made this discovery not in church, but while serving as a law clerk.

 

Many of us have a mortgage on our home.  Imagine, because of some catastrophe, you have gotten behind in your payments, and the bank forecloses on your home.  You have lost your home!  That is unless you can redeem the mortgage within 30 days under the terms the law demands.

 

It sounds doable.  Except, to redeem your mortgage after a foreclosure sale, you have to pay all of the back payments. You have to pay all of the legal costs and financial charges that have occurred.  And within one year you have to pay all of the principal due on the note.  If you can do all of this, then you can redeem your mortgage, and get your house back.

 

Who could do that?  No one who had lost her home, of course.  Practically speaking, redemption is not something the debtor can do for herself.  A debtor can only redeem her mortgage if someone comes forward and pays her debt in full and posts a bond to cover her entire debt on her behalf.   Then, her mortgage has been redeemed.  Her impossible debt paid in full.[5]

 

And that is exactly what God in Christ has done for us!   We are all behind in our mortgages.  We have accumulated an eternity of debt.   A savings and loan full of sins.   We’ve been living beyond are means with a subprime mortgage on a house that is not worth the paper the mortgage is written on.  We have lost our home.  But God in Jesus Christ has paid our debt in full!

It is amazing—

It is grace—

It is love—

Christ has paid the price and redeemed our debt riddled lives.  And so he invites us to pray for the forgiveness of our sins and short comings as we forgive those who have sinned and hurt us or are in debt to us or have trespassed against us. It is more than just rote words we say every week it is the purpose and the meaning of Christ himself.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, “Teach Us to Pray,” Monday, July 22, 2013, www.workingpreacher.org

 

[2] Reverend Dr. Charles Wiley, Coordinator for the Office of Theology and Worship at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Kentucky. Sins, Debts, and Trespasses (and Church Politics)

[3] The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 12) https://lectionarylab.com/

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Reverend Dr. R. Charles Grant, “Paying and Forgiving Debts,” a sermon on Matthew 6:9-15 and Luke 7:7:41-43. Preached at Bon Air Presbyterian Church – Richmond, Virginia on July 6, 2008 in celebration of the retiring of the congregation’s debt.

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