I am preaching at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 July 2007. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Hosea 1: 2 – 10, Colossians 2: 6 – 19, and Luke 11: 1 – 13.
I have edited this since it was first posted.
Several years ago a member of the congregation where I was serving asked me to present a message about the meaning of the Apostle’s Creed. His concern was that the congregation was merely saying the words from memory and was not concerned about what it was they were actually saying.
No, as it happened, I did not give that message. But this member of the congregation did and thus began his own lay speaking career. His concerns prompted me to begin a practice of using the various creeds found in the United Methodist Hymnal instead of solely relying on the traditional Apostle’s Creed.
A creed is a statement of what we believe. If we merely say what we were taught in confirmation class, we are quite likely to forget the meaning of the words that we are saying.
The same can be said about the Lord’s Prayer. It is entirely possible that each one of us learned a different version of this prayer. Even the version in the Gospel that we read this morning (Luke 11: 1 – 13) is slightly different from the version presented in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6: 9 – 15). If anything, we need to know what the words themselves mean and what it means to say them.
First, as Jesus Himself reminded us in Matthew (Matthew 6: 7), we are to pray in this manner, not necessarily simply pray these words. There is a strong temptation to reduce this prayer to just an empty recitation. This is exactly what Jesus did not want His disciples or us to do.
So, how do we learn what these words mean and what it is that we are actually saying? Well, we could go and get original copies of Luke’s and/or Matthew’s Gospel and read the words in the original Greek. Or, we could get a copy of Mark’s Gospel or a copy of the mysterious “Q” document that served as the source for Mark in the writing of his Gospel. But there is no copy of the “Q” document available and it has only a theory that there was such a document available to Mark, Matthew, and Luke as they wrote their Gospels. And I don’t speak much Greek, let alone read it so that would not help us. So we must look at how others have translated or written the Lord’s Prayer. For me, that means a trip to the cotton patch.
The Cotton Patch Gospels are a translation of the New Testament prepared by Clarence Jordan. Dr. Jordan was a Southern preacher committed to the fulfillment of the Gospel through words and action. In the early 1940’s, he fought against segregation by creating the Koinonia Farm in Georgia. Though the citizens of Sumter County, Georgia, did everything they could to destroy the farm and scare off the residents, the farm has remained a witness to non-violence and equality to this day (http://www.koinoniapartners.org/History/brief.html). The testimony of the message that this place has carried over the past sixty years is that it is the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. It is also where Dr. Jordan worked on his two loves, agriculture and the church. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia and then worked on a doctorate in Greek from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He used his agricultural background to help Georgia farmers and he brought new meaning to the Bible through his translation from the original Greek into what is called “The Cotton Patch Gospels.”
This version of the New Testament expressed the words and works of the early church in Southern dialect and uses Southern places and Southern terms in place of places and terms that we do not understand. This is how Clarence Jordan wrote the Lord’s Prayer as it is found in Luke’s Gospel.
He said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Father, may your name be taken seriously. May your Movement spread. Sustaining bread grant us each day. And free us from our sins, even as we release everyone indebted to us. And don’t let us get tangled up.’” (From Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, Jesus’ Doings 11: 1 – 13)
When we hear or read this prayer in a different setting, it becomes easier to understand what we are saying ourselves.
We are not praying for the establishment of a religious-based government here on earth when we pray that God’s kingdom will come. We are praying that the revival that began with Jesus and continued with John Wesley will continue today. This, of course, does not set well with a number of people who today seek the imposition of a such a religious based government as a means of solving the problems of today’s society.
But the society that Jesus worked and lived in was just such a society. It was a society that was impersonal and uncaring when it came to those on the fringes of society. Jesus was saying that we should pray for a society in which all its members were welcomed and in which all of its members were cared for. That was not the case then and I fear that it is not the case today.
Second, when we ask for our daily bread, we are remembering the days in the wilderness when the people of Israel began the journey from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land. The daily bread was the manna that God gave them each day. Each person received what they needed and they only took what they needed. Those who took more than what was needed quickly found out that the extra manna spoiled and was of no use to them.
Yet today, we hear so many preachers claim that we can ask God for just about anything that we want and God will give it to us. Jesus said that we should only ask for what we needed and nothing more.
The second portion of the reading from Luke for today would seem to suggest that we can in fact ask God for whatever we want. But when we stop and look at what Jesus said to His disciples, we see that we can only ask for what we need and we will only gain that which is spiritually beneficial.
This passage was also put in terms of a community, not an individual. That is the other note we should make about this prayer and how we pray. The Lord’s Prayer is a community prayer, meant to be said in community, not individually. “Grant us” and “free us” are not words we say by ourselves but with others.
Putting in this context reminds us of the communities that began some two thousand years go. Those were communities that cared for all the members.
Early Christians were simply referred to as people of “the Way.” They were associated with a particular pattern of life, one that produced a discernible lifestyle. This lifestyle grew out of their faith and their testimony to that faith. To all who saw them, there was no mistaken them for any other group; Christian belief became identified with a certain behavior. Unlike today, it was one that was recognized by believers and non-believers alike.
They became known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation. Their refusal to kill, practice racial discrimination, or bow down before imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.
It is also important that we recognize that they were a community as well as individuals. The first thing that Jesus did when he began His ministry was form a community. To follow Jesus meant sharing in His life and sharing it with others. From the beginning, it was clear that the Kingdom would manifest itself through a common life (Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis, 2005).
Putting the Lord’s Prayer in the context of the community also reminds us of the early Methodist societies that established schools and hospitals to benefit all members of society, not just those who could pay for the services.
Is it not time for us to think about what we have said this morning? We say that we are a Christian nation yet we are quick to close the doors of the town hall to those who differ from us by their economic status, their origin, or their lifestyle. We say that we are a Christian nation but while we may have compassion for the less fortunate among us, the sick, the homeless, the needy, and the oppressed are quickly left behind in our own personal desires for earthly riches.
The prophet Hosea was presented with possibly the most unenviable task any of the prophets ever undertook. First, he was to marry Gomer, a known prostitute. And he knew that she was going to be repeatedly unfaithful to him during their marriage. Second, he was to name each of his own children with names that would remind the people of their unfaithfulness to God and their rejection of Abraham’s covenant with God. It does not say in the Bible how the children felt about their names but it does note that Hosea later rescued Gomer from slavery caused by her unfaithfulness. Hosea’s actions serve as a reminder that we are the ones who forget what God means and what God can do (Hosea 1: 2 – 10).
How much is the contrast between the prophets of the Bible and those today who say they are prophets of God? Which of today’s prophets would be willing to do what Hosea did? Which of today’s prophets would be willing to give up the riches their ministries have amassed? Which of today’s prophets would be willing to say that their life styles are worthy of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross?
Paul warned the Colossians to be wary of those who seek to take them away from the path of Christ. Listen to Clarence Jordan’s words as he warns us today of the same modern day charlatans and their destruction of the Gospel.
Keep on walking in Christ Jesus the Lord just as when you first received him. Sink your roots in him; bet your life on him; plant your feet firmly in the faith as you were taught it; bubble over with joyful thanks.
Watch your step now and don’t let anybody make a sucker of you with his intellectual jazz and his smooth-sounding baloney, which is based on human concoctions and worldly standards, not on Christ. For the whole spectrum of Deity resided corporately in him, in whom your own lives find meaning. He’s the boss over every ruler and big shot. And by him you’ve been initiated into his fellowship—I don’t mean physical initiation—when he relieved you of your lower nature. This indeed is Christian initiation. Likewise, in baptism you were buried with him, and with him you have been raised by the inner working of faith in God who raised him from the dead. And to you all, corpses rotting in your sins and moral estrangement, God gave new life along with him. He freely forgave all our wrongdoing; he scratched out the signed charges against us which were then pending, took them out of the courtroom and tied them in the noose! And having frisked the top brass and the power boys, and made them his prisoners of war, he publicly exposed them.
Therefore, don’t ever let one of those big shots jump all over you about official regulations or special observances or denominational programs or Sunday activities. Such things are but forms, whereas Christ is the real stuff. And don’t let anybody browbeat you into an assumed piety and into prayers to saints, insisting on some vision he has had. He’s a worldly-minded muddlehead who has lost his grip on the true Head, under which the rest of the body, outfitted and bound together by its joints and muscles, grows into God’s maturity (From Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, The Letter to Christians in Columbus 2: 6 – 1).
Now, listen to those today who claim to hear God’s voice or who claim to be God’s prophet. They ask only for themselves and their lifestyles. They would take us away from the path that we should be walking.
When we pray as we were taught to pray, we are praying for the Gospel to come true. When we pray as we were taught to pray, we are praying not just for ourselves but for our community. And when we pray as we were taught to pray, we are saying that we will work to make those words come true.
We are reminded that John Wesley saw his life in Christ in such terms. After Aldersgate, Wesley could no longer remain the country preacher of his training. No longer content with preaching or saying words with little meaning, he sought ways to bring the Gospel into action.
John Wesley saw his ministry as a challenge, both in terms of place and the way that it would be conducted. On August 18, 1739, Wesley recorded the following dialogue between Joseph Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, and himself.
Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay. “ (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal (also noted in http://frterry.org/History/Chapter_15/Chap.15%20Handout_205.htm))
So we have said the words that we were taught. What shall we say then when Christ calls us to carry out those words? What shall we say when we are called, when God asks who to send out into the world?