Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.
WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
A few years ago I was in the art gallery at a retirement community for pastors, missionaries, theological professors, and other religious workers. I came up to a silkscreen in black on an off-white background. It was of a male preacher at a pulpit. His mouth was open, hands holding onto the pulpit, and all around him was “WORDS WORDS WORDS.” Meaning, the word WORDS was scattered all over. I took it to mean there was no substance to his preaching, just blathering, empty words.
I about busted a gut laughing when I saw it because, first of all, preachers really need to not take themselves too seriously. And, second, because I could relate so well. As anyone who has been around me when I’m trying to find my way through a sermon can tell you, on being asked what the topic is, I will often say, “I don’t know! Blah, blah, blah, Jesus, blah!”
In other words, “I cannot find the words to share and explain what this passage seems to be saying about God and us.” I know there is truth in Jesus, but words often fail in expressing that truth.
Yet how often do we Christians find ourselves clinging to specific words? Take the Lord’s Prayer, for example: Is it “forgive us our sins” or “forgive us our debts” or “forgive us our trespasses”? How many of us, when in a space that uses a different version than we are accustomed to, still pray our preferred version?
And which one is the right one? Which one did Jesus really say and mean?
MATTHEW AND LUKE
Well, as often happens in our sacred collection, there are two versions of this prayer in the Bible, one in Matthew and one in Luke.
Matthew is the older of the two. In the chapters leading up to his version, Jesus has been born, survived the violence of Herod, been baptized by John, and retreated to the wilderness where the forces on non-being tempted him. He then calls his first few disciples and began to travel and preach.
As the crowds grow, Jesus went up to a mountain and began to preach what we now call the beatitudes, the “Blessed Are’s.” He continues with a long lesson on Jewish teachings and his understanding of them. Jesus then issues a warning about public demonstrations of faith. Don’t be pious just for attention. That’s a prayer to your ego. No, pray to God in private as an act of sincerity. Then Jesus gives the crowds that have followed him up the mountain this prayer. And right after that, he continues to preach and teach for some time.
So this now-universal and singular prayer is, at least Biblically, just one part of a large lesson, a large discourse on a life of faith.
The context is different in Luke. In Luke, Jesus has just told the story of the Good Samaritan then visited with the sisters Mary and Martha. Suddenly he is “praying in a certain place” and an unnamed disciple asks how to pray. Jesus gives them the prayer then a short story about generosity, namely how God’s generosity will always outdo ours.
In Luke the prayer stands because it is not part of a larger speech, it is not buried in a series of lessons. And, Jesus actually explains the prayer through the subsequent story, unlike in Matthew. The Lukan version also comes in response to a request, which might make us wonder if Jesus would have shared it if the anonymous disciples had not asked. Is that a lesson itself about asking God about prayer?
Regardless, which one do we go to as the authoritative source regarding sins, debts, and trespasses?
Just because Matthew is older, it is not more accurate. In the time after Easter, different communities gathered in the names of the different disciples. Communities that were drawn to Mark’s version, Matthew’s, Luke’s, and then John’s. Matthew may have been written down sooner, but the oral traditions from which all of the written versions came, had the same genesis: encounters with Jesus Christ.
And having shared all of that, I now feel like that preacher in the wood cut: WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS. As compelling and interesting and important as such learning is, how does it actually help us? Will learning the history of the Bible and its transmission and translation make us any more committed to praying it privately and trusting that we can do what it asks?
So let me ask you: What do you need to help make earth into a heavenly place? What is your daily bread, what is the manna from God that you receive daily knowing that it cannot be stored between dusk and dawn? Have you ever been forgiven, intentionally and knowingly, so that you know how and truly do the same for others? What evils tempt you?
WORDS IN PRAYER
For this is not a prayer of mere words. It is a prayer of spiritual fortitude and practical tasks. It is a guidepost to a place we can never reach yet can see through a mirror dimly. This prayer is the beginning of the language of God that can only reveal its truth in our prayer life with God.
The use by translators and church fathers of sins, debts, and trespasses are interpretive. They are interpretations of what they have thought the written language and Jesus meant. But they are just WORDS WORDS WORDS—empty blather without the posture of prayer behind them.
So ask God, in private, for the one that will help you along Christ’s Way. If you need help with sin, use that. If you have been trespassed upon, say so. If you have been forgiven a debt, then you are blessed among us.
And if and when the words fail, pray in silence. In the roaring din of this contemporary age, God will be glad to have the room to do some talking. And the words will be good.