Sermon: “Praying in the Plural”

Jesus is teaching us to pray “our” first, not “my”; “we” before “me”; to work not only for our individual welfare, but also for common good; to seek not only justice for ourselves, but also social justice. The first line of Jesus’ most famous prayer can be seen as inviting us to pray in the plural — not only for ourselves or to an obsolete image or God, but for all people, the whole world, and in a variety of ways.

Teach Us to Pray: Praying in the Plural

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg

16 January 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

“Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9a).

Last week we considered the context surrounding the two versions of Jesus’ prayer that we find in the Gospels — the longer, more familiar version in Matthew 6 (set in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount) and the shorter, less familiar version in Luke chapter 11. Specifically, we focused on the disciples’ request in Luke, upon witnessing Jesus frequent practice of praying in solitude, of “Rabbi, teach us to pray.”

As we move through this famous prayer line-by-line each week between now and the beginning of Lent, I invite you to consider the disciples’ request — “Teach us to pray” — as an entry point for coming to understand and practice Jesus’ most famous prayer. Each line of this prayer can be seen as Jesus teaching us to pray — not only verbally (the right words to pray), but also incarnationally (how to shape each moment of our life as a prayer). As we pray the prayer of Jesus — as we learn to call on God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will; as we learn to call for food, forgiveness, and deliverance — Jesus is reminding us of God’s dreams for us and our world. Jesus is letting us see a glimpse of his prayers for us and our world.

Last week I joked that Peter should have paid more attention when Jesus told him that he was praying for him — because if you’re on Jesus’ prayer list, you know you need help!

More soberingly, I invite you to consider that the Lord’s Prayer is one of our best insights into the spirit of the prayer that God has always been praying for us and world, the spirit of the prayer that Jesus was praying for us and our world the many time when he went alone by himself to pray. So, not only Peter, but each of us — and our world — is on the divine prayer list. And we are invited to learn to pray in the same manner both with our lips and with our lives.

As we look toward how Jesus is teaching us to pray in the first line of his prayer, we should pause briefly to acknowledge the two different versions of this line. In Matthew’s longer version, we hear the familiar “Our Father in heaven.” But in place of Matthew’s four word opening, Luke’s version begins simply with one, single word: “Father.”  For this morning, I would like us to explore Matthew’s four word opening line in three parts. First, the pronoun “our.” Next the title “Father” as a name for God. And finally the phrase “in heaven.” As I will explain shortly, I would like us to consider that each of these three parts of the prayer’s opening line can be seen as a way of learning to pray in the plural.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the first-person plural possessive pronoun “our” can be seen as teaching us to pray in the plural. We live in an age with strong tendencies toward individualism. Perhaps the most iconic symbols of this individualism are individuals standing in the midst of crowds while talking on their cell phone, texting, or listening to their iPods — which, of course, have the ironically lower-cased “i” in their title. Does anything scream the capital letter “I” more than constantly needing to listening to the precise music you desire at every moment of the day?

Admittedly, I love my iPod much more than I thought I would before owning one. But, nevertheless, the pervasive individualism of our day makes Jesus’ challenge to pray in the plural all the more relevant: learning to pray “our” first, not “my”; “we” before “me”; to work not only for our individual welfare, but also for common good; to seek not only justice for ourselves, but also social justice.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, the title “Father” for God can be seen as teaching us to pray in the plural. If pressed, I would readily concede that Jesus’ original point in choosing the word “Father” here had everything to do with his context as a Jewish peasant preaching to other Jewish peasants in the midst of the Roman Empire. In the Roman Empire, the householder — the husband, father, or other male relative — legally held life or death power over the other members of his household. In the patriarchal, hierarchal Greco-Roman world, the father was legally empowered to rule over his household with the same absolute power with which the Emperor ruled over the empire. So, historically, the first and most essential point Jesus was making in praying “Father” (or “Our Father”) was to subvert the supreme householder authority of the husband or father, pointing instead to God as a higher authority. And there are many ways in which seeing God as the source of our ultimate allegiance still has relevance today.

However, for this morning, I invite you to consider that the title “Father” for God can also be seen as teaching us to pray in the plural. After 2,000 years in which the “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father” has been the most frequently prayed prayer, the word “Father” can be seen today as a reminder that we do not live under the tyranny of the Roman Empire any longer and that there are many other life-giving metaphors for referring to God.

Most intriguingly to me are the many females images for God in the Bible that have been there all along if you read closely:

  • Deuteronomy 32:18 warns against forgetting “the God who gave you birth.”
  • In Job 38:29, God answers, “From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?”
  • In Psalm 131:2, the psalmist says that his or her relationship to God is “like a weaned child with its mother.”
  • In Isaiah 42:14 God says, “I will cry out like a woman in labor.”
  • In Isaiah 46:3 God refers to the people of Israel, “who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb.”
  • In Isaiah 49:15, God inquires, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”
  • In Isaiah 66:13, God promises, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”
  • In Luke 15:8-10, Jesus tells a parable portraying God as a woman diligently sweeping her house in search of a single lost coin.
  • In Matthew 23:37, Jesus describes himself using a female simile: “How often have I desired to gather [Jerusalem’s] children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Reading the Bible carefully for myself has expanded the language I use to address God. I still refer to God sometimes as “Father” or “Creator,”  but there are many more images of God in the Bible, reminding us that God is always more than the limits of our human language can contain. In this spirit, I invite would like for us to prayerfully sing together the hymn Bring Many Names. As we sing, be attentive to the words of this meaningful hymn:

Bring many names, beautiful and good, celebrate, in parable and story, holiness in glory, living, loving God. Hail and hosanna! Bring many names!

Strong mother God, working night and day, planning all the wonders of creation, setting each equation, genius at play: Hail and hosanna, strong mother God!

Warm father God, hugging every child, feeling all the strains of human living, caring and forgiving till we’re reconciled: Hail and hosanna, warm father God!

Old, aching God, grey with endless care, calmly piercing evil’s new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair: Hail and hosanna, old aching God!

Young, growing God, eager, on the move, saying no to falsehood and unkindness, crying out for justice, giving all you have: Hail and hosanna, young, growing God!

Great, living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home: Hail and hosanna, great, living God!

As we move toward the close of this sermon, I would like for us to consider a third and final way that the third part of this first line of Jesus’ prayer — “in heaven” — can be seen as teaching us to pray in the plural.

In the ancient world, most people conceive of “heaven” as a place literally ‘up’ on the other side of the sky. But as a people who have landed on the moon, launched satellites into the far reaches of our solar system, and peered through telescopes into the far reaches of the universe, we know that heaven isn’t simply somewhere “up” there.

Instead as citizens of the 21st century — on the other side of the scientific revolution — the petition “in heaven,” can be an invitation to experience God right here and right now: God who is always already within us, with us and beyond us.  God is not distantly away “in heaven” as the Deists would have us believe. Instead, as Alan of Lille, a Christian theologian wrote more than 800 year ago, God is more like an “intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and [whose] circumference nowhere.”

So as we continue to learn to ask “Teach Us to Pray,” I have invited us to consider this morning how the first line of Jesus’ most famous prayer can be seen as inviting us to pray in the plural — that is, not only for ourselves or to an obsolete image or God, but for all people, the whole world, and in a variety of ways.

Keeping this frame of reference in mind, I invite you to listen again to the contemporary version of the “Lord’s Prayer” that we prayer earlier. After I read this prayer, there will be a time of contemplative silence in which you are invited to listen for how God may be teaching you to pray this morning and for the days ahead:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo throughout the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the people of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom

sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need today, feed us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trails too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

Notes

1 Jesus tells Peter that he is praying for him in Luke 22:32, “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

2 I owe the phrase “ironically lower-cased ‘i’” to an article in a past issue of Geez Magazine (see geezmagazine.org). Geez describes itself as “holy mischief in an age of fast faith.”

3 Jim Wallis was written passionately and spoken publicly about the need to affirm “social justice” as a centrist and central — not leftist or optional — Christian position. See, for example, blog.sojo.net/2010/03/10/tell-glenn-beck-im-a-social-justice-christian/. For a classic articulation of social justice as integral to both the Jewish and Christian traditions, see the reissue of Walter Rauschenbusch’s book Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church.

4 Joachim Jeremias famously argues that Jesus’ original prayer would have been in Aramaic. Accordingly, it would follow that the word “Father” would have been Abba, which Jeremias claims has the connotation of “Daddy” as in “Da” in Irish, conveying an unusually intimate relationship to God. However, in the decades since Jeremias’ writings, comparative research in both the Mishna and the Targums counters that Abba is “equally employed of the fathers of grown-up sons” (“Abba” in vol. 1, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 7).  This argument is explored in extensive philological detail in James Barr’s “Abba isn’t Daddy” (Journal of Theological Studies 39 [1988]: 28-47). Moreover, see the uses of Abba in Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15 and Mark 14:36.

5 Brian Wren, “Bring Many Names” in The New Century Hymnal, 11.

6 Alan of Lille (c. 1128–1202) Regulae Theologicae, Rule 7: “God is the intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere and [whose] circumference nowhere” in G. R. Evans, Alan of Lille: The Frontiers of Theology in the Later Twelfth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press (1983: 73).

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