A modern translation of the Prayer of Jesus from the original Aramaic, by Neil Douglas-Klotz:
O, Birther of the Cosmos, focus your light within us -- make it useful.
Create your reign of unity now Your one desire then acts with ours, As in all light, So in all forms,
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight: Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, As we release the strands we hold of other's guilt. Don't let surface things delude us, But deliver us from unripeness. From you is born all ruling will, The power and the life to do, The song that beautifies all, From age to age it renews.
I affirm this with my whole being.
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
When I was the minister in Hartland, Vermont, at the very start of my ministry, way back in the early 1980s, we had a sort of unspoken arrangement that we’d say the Prayer of Jesus in unison, as part of our Sunday worship, about one week in four. This arrangement seemed to satisfy most people. Except for this handsome young couple who had moved to the area a few years before, from Connecticut, I believe. They were very liberal, and very active in the community, and they both worked outside the home, and with their busy schedules they made it to church—about one week in four. And every time, it seemed, after the service, as that gentleman shook my hand, he’d say something like: “That was a good sermon”—or a “good reading”—or a “good prayer”—or something equally positive. But then, he’d always add: “But do we have to say that Lord’s Prayer every week?”
Now, this anecdote probably says more about the utility of regular church attendance than it does about the significance of the Prayer of Jesus. But it does, I think, illustrate one point I’m trying to make: the power that simple little prayer—those few verses from the gospel of Matthew (and, in shorter form, the gospel of Luke)-- has, deep down inside of us.
For my liberal friend up in Vermont. it absolutely drove him up the wall…It’s powerful for other people, in different ways, too.
I remember that perhaps the first request that was made of me when I became minister of my second church—in Rockland, Maine-- came from one of our dearest older members who asked if we could please have the Lord’s Prayer as part of our service, not every week, but at least “once in a while,” she said. It seemed to mean so much to that dear woman. The prayer was for her, I think, a touchstone; a comfortable reference point; it gave her some sense that in the rapid, swirling change of life that there were some constants left; that not everything was always in flux; that this was still her church, her faith, the place where she still belonged. So, during the Easter season, and at Christmas, and at other times when it seemed especially appropriate—to honor this woman and those of her generation; to remind us that to be part of a church is to be part of a heritage, and that we in this generation did not build this church, that we have inherited from the hard work and dedication of the long line of those who have come before us-- we still said that Prayer of Jesus, “once in a while.” And often when I say it now, I think of that conversation I had with Martha, so many years ago now, and how she and her husband Wilbur loved their church, and how hard they worked to keep it going.
This simple prayer is such a universal part of our culture that we have all been touched by it, in big ways and in small; sometimes for the better, and sometimes perhaps not. Along with the 23rd Psalm, it’s the one thing families will almost always ask me to include (or pointedly ask me not to include) when I’m talking with them about planning a funeral for a loved one. Young couples coming to me to get married, quite frankly, could care less about the readings that go into their wedding service, but they almost always have a clear opinion about whether (or not) they want the Lord’s Prayer said at their wedding ceremony.
Whenever we say it, or hear it said, we seem to attach our entire experience to it.
We remember those times when it was said in some stuffy, old, restrictive house of worship in our childhood, and we remember how bored we were, and how meaningless the whole church thing seemed, and so, it became a symbol of the worst limitations of organized religion.
Or, we remember a time it was said at a funeral of someone we loved, and right as we were saying it, it seemed, the sun broke in through the stained glass window, and we know that the one we loved was at peace, and so, it became a symbol of hope and healing.
Or, we remember being in some kind of crisis with others, and someone suggested, “Let’s say a prayer.” So, everyone stood in a circle, and maybe held hands, and it was those words which we are told that Jesus spoke came out; and so it became a symbol of our deeper unity with one another, and of the courage we have inside of us to transcend difference, and transcend danger, and get through the challenges we face in life.
I think that most of us raised in homes at least nominally in the Christian tradition could probably think of some such incident where the recitation of the Prayer of Jesus made its mark on our psyches, deep down inside. I think that this prayer has probably had an inordinate influence on non-Christians in our culture, too—and I would guess less as a symbol of unity, and more as a sign of division—but perhaps that is just speculation on my part.
For better or worse, the prayer is part of the glue that holds Western culture together; it is one of the relatively few things that members of all Christian households of faith share in common. Certainly, there’s a power there that’s much more than the sum of those 67 words (that’s all it is; just 67 words). It’s power is even more, I think, than the ideas those words try to express.
One important thing we say in our churches, though, is that ideas are important. It matters what we believe. Most of us, I think, have a deep aversion to ritual for the sake of ritual. We want some hind of harmony between what the words of a ritual (or a prayer) say, and what we believe to be true. We want some relationship between the ritual that’s going on outside, and what’s going on inside.
It’s not enough for us, then, simply to say that the Prayer of Jesus holds this amorphous power over us. We want to know, too, whether its words are speaking truth to us. We want to know if they’re truly helpful to us on our spiritual journeys. So, I think we need to take at least a cursory look this morning as to what the prayer is saying.
But first, we have to decide which translation to use. Of course, the emotion-laden one for most of us is the “Our Father, which art in heaven…” English translation of the King James Bible. The main difference here between the King James version and later translations is the omission of “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever,” at the very end of the text in many later versions.
Remember, the English texts we have are translations of Greek texts (which represent a later translation of an Aramaic oral tradition; Jesus spoke Aramaic, of course). Apparently , in some (but not all) of the Greek texts, there is the “kingdom, power, glory” reference, but the English translators who came after the King James authors of 1611 had some doubts about the authenticity of these particular texts, and so left this line out of their translations.
(Then there’s also the “debts” and “trespasses” stumbling block which used to make some a few awkward moments during Protestant services a few decades back. You could never know, when visiting a church other than your own, whether people in that church were “debtors” or “tresspassers”. So there would sometimes be this collective mumble when the congregation reached the point, “And forgive us our…” in the prayer. I remember one minister who brought that particular matter under control by intoning before the prayer each time he said it, “We will now pray together in the words which Jesus taught… Using ‘debts’…” (Or “trespasses”; I can’t remember which school he was from. I just remember it didn’t seem terribly graceful.) But I digress…
My sense of Jesus (which is, obviously, only my narrow perspective on this awesomely great figure) is that he probably wouldn’t have minded whether we said “debts” or “trespasses”, or which translation of his prayer we used. He doesn’t seem to me to have been the kind of person who got hung up on such technicalities in religious matters, any more than he got hung up on which lifestyle people practiced; or whether they were rich or poor; or men or women; or even (and this is a tougher one for some of us) whether they rooted for the Red Sox or the Yankees.
But I think there were certain points he would have liked his prayer to make. And I also believe-- though once again, this is my reading of things, and it may say more about Jeff than it does about Jesus—I believe he would have liked Neil Douglas Klotz’s translation from the original Aramaic, which we shared earlier in our service.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that I don’t know a word of Aramaic. (Having heard me try to read Aramaic earlier in the service, you now know for certain that that’s true.) So, I can’t really judge the authenticity or accuracy of the translation Douglas-Klotz offers. I can’t tell you that it’s 100% faithful to the original words that Jesus spoke. I just don’t know. But sometimes, if we look at the same old things from a different angel, we can be surprised at the new things we’ll see there. I think this new translation of the Prayer of Jesus does provide us with an exciting, fresh insight on some of the possibilities inherent in this ancient prayer—and some of the exciting possibilities offered in the teaching and example of that great man of Nazareth, perhaps.
“O Birther of the Cosmos,” Douglas-Klotz begins his translation. He also suggests that “Father-Mother of the Cosmos” might be how we could translate it instead. Birther of the Cosmos: a harkening back for all of us to the origins of our universe—the primordial conception, as it were, of almost 15 billion years of cosmic evolution which has brought all of us, each of us, to this very moment of living reality. Let us celebrate our diversity in all its glory. But let us also remember the common journey we share. Let us remember our common Source of Being—and perhaps, as Jesus did, let us picture that Source not as some impersonal force, but as a loving parent, as the Mother-Father of all creatures, of all life.
“Separate your light within us—make it useful…” We are each composed of the elements of that great primordial fireball from whence all life in this universe emerged. That force—that light—that power—still burns within us—and not just as metaphor! When that creative force shines through our emotions, it is love; when it shines through our intellect, it is wisdom; when it enlightens our spirits, it is creativity. Each one of those divine gifts, manifested through us.
“Create your reign of unity now…” Jesus wouldn’t care if we rooted for the Yankees or the Red Sox. Even tougher for some of us, I don’t think he’d care whether we were Democrats or Republicans. Jesus wasn’t about a changing of the political guard. I believe that when Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom (or Reign) of God, he was calling for a new patterning of human life and relationships, where the power of creative love became the center of all things and the guiding force of all life.
“Your one desire then acts with ours, as in all light, so in all forms…” When the inner ritual of the way we live our lives comes to reflect the outer ritual of the faith we profess, then we grow into harmony with the divine. We become one with the flow of the Great River of life. Then it is that the light shining within our souls comes to reflect the grand, spectacular sunrise of each new dawn. Then it is that our perspective, our hope, becomes a manifestation of the “broad horizon’s grander view”.
“Grant what we need each day in bread and insight…” Not by bread alone do we survive within this universe. We need to be fed spiritually, as well. Nor by spirit alone do we survive, and there is no need to deny our bodies, our senses, and the material world. They, too, are gifts to us from the Creator. A wise man once said: “We are not human beings trying to be spiritual; we are spiritual beings trying to learn what it means to be human.” There is a need for balance between both aspects of our being, for both are equally blessed.
“Loose the chords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ faults…” It’s not an accident that almost all of the major religions of the world have some version of what we call the “Golden Rule:. This is the primary aspect of what it means to be alive: we can not ask justice for ourselves unless we grant justice to others. We can not ask that our wrongdoings be forgiven, unless we are will to forgive others their, as well.
“Do not let us be deluded by superficial things…” A right relationship with the Source of Life—with our Higher Power—can lead us away from those “many dangers, toils, and snares” which block our way to full humanity. This is hard work, but once we are free of the addictions, afflictions, and denial that bind us, we can come to a sense of life more glorious than we ever imagined possible.
“But deliver us from unripeness…” To eat an unripened piece of fruit can be a bitter experience; it might even make us sick. But if we give the fruit time to ripen, it can bless us, and sweeten our lives. We need to have that kind of patience with one another, and with ourselves, as well. We have to give each other time to be unripe—to make mistakes—to proceed with wrong choices. But if we listen to Wisdom, we can learn from our errors, and find our time, and grow to bless and sweeten the world.
“To you belong the ruling mind, the life that can act and do, the song that beautifies all, from, age to age it renews.” Perhaps all we can do at times is stand humble before the Mystery: the mystery of the cosmos; the mystery of each one of us. The mystery of both is one and the same. All life is one. The light is one. The song is one. And the prayer is one. It is the prayer of all people who yearn for those things which make for peace. It dances within us, within our lives, within history. From age to age. Forever and ever. Amen.