Sermon for Trinity 6 High Mass Sunday 28 July 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 18.20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2.6-15; Luke 11.1-13
To follow on from Fr. Michael’s sermon from last week: “Let me tell you a story”:
When I worked in Edinburgh our parish ran a centre for the homeless. When it was closed they would often come to the Rectory instead; in search of a voucher for a night in the Salvation Army Hostel, or something to eat, or the bus fare to Inverness where their grannie had just died. The mortality rate among grannies in Inverness would have been quite shocking, if most of them had not been fictional.
Sometimes they would come at midnight or even later. On hearing the doorbell ring, I would resist the temptation to turn over in bed in the hope that they would give up and go away; get my dressing gown and my ‘trying to be a Christian face’ on and open the front door. On one occasion, when it was one of our regulars, I said to him, “Do you not know what time it is, Jimmy?” “No, Father, I have nae got a watch.” To which I replied, “There’s a big clock behind you on the North British Hotel.”
“Oh aye, Father, I’m awfie sorry, I’ll no do it again.” At which point, praying quietly, “Lord, help my unbelief,” I would head for the kitchen to make tea and sandwiches; thankful that I was not spending a cold night on the streets. Today’s Gospel always brings that story to mind.
The word translated ‘importunity,’ or ‘persistence’ is probably better expressed by the Yiddish word Chutzpah, sheer bare-faced cheek, or brass neck.
The same word might be applied to Abraham in his dialogue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The sinfulness of the two cities is not in question. The issue is whether the righteousness of some can outweigh the sinfulness of most. The underlying question driving the exchange is one of justice. Should the judge of all the world not act with justice? The answer seems obvious. But what is justice in a situation like this? The answer is not so obvious. There is a tension here between communal and individual guilt and innocence. If the city is guilty it should be punished. But what if there are innocent individuals in the city? Is it fair that they should suffer along with the guilty ones?
Abraham’s questioning goes further still. In traditional societies, identity and significance were more communal than personal. More emphasis was given to the group than to the individual. Against this background of corporate personality we can ask: if the guilt of some can result in the suffering of all, cannot the opposite be true? Can the innocence of some stay the hand that inflicts the punishment? This is not just about the rescue of a righteous few from the destruction to be visited on the guilty many, but the salvation of the guilty many by the righteous few.
In customary Near Eastern style, Abraham prefaces his questions with humility and deference. However, it is still he who boldly initiates the exchange that probes the nature of divine justice. Six times he questions God about its limits. Six times God appears to change them. He moves from 50 down to 10 people whose innocence is enough to withstand the punishing arm of God raised against the city. The account shows that the righteousness of only a few can save the many.
In the Old Testament, in Genesis, the discussion ends with ten. In the New Testament, in the Gospel, the calculus of justice and mercy brings the figure to just one; the one whose perfect righteousness, whose obedience to the will of God, will bring about the salvation of all the world, which we celebrate in the Eucharist.
On Friday evening, we were guests of one of our parishioners Frances Davies and his wife Virginia, so that we could meet their friend Anne who is the granddaughter of Fr. Peter Monie who was one of my predecessors as Rector of Old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh. At one point in the meal, her husband Christopher, the son of a priest, asked me how I managed to come up with something fresh to say in sermons after over 40 years of preaching. His father had a collection of 52 sermons which he recycled year after year.
Well, one source of inspiration is found in conversation with people like you: often in response to what people say to me at the church door after services, questions they ask or comments they make. One weekday lunchtime regular said to me a little while ago: “What’s this about the Pope changing the Lord’s Prayer?” The Vicar of All Saints is expected to have a hot line to the Pope’s desk; to keep up and to know everything that he is doing.
Well, I replied, it’s to do with a new Italian translation of the Mass. On further investigation, it turned out that news headlines had, as they are prone to do, over-simplified the matter. In fact, the Pope had given final approval to a new Italian translation of the Roman Missal undertaken by the Italian bishops. In this the text of the Lord’s Prayer follows that of their earlier authorized translation of the Bible.
He’s also approved a new French translation of the Missal – so I will have to learn its new version of the Our Father before we go on holiday next month. I’ll come back to the detail of what has been changed shortly.
When I’m in Italy, I always have to be careful to keep a straight face while saying the Lord’s Prayer at Mass because ‘but deliver us from evil’ is ma liberaci dal male which can call to mind a flamboyantly camp American entertainer; an image not conducive to devotion.
Now we might think that translating the Lord’s Prayer cannot be that difficult – but we would be wrong. It has caused problems from the earliest days.
You will have noticed that the version St. Luke gives us in today’s Gospel is not the same as the one we use which is based on that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Among other things it is shorter.
Both versions were translations into Greek of originals in Aramaic which we do not have. To make matters even more complicated, for the word we translate as ‘daily’, both gospel writers use a Greek word epiousios which had never been used before. There is no point consulting the dictionary to find prior examples to tell us what it means in this context. Scholars have to look at the wider background of scripture and practice.
‘Bread’ in scripture signifies ‘food’ in general. In a subsistence society, when people might well not know where the next meal was coming from, the prayer can simply be for material food; which is seen ultimately as a gift of God anyway.
But in the background for Jews would be God’s feeding of the people with bread from heaven, the manna in the wilderness.
But epiousios can also mean ‘bread for tomorrow’ – referring not only to the next day but to the ‘great tomorrow’ or the final consummation, the last day, the end of all things. In the scriptures that is pictured as the great wedding feast; an image reflected in Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes and the marriage supper of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation. So, the petition can also be for the food of the heavenly banquet, and this fits well with the prayer that God’s kingdom come. This is reflected in the place of the Lord’s Prayer in the Eucharist; as a preparation for the reception of the spiritual food of the bread of heaven. Early on the Fathers of the Church emphasize the appropriateness of praying the Lord’s Prayer as a preparation for communion in the body and blood of the Lord, highlighting the petition for forgiveness of sins and for daily bread.
Translators have stuck with the word ‘daily’ to translate this mysterious word because it allows for both physical and spiritual meanings.
Luke’s version, says “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” In the lightly revised translation we use, we speak of ‘trespasses.’ In the modern ecumenical text which is an alternative in Common Worship, the words ‘sin’ is borrowed from St. Luke to convey a wider sense than ‘trespasses’ or the ‘debts’ and ‘debtors’ of the King James Version. Commentators suggest that Luke used sin because while ‘debt’ as a term for sins against God and neighbour was a familiar idea to Jews, it was not to Greeks.
To return to the Pope and Italian Missal, what stirred up excitement was the translation of the words which we have as “and lead us not into temptation,” which you will have noticed this morning are translated as “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
There are two problems here. One results from the evolving nature of our own languages. The new Leader of the House of Commons has caused some amusement by issuing to his staff a set of stylistic rules to be followed in official documents. Whatever we might think of them, they are a reaction to the reality that living languages are constantly evolving. One of the factors which translators have to take into account is that in common usage, words change their meaning. ‘Temptation’ has been so trivialized in popular use as to become the stuff of jokes rather than serious moral discourse: “I can resist anything but temptation.”
The other is the common misunderstanding of this phrase to which the Pope has pointed: the idea that God would tempt or entice people to evil. Whatever his reactionary critics might say, Pope Francis is saying nothing new here. The Letter of St. James said it two thousand years ago: “God does not tempt anyone.”
Again, the background to this petition is the final coming of the Kingdom. The prayer is first of all for deliverance from the final “time of trial” which, in biblical thought, marks the last days and the full revelation of the anti-Christ. The peril in mind is apostasy—the renunciation of the Christian faith in the time of suffering and persecution which is expected to herald the final triumph of God’s kingdom. That’s a reality for many Christian in some parts of the world today.
This does not exclude a relevance to any occasion when we are tested by the lure to sin. We pray not just to be spared from coming to the final time of trial, but also to be spared, and more; not to be ‘abandoned,’ as the new Italian and French translations put it, whenever we are being tested.
As one commentator has pointed out, the whole narrative of scripture from Adam and Eve in the Garden to the Book of Revelation, is one of people being tested; being faced with the choice between good and evil, life and death, loyalty to God or idolatry. The possibility of apostasy in the face of evil is with us every day, so it is necessary that we pray to be preserved from it by God’s grace.
Preachers are sometimes accused of concealing the results of biblical scholarship from their people, lest we disturb their simple faith. If we do speak about them, then we are accused of undermining their faith. We can’t win, it seems. But we can. We do not have to accept every idea of the scholars, but they can in this case help us to see that there is more to the Lord’s Prayer than we might have thought. And so, I hope that our praying of it day-by-day might be informed and enriched by it.