Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Lord, Teach Us To Pray..."

I was heavily dependent upon the work of Kathryn Matthews Huey and Elisabeth Johnson for this week's sermon. And the bit I mention about the additional words most Protestants use coming from First Chronicles was something I discovered watching this video from the delightful "Chuck Knows Church" series by the United Methodist Church.

LUKE 11:1-13
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; or a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

This is the Word of the Lord.

Every year I take part in a continuing education class for Commissioned Lay Pastors (or Commissioned Ruling Elders, as we are known now), where we read a book on a given subject and spend a Saturday taking part in a lecture and discussion on that subject matter. Yesterday, the subject was Christian History from the time of the Reformation to roughly the 1700's. Unless you're a fan of theology and history like me, this doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but the lesson and discussion focused much of its energy on how various movements and denominations grew out of and around the Reformation in different countries, and why.

We differ on a wide variety of fronts, we Christians: what is the nature of the elements in the Lord's Supper? What is the meaning of election and predestination? What is the role and efficacy of baptism, and how, when, and by whom is it properly administered? What is the nature of Christ, and what is the Trinity? It is safe to say that these are not mere window-dressing discussions, and in fact over the centuries blood has been shed in the disagreements which arose around the various issues.

With all of that being said, I think that one of the things that is common across all denominations, something that unites all of Christianity in one way or another, is that we all know some form of the Lord's Prayer. Some Christians say “forgive us our debts,” while other say “forgive us our trespasses,” some Christians recite the prayer as we see it in Luke, as well as in Matthew, ending with “deliver us from evil,” while others of us continue, “for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever,” before we say “amen.” That last part was added later, and is probably based on a blessing from the Old Testament book of First Chronicles. But whatever the variations, we all share that common core of knowing and reciting the Lord's Prayer.

The Lord's Prayer does more than connect Christians to one another, of course: it is this prayer which is a point of instant contact with God for those in spiritual or physical turmoil or danger. I remember speaking with a man who piloted a Flying Fortress in World War II, who told me that every time he flew a mission, he would first walk around his plane reciting the Lord's Prayer. I know of POWs in the Vietnam War who said the Lord's Prayer as part of their intentional daily worship as a way to survive in isolation. Some dementia patients, who often cannot remember family members, respond when someone recites the Lord's Prayer. When we don't know what else to say, when we don't know what to pray for, when we do not know how to approach God for a specific need, when we are afraid or in grief or feeling terribly alone, the Lord's Prayer is there to give us words, to focus our spirits, to calm our hearts.

I mentioned that the Lord's Prayer is found both in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew's Gospel, it is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:5-15, Jesus is addressing how not to pray: don't be an attention-seeker, broadcasting your holiness by shouting prayers in the marketplace; don't be like the people who babble incessantly, thinking that the more words they say the more likely the prayer is to get answered. He instructs those listening to go to a private place, then he tells them how to pray: “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...”

In Matthew, Jesus follows up the prayer by speaking specifically about forgiveness. If we forgive others when we are sinned against, God will forgive us, and if we do not? Well...

In Luke, we are told that Jesus had just finished praying when he was approached by his disciples. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” I have heard that followers of the various teachers in that culture distinguished themselves from one another by having a special prayer that their rabbi would teach them. And that is certainly possible, but I also echo other commentators and preachers who wonder if the disciples, who were doing their best in their imperfect ways to model their lives after their Master, saw the way that Jesus' prayers really changed things, saw how intimately connected Jesus was with his Father, and even though they were raised in a culture that knew how to pray and when to pray and where to pray, wanted to do it better.

Isn't it interesting that, both in the context of the prayer closet of Matthew's Gospel, and the disciples' request for a distinctive prayer in Luke, Jesus responds with a prayer not in the language of the individual, not with “My Father, which art in Heaven...” but with the inclusive language of the Body, “Our Father, which art in Heaven...”

When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to hallow God’s own name, to act in such a way that God’s name is held in honor. The petitions that follow flesh out what this means. When God’s name is hallowed and God’s kingdom comes, there is daily bread for all, forgiveness is practiced, and God delivers the faithful from the time of trial.

And in Luke's Gospel, Jesus follows up with firm reassurance that God will give good things to those who ask.

I want to suggest that, as central as the Lord's Prayer is to our collective identity as followers of Christ – an identity that transcends the theological barriers we erect between one another, transcends race and culture and gender and orientation and even space and time, the Lord's Prayer calls us to consider what it really means to be a Christian, to be a believer.

I don't think anyone will be shocked to hear me say that baptism and church attendance don't make someone a Christian any more than standing in a Krispy Kreme makes them a jelly donut. The touchstone of a Christ centered life is rather how we respond to the grace of God.

Yes, there are tenets of the faith we espouse, yes we partake in sacraments like baptism, like the Lord's Supper, and yes we gather corporately for worship and support, but what we see in many places in the Scriptures, and particularly in the Lord's Prayer and in Jesus' commentary on the prayer, is how to live a life centered on building, nurturing, and sustaining a relationship with our loving Creator.

I misspoke a bit earlier, when I said that in Luke's Gospel Jesus follows up with firm reassurance that God will give good things to those who ask. It's actually a similar passage in Matthew's Gospel where Jesus assures us that God will give good things to those who ask. In Luke's Gospel, we are specifically promised the Holy Spirit, and this is significant.

This promise of the Holy Spirit is significant because the Holy Spirit and a sense of call always seem to go together. This prayer Jesus gave us is a comforting, private prayer to get us through our tough times and personal crises. Yet it is also, most emphatically, a prayer of the community, a community that is promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. And this community, the church, is called. We are called to be the Body of Christ. We are called to be light, to be salt, to be leaven for the world. We are called to be bread for the world. We are called to live and breathe in radical dependence on, utterly trusting in, the God who made us and listens to our prayers and calls us by name, the God who forms us into a community that prays together, "Give us this day our daily bread." Not just bread for me, but bread for all of us. Not simply for the long-term, or the by-and-by, but day by day by day. This God gives us the Holy Spirit to depend on and draw strength from. We can trust the Holy Spirit.

There are many kinds of prayer. There are prayers of meditation and petition and thanksgiving and praise and prayers uttered when we don't know what else to do. But prayer is, should be, at its heart, regular, intimate conversation with God, an outgrowth of our trust in God, of our dependence upon God, of our need to deepen and strengthen an intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. Isn't an intimate relationship what Jesus is describing when he uses the word “Father” (in Aramaic, it's better translated "Daddy," by the way) for God? Isn't this close and loving relationship what he describes when he speaks of the love of a parent who would give only good things to their beloved child? And doesn't this kind of prayer say something about "who God is" to us? God is the One we can trust, the One who loves us, the One who is present with us, day by day, providing what we need. Not everything we want, but trust. Not the result of our own efforts, but trust.

For me, and I believe for you, too, the church is not something abstract. It is something we experience as embodied creatures with a need for community and companionship on the journey, on the pilgrimage of faith. It helps me to know that, even when I pray the Lord's Prayer, alone in my room, there are other Christians in other places, praying the same prayer, forming the same prayer in their hearts and on their lips, and all of us being formed and transformed by it. My brothers and sisters in faith know that it is hard for me to forgive even though I stand in need of forgiveness myself, so we pray to God for one another and ask not only for God's mercy on us, but that we might be transformed into people of mercy ourselves.

And because this prayer is the prayer of our community and not just a private one, it reminds us, challenges us, urges and inspires us as a community not only to form this prayer with our lips but to be formed ourselves by this prayer, formed and shaped into a community of compassion and justice that makes sure that all of God's children have "their daily bread" – and all that that phrase implies today, all that they need from the abundance with which God has blessed us. The prayer calls us to join in the building of God's kingdom not up in heaven, but here, on earth, a reign of justice, healing, mercy, and love. A life centered on trusting God.

Imagine receiving the Holy Spirit in answer to prayer. What would that look like in our own personal walk of faith, and in the life of the community? How would we be transformed?

We are the work of God's hands, and we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us become then, in our life as a community, daily bread for the rest of the world, for one another and for all of God's children.

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