Sunday, July 29

Sermon: Teach Us to Pray

Proper 12 June 29, 2007
Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell, preacher

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
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In our gospel passage from Luke, a disciple asks Jesus: “Teach us to pray.” Such simple, small words. Such a huge request. The disciple must have seen clearly that prayer was essential to Jesus, that he lived a life soaked in prayer. Luke records many instances of Jesus praying. The disciple likely hungered for some of that prayer action. In Jesus’ time, there were some set prayers that devout Jews could say several times daily. And apparently John the Baptist taught his followers a set prayer. Jesus’s disciple seems to want something like this, but something that comes straight from Jesus.

Teach us to pray. These words reveal a longing. A hunger to communicate with God, and an eagerness to know the right way to talk to God. Perhaps they speak of the disciple’s longing to have the kind of intimacy Jesus had with God.

Teach us to pray. These words jumped out at me when I was reading over this gospel, to prepare for today’s sermon. Because I too long for a deeper and richer prayer life. And I know many Christians, both ordained and lay people, also long for this. It can be tough to develop a steady, rich prayer life in which to ground our action. Many of us live like Martha, a life of doing. It’s hard to make time to just be with God. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, like Mary. Because much of praying is hanging out with God, and listening.

Once we do make time to pray, it’s hard to know exactly how to pray. Questions come up. Questions like, if the universe is completely in God’s hands, how can our prayer affect the outcome? That’s one question. Another question is what should we be praying for? For example, is it OK to pray for our own financial health? Yet another question: What words, what methods should I use when I talk to God? There are so ways to pray – which is right? Perhaps some of these questions lie behind the disciple’s request to Jesus:

Teach us to pray. So, how does Jesus answer? In Luke’s gospel, Jesus responds: “When you pray, say this: 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.”

These simple words Jesus offered his disciple are now the most widely-used prayer in Chistianity. Last Easter, an estimated 2 billion Christians read, recited, or sang the Lord’s prayer in hundreds of languages in churches of all sizes around the world.

Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is a bit different from what we usually say in church. It’s shorter. It lacks the doxology added later: “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.” In Luke’s version we ask God to “forgive us our sins” where in Mathew’s gospel we ask God to “forgive our debts.” There are some other differences between the prayer as it appears in Luke and Matthew.

For now, let’s just look at the text given us in Luke’s gospel, and unpack, it OK? Let’s take it line by line, and see what it tells us about how to pray.

Father

Jesus starts by addressing God as father. When we pray, we are to talk to God as to a loving parent, with all the intimacy and trust of a healthy relationship between parent and child. That doesn’t mean “father” is the only way we can think or speak of God. But it’s how Jesus speaks to God in this prayer. Out of a childlike (but not childish) trust in God, we are emboldened to ask God for what we seek.

Hallowed be your name.

Hallowed means holy, sacred. “Hallowed be your name” means “May your identity be set apart as holy.” In ancient Israel, name and identity were closely linked. “Hallowed be your name” is a double-sided request 1) we’re asking that God establish god’s own sovereignty on earth and 2) we’re asking that all people will come to revere God.

Your kingdom come completes the thought “Hallowed be your name.” This is an example of Semitic parallelism, where a verse restates, or completes, the verse before it. We see this type of parallelism all the time in the psalms. If God is making God’s name holy on earth, then by extension, God’s kingdom is coming on earth.

“Hallowed be your name” and “Your kingdom come” both mean that we want God’s will to be done, and want to align ourselves with God’s will. When we’re serious about prayer, we increasingly seek to know and conform ourselves to the mind of God. With this goal in mind, we can pray with confidence that a loving God will respond.

Give us each day our daily bread

The first two lines of the Lord’s prayer were about God; the next three are about us. We ask God for sustenance, forgiveness, then deliverance.

First, sustenance. Our daily bread. Luke’s gospel shows us a Jesus who is concerned for the poor, who gives people bread, and partakes in shared meals. Given all this, Jesus is most likely talking about earthly bread here, not the bread of the heavenly banquet, or communion bread. Why should we pray for bread? Well, obviously because we need food to live. Also, it clarifies who we are and who God is. To pray for something as basic as bread reminds us of how tentative a hold we have on life, how dependent we are on God for what we need. It’s humbling, in the sense of humus, Greek for ground. It’s grounding to remind ourselves of our basic needs and who provides them. It’s the opposite of hubris, acting as if we are God. Asking for our daily bread puts us in the position of children, or beggars, with all the dependence that connotes, but not a negative dependency. The God we depend on loves us, and wants to meet our needs.

What does “Give us our daily bread” tell us about prayer? It tells us to ask God for essentials, for the most basic things we need, and not take them for granted. Thanks be to God that you and I have our basic needs covered. At the same time, I think the Lord’s prayer compels us to work for a world where others also get what they need. Paul says in 1st Corinthians 3 that we are co-laborers with God. We work with God to determine the outcome. If that’s the case, then making sure all people have daily bread is a joint project between us and God. Let’s both pray and work for a world with bread for all.

And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who are indebted to us.

Luke’s gospel says “Forgive us our sins” where Matthew’s says: “Forgive us our debts”
In Aramaic, sin and debt are the same word. At Reconciler, we’ve been talking about which translation we want to use –sins , debts, or trespasses? Whatever language we use, the Lord’s prayer says we’re meant to keep a clean slate in life, not forever tally up what people owe us or dwell on how much they’ve trampled on our turf, spiritually or materially. And we likewise need to accept the forgiveness God and neighbors offer us.

Just as we need daily bread, we need of continual grace. Each day, we’re capable of making mistakes, missing the mark. Grace is a clear flowing stream always available for us to bathe in. And we need that as badly as we need food.

How do you feel when someone holds a grudge against you, or you hold a grudge? Either way, it feels bad, right? How many relationships have ruptured, how many acts of violence committed, how many wars have been fought out of the inability to forgive?

For our own peace of mind, and spiritual wholeness, we need forgiveness. Some things are hard for us to forgive. Sometimes we need to claim and work through our anger first. But if we stay there too long, we can become consumed with bitterness, which destroys us. We have to try to move on, and let others move on. It’s the only healthy way to live.

The grace God gives us and the grace we extend to others flow from the same channel. It’s a simultaneous, interconnected thing, somewhat mysterious. Not quid pro quo, but maybe cause and effect. That is, if we accept God’s grace for ourselves, we find it easier to forgive others. And if we forgive, we find it easier to accept that we too are forgiven.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.
There’s some question about what kind of trials Jesus is talking about. Is it best translated as trials or temptations? And is God the one who tests us? Or Satan? Would God intentionally lead us into trials or temptation? The book of James says no, but the Scriptures are full of examples of God testing his chosen ones (Abraham, Job, Jesus, to name a few). Perhaps “save us from the time of trial” is best understood as “save us from anything that would threaten our allegiance to God or threaten our physical and spiritual survival.”

Trials may mean different things to each of us, but I think most of us can resonate with “Save us from the time of trial” on a gut level. There are trials we would not want to endure. And it’s OK to ask God to deliver us from that which is too great to bear. Jesus asked to be spared, as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Yet he also said: “Lord, not my will but thine be done.”

So that, my friends, is a walk through the Lord’s prayer, as found in Luke’s gospel. A model prayer Jesus gave his disciples, handed down through nearly two millennia to us.

Although it’s a giant in Christian prayer, is it the only way we are to pray?

No. There are many kinds of prayer: prayers for healing, guidance, for the welfare of others. There’s contemplative prayer, in its many forms. These prayers are just as vital.

Jesus wasn’t suggesting this is the only way we should pray. In fact, we don’t know whether Jesus was suggesting his disciple say the Lord’s prayer verbatim, or use it instead as a guideline for how to pray. There are no other instances in the New Testament where Jesus or the disciples pray the Lord’s prayer. But whether Jesus meant us to say those exact words, or was simply offering a model for the kinds of things we ought to pray about, The Lords’ Prayer without question teaches us several vital things about prayer.

These are: 1) Speak to God as to a loving parent who knows you. 2) Try to align yourself with God’s will and help bring about God’s will on earth. 3) Remember your dependence on God for the simplest, most basic things in life: bread, forgiveness, deliverance.

The parables that come after the Lord’s prayer are little sketches that further illustrate how we should pray. In the first parable, Jesus compares God to a dutiful neighbor who will give us bread, even if we wake him in the middle of the night. We may have to be bold and persistent in knocking. God may not answer right away, and may be grumpy, but if we keep knocking, God will answer because God is faithful. The second parable shows us a God who, like a loving father, who knows how to give his children good things. If we ask for a fish, he’s not going to give us a snake. I like that. God loves us and wants to give us what we need.

The danger comes when we act like prayer is a blank check on which we can write whatever our hearts desire (New Interpreter's Bible, Vol.IX). I think of an old Janis Joplin song: “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz…” Don’t go there. But as an equally old Rolling Stones song says, “If you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Today’s gospel says: “Seek and ye shall find. Ask and it shall be given. Knock and the door shall be opened. Seek God’s kingdom before seeking your our own selfish desires.. Pray for God’s will to be done first, and let your anxieties about how you’ll get your daily bread met be secondary. Speak to God as to a loving parent, with humility and honesty. Knock on God’s door and be persistent, like a secure child who expects a loving response. Be tireless in prayer. Don’t give up. Live a life soaked in prayer, as Jesus did.

Teach us how to pray. Prayer is not about saying exactly the “right” words. It’s about being willing to do the will of God, having our priorities straight, and being in right relationship to God, neighbor, and self. Prayer is not about being perfect. Learning to pray is the task of a lifetime, and we are free to experiment and to make mistakes.

Bishop, theologian, and author William Willimon says:

“The Lord’s Prayer is one of the few things that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them, and he graciously responded. A Christian is someone who is engaged in lifelong training in how to pray like Jesus. Thank God, Jesus does not leave us to our own devices when it comes to prayer. If I were praying on my own, would I pray for something as mundane as daily bread, or I would have the guts to acknowledge that I had actually trespassed against someone? No. There would be no way for me to pray faithfully in Jesus name if he weren’t there every Sunday coaching me, prodding me, saying, “When you pray, say this….”

Teach us to pray, the disciple asked Jesus. And Jesus did. Thanks be to God.

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