“Teach Us To Pray”: Sermon by Keith, Proper 12, 7.25.10

Scriptures Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13

Prayer is one of those things that I’ve complicated for myself.  Sadly, I think it because of the expectations I’ve placed upon myself since I’ve become a pastor.  With that Master’s of Divinity degree hanging on the wall, I should now be a world class prayer.  And whenever there is a gathering of people, and a prayer needs to be said, I become the default person to pray.  I’m also guessing that if people know that you are a “churchy person,” you may get asked if no pastor is in the house.  Now, in those situations where I’m asked to pray, I usually take a second or two of silence before praying.  This may come across as very centering and a mature thing to do in one’s prayer life, but honestly, I’m starting the prayer with a prayer, “O God, don’t let me pray anything that makes me sound like an idiot.  Don’t let me forget anything or anybody and don’t let me be a windbag.”

            I’d of been standing right next to that disciple when he asked Jesus how to pray.  The disciples had been privy to witnessing Jesus praying countless times, and they knew based upon what they had experienced and seen, his prayers had an impact.  The gospel of Luke tells us that at the most important moments of his ministry, Jesus prayed.  At his baptism, in the choosing of his disciples, at the transfiguration, and especially during his passion, Jesus prayed.  But he also prayed at other moments, moments not tied to events where we get a lot of details of what was happening.  This is one of those moments.  The only detail about the setting is that is was a “certain place.” But it is this seemingly insignificant place that gets turned into a moment of teaching and discipleship about prayer. 

            The model of prayer that Jesus ends up teaching them is as deep as it is simple.  In the New Revised Standard Version we read this morning, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is only 5 sentences long containing 38 words.  I also see it as a model of prayer because of the request from the disciple.  He didn’t say, “Teach us a prayer,” but “Teach us to pray.”  Each line points to deeper understanding of how we are to approach God in light of who God is and who we are. 

             Jesus begins his model of prayer by addressing the one whom he prays to, the Father.   The Greek word that Jesus uses to address God is the same intimate word that a child would use to address his father in a home setting, signifying the close relationship that exists between a parent and a child.  And then Jesus blesses, makes hallow, that name to show reverence to all the things that God is, had done, does and promises to do.  Jesus is letting his disciples know that the sovereign creator of the universe is also a God that is knowable and approachable.  And God’s power and presence is invoked when they pray that God’s kingdom come.  As God becomes knowable to them, they are to seek to be agents of that kingdom in their daily lives.  They are not empty words to be recited, but words that affect how they live.  They point to a God who is not only above and sovereign, but with them in their everyday lives. 

            After addressing God, the remainder of the prayer that Jesus teaches includes three petitions that address our human condition.  Douglas John Hall in writing about this prayer talks about the haste in which it moves from addressing God to addressing our needs.  “How direct, how ungenteel, how almost rude it seems!”[1]  You would expect a longer “buttering up” of God before we would ask God to “Give us…Forgive us…Lead us…Deliver us.”  We would expect the prayer to be more like the teenager coming to ask Mom and Dad for the use of the car on Friday night.  After, “You are the greatest parents in the world,” Mom and Dad are already wondering what they are going to get asked for.  There is no long drawn out exhortations of what God has done, just straight into the petitions.

            This is probably for two reasons.  In Matthew when Jesus is teaching about prayer, he says to avoid unnecessary wordiness like the hypocrites.  But, Luke’s version takes it one step deeper.  The whole assumption of this prayer is that it is uttered out of a condition of real necessity.  The one who is praying is driven by great need.  There is neither the inclination nor the time for pretense.  The object of prayer, at least how Luke is presenting it, is not so much to loose oneself in the contemplation of who God is as it is to find oneself.  Jesus’ salutation in the prayer covers God’s sovereignty and holiness.  What more can be said?  The object is the realization of who one is in light of the divine and our dependence on that sovereign and holy One.  The petitions are about us and for us.

            We are dependant. “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Using the imagery of the manna provided to the Israelites, we are to depend on the one who takes care of our daily sustenance and needs. 

            We are guilty.  “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us.”  God’s forgiveness serves as a stimulus to recognize our need to forgive those indebted to us.  The way the Greek is used in this petition, the one doing the praying recognizes that forgiving others is a never-ending process, but God’s forgiveness is definitive.

            We are lost and vulnerable.  “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”  The one praying is asking for protection from circumstances that test or imperil faith. 

            The other thing to note in these petitions is that they are all plural inclusive.  “Give us, Forgive us, lead and deliver us.”  All of us are dependent, guilty, and lost and vulnerable.  No one is outside of the need for God.  And when we pray, we not only pray for ourselves, but we pray for and with the entire community of faith. 

            The section that follows the prayer serve only to reinforce the point the prayer itself has made:  prayer is not a meek, contrived, and merely “religious” act; it is an act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human.  Real prayer cannot be faked.  In telling the story about a friend knocking on another friend’s door at midnight, Jesus is asking, “Could this happen to you?”  The expected answer is no, based upon norms of hospitality of the day; no one would expect the homeowner to say “do not bother me!”  Many times, we get so focused on the neighbor who wouldn’t open the door and think that God won’t hear our prayers unless we persist.  But the subsequent verses point to the fact that God is eager to give assistance.  If we look at the one knocking at the door, he has great gall in going to the neighbor at midnight to make the request.  We are to focus on his intensity and nerve that it took to make the request in the first place.  We are to go to such great lengths to make our petitions known to God.  In the parable, the neighbor finally opens the door because of the friend’s persistence.  It would be translated “shameless persistence.”  We are not to be deterred by God’s greatness when we pray.  Jesus is calling us to pursue an engaging relationship with God shamelessly and persistently because God is also approachable and intimately knowable.   We are to turn to God no matter the situation.

            We pray because we are a people in need and depend on the One who provides, forgives, and protects.  And the good news is God, even more than a friend, is committed to respond to those in need.  God gives what is necessary and beneficial, not whatever we desire.  If even broken parents care for their children, how much greater must be God’s capacity to provide that which truly nourishes.  The supreme expression of this is God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, the giving of God’s presence in and among us.  The gift of the Spirit demonstrates God’s commitment to answer the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer and declares God’s intention to do so through those who receive the Spirit.  It is through the Spirit that we partner with God to reach out to those in need, are able to truly forgive each other, and experience God’s kingdom here and now.  It is through the Holy Spirit that the prayer takes on life.

            When I working in residence life at Sheldon Jackson College, one of the students, whose name is Chris, was playing basketball with his boss.  In the middle of their game, his boss had a heart attack and died on the gym floor.  A day after the funeral, Chris came and talked with me about prayer.  “How do you pray?”  I told him in prayer, to talk to God like he would any of his friends, but to also to remember that it was God he was also talking with, a friend who is greater than any friend he would ever know.  And I told Chris not to give up the conversation, but to keep praying and talking with God.  Why did prayer seem so simple then?  I think it was because it was a moment of need, of recognizing how dependent we are on God.  That moment helps me realize now how easy it is to complicate our lives with God.  We have a God who created all things and is sovereign.  If we stop there, God becomes unapproachable and distant.  But God is also intimate and accessible, and desires to be in relationship with us.   In these verses about prayer, Jesus is simply telling us who we are:  we are a people who are in great need of God.  But he is also telling us who God is:  God loves us so much, that he fulfills those needs in greater ways than we could ever imagine. 

[1] Hall, Douglas John.  Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3.  Theological Perspective, p288.

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