Last week the session committed to praying for thirty minutes each week (all at once!) for the future of our church and to hear the Holy Spirit moving us forward. In honor of that commitment, the sermon for this past Sunday was on prayer, specifically, what Jesus said when the disciples asked him how to pray. The story is found in the book of Luke, chapter 11, verses 1-13.
Beating a Path to God
Jesus was praying one day, and after he had finished, one of the disciples came up to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Author Michael Foss tells the story of a workshop on prayer at his church, led by their personnel and finance director, Rod Kopp. After the workshop one of the pastors pulled Rod aside, and said, “You are assuming that we pastors know how to pray. But many of us don’t.”
It’s a problem a lot of us have. We’re uncomfortable with prayer in some form or another. We might pray on our own, but we can’t help feeling that it’s rambling and ineffective. Or we might sometimes be asked to pray in front of others, and we find ourselves afraid and unsure of what to say. Or maybe we have an active prayer life, but we would like to find a way to deepen our prayers so that we can grow more strongly in our relationship with Christ.
But prayer is essential to our life. When we pray we increase our closeness with God. We gain discipline and strength to do what we know we have to do. I don’t know how many times I’ve say down to pray and realized I had the key to my problem all along. And we remind ourselves of God’s presence. If we continually pray in the knowledge that God is with us, our actions will begin to show it as well.
When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus shared with us this prayer, which has developed over the years into the Lord’s Prayer, which Christians all over the earth pray together every Sunday. What I’d like to do today is to go through that prayer with you, and explore what the prayer Jesus taught us has to show us today.
Jesus begins his prayer with the word “Father.” I think this is one of those places where the word has lost a little bit of its meaning through overuse in a specific context. Jesus was a little unusual in referring to God as Father. What that conveyed was a sense of closeness to God. We’ve lost a little of this now. Two thousand years of calling God Father have changed the way we see that word. We start to think of fathers as being Godly, instead of God as being fatherly. But when we pray to the Father, the idea is that we pray to someone who is close to us and knows us. Sometimes I wonder if we get a little bit too polite and deferential in our prayers. It’s like we don’t really want to bother God. But Jesus tells us to pray as if God is always happy to talk to us, always hoping for a phone call, because God is.
The next thing Jesus says for us to pray, is “hallowed be your name.” This is one of those places where the NRSV has held onto the King James language a little bit, and we’ve lost some meaning. It reads a little different in Greek, something more along the lines of “make your name holy.” Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation says, “Reveal who you are.” In other words this isn’t just an expression of praise but a plea for the time when people throughout the world will reveal God not just with their words but with their actions. What this tells us about our prayer life is that we should begin with praise and the hope that God’s greatness will be known to all.
“Hallowed be your name” ties in well with the next part of the prayer, “Thy Kingdom come.” Whenever we pray, we should pray with the pig picture in mind. When we say, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are asking for the world to be changed into a completely new place, where injustice and oppression no longer reign, when God reigns instead of earthly rules and rulers. The key point for us to remember is that the goal of Christianity is not for us to be redeemed, but for the whole world to be redeemed, through us. This is what we pray for when we say, “Your kingdom come.”
The next part of our daily prayer covers our daily needs. “Give us this day our daily bread.” This covers one of the most essential parts of prayer: Ask for what you need. Just as God provided manna for the Hebrews in the wilderness, so God will provide for each of us exactly what we need.
Following this Jesus tells us that we should ask for forgiveness. I have to admit, this is as step I have a tendency to skip, especially when I have something specific in mind to pray for. If I’m praying for a safe trip, or to be a better leader, or to get something I want, it just doesn’t really seem relevant to the conversation.
There was a married couple who moved into a new home in a new neighborhood. After they’d got everything unpacked, they were sitting there at the breakfast table that first morning, and the woman looked out the window at the clothesline next door, and said to her husband, “Wow, our neighbors really have no idea how to do laundry. Look at it, it’s filthy! Someone ought to show them how to do their laundry properly.” Well, this goes on for a while, every time the neighbors put out their laundry, she can’t help but comment about how it’s just not clean. A month or so later, they wake up and are eating breakfast together, and she notices a fresh clean wash on the line. She points it out to her husband, and says, “I wonder who finally taught them how to wash properly?” The husband looked out the window toward the neighbors’ yard, and said, “ I woke up a little early this morning, so I thought I’d wash the windows.”
What we see depends on the clarity of the windows we look through. In confessing, we attempt to keep our windows clean. It’s no coincidence that we are asked to meditate on our own sins before we meditate on the sins of others. By keeping our sins before us, instead of behind us, we grow patience and mercy within ourselves to forgive each other.
Finally, Jesus tells us, we should pray that we are not brought to the time of trial. In this, we call upon the Father to protect us from anything that would threaten our lives or our relationship to the Father.
Following the prayer, Jesus adds a few words about prayer in general in the form of a story. His parable is about a man going over to borrow bread from his friend in the evening. I remember doing this once as a kid, we were making a cake or something, but when we opened the flour it was full of bugs, and it was too late for stores to be open, so they sent me over to the neighbors with a measuring cup, to see if we could borrow a cup of flour. Now we weren’t depending on our friendship with our neighbors to get that flour, but common decency. Even if they were strangers to us they’d still share the flour with us, because that’s what you do. You wouldn’t want to become known on the block as someone who would even share a bit of flour with their neighbor. In other words, even if the man’s neighbor was an absolutely shameless, grumpy old codger who hated everyone, he’d still hand over the bread because not to do so would brand him an awful person.
And Jesus says, now, if even this guy would go and give the man what he asked, how much more will God do, who loves us so much that we call him Father?
Jesus then closes with this: “Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. I think part of what he means is that there is nothing hidden for you. There are no magic words you have to say, there is no special status that you need for your prayer to be answered. But I have a lot of trouble reading this getting hung up. I know too many unanswered prayers, some of them my own, to know what to do with these words.
But maybe understanding it begins with recognizing that God is not a vending machine. It’s not about putting the right coins in the slot, pressing B5, and having God drop down exactly what we want. Prayer is a relationship. It’s you and God, you and Daddy.
What I do know is this. We used to go down to the lake when I was a kid. Our friends had a house down there, and we had a share in a house down the road. We used to like to cut through the woods to get from one house to the other. Well I guess all our running between the two houses had beaten our shortcut into a pretty clear path, because, the folks whose property we were cutting through sent us a letter, telling us not to go through there anymore. As my dad explained it, they weren’t mad at us, they just didn’t want us to have a right-of-way. “What’s a right-of-way?” we asked. Well, it turns out, if you go down a trail enough times over enough years and wear down a path and nobody stops you, it will be come your path, even the law will recognize that you are supposed to be there.
And if we keep asking, we keep praying, we keep talking, we keep beating down that path between us and God, we keep clearing out the weeds that separate us from God, then maybe even we won’t be able to deny to ourselves that this is where we belong.