Teach us How to Pray

I wonder if you’ve noticed a common characteristic about Episcopalians and other mainline Christians. Try to remember a time when you have been at a church meeting that is about to start or right before you sit down to share a meal with others. Someone almost always asks, “Who will lead us in a prayer?” Heads go down; we try to make ourselves small and invisible; we look around for someone else to lead the prayer. After all, what do we know about praying?

That’s probably exactly what the disciples were thinking. They knew that they had been called to follow Jesus not based on their theological backgrounds or their experience in leading liturgies. As they have been traveling with Jesus, he has always been around to bless the food or to pray with those who needed help. But now THE DISCIPLES are being sent out to heal and to spread the Gospel so they go to Jesus and say,

“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” In the Catechism in our prayer book, prayer is defined as “responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” In the section right before that, it says, “The duty of ALL Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, PRAY, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” Prayer is not just asking God for something; it can be the opening of our hearts and souls in a conversation with God.

For the past two Sundays, we have learned a little more about what it means to be one of Jesus’ disciples. We heard about the Good Samaritan and were reminded WHO that neighbor is that we are to love. Last week, we heard about Mary and Martha and how our lives change when we GET SERIOUS ABOUT following Jesus.

It was a common practice in Jesus’ time for the rabbi or teacher to give his or her disciples a formula to follow as we pray. As Episcopalians, we often think that our prayers may not be acceptable if they don’t sound like the prayers we find in our Book of Common Prayer. Knowing how to pray doesn’t just happen because we have been baptized; we LEARN to pray through practice. We also learn that prayer doesn’t have to be elegant and well-structured. Anne Lamott says that she has two basic prayers: “Thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, help me, help me.”

Throughout the New Testament, we see Jesus modeling a life of prayer, but NOW he is teaching US how to pray. He gives us the words to ADDRESS God, to PRAISE God and then words to PETITION God.

“When you pray, say, ‘Father,”

We say “OUR FATHER,” reminding every one of us that our relationship with God is as a child of a caring, generous, and forgiving parent who wants only the best for us.

He continues, “Holy be your name.”

We are reminded that we are in the presence of God, the Holy of Holies. We need that awareness to pull us out of the selfishness that often prevents us from seeing our neighbor as a child of God.

“Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

We’ve heard many times that heaven, the Kingdom of God, is not a faraway place up there in the sky. The Kingdom of God is near, and it begins RIGHT HERE and RIGHT NOW, not after we die. The Dream of God is where everyone is of value in God’s eyes and where justice prevails. God could have created the world that way in the beginning, a world where all are valued and there is enough love and enough resources for everyone. Oh, wait. He did create the world that way in the beginning, but we rebelled because we didn’t want God or anyone to be the boss of us, so God came up with another plan. One that made spreading the good news of God’s never-ending love OUR job as Christians, a decision that God might want to reconsider. But for now, there’s no Plan B. If God’s Kingdom is to come on this earth, it’s up to us.

Jesus continues this lesson on prayer. “Your will be done.”

And just what is God’s will? Jesus came to the world to show us that God’s will is not about following rules; God’s will is not about perfectly correct liturgy (thank you, God!). Jesus sums up God’s will by teaching us the commandment that we love one another as God loves us.

“Give us each day our daily bread.”

When Jesus lived with us on earth, bread was the very essence of nourishment. The Greek word for daily (epiousios) literally means “super essential;” If one had bread, one was not hungry. If one didn’t have bread, one would starve. Give us what we need each day, and help us to know the difference between what we want and what we need. It’s like a good friend reminds me often: We can’t always get what we want, but if we try some time, we just might find, we get what we need.

“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

If we are unable to forgive our sisters and brothers, how can we recognize God’s forgiveness? I’ve told many of you about my aha! moment when I realized that my refusal to forgive a brother only hurts me, not my brother. That person may not even know how tightly we hold on to that resentment or grudge. It’s like the flow of forgiveness in our hearts gets clogged up. When we refuse to share forgiveness, there’s no room in our hearts for God’s forgiveness.

The prayer continues, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Jesus never promise that being his disciples would be easy. In fact, He tells us that we have to take up our crosses in order to follow him. But he ALSO PROMISES that we will not have to walk through those situations alone. God will be with us even when the going gets tough. And the Body of Christ-that’s us-will be there to remind ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN that God loves them.

Today, we often hear PRAYER used as code for “I don’t know what else to say,” or “What can I do about it?” offered to someone who needs help. For most of Christian history, the Church-THE PEOPLE OF GOD-have supported the status quo as an adequate expression of God’s will, trying to convince ourselves that it could be much worse. The Kingdom of God has been understood as something we might experience in the future IF we’ve followed all the rules. This has resulted in 1) a misunderstanding of what God’s Kingdom is like, and 2) our failure to respond to God’s grace. We look around at others or look down trying to make ourselves small and invisible, waiting for someone else to do something. If we look at the history of our relationship with God, we eventually realize that we can’t wait for others to make the changes. We have to take prayer and the action that accompanies it seriously. The coming of God’s domain DEPENDS ON ALL OF US TAKING ACTION. It doesn’t have to be elegant or well structured. We just have to be willing to put one foot in front of the other, to reach out to others, and to speak up when the world is getting crazy about dividing us up and accepting the treatment of any one as less than a child of God. We are called to use our hands and feet as we pray.

A good friend of mine was in an accident this week. He broke 4 bones in his legs. He had surgery to put rods, plates, and screws in his legs. The surgeon told us, “He has everything he physically needs to use those legs again to walk. But, he said, he’s got to trust that he can walk, and he’s got to be determined enough to take the first steps. That’s like the trust and the determination we need to use the gifts that God has given us.

There’s a great YouTube video of Bono’s address at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2006. He is there to talk to the President, government leaders, and faith leaders about how all of God’s children need to use our hands and feet and voices to work together to end hunger and preventable disease in our world. He talks about his own faith, his prayer life, and his call to work with people who are poor. “A number of years ago,” Bono says, “ I met a wise man who changed my life—in countless ways, big and small. I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I’d be saying, ‘Look, I’ve got a new song…Would you look out [for it]? I have a family; I’m going away on tour—please look after them. I have a crazy idea. Could I have a blessing on it?’ And this wise man asked me to stop. He said, ‘Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Get involved with what God is doing—because it’s already blessed. God, as I say, is always working with the poor. That’s what God is doing. That’s what He’s calling us to do.”

We will be dismissed at the end of this service to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. We serve Jesus Christ by ACTIVELY CARING for God’s children who are poor, for our sisters and brothers who are hungry, for our neighbors who are sick, and for those people who are in any kind of prison.

Jesus tells us to ASK, to SEEK, and to KNOCK and then repeat. More and more I believe that this journey we’re on is not about personal salvation; it about the redemption of the community. No one wins unless we all win. And we can trust that God hears our prayers and is ready to respond and to transform our lives and the world around us. May God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done. AMEN.

Joyce Hardy