1 Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of the disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, Mother, Parent, hallowed be your name.
Let your dominion come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5 And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to that friend at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set out.’ 7 And your friend 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.’ 8 I tell you, even though the friend will not get up and provide anything because of the friendship, at least because of the neighbor’s persistence the friend will get up and provide whatever is needed.
9 “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. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, the heavenly Parent, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”
Please pray with me this morning, church:
Teach us to pray.
Give us words when we feel lacking.
Give us energy to serve and devote to others.
Give us melodies to sing our prayers to you.
May our very lives be prayer and praise.
I’ve long been jealous of folks who can just rattle off eloquent and thoughtful prayers at the drop of a hat. That’s not me.
One Thanksgiving a few years ago, we were celebrating with Tiffany’s family and I got asked to pray before the meal, because when you’re in seminary, and later when you’re a pastor, you generally get asked to pray at things…unless we’re with Tiffany’s grandmother, who was a Pentecostal pastor way back when…when Gigi’s around, Gigi prays… Anyway, I have a bad habit of fidgeting and shuffling my feet when I get nervous, so I started in on this prayer, thanking God for the abundance of blessing of family and food and gathering together, and I took a step backward right into the dogs’ water bowl…which really threw me off and so then I just kind of had to wrap it up at that point.
These days I tend to plot out a prayer in my head if I think there’s a chance I’ll get asked to pray at something. Just in case. It really helps the nerves.
I also take note of any rogue water bowls in the immediate area.
I have a theory that most folks’ aversion to prayer isn’t so much about praying as it is about public speaking, but there’s also a little bit of crossover with public speaking about something as close to us and personal as our faith. There’s a sense of anxiety and nerves and not wanting to “mess it up” when we think about praying with or in front of others. We may feel like we want a little bit of training first, or some pointers. Like the disciples, we ask God, “Teach us to pray.”
What an honest urging…”Teach us to pray…”
When I was doing my chaplaincy internship, one of my learning goals was to learn how to pray better. I wanted to have something meaningful and comforting to say to folks and patients in their hospital rooms and at these most important times in their lives.
Lord, teach us to pray.
Last week, we talked about the need for balance between the hustle and bustle and doing of Martha and the attentive listening of Mary…and how part of that attentive listening is done through prayer and conversation with God. And so if we’re going to pray, how, then, should we pray?
Jesus lays out the very familiar Lord’s Prayer…not the one we’re most used to that comes to us from the gospel of Matthew, but a fairly similar one here in the gospel of Luke.
First of all, Jesus says, begin by blessing God. “Heavenly Parent, bless you, holy is your name.”
The prayer begins by defining the relationship between God and the one praying, the relationship of a parent to a child. It’s a relationship of respect, but one that also names a kind of dependency. We are dependent on God for the things that we need. We need God to provide for us. It’s a vulnerable posture, especially for those of us who are used to acting and believing that we do everything ourselves, bootstraps and all.
“Your kingdom come.”
We ask that God’s kingdom, the reign and the dominion of God, the fullness of God’s vision for our world…would be made manifest in our present time and place. A recognition that the fullness of God’s vision has yet to be realized among us, so we entreat God to make it so, and to make us agents in bringing that about. It kind of flies in the face of this idea that the kingdom of God is some far-off reality only to be wished for and only to be glimpsed and realized when we die. Asking the reign of God to be made known in our present is an affirmation of what Jesus will say in Luke chapter 17, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It’s among you. It’s here, and now, and is a promised future that is ready to be lived into in this present time and place. It’s one of my favorite verses in the Bible and I never get to preach on it because it never comes up in the lectionary…”The kingdom of God is within you.” A powerful statement that I think shifts our focus from some far-off, imagined, hoped-for time and redirects our attention and focus to the here and now and those in need in our midst.
Sometimes prayer looks like action, doing what we can with what we have to make God’s dream a reality here, by serving those most in need. It’s what we did this week with Family Promise and what we talked about just a bit ago with our New Hope 101 session about how so much of the ethos and DNA of New Hope is a focus on Service and Mission, and particularly serving the most vulnerable of our neighbors. We talked about how our hope is that every single person at New Hope finds at least one internal ministry and one external ministry to give your time and energy to. Sometimes prayer is action through service.
“Give us each day that which is needful for life.”
Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, says that daily bread is everything we need to live—food, housing, shelter, family, relationships—everything that is necessary for a full and abundant life. Again, naming that we are reliant on God for the things we need. A recognition that everything we do have comes to us from God. God is the one who provides.
Then Jesus launches into this story about a persistent neighbor and uses it to illustrate those who are persistent in prayer. And while I would certainly advocate for our need to pray more and pray persistently, I do think we misunderstand or mischaracterize the imperatives to “ask, seek, and knock.”
A neighbor shows up to your door in the middle of the night, asking for a few loaves of bread to feed their guest who has just arrived. Church, I don’t like getting out of bed to take my toddler back to his room, much less to answer the door for someone who needs to borrow bread. Come back tomorrow. I’m already in bed. The kitchen’s closed. I really identify with the posture of the neighbor behind locked doors.
And isn’t that where a lot of us might prefer to stay anyway, right? I’m in bed, my children are with me, we’re asleep, don’t bother us, we’re safe here… There’s so much that’s so scary in the world right now…behind locked doors, with my family, safe…truthfully, that’s where I’d prefer to be. Sometimes prayer is a deep sigh at all the scary things in the world, because sometimes all we can do is sigh and trust that God knows what we mean. Especially in a world where it seems as if we are so good at giving our children evil gifts rather than good gifts, as Jesus talks about later in today’s reading. We who are evil might know how to give our kids good gifts, but these days, we certainly do seem to be handing out snakes and scorpions to our young ones, rather than fish and eggs. Bulletproof backpacks, active shooter drills, a world where civil liberties seem to be regressing…these don’t feel like good gifts… No, I think I’d like to stay here behind my locked doors with my family. At least here I feel like we’re safe.
Can you relate?
“But then, because of the neighbor’s persistence, their neighbor will relent and give them what they need.”
God is persistent in loving you, church, and in lavishing you extravagantly with good things. How much more are we called to persistent in love and generosity and abundantly lavishing good things on our neighbors, on our young people, and on those who haven’t been given a fair shake in this world?
I think we tend to interpret Jesus’ imperatives to “ask, seek, and knock” as an indication that if we just pray more, if we just ask God more persistently for what we want, then God will relent and give us what we’re asking for. But friends, that reduces God to a vending machine…doling out the things you ask for if you just put in enough quarters or ask nicely enough. And church, we know that’s not how these things work. You’ve prayed for things often enough that haven’t come to be, that you know that’s not how prayer works. Church, it’s not how God works…
Countless theologians from Kierkegaard to Luther to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Reverend William Barber III to even Pope Francis have all said some version of this about prayer—prayer is not a way to bend God’s will to conform to your own…rather, prayer reorients us and opens us up to having our will shaped and molded to conform to God’s.
Notice the shape and direction of the Lord’s Prayer, and particularly note the reason for the neighbor’s persistence. The neighbor is asking on behalf of a guest who has visited them, they are asking so that they may show the hospitality required of them to their guest. The Lord’s Prayer asks God to forgive us, as we have forgiven those indebted to us. In both cases, the direction is outward. Prayer beseeches and asks God on behalf of others, prayer is focused and located outside of ourselves. Not what I want…but what you want, God…make me to be that which my neighbor needs, use me to care for my neighbor, to provide what they need, to lavish them with good things as you have have given those things to me.
In that way, prayer’s really quite simple, church.
God, thank you.
Help me to be for others what they need.
Use me to help make our world just a bit more reflective of your dream and vision for us.
And if all that still feels like too much, the Psalmist today reminds us that our worship and praise is prayer, too. Let the liturgy today be your prayer. Let this community’s prayers be your prayer. Let these hymns be your prayer. Our Sending Hymn today is an exceptional prayer based off a prayer of St. Patrick. “God, be the love between us. Christ, surround me.” Let this singing be your prayer.
There are so many ways to pray.
Try it, church.
I can tell you prayer is one of those things that really does get easier with practice.