Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
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.’
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”And he 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.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
During the children's moment, the kids and grown-ups wrote a prayer together. Here's the final product: Dear God (or, alternately, Hey, God, what's up), Guide me, please. Work with me to help. I pray for World Peace. Please help meet my needs for food shelter, love, strength, friends and family, rest, peace, patience, caring, happiness, hope, safety, fun, and prayer. Help me have the courage to apologize. I'm sorry. When someone apologizes to me, help me have compassion and understanding. Help me let it be. Help me say, "It's ok." Help me be fair and kind. Help me when I do something bad. Help me fix it. Help me make good choices. Protect me from myself. Help me not to judge others. Be with me during conflicts. Amen.
How Do We Pray? Luke 11:1-3
This week, Parker Palmer, the Quaker author, shared a poem on Facebook that caught my attention. It is called "Praying" and was written by the poet Mary Oliver. The poem reads:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
Not only is lovely, but it reminded me of the scripture for this week. I feel like Mary was trying to respond to a similar request that Jesus was. Teach us how to pray. I am not at all surprised that Jesus, or Mary Oliver for that matter, felt like they needed to talk about how to pray. Prayer, an action that is as much at the heart of Christian faith as care for the poor and love of Christ, still befuddles many believers. Nearly 2,000 years after the Gospel of Luke was written, we still find ourselves asking, "Teach us to pray."
You might recognize the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples. We pray a longer version, the one from a similar story in Matthew, each Sunday. Scholars note that this version contains one statement about God and 5 kinds of petitions directed to God. First, God is presented a parent, in this case a father... one with whom you have a close relationship and can count on to care for you, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus will tell in chapter 15. This father loves and cares for his son no matter what. Jesus says that that is the relationship model for God and humanity: God, the ever-loving, ever-nurturing, ridiculously forgiving parent. With this model for God in mind, Jesus offers five ways to engage with God through prayer.
The first way to is to remember that our faith has a certain future orientation. While we will always work to make our faith relevant and responsive to the demands of our current moment, we, and the faith that shapes us, are bound to a holier future. Even as we work out what we are called to be doing at this very moment, we do so with an eye ever on God's unfolding future. As we pray, Jesus calls on us to remember the gracious reign of God that is blossoming, but not yet in bloom. Throughout Luke, Jesus and his ministry are understood to be signs of the coming kingdom. His mother Mary speaks of God's reign as bringing the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. Jesus spoke of his own ministry with the words of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus said in the sermon on the plain that kingdom of God will be for the poor, the hungry, the ones in mourning, and the ones who have been hated. This is future that Jesus wants us to look toward. This is the future that Jesus calls us to work toward. This is why he asked his followers to remember, in our prayers, to call out for God's kin-dom to come.
At the same time, almost in the same breath, Jesus asks his disciples to pray for the things that will help them make it through the day. Recalling the ancient story of God providing the wandering Hebrews with manna for sustenance, Jesus suggests that his disciples pray for their daily bread. In this petition, we are reminded that our real, very human needs for food, shelter, and companionship merit the attention of God. The needs of the moment, like the food that keeps us going and allows us to thrive in creation, are worthy of our prayers as well. Just as we will work with God to assure the future unfolding of God's kin-dom, so, too, can we call on God to hear our basic, most temporal needs. We can't do the future work without an eye on the present need. They are not disconnected.
The next two petitions are also inter-related. One scholar I read this week, David Lose, described Christian community as a "community organized by shared forgiveness." Asking forgiveness and granting it to those who petition us in return is central to who we are a people of God. One of the other scholars I read this week, Meda Stamper, noted that the word for forgiveness, in Greek, is the same word for release. Forgiveness releases us, frees us from the oppression and repression that binds us. Frees us from the mistrust and meanness that we have fallen into. Forgiveness opens us to speak the truth, to apologize, to hear the truth in return. Forgiveness allows for reconnection with God and with one another. Forgiveness resets our relationship, not forgetting what has happened but working through it, using it as foundation to make our connections stronger. So, Jesus tells his disciples to ask for forgiveness and for help in forgiving and releasing those who owe us something.
The final portion of this prayer points us again towards a hope for the future. Jesus instructs his followers to ask to be released from temptation. Some translate this section as "do not let us descend into eternal trial." Temptation and trial can return us to the disconnected, bound up state that we have worked with the Holy Spirit to transcend. This final portion of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples points towards the hope for a future where our relationship with God is so strong, that we are so filled with the Holy Spirit, that temptation and trial cannot twist us out of our relationship with God and with one another. In the mean-time, with that future in mind, we will pray with and for one another. We can get through any trial better fortified through prayer and the Holy Spirit.
In one short prayer, we have expressed faith is God who is Holy and who listens as attentively to us as the greatest version of a parent would; we have expressed hope for a future where we work with God to renew recreation. We have asked for help with our daily needs. We have asked for and offered forgiveness. And, we've finished with one more expression of hope for a future that does not re-bind us to the things that would tempt us away from God's reign of love. That is quite a lot for one little prayer, isn't it? And yet, we might still have some questions. Why, why do we need to pray? What do we know about the God to whom we are praying? Thankfully, Jesus said a couple things about that, too.
One of the most difficult things about prayer is that once you have opened yourself up and begun to build that relationship with God, it can be frustrating to feel like God is not responding back. Some may even begin to believe that when bad things happen to them, even if they have prayed for a better outcome, that this bad thing is what God has intended for them. I'm not sure that is what Jesus said about prayer. Remember, Jesus used a parental, nurturing metaphor for God. He makes an argument that God can be counted on to respond at least as well as your average human would should a child ask for something to eat. Rather than teaching about what it means when we don't hear what we hope from God, Jesus seems most interested in establishing the character of God as one who can be trusted and is rooted in love. He seems to be making the case that the best way to get to know this God is to keep praying, keep reaching out and speaking truth.Jesus says that, if you keep knocking, you can count on the door being opened. It is in God's nature to open that door, to hand over that fish, to give that child an egg.
One of the scholars I read this week, David Lose, said that "prayer... is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God." I think this section of Luke is portraying Jesus as trying to give his followers a template for building this relationship. It is rooted in reverence, honesty, forthrightness, and trust. It has it's eye on present needs and future possibilities. And, it is as persistent as a hungry late night knock on the door. We pray like this not because we need stuff, but because the reverence, honesty, and trust begin to reshape us... begin to mold us into something more divine. As Meda Stamper put it, prayer helps us become ready to live "the only life possible in God's household: one of love." Jesus didn't really get in to what happens when we don't feel like God is responding to our attempts at relationship. That, I guess, really isn't in our control. What Jesus does spend more time on is the stuff that we can control: our own actions and our own attempts to engage. So, maybe that's the best place for us to start to. We seek God out. We knock on some doors. We ask for God's attention. And, maybe, just maybe, our lives will change just because of our searching.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Mary Oliver's poem: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/414333-praying-it-doesn-t-have-to-be-the-blue-iris-it
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2918
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4690
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4690
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=719
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.