Thompson’s Sermon from July 25, 2010

July 29, 2010

How To Pray
Luke 11:1-13

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.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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. 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. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”

If you read today’s sermon title on the Now Happening email blast, and you’ve come this morning with the expectation of learning the secret maneuver that will enable you to gain access to God’s miraculous vending machine of divine intervention you are going to leave disappointed.

I wish I knew the right way to shake it so that it would predictably dispense those particular circumstances we feel would make all the difference – but I don’t. The title of this sermon only makes sense when you put it in the context of the other sermons I’ve preached this month in which I’ve raised impossibly large concepts to ponder and bolted from being excessively particular on how to act, and how not to act.

I answered the question of how to act by suggesting we be nice to each other. I answered the question of how not to act by suggesting we not have unreasonable expectations of each other. And I’m going to spend the next few minutes dancing around the un-dissectible concept of prayer, but I can tell you now my conclusion will simply be to do it. So I’m about to engage in a few minutes of largely forgettable filler, and I will conclude with what you already know, which is that it’s important to pray.

I really resonate to something the contemporary Christian writer, Anne Lamott, said about prayer. She said the two best prayers she knows of are: “Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!”, and “Help me, help me, help me!” And I don’t think those are prayers that any of us have a hard time learning. Disaster happens and we learn to pray. Disaster is averted and we give thanks to God.

I think the problem most of us have is to never engage in any kind of prayer that doesn’t revolve around giving great thanks or asking for relief. I know I tend to bounce like a pin-ball between those perspectives of my heart, and I believe that a person who is grounded in prayer will be more prepared for the varying circumstances of life.

It’s interesting that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray like John had taught his disciples. I actually read something John Wesley said about that, which is that different spiritual teachers had a tendency to provide particular words for people to use when they prayed.

It’s as if they were asking Jesus for his particular set of words. I don’t think they were asking for his set of magic words, but I’m guessing they have always been used in that way. In fact I’m sure I’ve tried to use them in that way. I have no doubt I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer in hope of getting what my heart desired. I think it’s hard not to use it as if it’s some kind of good luck charm.

But I don’t think this was what Jesus was intending when he shared these words with his disciples. It seems to me he gave these words to his disciples to shape their image of God, and these words provide a very particular image of God.

It’s no small deal that Jesus invited us to address God as, Our Father. This one phrase has probably done more to establish an image of God than any other phrase in human language, but I don’t think it’s functioned in the manner Jesus intended. As we all know, this has contributed to the unfortunate mindset that considers God to be exclusively male.

And while this way of thinking is very limiting and distracting, it has also served to reinforce a particular hierarchy on earth. If you believe that God is male, it’s only logical that you would think male human beings are more God-like than female human beings and therefore more valuable. Jesus gave us this word to use when we pray to God, but I don’t think he was thinking of how we would use it to prey on each other.

Some people have speculated that Jesus used this word to indicate how near God is to us. I’ve heard that the word Jesus used was more along the lines of Daddy than Father. And I certainly embrace the notion that God is near and as concerned about us as individuals as a good father is to his child, but something else I read made even more sense to me. Someone said this was Jesus’ way of telling everyone that we all have equal access to God. Jesus was inviting his disciples to have their own relationship with God – that we don’t have to address anyone between ourselves and God.

I don’t think this was a small deal for people who had been taught they needed to bring animals to the priest in the temple which is where they had to buy the animal from the authorized sacrificial animal dealer with money they had acquired from the authorized money exchange dealer. All of this was done in order for people to feel that they had become reconciled with God for whatever violation they had committed that caused their relationship with God to have become broken down.

Those words, Our Father, sound incredibly innocent, but they played into the whole sense of spiritual and religious revolution that Jesus had begun. He didn’t want his followers to think they had to engage in commerce in order to engage with God – and this was not a good thing for the religion business. It helps me understand why they wanted to kill him. Jesus wasn’t being nice when he invited his followers to address God as Daddy, he was cutting out the middle man.

And he was inviting them to see beyond the arrangement of this world. Jesus invited them to seek to abide in an alternate kingdom. We don’t resonate to this word kingdom in the same way that Jesus’ original disciples would have experienced the word. We don’t live in a kingdom. We go visit the magic kingdom at Disneyworld, and it doesn’t feel like an ominous presence, but the people who asked Jesus how to pray lived in a kingdom that wasn’t so magical. They lived in a kingdom that crushed people for not showing proper respect to the emperor.

Once again, this was not safe language. To long for the Kingdom of God was to show some disdain for the kingdom at hand, and that was not a welcome sentiment. I don’t think it would have been safe to speak this prayer loudly in a public place during Jesus’ day. I think it would have been seen as treasonous. Of course we can say this prayer anywhere and no one feels threatened by any part of it. I don’t think the prayer is any less subversive to our society than it was to Herod’s system, but it’s lost it’s teeth in some way.

It’s a sad thing on some level that the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray has become so welcome everywhere. I’m not sure it continues to have the impact it had when Jesus first shared it.

Of course it has those petitions that feel very current – those petitions that aren’t unlike the prayer of Anne Lamott, but it isn’t insignificant that the prayer Jesus taught was from the first person plural. It begins with Our Father …, it goes on to say Give us …, and forgive us …, and protect us. At the heart of this prayer is the necessity for right relationships. This prayer was designed to direct our hearts toward having the right relationship with God and wanting to live in proper fellowship with one another.

It was Jesus’ intention for us to have what we need, but not more than we need, and I think he saw both of those conditions as problematic for our souls. This prayer that Jesus shared with his disciples is an instructive prayer, and if we will hear what it says as we say it it will help us understand to whom it is we are praying.

But praying isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s an activity of the heart, and we can find ourselves praying a very focused prayer in an involuntary manner when we are facing difficult circumstances, or inattentively saying the words of prayer in a distracted manner.

Jesus valued prayer, and this little parable at the end of the story is clearly an instruction to be diligent about prayer. It borders on indicating that we will get what we want if we pray fervently enough, but clearly that isn’t what happens – unless what you want is to live life in communication with God.

And this is the only thing I know to be true about prayer – which is that it happens, and it’s a good thing. Clearly Jesus had a fervent prayer life, but it didn’t prevent him from suffering at the hand of malicious people. It did provide him with access to the source of all life as he dealt with the forces of death. I think this is the best any of us will ever do.

There aren’t any magic words to use when we pray, but there is some magic that happens in our hearts when we open ourselves up to the presence of God. I don’t believe it fixes the problems we face in the way we would often prefer, but it certainly repairs our hearts and it enables us find joy in the midst of sorrow and strength in the midst of trials.

I do think it’s helpful to think about who it is we are praying to, and what it is we are to pray for, but I’m primarily here to say that I believe our God is listening when we say: Help us, help us, help us, forgive us, forgive us, forgive us, and thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!


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