Lord, Teach us to Pray: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year C

July 25, 2010

Clergy have a complex relationship with clerical collars. We can all tell stories of times when we harassed or harangued by people who had a grudge against the church. Some priests resist wearing a collar except on the most liturgical of occasions. One reason I wear one as often as I do is because wearing the collar opens up all kinds of possibilities and leads to encounters that might otherwise not happen.

I’ve had people get my attention while I’m stopped at a traffic light, ask me to roll my window down, and shout, “Pray for me.” Once at the Home Depot, while he was helping me load my car with bales of pine straw, an employee asked if I would pray for him. He was going through some difficult stuff; we talked about that for a few minutes, and then right there in the parking lot, I put my hands on him and prayed with him.

I suppose people regard me as an expert pray-er. Sometimes I think that Grace parishioners regard as part of my job description that I will lead prayer whenever prayer is needed, before meals, or meetings, or the like. Perhaps some people think that because you pay me to pray, it leaves the rest of you off the hook. Well, not only am I not an expert pray-er, the fact that I’m a priest doesn’t mean that no one else needs to be able to pray, either publicly or in private.

I’m like most of you. I struggle with prayer. I struggle to find the time in a busy schedule to set aside. I struggle to find the words that are adequate to express my feelings, my thoughts, my doubts, and questions. I struggle as I try to understand how God uses my prayer to communicate with me. Of course, we all struggle. We may struggle with what to say or ask. Often, the greater struggle comes when we try to discern how God is answering, if God is answering our prayers. We struggle, above all, when it seems that our deepest prayers, prayers for healing or deliverance, seem to go unanswered. Then we seek reasons why God may not have answered. Is there something wrong with us? Something wrong with God that explains our ongoing suffering?

Today’s gospel doesn’t help much with those questions. The reading brings together a number of Jesus’ sayings about prayer—the Lord’s prayer, a brief parable, and Ask, Seek, Knock. On the surface at least, the passage seems to emphasize the importance of persistence, in other words, that the efficacy of prayer is tied to the prayer’s efforts.

But of course we all know better than that. Few of us have not experienced the pain and grief of an unanswered prayer, and very often it is when we pray most persistently and profoundly for something, that the desires we express in our prayers are not met. Sometimes, when that happens we blame God. Other times, we blame ourselves. We think that if we just said the right thing, or prayed hard enough, we would have had our prayers answered.

Like the disciples, we want to know how to pray, thinking that there is some magical formula that is the key to unlocking God’s responses. Of course knowing how to pray is important; learning how to express ourselves, becoming comfortable with asking God, learning as well, how to listen to, and for God. All of this helps us to deepen our relationship with God. But what Jesus is talking about here is not just nor primarily technique.

To understand that requires looking at the passage as a whole. It begins, as Luke so often does, with Jesus in prayer. We don’t often learn what it is he says—other than in Gethsemane and on the cross, when Luke puts words of prayer in Jesus’ mouth, we don’t witness Jesus’ conversation with God. And that’s precisely the point, because when Jesus teaches his disciples’ the Lord’s Prayer, he is not teaching them a formula for praying. Instead, he is teaching them, and us,  about relationship.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with those familiar words, “Our Father…” For all the loaded character of that phrase, both in terms of our tradition, and in a contemporary world that knows too well both the positive and negative power of that imagery, this prayer Jesus taught his disciples begins in relationship and stresses throughout the kind of relationship between God and those who pray it.

The relationship created by the Lord’s Prayer is a relationship of intimacy—like the relationship between a parent and child. It is also characterized by dependence and trust. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer differs slightly from Matthew’s. It is shorter, and it leaves out two of the petitions. Your will be done on earth as in heaven, and deliver us from the Evil One. It also omits the conclusion. The overall effect is to put the focus on our earthly existence and our dependence on God, rather than on some abstract heavenly place that diverts our attention away from daily life.

All this combines to make Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer an expression of our utter dependence on God. To ask God for our daily bread is not just about putting food on the table, though it certainly is that. It reminds us that all of our existence derives from the One who created us, and our continuing existence is dependent upon God’s grace. Put that way, even though there is no word of thanksgiving in the prayer as it stands, it expresses gratitude as well as dependence.

But that other petition in the Lord’s Prayer that Luke retains takes on even more significance in light of what he leaves out. It may be that the two petitions, for daily bread and for forgiveness, are related to each other. Both are based in our dependence on God, on the fact that we are not self-sufficient beings. They are based in our humanity. They are also based in our community. We may think of daily bread as our own personal need, but of course food is wrapped up in community and hospitality. So too, community cannot exist without forgiveness and reconciliation.

We will have more to say about both of these as we work through the gospel of Luke this summer and fall but for now, let us note only that both—daily bread, and forgiveness remind us profoundly that we are human beings dependent on God. If our prayer does nothing more than that, it is enough.

As I said at the outset today, I have always struggled with prayer. One of the things that attracted me to the Episcopal Church was the Book of Common Prayer with its marvelous language. I found in the liturgy and in the daily office, the rhythms of morning and evening prayer, a way of experiencing the presence of God, a way of communicating with God that seemed deeper, more true than my own words. No doubt some of you have experienced something similar.

I know how difficult it is to carve out time in the day for prayer. I find it no easier than many of you do. What does come easy to me is something else, simply sitting quietly. It’s one of the reasons I love this space so much, but I grant you I would love it more if it were cooler in the summer. I come down here during the day, every day almost and try to catch a few minutes, a half hour perhaps by myself, and seek the presence of God. This space is conducive to prayer—something that our visitors on Saturdays immediately intuit. The prophet Isaiah imagined a new future for the temple in Jerusalem, saying, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

We have been talking a great deal in the last months about a vision for Grace, imagining what this parish might be like in five or ten years. Much of talk has centered on programming and numerical growth. Our future will be empty and meaningless if it does not also involve spiritual growth for ourselves and for those we seek to attract. To make our church a place of prayer for all people, for those who live and work and visit downtown is one possibility. Whatever lies ahead should include a deepening prayer life for us as individuals and as a congregation. We would do well to take the disciples’ request of Jesus as our own goal—Lord, teach us to pray.

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