A Sermon for 24 July 2016
A reading from the gospel of Luke 11:1-13. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Jesus 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 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 Spirt to those who ask him!” (N.R.S.V.)
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
How many times in your lifetime have you prayed? I’m not just talking about the times you rotely raced through The Lord’s Prayer, or did you best to stay awake in corporate worship during the pastor’s impassioned but a bit too long Prayers of the People. From the time you were birthed into this world, through your growing years, until today: how often have you prayed?
If we were going to begin to figure out how to compute that equation, then we might first want to know what counts. What defines prayer? Do we have to be on our knees pouring out our hearts to God? What about the sudden thought that comes to us when we’re sitting in traffic or are in the bathroom taking a shower: You know, those times we may even out loud say: “O! I really hope so and so is doing ok. I know they’ve been having a tough time since their mother died.” What about the elation that arises from a phone call delivering very good news: a beloved friend is flying into town. Your son’s okay even though his car was totaled. The test came back negative. Does it count as prayer to be in the silence of the forest walking instep to the beat of your own heart as every cell inside seems at one with it all? . . . I’m not sure which amazing saint said it, but a wise pastor told it to me many years ago when I was struggling with prayer. She said: “If the only prayer you every say is thank you; that would be enough.” Standing on the side of a mountain, or at the shore of the ocean, if thank you arises in your soul; it is the most honesty, most authentic, most appreciated prayer of thanksgiving to the great Creator of the universe. Author and sage Anne Lamott even has a down-to-earth book on prayer entitled: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Think about it: “Help, God! Thank you! And oh wow! That was amazing!” What more really needs to be said as we walk through the days of our lives?
Prayer was the foundation of Jesus’ life. The gospel of Luke records that he’s off again, praying in a certain place. After he finishes, a follower asks, “Lord, will you teach us too?” They knew that John the Baptist instructed his own. So Jesus’ followers want to know how he would have them pray. The question’s nothing new. Rabbis frequently tutored pupils in prayer. Ancient Judaism included model petitions. Parts of everyday were set aside for the repetition of the prayers one’s rabbi taught. In some ways, it was known that those who prayed thus belonged to rabbi x. And those saying this obviously sat with rabbi y. Kinda like diplomas today telling us something of one’s educational background, thereby possible intellectual insights. While we’re not privy to the lessons with which John the Baptist or any other rabbi responded, the gospel of Luke gladly gives us Prayer 101 according to Jesus who is called the Messiah.
“When you pray,” orders Jesus, “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” (Luke 11:2-4). Short. Sweet. To the point. We repeat nearly the same each Sunday – whether or not we’re attuned to what we say. We can mindlessly race right through it; but Jesus didn’t want us just to say the words. He wanted those belonging to him to use his words to know the One to whom we pray; and to know how to act according to God’s very will. He wanted the words – the meaning of what we’re praying – to shape us. To show we are his disciples. Students of this rabbi.
It’s clear from his prayer it’s an intimate connection of care with the God he here calls Abba, Daddy – though most translations use the more formal word Father. If you’re going to pray like Jesus – if we’re going to follow the lessons of this rabbi – then we have to know how deeply God cherishes us. Jesus says: “what father among you would ignore the pleas of his child in need?” If you’ve raised children, you’ve been there. It’s the middle of the night and the house sits all in silence. You’re fast asleep until a little yelp escapes somewhere near your face. Your eyes pop open to see your child with that quivering lip and cheeks wet with big, round, streaming tears. Whether it was a nightmare, a thunder clap, or an ache or pain somewhere. Are you really going to turn over on the other shoulder and tell them to get lost? God never would! Jesus wants us to know that even in the darkest night of our lives, our Loving Parent will listen. Will wrap us in arms of tender care and hold us until we can see the light of day again. “Abba, Daddy!” he teaches. Hallowed is your name!”
Praise, honor, glory goes unto the God to whom we pray. So incredible, so holy is this Supreme Being. . . . When first Jesus tells us to turn to petition God, it is God’s kingdom for which we are to pray. One of Jesus’ greatest teaching is that in him, it’s begun. He is the embodiment of God’s kingdom – the way of love and joy and peace, of kindness and generosity and unity. Justice – just enough for us all; which means getting and giving. Some letting go so others can gain. Those are the words Jesus taught us to pray so that all might know his followers live and die for the full expression of that kind of kingdom.
He goes on to teach us to ask for daily bread. I wonder if we remember when we race through The Lord’s Prayer that this petition for our daily bread grounds us in two ancient truths about God. First, the petition is plural. So that it might be better to pray: “Give us – O God, ALL of us – our daily bread.” The way of God is not some sort of individual path. Our own needs are not more important to God than the needs of every other creature in the human family. Jesus teaches us to ask not for ourselves alone but for us all – give us our daily bread, O God! Second, with this petition, Jesus grounds us in the great providence shown by God to our faith ancestors. Daily bread is nothing new. Forty years God’s people were provided manna daily in the wilderness. Everybody got a share. None was saved up for tomorrow because it’d only rot. When no other food could be found around, God made the miracle each morning. Communicating loud and clear to them and to all who remember that a good, loving God not only cares, but also acts for us all. In our plea for our daily bread, we call upon a loving God to make a way for us all to have enough.
Admittedly, a whole lot of us have been a bit tripped up on what he commands next. “Forgive us our sins,” Jesus teaches us to pray, “for we ourselves forgive those indebted to us.” Now, it might be helpful to know the system under which Jesus’ first followers lived. Society set up a sort of enslavement. If one did another a favor, the other was expected to repay. So if, as a courtesy, you milked your neighbor’s cow one day; then he would owe you at least one favor in return. The whole structure was: I do for them because they will do for me. Jesus attempts to break that cycle. Through his prayer, he teaches forgiveness of such debts. He’s talking about living a different kind of life where one freely gives whatever: forgiveness, favors, food – freely, no strings attached. No expectations earned. And these words of the prayer are present, active tense: we ourselves are forgiving. In other words, we are praying that we are living counter to the system by simply doing for doing’s sake. We trust God to be as well. We cannot work to get God’s forgiveness. No one can. “So please God,” we pray, “forgive without restraint; for each day we seek to be likewise.”
Finally, at least according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches: “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” We know life overflows with testing. Everywhere we turn we have the choice to walk in God’s ways. To live faithful to who we are as God’s children – or not. Once again we can look to the great trials of our ancestors in the faith. Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son. When the Israelites finally settled in Promised Land, it would be a daily test to see if prosperity would pervert them. Job was told to take the easier path: to curse God and die. Even Jesus. After forty days of fasting, he was tempted in the wilderness; then again one agonizing evening in Gethsemane. We beg to be spared if not from – then at least through those terrible moments when you and I might go astray; wandering from the ways of God.
The gospel of Luke’s record of The Lord’s Prayer is not long. But it’s loaded. Loaded with words to shape our love of God and our lives in this world. It’s the lesson on prayer taught by Rabbi Jesus, who wants his followers to be in deep communion with the God who loves more than we ever can know. . . . The next time you say it, don’t just put your mind on cruise control to thoughtlessly race right through. Ponder the prayer our Lord taught. Know its meaning. Let it shape your living each day.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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