7/28/2013 sermon: Teach me to pray

Location: St. David’s Episcopal Church, Ashburn, VA
Text: Luke 11:1-13
10Pentecost/Proper 12, Year C

Teach me to pray

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray

I’ll never forget where I learned to pray. As the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, I attended Prayer Meeting every Thursday night with my family. And there I discovered that being in the company of those who are praying aloud is a great way to learn how to pray.

I am deeply grateful for this early learning (NOW). What I remember most is how conversational the prayers were at prayer meeting, how relational, how deeply personal. Mostly the prayers were for other people, intercessory prayer we call this, asking God for something on behalf of someone else.

For example, I actually heard this prayer once for a man who had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

“Lord,” the prayer went, “this man drinks so much we don’t wonder that he has this particular illness. But life is hard, as you yourself know from your time with us. And we are here to ask for you to heal this man, to make his liver clean. He needs more time here on earth to come to know you. And while you are at it, Lord, give him a new heart, too, because if you heal the one without healing the other, we’re just going to have to be back here again on behalf of this drunk—who you tell us is AS precious as WE are in your sight.”

That, my friends, is a prayer. But so too is this simple prayer that we often pray for ourselves, “O, God!”

Each of these prayers does what prayer is supposed to do. Prayer lets us tap into the energy of the Holy Spirit that surrounds and works through us. By tapping into that spiritual energy, prayer helps us to grow into our full potential as people of God.

See, what God wants is a conversation with us, a relationship with us. And God made the first move to begin a relationship with us. Well, actually, the first gazillion or so moves. I am only going to mention four:

  • God spoke the first Word, and all that is came to be.
  • Next, God spoke and speaks the second Word, the word that sustains everything that God had created. We say, even to this day, “In God we live and move and have our being.” For those of you who speak better science than you speak theology, let me translate this for you: God spoke into nothing, and nothing exploded, causing a Big Bang whose echoes ripple throughout space and time in a way that sustains our existence even to us, today.
  • Then God spoke billions of words, revealing God’s essence in every blade of grass, every beam of sunlight, every drop of water, and in every living thing as they evolved into how we know them today.
  • And God spoke another Word, giving us the Word-made-Flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. In THIS Word, given to us, God invited us into a very close and personal relationship. In other words, God invited us to speak the Word back to him, giving thanks to God for Word itself.

So how, exactly, can we speak God’s Word back to God? This question brings us to our gospel lesson for today. Jesus’ disciples noticed that Jesus prayed A LOT. And, one day when Jesus was praying, the disciples asked him to teach them to pray, too. This is because those who are somehow aware of the divine—we who are here today—we all WANT to be in conversation with God, but we often don’t know how, exactly. “Lord, teach us to pray!”

Jesus’ response showed us a truth: It’s easier to show someone how to pray than to tell them, step by step. So Jesus showed his disciples how to pray at his own group prayer meeting. When we pray like Jesus prayed, we:

  1. Give God a name: Father. Not “Our Father,” as Matthew remembers Jesus’ prayer. Luke wants us to know that God is everyone’s Father—a kind and loving parent who cares very much for each and every one of his children.
  2. Praise God. In this case “Hallowed be your name;” “Holy be your name.”
    We are not limited to these words, to this form of praise. Say “Ruler of the Universe” if you are regal-minded. Say “Creator of Justice” if you yearn for justice and peace. Say “Author of our salvation” if you’ve done something wrong. Say, “head of the church” if you have a gripe about religion. You get the idea. Pick a praise. We aren’t limited to calling God “hall-o-wed.”
  3. Only after naming God and praising God should we ask for something. We usually ask God for something when we pray, but not always. In both Luke’s as well as Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer, Jesus asked God to “Give us each day our daily bread.” Actually, the Greek word here that we translate “daily bread” is more like “tomorrow’s bread” or “necessary bread.” That’s what Jesus said; ask for “tomorrow’s bread.” We are to pray that God will meet our most immediate needs, our most basic of physical, mental, and spiritual needs.Instead, though, we forget what is important and we beg God for all sorts of non-essential things: to become fabulously wealthy, to lose weight, or to discover the fountain of youth. Worse, many of us don’t ask God for anything because we don’t believe, really, that God is listening. Or because we don’t think we are worthy of God’s attention. Or because … because… because…

Jesus’ original disciples must have shared our concerns because our lesson today ends with Jesus telling his disciples a story to urge them to pray persistently. Jesus said, in essence, that if we don’t seem to get an answer, keep on praying. The persistence of our prayers becomes a statement of our faith.

For many, the Lord’s Prayer is a comforting mantra. I discovered, while serving in seminary as a chaplain, that even non-Christians know this prayer and are comforted by the words. For Christians, though, the words are so familiar that they let us talk to God without having to pick and choose our own words. This is sometimes all that we can muster. However, praying the Lord’s Prayer regularly ideally would lead us into our own conversation with God, into a relationship with God.

One of my favorite preachers, a Lutheran named Edward F. Markquart, once said in a sermon that the average American prays only four minutes a day. Four minutes! And we clergy persons—we professional pray-ers—we don’t do much better. Our average is seven minutes. What kind of relationship would we have with our spouses, with our children, if we only spent four or seven minutes a day talking to them?

I suspect that we do better than the average here at St. David’s. I just need to look up above the baptistry to see your prayers, suspended in the form of doves. I have a new suggestion, though. I suggest that you take your church directory and pray each day for one page of people in the directory. When you do, you will notice that you can’t be very specific in your prayers for the people you don’t know. Perhaps you could pray, “Lord, I don’t know this person, but you do. Please be with him today and let him know that you love him.” Over time, though, as you meet the people in this congregation for whom you are praying, you can get more specific. “Thank you, Lord, for introducing John and his family to me last Sunday. As you know better than I, he is having a real hard time right now. Please be with him and comfort him as he searches for a new job, and provide for his family, Lord; he’s real worried about that.”

I guarantee you, that if you begin to pray this way, you will begin to notice a closer connection between you and God, and between you and your fellow parishioners at St. David’s.

In closing, I would like to offer a prayer for this parish. Let us pray:

“O God whose service is great joy. We thank you for giving us your son Jesus Christ, whose body and blood we will share today. We are here today because we love you. As you know, we will eat your flesh and drink your blood at your holy altar, which somehow will renew and sustain us for the week ahead. Help us to leave this place and tell others about you, in whose Name we pray. Amen.”

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