Prayer: Guide us, O God, by your Word, and Holy Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover peace; through Christ our Lord, Amen.
One of the best pieces of advice I received about preaching came from my preaching class at Duke Divinity School. In one of our many breakout sessions, the Rev. Reginald Wise shared with our small group that preaching is a lot like jazz. As a saxophonist and someone who played in jazz bands in both middle school and high school, this grabbed my attention. He noted that, like any good jazz musician, the preacher must be able to take the rhythms and melodies of others and use them in their own art of improvisation. Preaching, like jazz, is an inherently communal exercise.
I spent some time reflecting on this advice as I planned this sermon for today, and I want to begin by taking a proverbial “note” from one one of Mulberry’s many great preachers and someone who I have really appreciated over the past few months; the (now) Rev. Katie Griffis. Not too long ago, Katie began her sermon on John 14 (her last sermon as Mulberry’s lay leader) with lyrics to the song “Goodbye Road” by Drew Holcomb and Johnnyswim. In a similar fashion I’d like to mark my first sermon with one of my favorite quotes. It is from Wendell Berry, an agrarian novelist, essayist, and poet from Kentucky who has written novels like Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow.
Of writing, Berry says the following through the mouth of one of his characters: “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”
And so it is with preaching, I would add.
Who taught you to pray? And how did you learn to pray?
These were two questions our small group at Union Grove UMC in Hillsborough, North Carolina, wrestled with this spring. We were working through Adam Hamilton’s book on the Lord’s Prayer, and these prompts were our way into these very familiar words. Some people shared about a family member who taught them the familiar words to the Prayer. Some recounted coaches who would pray before sports games. Others mentioned learning how to pray in church with the help of a pastor or Sunday school teacher.
So I, as the brave leader of our rag-tag group, also reflected on these questions, and though I had a hard time remembering exactly when I learned to pray and who taught me, I did recall a particular prayer pattern from my earliest memories.
And church, I am here to confess that I had a little bit of a prayer problem! An interesting problem to have, certainly, so let me explain.
I remember that, as a child, I would pray every night before bed. I would flip over in my bed so i could clasp my hands in the appropriate posture, and I would begin by addressing the almighty God through the memorable prayer that goes:
“Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep
If I shall die before I wake
I pray the Lord, my soul to take.”
You know what I’m talking about! BUT THEN I continued and felt obligated to pray for all of my family members (and I mean ALL that I could name at the time), all of my friends, my pets, and (perhaps most importantly) my MANY stuffed animal friends (there were quite a lot). I was utterly convinced that my prayers, especially naming all of my loved ones, would ensure that God would keep them safe and sound. On the other hand, I was convinced that if I forgot to pray (or even left out a name), that their eternal soul was in grave danger. End of story.
I can laugh about it now, but at the time it gave me a lot of anxiety. This is what I believed about prayer.
Who taught you to pray? And how did you learn how to pray?
These questions are central to our Gospel message this morning, which contains Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer. Let us now stand for the reading of the Gospel from Luke 11.
Of the four Gospels, Luke emphasizes more than any of the other evangelists the importance of prayer in Jesus’s ministry. Six times in the preceding chapters we are told how Jesus would go off and pray, often withdrawing for time spent in solitude and seclusion. It is not surprising, then, that we find the disciples after one of these prayer moments asking their rabbi to instruct them in the ways of prayer.
Now, this probably is already obvious to you, but let me say it anyway. Luke’s account is a tad different from Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, the one we recite weekly through the language of the King James Version.
Lots of good theological stuff is happening in these verses, both in Jesus’s prayer and what he says afterward, and perhaps in another sermon or Bible study I’d love to dig into the differences between the accounts of the Lord’s Prayer. I’d love to explore the boldness prayer implied by the Greek word anaideia, the different ways to pray that were common in the first century Mediterranean world, or musings on ancient hospitality and if Jesus ever experienced Joseph waking up in the middle of the night to answer their door. These are all interesting questions prompted by the text.
But this morning, I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. Or rather, I don’t want to go grasping for more grain than I can hold.
You see, we preachers can, if we aren’t careful, focus more on the mechanics of prayer. Certainly that is needed in some moments. I’ve read wonderful books on the ACTS method (Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication). And full disclosure, I’m reading a book right now that Ted gave me on leading congregational prayer. So it has its place, believe me. But in talking about method and mechanics, the HOW, we can lose sight of the WHO and the WHY behind prayer.
So….Why do we pray, and to whom do we pray
Prayer is an intimate act. As one commentator I read noted, learning to pray is a lot different than learning to play the banjo, drive a car, ride a bike, or even preach. Learning to pray is a lot like learning to be a good friend, a good family member, a good spouse or partner. We learn by imitation, by watching others.
In our scripture today, I imagine that the disciples came to Jesus because they had been watching him pray (the repetition in Luke makes that theme pretty clear). After having watched Jesus pray with such devotion time and time again, often removing himself from his public ministry to go and pay alone, the disciples were interested in finding out what animated this prayer relationship. What was stoking the flames of Jesus’ prayer life. Usually in the Gospels its easy to be hard on the disciples because, frankly, they just don’t get it sometimes. But here, I don’t think they came looking for technique or method, but rather, they came to find out more about the love evident in Jesus’ relationship with the Father.
When Christ teaches his disciples how to pray, he’s giving them far more than “how-to advice”. He shows them, through example, parables, and sayings that prayer is an avenue for the deepest kind of theological reflection. In other words, what we pray reveals what we believe about the one to whom we pray
Take this whole passage as an example. What does Jesus’ prayer and what he shares afterwards reveal about God?
Jesus shows that
“God hear us.
God desires communion with us through prayer.
God desires to give Godself to us, in the person of the Holy Spirit.
God’s love is deeper than our frail (or even noble) attempts at love.”
This is theology, very practical theology. On the one hand, Christ teaching exemplifies what being prayerful people looks like: persistent, shameless, confident.
But we are able to approach prayer with such conviction not because of anything inside of us (magical willpower, the power of positive thinking) but because of the identity and loving character of the one to whom we pray. We can approach God like the persistent friend because we believe God desires to give us that which is life-giving. We can ask, seek, and knock with confidence because we know that God is all-powerful and all-loving. We can pray with certainty because we know that God has not left us to fend for ourselves, but rather the Father sent the Son into the world to become like us, live like us, and give his life so that our broken relationship with God could be restored. We can approach God shamelessly because we know that Christ has taken on our shame and guilt.
For some of us here, this may bring immense comfort. This image of God may provide hope amidst difficulties and fortify our faith. For others, this may sound like an outrageous and impossible promise. Our experience points to times when we knocked and the door wasn’t opened. When we came to God with our needs and desires and we were met with a closed door. In the words of biblical scholar Elisabeth Johnson: “If God is like a loving parent who desires to give what is good and life giving (11:11-13), why do so many prayers seem to go unanswered?” Or put one last way, “If God is all-loving, then why am I holding a snake.”
This is one of those moments where an attempt at grasping for grain will never grab it all. A simple answer to this question will never suffice, but let me say just a few things.
We may be tempted here to fall into the twin traps of saying that a) God sometimes doesn’t answer prayer because it doesn’t align with God’s will or b) everything happens for a reason, and therefore whatever happens is God’s way of answering prayer. Yes, sometimes our prayers do not align with what is good and lifegiving for us, and yes, God can bring good out of evil and painful circumstances. But both fail to account for those times when our prayer clearly aligns with God’s will, yet God does not act. How do we account for unanswered prayers for healing, for an end to world hunger, for an end to political divisions, for reconciled relationships.
There may be no perfect answer to the problem of unanswered prayer. But what we can say is what Scriptures tells us to be true. That God is at work in the world, bringing about the redemption of all things. That through the death and resurrection of Jesus, death has been ultimately defeated, yet the final victory still awaits us. For the time being, we must remember that God is not the only power at work in the world. The powers of evil, Satan and the consequence of human sinfulness are all active in this world. And we are caught up in the midst of this in between time. What then are we to do?
This morning, I invite us to consider the God revealed by Jesus. The loving Father that he shared with his disciples. And the Holy Spirit which beckons us today to worship. The question at the heart of this gospel lesson is not primarilly a matter of prayer mechanics or theodicy (the problem of evil and suffering). The question before us is this: who do we believe the God we worship really is?
Jesus shows that the identity and actions of God stand in sharp contrast to the human examples in his stories. Our God is not a sleep-deprived curmudgeon who only answers our prayers to get us to be quiet, nor is God only going to meet our needs out of some sort of divine self interest. No, the logic here is that if we, broken though we may be, can still find something in ourselves to lovingly serve others when it inconveniences us, how much greater and more perfectly will God, who knows none of our weakness, love us. Dare we believe this and let it change us?
And there is one other unexpected twist. The gift God gives us through prayer is not something physical; it is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Prayer is more than communication with God; it is communion with the triune God, who invites us to participate in the love shared between the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through prayer, we discover more of the incredible mystery that is the God we worship.
To some, prayer may appear to be the most fanciful and futile activity. The noted atheist Christopher Hitchens said that “The devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to a screaming point to ward of the terrible emptiness.” How can it possibly be true that God hears our prayers and that they do anything, especially given our experience of unanswered prayer. Our reading today points to the truth that through prayer, we discover the mystery of the God to whom we pray, a God who desires communion with us and for us to find peace in God’s providence even when we feel our prayers have gone unanswered, and that through prayer, we ourselves are changed by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a preacher and writer who has been quite influential on my preaching and pastoral development, shared in an article many years ago a story about her granddaughter, Madeline. When she turned 7, she came over to celebrate her birthday, and of course, a cake with candles was brought out. Taylor watched as she blew out the candles without making a wish.
“‘Aren’t you going to make a wish?’ Madeline’s mother asked.
‘You have to make a wish,’ her grandfather said.
Madeline looked as if someone had just run over her cat.
‘I don’t know why I keep doing this,’ she said to no one in particular.
‘Doing what?’ Taylor asked.
‘This wishing thing,’ she said, looking at the empty chair at the table. ‘Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did. This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy would get back together …’
‘That’s not going to happen,’ her mother said, ‘so don’t waste your wish on that.’
‘I know it’s not going to happen,’ Madeline said, ‘so why do I keep doing this?’ No one answered her.”
“What I want Madeline to know,” Taylor surmises, “is that the best thing about prayer is the relationship itself. Whether or not she gets what she asks for, I want her to keep asking. I want her to pester God the same way she pesters her mother, thinking of 12 different ways to plead her case. I want her to long for God the same way she longs for her father, holding fast to him when his chair is empty… One day, when Madeline asks me outright whether prayer really works, I am going to say, ‘Oh, sweetie, of course it does. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works better than that.’”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.