A sermon preached by Susan Sexton
Lord, Teach Us To Pray
July 29, 2007
We are sitting in the midst of a beautiful sanctuary, one that
I'm told was completed in 1998 after many years of worshipping in
other parts of the church. I remember the first time I came to talk
with Jody about my internship, I stepped in here just to look around.
I felt a presence that was so welcoming – and I continue to feel
I know many of you have been here for years and know this sanctuary
well, but I invite you to look around again, and notice how many
ways this sanctuary offers us a sacred space to worship. There is
the cross up at the front, the altar and the communion chalice,
the banners, the piano and the organ, the light coming through the
windows. Someone even pointed out to me that the angles of the woodwork
at the front looked like praying hands.
Recently, I sat in here for Sara Saunder's beautiful memorial service,
as people gather to remember and celebrate the life of someone dear
to them. As we sang, prayed, listened to scripture and heard people
share memories, I was struck by how the space around us seemed to
worship along with us. I remember so clearly looking at the tinted
windows, almost as if it was the first time I was seeing them. You
know how you see shapes in the clouds? That day, the angles that
pointed upward looked to me like outstretched arms. At that moment
I thought about the early Christians, the disciples, and how they
used to pray that way – standing with their head raised up, their
arms outstretched and hands open with palms turned upward. This
position symbolically expressed one's openness in prayer to God's
presence. If you look at the front of our bulletin for today, you
will see the print of a fresco painting found in a Roman catacomb
portraying this position of prayer. That's what I saw in these tinted
windows that day.
As we think about the scripture reading this morning, the Lord's
Prayer as it is found in the gospel of Luke, perhaps we can imagine
Jesus and his disciples standing together with their arms outstretched,
opening themselves to the presence of God as they prayed with each
The Lord's Prayer is usually part of our service, and it is important
to us because it is the prayer Jesus taught us himself. The scripture
doesn't tell us anything about what was going at that time except
that Jesus was praying. And when he finished, one of the disciples
asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. "Lord, teach us to pray."
When Jesus responded to his disciples, he said "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." At the very beginning of the prayer, Jesus invited
his disciples to come into that very intimate and assuring relationship
he had with his Father. Jesus knew the importance of that relationship.
The rest of this prayer is simple and to the point. It is a prayer
of reverence which simply, yet clearly covers all of life – our
present needs – for the bread, the nourishment, that we need each
day. It covers the sins of our past – because we are a sinful and
broken people and in need of healing forgiveness. It is also a prayer
that pleas for deliverance from situations in the future that test
us. And one that gives hope with the coming of God's Kingdom. We
are given a blueprint, so to speak, for prayer – a complete and
very powerful model for us to follow.
But, as we read the prayer in Luke's gospel, we see that it is much
shorter than the one we're generally familiar with and than the
one we find in the Gospel of Matthew. We hear fewer petitions, or
requests in the Luke passage. And, there is also a difference in
wording and in style. Matthew's version is more polished.
As I read Luke and then Matthew and noticed these differences, I
couldn't help but wonder about the importance of them as we pray.
How important are the words we use? When we pray, is God affected
by how eloquently we pray, by a polished style. What about whether
we stand, sit, stand, kneel, bow our heads, stretch out our arms,
or fold our hands? Does God respond based on what we ask for or
how we word our prayers? If we use the Luke version, does God answer
differently than if we use the Matthew version, or the one we say
on Sunday mornings? I imagine that we could examine all the parts
of each prayer, find corresponding words and concepts, and probably
determine that they are indeed pretty much the same. But the question
remains, what is it about prayer that is so very important for us
to know? How does Jesus teach us to pray?
As Jesus continues to teach his disciples, he tells them a parable.
It is the story of a friend who is visited by another friend, presumably
a traveler. There is nothing to offer the traveler, so he goes to
a neighbor and asks for some bread to give the one who is visiting.
Many people traveled in those days, but most of the inns were places
you wouldn't want to stay, and so they often relied on friends or
friends of friends, for lodging along the way. And in that culture,
to violate codes of hospitality caused tremendous shame – you didn't
turn someone away. But, the neighbor had excuses – "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." He
really didn't want to be bothered!
The parable continues as Jesus says, "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."
I need to tell you that as I studied this passage, I found out that
the Greek word which we translate as persistence can also be translated
as shamelessness. I tell you this because I think that many times
the main point of this parable becomes a lesson about persistence
of prayer, of our need to repeat ourselves over and over so that
God will hear us and answer our prayers. And I truly believe that
we miss the point of the entire message if this is the focus.
Because of the customs of the times, if he refused to answer the
door and offer hospitality, he would be shamed. By the next day
everyone in the community would know, the people would talk, and
he would be totally humiliated. So he got up.
This parable gives us the clear contrast between the character of
the unfriendly neighbor and our God who is generous, compassionate,
and faithful. God hears us and answers us at the first knock. That's
all we have to do, knock, or ask. Jesus says, "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."
And as we ask, or pray, we begin to come into a relationship of
trust, that we are heard and answered, even if the answer isn't
as we expect. If we ask for a fish, as in our reading, we won't
be given a snake – we may ask for trout and get grouper or salmon,
or possibly even canned tuna, but we won't be given a snake.
Nor are not turned away, but instead, we are invited into an intimate
relationship with God. And when we come into that relationship,
our prayers become conversations with God rather than a checklist
of requests. They become part of our journey toward truly knowing
God's faithful love for us. But one thing remains certain, we must
Not long ago, I was in the grocery store and noticed a mother with
her young child seated in the shopping cart. As she pushed the cart
up and down the aisles, he kept saying "Mommy, Mommy, I want
this, and Mommy, Mommy, I want that". He pointed to the candy,
the chips, the cookies, the sugared cereal, and who knows, he may
have even pointed to the rat poison – I don't know. But it was obvious
that he wanted something. I had the distinct feeling that he didn't
have a clue as to what he really wanted.
This kept on and on – in this case, he was persistent – to
the point of irritation, to be quite honest (I must have had a long
day that day, because I do remember that scene with my own children
Finally, the mother reached down, picked her child up, and held
him – and the child was suddenly quiet. The answer to that child's
cries was not found in the shopping cart!
What we finally learn at the end of Jesus' parable is what the child
learned as he was held in his mother's arms. We learn that it is
not a matter of specific words or style or whether we stand, or
sit, or kneel, stretch out our arms as the disciples did, or fold
our hands. We may cry or scream like the child, or even just whisper.
But if we ask, we are assured of an answer – that is the promise.
And the answer that is promised to us is the gift of God's Holy
Jesus said, "If you then, who are evil, know how to
give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly
Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!" This is the
gift that we often forget or don't think about and become so focused
on our own plan of action. Yet it is through the Holy Spirit that
all our needs are supplied – our daily bread – the nourishment and
sustenance we need each day. We know that forgiveness is ours, and
we are given the ability to forgive others. And through the Holy
Spirit, we find deliverance from our trials, from whatever tests
us. Although we cannot escape difficulties in our lives, through
God's gift of the Holy Spirit, our deliverance comes as we are given
strength, and are led through whatever we face.
It is through the Holy Spirit that God's words become our words,
God's needs become our needs, God's will becomes our own. We stop
trying to manipulate God into what we want and begin to listen to
God as God listens to us. God's prayers become our prayers.
Remember Paul's words to the Romans when he says, "The Spirit
helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."
We are taught how to pray by receiving God's gift which prays with
us and for us.
It is through prayer and through this gift that we enjoy the intimate
relationship with God that the child experienced with his mother,
the relationship Jesus invites us into at the beginning of his prayer.
As we come today for this Service of Healing and Wholeness, what
do we hope for? What is the promise that we are given? I think we
hope for whatever we ask. And we know that the promise is that God
will indeed answer. But what Jesus taught us is that we must ask.
And if we do, the gift is ours to receive. Thanks be to God. Amen