Sermon - 7 Pentecost
In the Name...
A businessman who needed to clinch an important deal went into a church to pray. By chance, he knelt next to a man who started loudly praying for a few thousand dollars to pay his debts. The businessman asked how much this man needed and wrote him a cheque for the entire amount. Overjoyed, the man got up and left the church, praising God. The businessman then began his prayer, “And now, Lord, if I may have your undivided attention….”
Robert Cook, president of King’s College in New York, told an audience at Moody Bible Institute that the day before, he'd been at a function in Washington, D.C. and there he had talked with the movers and shakers of the nation, including the President. “But that’s nothing!", he then said, smiling broadly, "This morning, I talked with God!”
These examples of a businessman and a college president can teach us a lot about Christian prayer. Positively, they show us that even top-level executives and professionals still make time to pray. But in a very subtle way they also highlight the problem that today’s Gospel seems to focus upon, that of the right approach for Christian prayer. In both these examples we see that God is portrayed as the "big boss" or "divine deal-maker." Our question should be, is that the best way for Christians to think about prayer?
The request of the disciples to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”, obviously isn't made because they don't know how. These men are all devout Jews. They know how to say prayers. They've grown up saying prayers. What they're asking Jesus is how should they approach prayer. They've watched him. He exudes a spirituality which is far deeper than anything they've seen before. How does he do it? Can we learn too? Sure, Jesus says, there's nothing to it. You just have to approach God as a child approaches its father.
Jesus' answer to the disciples is actually quite long. He begins with, “When you pray, say ‘Father’”, and ends thirteen verses later with the words, “If you then, who are worldly, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father.” Prayer, according to Jesus, is a family conversation based on a mutual relationship of love and trust. This was a new concept for the disciples. The customary Jewish image of God was as the boss of transactions or the king who is to be feared, the warrior, judge, the lightning-bolt thrower. This "Father" thing never entered their minds.
Indeed, we saw an example of the old Jewish image of prayer as a kind of bargaining session in our Old Testament lesson as Abraham negotiates over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Fifty, how about forty-five, forty-five, how about forty, etc. One can imagine Abraham as the businessman in the first example, reaching for his chequebook to get God's attention.
To pray as Christians ought to, however, is to speak to God as His children. When children speak to their parents, there isn't a right or wrong ceremonial. They simply speak. They put into words what they feel in the hearts and there are no correct or incorrect words and postures in our private prayer lives. Three ministers were once discussing prayer and one said that kneeling was correct, one said that standing was correct, and the third said that sitting was correct. A bridge worker who overheard them, however, said that the strongest prayer he ever made was when he slipped from a beam and was hanging upside down from a safety line.
But it's amazing the things that can fixate people. For example, until the 1980's, in a typical Brazilian Lutheran Church, the service was led by Brazilians, attended by Brazilians, and completely conducted in Brazilian Portuguese, except the Lord's Prayer which was said every week in German. Instead of being part of each person's spiritual present, it had become an icon of the past, a tribute to the original missionaries, the fossil of somebody else's culture, lovingly preserved. Like the spittoons which still grace the U.S. Senate. Ornamental, but of no great use today.
The Lord's Prayer, though, is not a statue to gaze upon and admire. It is something which each of us has to adapt for ourselves. Years ago, back in NY, I challenged our youth group, as an exercise, to rewrite it in their own words, to say what it meant to each of them personally. It's amazing the reaction I got from these otherwise unruly teenagers. Some kids were honestly scared to, as if I had asked them to do something illegal or immoral. We had one kid who did a really good job, though. He actually became a priest.
But there's no reason that we all shouldn't be constantly reviewing our personal prayer life using the Lord's Prayer as it was intended, as a means and not an end. As a way of building relationship and setting priorities. Just think about how it's structured. The first part of it is all about God - hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done - and when it eventually gets to me it's not about me. It doesn't say give me my daily bread. It says give us. Us. Forgive us, lead us, deliver us. The blessings we receive are meant to be shared with others and sharing is an important lesson for any child to learn.
Children trust their parents to always do what is in the children’s best interest. “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?”
In other words, Jesus is saying, the question of the disciples was all wrong. Prayer is not about magic words or techniques. Prayer is an activity that flows out of a relationship. We do not need to learn how to pray better, but we become better - better women and men of prayer when our relationship with God becomes more like that of father and child. In that sense, nobody can teach us to pray any more than we can be taught to be children.
Let's just be kids then and come to God with a spirit of trust and expectancy, knowing that He always wants to do for us whatever is in our best interest.
In the Name...