Sunday, July 28, 2013

Say it Like You Mean it: Luke 11:1-13

This morning, I had the pleasure of preaching at Riverview Presbyterian Church right down the street from me. The current pastor there is a dear friend of mine and I was happy to fill in for her this morning.

We read Psalm 138, but the main text was Luke 11:1-13. I hope you enjoy this musing on the Lord's Prayer. Do you pray it like you mean it?

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How do you pray? Who taught you how to pray? What do you pray for? How often do you pray? For how long do you pray?
            We’re often told these are the important questions to answer when measuring the health of a prayer life.  We worry that if we can only pray with the right words or form or with the right amount of eloquence, God will hear us. Perhaps if we pray for the right things, He’ll hear us.  Maybe. . . if we pray long enough and often enough, He’ll hear us.
            I was standing in line at CVS last week waiting to pick up a prescription and I found myself looking at the spinny rack of books they have by the pharmacy counter. A good third or more of the books were about prayer. The secrets to more powerful prayer and books of “special” prayers and prayers for certain groups of people. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with books of prayers.  I myself pray from the Book of Common Prayer regularly. But I think it’s interesting that there are so many books out there teaching us how to pray. There is some sort of driving human need to figure out this thing called prayer.
One of my commentaries says, ““We are burdened by centuries of exhortation and technique concerning “right” prayer. As a result, one darkly suspects, only a small percentage of avowed Christians actually pray very often, or, if we do sometimes pray, we tend to judge our efforts deeply flawed. [1]” It’s easy to be intimidated by the idea of prayer and  even when we do pray, we can get sucked into thinking we’re not praying quite right or we could probably pray better if we just had the right technique.
            This isn’t to say there aren’t people who have figured out a rhythm of prayer that enriches their relationship with God. Some people keep prayer journals, others partner up with people over the phone or in prayer meetings. Know many who use the Presbyterian Book of Common Prayer. But for many people, it’s hard to get a grasp on when, where and how prayer should happen. Even though who have patterns of prayer in their life often question if they have it quite right. We want more direction on how to pray.
            The disciples had the same questions. “Jesus! Teach us to pray!” So Jesus offered to them what is perhaps the best known prayer any of us can think of. It’s prayed in nearly every church service in every language and many of us can say it by heart. Some of us may know it so well it’s easy to gloss over the words when we’re praying it and forget the impact of each line.
            I remember one time when I was very young, perhaps around 5, I asked my Sunday School teacher what a “sinow” was. She gave me a funny look and asked me what in the world I was talking about. I answered, “You know, Jesus loves me, the sinow.”
            Sometimes the words are so familiar, they lose their individuality and oomph. They kind of mush together. The Lord’s Prayer is not immune to that. I actually had a hard time reading this version of it because it’s a little different than the one we usually recite in church services.
            These words are powerful when you really think about them, though. It’s not that it’s some sort of incantation or that the words themselves that have magical power, but in all things we are to pattern our lives and the life of the church after Christ and prayer is no exception. There is something striking about the simplicity and confidence with which Jesus prayed

“Father, hallowed be your name.”

                First and foremost, Jesus addresses God the Father. He acknowledges who he is praying to and offers up the appropriate praise of God’s name. There is no ambiguity in this line. It is specific. Not, “God, if you’re out there and listening.” There’s no question about exactly which god he is praying to.
The idea of God as our parent is in strong contrast with the very second word of the prayer. The Aramaic word for father, “Abba,” is an intimate word. This is the word Jesus often uses when talking to God the Father and while Luke was written in Greek, Jesus probably spoke this in Aramaic originally. Abba or father communicates a loving familiarity, yet in this prayer, “Father” is immediately followed by the word “hallowed.” Hallowed seems so reverent, so distant, so awe-inspiring after a cozy word like “Father.” Even the more formal Greek word for father, “Pater,” seems a contrast to the word “ἁγιάζω” which is usually translated as “hallowed,” but can also mean “consecrated,” “set aside,” “made holy.”
There is a tension in this address. In our own prayers, we are to approach God boldly, intimately, and humbly. God is our loving parent and he is at the same time Holy.
We pray boldy and respectfully with our eyes on God alone.
Father, hallowed by your name. . .

“Your kingdom come.”

            Often when I think of the kingdom of God, the first thing I think of is heaven. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does. I immediately picture every painting I’ve ever seen of the pearly gates and the streets of gold – even the cheesy ones. Heaven and the renewal of all is certainly part of what Jesus wanted us to think of when he taught us to pray for the coming of the kingdom. We’re told in other places to wait expectantly for his return. Jesus talks a lot about this.
            Jesus isn’t just talking about the future kingdom of God when the earth is renewed and the faithful given new bodies. He’s implying that part of that Kingdom can be experienced in the here and now. The kingdom isn’t just the physical realm of God, it’s also his ruling and headship. This is a prayer for our own hearts to surrender to God and for the hearts of the world to bow to his kingship as well.
            “Your kingdom come” looks ahead to the renewal of all and it also looks to today, asking for God’s will to happen right now.
            “God, may you be ruler of all. . . your kingdom come.”
            We pray with hope and submission.
            “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. . .”

“Give us each day our daily bread,”

            This is a pretty bold request. There is no “please” or “if it’s ok with you, God.” It is a simple expectation that God will meet our basic physical needs.

In light of poverty around the world and even in our own neighborhood, that can make this a difficult line to deal with.  People have tried to spiritualize this line to take the edge off of that tension. They say that Jesus was talking only about “spiritual bread.”

            Certainly, Jesus did also mean that we should ask God for daily spiritual nourishment. At the end of the passage he tells the disciples that God will give the Holy Spirit, but the word that is used in the words of the prayer for bread in this passage is never used in that way. It is always referring to literal, physical bread when it’s used in other places.
            God’s will for us is that we are provided for in all ways, spiritually and physically. But not everything that happens in our physical world is God’s will. This is a broken world full of broken people.
And provision doesn’t always look like we expect it to.
            A few days ago, my 5 year old son requested a bowl of trail mix for breakfast. As I was contemplating if I was going to allow that or not, he added, “But can you pick out the raisins and nuts for me?” He was completely baffled when I told him that was out of the question and was upset that I made him eat something a little more nutritious than a bowl of M&M’s for breakfast.
            Sometimes, broken sinful world things happen that aren’t part of God’s will – that’s why it’s so important to lead up to this line about daily provision by admitting that we are in need of submission and allowing God to rule.
And sometimes our prayers seem to go unheard because we’re asking God for a bowl of M&M’s when we should really be eating yogurt.
When we pray that God will provide for us each day, both individually and collectively, we are praying in accordance with God’s will. We pray this prayer with confidence knowing that God loves his children and just as a loving human parent gives a child bread and eggs and yogurt rather than snakes and scorpions and M&M’s for breakfast, how much more so does our hallowed God delight in providing for his children.
            We pray with confidence and trust.
            “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 who is indebted to us.”

            We live in a culture that doesn’t like to talk about sin, let alone admit that we’re all prone to it. This is a very uncomfortable line to say. Not to just recite, but really say.

            “Forgive us our sins” assumes that there are sins. Not, “forgive us any sins that might have snuck in this week while I wasn’t paying attention.” This line admits that no matter how many times we pray in a given day, we’ll still have sins in need of forgiveness.
            This isn’t a conditional statement. It doesn’t mean that God only forgives us if we forgive other people. It is a comparison. Just as we are always in need of being forgiven, we’re always in need of being the forgiver. No grudges or keeping lists of who offended you how. Just keep forgiving. Just as we are constantly forgiven, we ask for the strength and love to constantly forgive.
            We pray with honesty about ourselves and with a forgiving heart.
            “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 who is indebted to us.”

“And lead us not into temptation.”

            We seek forgiveness for past sins and refuge from the things that lead to future sins. We acknowledge that just as we have certainly sinned yesterday, we will certainly sin tomorrow.
            This line does not mean that God ever “leads” us into temptation. The phrasing is a funny word order due to translation. It is a request that God lead us away from temptation. That he would help us to see it for what it is and would steer us away from it. Much like Pittsburgh in summer, the world we travel is full of potholes and detours that can throw us off course and in this part of the prayer, we acknowledge that we can’t avoid temptation without God’s help.
            We pray humbly.
“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 who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
Jesus doesn’t stop his teaching about prayer after telling the disciples the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He tells these two parables about asking for something and how a friend or a father would respond to the request. If they respond with kindness, how much more so will God?
The words are important – Jesus does give the prayer first – but he doesn’t just stop there because prayer is more than just the words you say. It’s about the heart behind the prayer. It’s about trust, sincerity and real communication with our loving, powerful God.
Not all of our prayers will be answered in ways we understand or even like. But prayer isn’t about having a laundry list of things you’d like God to do for you. It is a conversation and relationship with God. Prayer is a place to lay out our wonder, our fears, and our struggles to our dearest friend. . . our loving parent.
Intercessory prayer for others is valuable and important. We put the prayers of the people in the church service with very good reason, but when it comes to our daily prayer life, there is more to it than just making requests. If we are not approaching God daily with the passion and simplicity that we find in the Lord’s Prayer, we are missing out on richness in prayer that cannot be recovered any other way.
Prayer, including and especially the Lord’s Prayer, is both simpler and more powerful than we give it credit for.  Shortly, we’ll be praying the Lord’s Prayer together as a congregation. I challenge you to really think about the words as you pray them. Say it like you mean it. Some of it may even be hard to say when you really think about the implications of what it means. That’s ok. It’s not an easy prayer. Let us pray it with boldness, humility, and sincerity.

[1] John Hall, D. (2010). Theological Perspective on Luke 11:1–13. (D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor, Eds.)Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Volume 3 (pp. 286–288). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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