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A Prayer-Shaped People

July 29, 2013

“A Prayer-Shaped People” Luke 11:1-13 © 7.28.13 Ordinary 17C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Take a moment and think of passages from the Bible that you have turned to again and again to keep you focused on Jesus or to help you through a tough spot. Whatever else the list might include, I suspect right up there at or near the top is the Lord’s Prayer. It’s one of those basic texts that has sustained believers through the ages, whether gathered in worship or scattered in their daily tasks. The Christians of the ancient church found it so fundamental that they said it three times a day. Young and old recite it, so it bridges the generation gap, giving us all something in common. It’s so powerful that I suspect that in all the numerous battles the church goes through these days, if various parties to conflict would stop their fussing and fighting and say the Lord’s Prayer together often, they might be a little friendlier with each other. And whether we say “debts” or “trespasses” or “sins,” call it “the Lord’s Prayer” or “the Our Father,” use a traditional or contemporary version, add “thine is the kingdom…” at the end or leave it out, Christians everywhere know and cherish the prayer.

Of course, the most common form in English is the King James translation from the Gospel of Matthew. There Jesus teaches it as part of the Sermon on the Mount, giving disciples a model for prayer that was simple and brief, packing meaning into its few words. Quite a different approach from that of hypocritical religious leaders in Jesus’ own Jewish tradition, who piled up phrases thinking that would give them more of a chance of being heard. And then there were the pagan Roman priests whose incantations and formulas went on endlessly, rather like some praise and worship and gospel songs I’ve heard through the years.

But if Matthew has some important things to teach us about prayer, so does Luke. If it’s a short prayer you want, his is even briefer than Matthew’s. And notice that the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them to pray. Prayer is not something we’re born knowing how to do. Instead, it has to be taught just as much as speech or mathematics or social skills. And the “prayer of the heart” is important, but contrary to what we may hear in certain circles, it may be necessary to use a model of prayer from time to time. The written petition prepared for worship by the “high church” priest or elder is no less holy and acceptable to God than the ad hoc, spontaneous offering of their counterparts in the “free church” tradition.

Whatever the disagreements between high and low church, though, all agree that prayer needs to arise from our experience of God. That’s where Jesus drew his inspiration from. Underneath this model prayer is the struggle with temptation in the wilderness, the deep affection of a child for a parent, the mission of the One who set his face toward Jerusalem and his destiny and would not look back. It expresses the commitments and the hope of Jesus, what mattered to him, which we his followers are called and privileged to share. As someone has said, if we want to know what being Christian is all about, the place to begin is with this prayer, said together in worship. And unless the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer has become for us mere rote and ritual, then we are empowered and shaped by it each time we repeat it.

That’s a great deal to expect of one brief prayer. Think of all the forces that potentially mold and shape us every day. The media, including news of various slants, reality TV, and Facebook and Twitter. Our family backgrounds and traditions, right down to our DNA and ingrained ways of behaving that we feel sometimes honor-bound to follow. The viewpoints of our friends, with whom we are reluctant to disagree. The explicit and implicit expectations of our workplace, our culture, our congregation. I’m not saying that any of these are always in conflict with the way of acting and the loyalties set forth in the Lord’s Prayer. But what if they are? Which will we allow to shape our hearts and minds?

If indeed, though, the prayer Jesus taught us molds us, who are we and what do we become when we pray it? First of all, we are people who have come to know God in a personal, intimate way. Matthew has “our Father in heaven,” and that serves to distance and depersonalize the Creator a bit. Maybe Matthew preferred such an address as more appropriate for public worship. But Luke reports that Jesus addressed God as a parent in an unqualified way. And that was new. “Abba” was a Hebrew child’s first term for his or her father, something like “Daddy.” It’s warm and inviting, endlessly delightful to hear. It’s the term Jesus used for God most often, and gave his followers the right to say as well. At such a gift, we can only stand amazed.

Yet Luke would join Matthew in reminding us that God is not robbed of transcendence by such language. He doesn’t become our buddy. There is still a space around God that is not readily approachable, a place which we need an invitation to enter. As poet Annie Dillard said, we can’t just waltz into God’s presence as if we have a right to be there. To change the metaphor, we have to knock and be invited in. That’s what it means, in part, to pray “hallowed be your name.” God remains sovereign, holy, in charge, something Other than we are, though he has come among us in Jesus Christ. God makes claims on us. He calls all to join in praise and obedience. He summons us and all humankind to live in such a way that God will be honored. And he bids us work toward the time when every knee will bend and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

As the church, we long for that day. It’s the time when God will reign unquestioned and unopposed by the forces that seek to thwart his purposes. It will be the end of sickness and death, despair and hurt, violence and suspicion and greed. We express our hope and our commitment with these words: “your kingdom come.” For Jesus, the coming of the reign of God meant people had to decide. They needed to repent. They were summoned to believe good news. Not at some future time beyond the scope of the human imagination, but now. Today. This moment. Lives could be changed. Had to be changed. The coming of the kingdom was an invitation, a chance, a demand, for everyone to turn around, start over, learn what was important. When we pray this prayer, we commit ourselves to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But to ask for the kingdom to come is also to yearn for the re-ordering of things on Earth. It’s to pray that God’s demand for justice in society be heard and heeded by governments and corporations. His call for compassion and concern for the sick, the needy, the lonely be answered. His dream of peace and reconciliation for humankind be fulfilled. It is to proclaim, with Mary the mother of Jesus: “God has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” As the scholar Marcus Borg notes: “The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The kingdom is God’s passion for the earth: a world of economic justice and peace, where the nations beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, every family has its own vine and fig tree (that is, its own land), and no one is made to live in fear” (Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored, Kindle Locations 2732-2734, HarperCollins Kindle Edition). Every Sunday morning, we are literally praying for the world to be turned upside down!

As we say the Lord’s Prayer together, then, we are a community that draws near to God, whom we truly know in Jesus. We are a people who honor the sovereignty of God and long for his will to be done in our lives. But we are also those who know their true poverty in God’s presence. I mean we depend on God for everything, and we ask him to grant it. “Give us each day our daily bread,” we say. Our daily bread is that which we need for survival and subsistence. And for some Christians who pray this prayer, having even the basics is indeed an everyday issue and crisis. But daily bread, if we are more fortunate, is also all that makes life abundant and worthwhile. Like art and music. Friends and family. The appreciation and expression of beauty and creativity. We claim that whatever sustains life and makes it lovely comes from God. We admit we can’t get along without his help even for a moment; we cannot secure, conjure or command our own existence. Only God can keep us alive in body and soul.

But we do not selfishly ask only for ourselves. We long for others to have bread as well. To acknowledge our dependence on God for what we need is to lay aside any arrogance, any distinction between “us” and “them” and cast our lot with all humankind. We pray as priests for the world, hurting for those who are denied even the most meager of rations. We long for them to be able to survive and to move beyond survival to joyous living. Of course, such petitioning becomes a mere pious fiction, nice words, if we do not commit ourselves to give our resources to make our prayer a reality.

But our calling is not only to share what we have. It is also to reconcile and make peace. That is an especially urgent task in a day when people, even and especially teens and young adults, increasingly turn to violence as a way to deal with problems great and small. It is particularly important when we realize that justice is the fruit of peace. The Lord’s Prayer shapes and summons a community of harmony that works for the end of hatred, suspicion, and discord among our neighbors down the street and around the world. “Forgive us…as we forgive,” we pray. Because we have known the mercy of God, we ourselves can be gracious to others. In our families. With our friends. In the workplace and school and church. Everywhere we go, whatever we do, whomever we encounter, we can show the love of God, because he has declared our sin to be no more. If we are intolerant, hardhearted, unforgiving, vengeful, and mean, I dare say we have not known God’s forgiveness and need conversion to Jesus. We have padlocked our hearts to God and others. Praying this prayer, voicing this petition, calls us into transformed relationships in which we live at peace with each other and allow love to conquer even the most serious of hurts. That’s not something we can do alone. Only the Spirit of God can enable such radical action and attitude.

Finally, not only are we a people who honor God and work and wait for his kingdom, a community that depends on our Creator for every need, living a life of peace. We are a people involved in a struggle with evil. Because we take dark forces seriously, we know we cannot stand alone in the face of their power. So we pray “do not bring us to the time of trial.” We are aware of our limitations. Once again we are driven back to our dependence on God alone.

It’s an awesome task to be a community of faith that prays the Lord’s Prayer with sincerity, that lives out its vision in the midst of everyday life. Our calling is so comprehensive, our mission so broad, we may feel overwhelmed. But we need not give up. God helps us. That is what Jesus promised, and he can be trusted. When we devote ourselves to prayer, God gives the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is the power and presence of God that enables us to witness, to persevere, to live and work in faith. So let us ask, let us seek, let us knock and keep on doing so, week after week, day by day, for “everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, it will be opened.” That is the word of the One who not only taught us to pray, but by his own death reconciled us to God, whose Spirit cries out within us “Abba! Father.”

Thanks be to God.

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