Sermon, 7/24/22: Is Prayer Overrated?

Posted on ; Filed under News

7 Pentecost

Psalm 85, Hosea 1:2–10, Colossians 2:6–19, Luke 11:1–13

Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples. Luke 11:1

When I began my career as a young assistant professor, I thought that I need mention only once an idea, a fact, an event to my students, and I could be assured that they would retain it.  Well, I learned very quickly what every good teacher knows: Teaching and learning require, among other things, repetition.  And a good teacher becomes a better, even an excellent teacher, when he or she is able to offer course material without making it appear that there is repetition.

What I quickly learned in academe is no less true, when it comes to expressing our faith.  Therefore, I share this morning a proposition, which I hold fundamentally.  The idea is twofold: a) at our core, we are spiritual beings and b) at the heart of that spirituality is a desire to communicate with that being who inspires our spirituality.

The first verse of today’s gospel (Lk 11.1) which reads, in part, “one of his (Jesus’) disciples said to Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’” reaffirms me in that belief.   However, as I read this text earlier in the week, it occurred to me that so much information is missing.  For clarification, recall that the John referenced here, is John the Baptist, son of Elisabeth, Mary’s kinswoman.  It is John who baptized Jesus.  I would dearly love to know so many things: just what were those prayers that John taught his disciples?  Those prayers did not make it into our Bible, but they must have been significant, held in high esteem and widely used and known, that a disciple of Jesus should have requested Jesus to teach him those or similar means of communicating with God. 

Why, if John’s prayers were so effective and significant, did his prayers not make it into our Book of Records?  After all, other sayings and prophecies of John, including a detailed description of John’s wardrobe and diet was recorded.   What prompted this disciple, who is not even named, to ask Jesus to teach him and, I assume, other disciples to pray?  Should I rule out envy or competition: if John, who himself saw himself as lower in rank and stature to Jesus, could communicate with God, why could not this disciple’s master not do the same?  I will suppose that this disciple of Jesus was moved by that same fundamental urge which controls us all, but also, like so many of us, doubted on how best to formulate his petitions to God.

Jesus obliges him with what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  And like a good teacher, Jesus offers, succinctly and simply, a prayer.  He gives, then, an example of effective and sincere petitioning.  A neighbor calls on a neighbor to assist in a moment of need.  Moreover, prayers, i.e. petitions, and responses should be situation appropriate.

It is not uncommon, when people engage with clergy in conversation about prayer, that we clergy hear, “I know, I should pray, I should pray more.”  Others ask, whether they should they be specific, or whether they should even bother to pray, inasmuch as God knows their thoughts, before they ask?  When we were children, we learned simple prayers: “God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our food.”  Or “now I lay me down to sleep.”  Simple prayers for children, easily committed to memory.  However, I suggest that those children’s prayers were and are still great prayers, and meet the dignity of an adult.

As youngsters, we took prayer at face value, did not question.  Perhaps sporting a long, flowing white beard, God was not some distant deity, but rather a close presence.  As we became older, things changed and questions arose, and God became more distant: If there is a God, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?  Does God hear my prayer?  The smarter we became, the more difficult it was to pray.  Is not prayer overrated?  And while we continue to believe in prayer, we have questions, not only about its results, but about the simple mechanics of praying.  That is our concern, and that of the disciple in our lesson today. 

Prayer, that expression of wanting a secure line to the ground of our being, takes on many forms, and can be silent or verbal; corporate or individual.  But at its core, prayer has to do with a relationship to God.  For that reason, prayer can never be limited to spoken words and phrases.  Rather, prayer is living in God’s presence.  This is captured in the hymn (516) which we sing:      

Come down, O Love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace, till Love create a place wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

Adrian van Kamm (19 April 1920 – 17 November 2007) of Duquesne University once put it this way:
“We need the grace of quiet concentration and perseverance to develop this habit.  Gradually, awareness of his presence becomes an underlying theme of our life…” 

If prayer is an expression of a relationship with God, it is also a task for us.  And I suggest, the task is to learn humility, for in praying we acknowledge that we are not in control.  Learning to pray is like learning to practice a musical instrument.  It is not something that one does once and sets aside with the claim that an obligation has been fulfilled.

If prayer is an expression of a relationship with God, Jesus, as with this unnamed disciple, comes to our aid, as how best to secure that relationship.  Although the form found in Luke is slightly different from the wording we pray, which follows more closely that recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew (Matt. 6:9  – 13), it has become the base of our individual petitions. 

The universality of prayer and of our longing to connect with our basic core, was made even more evident to me now many decades ago.  As a young cleric, I participated overseas in ecumenical work project sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Archdiocese of Vienna Austria.  To that group in Vienna, came young folks from North America, England, Australia, also from an Africa nation, Switzerland, France, and Czechoslovakia, which at the time was under Soviet Russian rule. 

Every morning, at our first meal of the day, each of us in rotation was tasked with leading our worship in the tongue of our birth or the nation of origin.  To close our respective forms of liturgy, we all stood and recited in our native tongue The Lord’s Prayer.  Ours was not a Tower of Babel, but, in our small group of ca. 20, a reaffirmation of our connectedness to one another and to our sister and brother Christians around the world.

Years later, I was surprised when, at a religious function in the Boston area and standing next to one of my Jewish friends, I overheard him reciting the Lord’s Prayer.  Later and quietly, my friend reminded me, not that I had forgotten, that Jesus was Jewish and that what we Christians perceived as a for-Christians-only means of connecting to the God of creation, was none other than what Jews are taught from childhood on: love God and love neighbor as self.

The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is a familiar ritual that brings of solace, and makes us feel at home, no matter where we find ourselves.  Worship forms change.  New hymns are introduced.  We may move from one locale to another.  However, even with the alternation between “trespasses” and “debts,” The Lord’s Prayer remains constant.  It speaks to us through the ages.  We know in our praying that we in our day ask in prayer for the same things for which people of times past also asked.  We can identify through these few simple words with the whole scope of Christian history and Christian theology.

When it seems that we have no time to pray, or we believe we lack the proper vocabulary, with which to articulate our thoughts to God, The Lord’s Prayer brings us back to ground.  Today, I violate surely a canon of homiletics, for I shall share a personal use of “The Lord’s Prayer.”  Often, when I have perceived a personal insult and my first reaction is to respond in kind, instead of counting to twenty-five, I pray silently:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.  Amen.

And for this I say thanks to that unidentified disciple who said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  Amen