Sunday, July 24, 2016
This morning, Jesus invites us to think about prayer. Prayer is something all of us as Christians can do regularly, wherever we are, but we’re not always great at doing it or at least praying aloud – this is something we’ve been working on as a congregation here at Bethel. So on a scale of 1-10, how is your prayer life these days? It’s comforting to know that Jesus’ closest followers, his disciples, aren’t sure how to pray – so they ask, and Jesus answers. Maybe you have similar questions when you think about prayer: Why do we pray? How? Does it matter?
One way to think about prayer is to think of Nike’s slogan: just do it. Jesus gives the disciples a few ideas about how to pray, starting with giving us those words that most of us learn at a very young age: the Lord’s prayer. Many of you know that Pastor Rich and I have been teaching about different ways to pray since we came to Bethel, and trying to encourage all of us to be more comfortable praying at home or here at church. We have an open prayer group meeting monthly to pray for specific concerns, as well as a prayer chain calling tree so that we can be praying for each other. Jesus reminds us today that the Lord’s prayer are words he gives us right there in scripture that we can use when we struggle to find words ourselves. I love the Lord’s prayer because anyone can pray it, from a small child to a parishioner who’s struggling with dementia. Those of you who are visiting our shut-ins can probably testify with me that it is really amazing what praying the Lord’s prayer together can mean for our faithful members who are no longer able to be with us in worship regularly. I have visited people that I cannot have a coherent conversation with due to dementia, and yet when I start saying the Lord’s prayer aloud they’re right there with me.
If you’ve ever traveled to another country or worshipped in another language, you can say the Lord’s prayer in English right along with those who are speaking Spanish, or Slovak in my case! And I can say the Slovak Lord’s prayer from memory still even though I’m pretty rusty on the rest of my language skills, because it’s so powerfully ingrained in my memory after saying it pretty much at least daily for a year. Most of you know that I had the opportunity to serve as a missionary for a year in Slovakia. When I returned, I became friends with a young woman at seminary whose grandparents were from Slovakia. She wanted to learn the Lord’s Prayer in Slovak so that she could pray the prayer with her grandparents at Thanksgiving. I taught her it, we practiced it together, and her grandparents were deeply touched to be able to pray with their granddaughter in their native language. What was really powerful is that my friend’s grandma died shortly after that Thanksgiving gathering, and she was able to pray “Otce Nas, Ktory si v nebesiach….”with her grandma one last time. For all the times we say the Lord’s prayer by rote without even thinking, we shouldn’t discount its power – they are Jesus’ words to us, for us to use, whenever we need, whenever we’re at a loss for any of our own words to speak to God in prayer. We’re working on the how, but what about the why?
I was reading a news article this past week in the Omaha World Herald that interviewed some parishioners in Baton Rouge following the shooting of more police officers there. She said she was disturbed that as their congregation was praying to God specifically for peace last Sunday, another shooting was happening not far at all from their church. Certainly in these days of unrest in our country and world, we might wonder if prayer matters. What is God up to when the daily news seems anything but an answer to our prayers for peace? As our prayer list gets longer with people suffering from cancer and other deadly illnesses, we might wonder if God hears our prayers. And when we find ourselves getting down about things in our personal lives or from what’s happening around the world, even though we know as Christians that we ought to pray (because that may be the only thing we CAN do), we might feel like it doesn’t make any difference whether we pray or not.
So after Jesus teaches the Lord’s prayer to his disciples, he talks about WHY we should pray. Prayer is conversation with God. Jesus calls God his Father, and tells us repeatedly that we are a part of God’s family – God’s children, that God is our Father, our heavenly parent, too. Angry teenagers perhaps don’t talk to their parents much. Adult children who are estranged from their parents may not have regular conversation with them. Healthy families take time for conversation regularly. Jesus invites us into conversation with God through prayer, whether it’s the Lord’s prayer, other written prayers, or our own words. God cares! Jesus also invites us to listen to God – sometimes we forget that listening part. I think that sometimes when we do not have words to speak to God, that may be God prompting us to shut up and listen, taking time for silence, to pay attention to what God might want to be saying to us.
New Testament scholar Dr. Meda Stamper writes, “The point of prayer is not to change God’s mind but to shape ours, to make us fit for the kingdom, ready to live the only life possible in God’s household: one of love.” Whoa! Usually when we pray, we’re coming to God with OUR requests, right?! How many times when we pray, do we realize we’re actually asking God to CHANGE us! Prayer does make a difference, but it might not be in the way we expect. I don’t have all the answers of why bad things still happen to good people, why people are still killed and go hungry in massive numbers when billions of Christians around the world are praying for peace, praying “give us today our daily bread.” That is a sermon in and of itself and I’d be happy to have more conversation with you about how I see God at work in all of that. I will say that prayer is not a wish list for Santa Claus, but a conversation with our heavenly parent – who does not always give us what we want. Jesus reminds us today though that God the Father knows what we NEED and wants to continue to help us grow in spiritual maturity, to shape our lives and how we live them to be about God’s purposes instead of fixated on just our own. God knows that God’s will is not the only will at work in the world, and God’s will is NOT always done. God is working in our hearts and minds through prayer to transform us so that we might touch others and change the world, working with God for the good. Without God’s guidance through prayer, nothing about us would change. Prayer opens us to being who God wants us to be instead of focusing only on what we want. And prayer can help us see how we might play an active role in partnering with God to change circumstances or situations when we can, rather than sitting and waiting for God as passive victims of circumstance.
Let’s take this opportunity today to examine how God might be bringing about change in us through prayer: encouraging us to go deeper in praying in a new way, or being intentional about praying more regularly, even if it’s simply being sure to pray the Lord’s prayer every day and focusing on what those words actually mean. May God’s will, not our will, be done on Earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.