Pentecost 9 July 25, 2010

Genesis 18:16-33                                                                               

Luke 11:1-13                                                                       

 “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Two of our time’s greatest spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have announced that they will be withdrawing from the public scene. They want, each of them says, more time and space to pray. As Archbishop Tutu says, he’s been spending too much time in airports and hotels – like us, busy with the busyness of our busy world. The Dalai Lama explained that he needs to prepare for his death. I feel that need myself, as I look towards retirement. And of all the regrets I have about our ministry together, the greatest is that we’ve spent so little time on prayer.

So how good that this morning we listen to Jesus, teaching us about prayer. What is prayer? At its broadest sense, it is simply living in conscious communion with God. This can be talking with God, as in the readings this morning, or simply being silent and still and open before God. The readings are short, but really they tell us all we need to know about this essential element of the spiritual life. So let us listen!

 First, they tell us that we have a God who listens to us, who responds, who wishes to be in communion with us. The Genesis reading, in which Abraham is bargaining with God about the destruction of Sodom, is perhaps the best story in the Bible about God listening and responding in prayer. There’s nothing subtle here, nor in the gospel stories about the person banging on the door at midnight or the child asking for a fish. God listens. God responds. It’s as simple as that. It may not happen right away. It may not happen in the form we originally wanted. Frequently as we pray the shape of our asking changes in response to the Holy Spirit moving within us. But prayer does have effect. That is the first thing.

The second thing is that for prayer to work it must be persistent. It’s a matter for the long haul, not for instant results. Think of it in terms of an intimate friendship (which it is). Friendship develops gradually over time. It takes patience and experience. It takes time. And deep friendship requires that each friend be increasingly open and vulnerable with the other. So if I come to God asking something, God will usually come back to me, asking me to dig a little deeper into what is behind my request. That will alter my asking, to something more genuine. And again God will come back to me, revealing a little more about himself, about the realities of the world he has to deal with and how I fit into the bigger picture. So again, I will modify my prayer, and God again will respond. It is a back and forth, an on-going relationship. Persistence and openness to listen and change, to deepen in our understanding, is required. That is the second thing to remember.

The heart of all prayer – what God is leading us into as we deepen in our relationship with him – is what we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. It is what Jesus teaches his disciples in the reading this morning. The Lord’s Prayer is not really a set prayer, the way we have come to say it in church and by ourselves at home. It is an outline or structure for all prayer that is true, that is shaped by the response of God. And it is very simple, this outline or structure.

To begin with, it is focused on God and not on us. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – not my kingdom or my will, not the kingdom of the United States or any other human invention. In true prayer the Holy Spirit leads us gently away from our orientation to God’s orientation, drawing us into the grand work of creation and salvation where we will find true joy in harmony with God. And this work is here “on earth”; we are not just praying for deliverance from this life to heaven.

Then come three petitions – things we ask for ourselves so that we can participate in the kingdom work of God. “Give us today our daily bread” is the first. The Greek word we translate as “daily” is unique; it occurs nowhere else, so we aren’t entirely clear what it means. The best guess is that it refers to what we need just for today or tomorrow. We are not to ask God to pile up riches and securitiy so we can live apart from him. It is like the manna the Hebrew’s ate in the wilderness after the Exodus; God sent the manna each day, enough for that day, and it spoiled if the Israelites tried to hoard it. So we are to ask only our “daily” bread. Only enough to feed us as we walk with God, not so much that we can be free of dependence on God.

Then we ask “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Isn’t this a remarkable prayer! It asks that we live in a state of constant, on-going forgiveness. What a contrast to the impulse we all have to blame others and justify ourselves, to judge others by how they serve or agree with our interests. No: we are to pray and live forgiveness, humility, letting go and letting God.

Then the third petition, “lead us not into temptation” or “save us from the time of trial” and “deliver us from evil.” When we get into trouble – moral trouble – is when we reach out for more than we can handle, when we do not trust in God and remember our own limitations as human beings. Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden: not trusting in the goodness of God to provide for them, but led by the sense of insecurity awakened in them by the Serpent so that they want to be “like God” themselves. All sin, the Desert Fathers and Mothers tell us, is at heart the exaggeration or excess of some virtue. Lust is love – but carried to excess.  And so we pray to be protected from overreaching, from temptation and trial, and when we do fall into sin and evil, to be delivered from them.

You begin to see the picture of the human being in harmony with God that emerges from this prayer. You see how the doxology or praise at the end of the Lord’s Prayer – “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory” – brings us back to the initial orientation on God, not us. This is the point of prayer, the answer that in one way or another God gives us when we pray. For here is our true joy, in centering our lives on him, finding our fulfillment in communion with him.

In this Holy Eucharist this prayer is acted out, ritualized, as we offer ourselves to God in bread and wine, are enfolded and sacrificed into God’s saving story, and receive back from God no less that God’s daily bread, God’s forgiveness, God’s deliverance from evil, in the Body and Blood of God’s Son, Jesus the Christ.

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