Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: What to Pray, or How to Pray?

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2016, Pentecost 10C
Luke 11:1-13

 What to Pray, or How to Pray?

It is one of the most familiar things we do in the church. Whether as the body gathered in worship or each of as individuals in our own quiet time, Christians pray.
It is also, quite possibly, one of the most – if not the most – misused and abused practices of the Christian faith. It can be used before a Friday night football game as a kind of sanctified middle finger at anybody in the crowd who does not claim Christianity. It can be appropriated by political parties as a insinuation that God endorses our candidate and hates the other one (I promise I wrote that line before the RNC last week). It can be used, as Jesus shows in a parable about a Pharisee in Luke 18, as a means of proclaiming one’s righteousness to the derision of other, presumably less righteous folk around the one praying. Prayer can be abused quite prolifically, and it sometimes seems the more public the prayer, the more abuse of prayer is involved.
That is a danger, but there are others. Maybe for the church itself the danger is something different; the danger is, perhaps, that we pray without remembering how, or why.
It’s possible something like that was in play as the disciples approached Jesus in today’s account from the gospel of Luke, in which they ask Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples” (v. 1). Now we can’t be exactly sure of what this means, whether there was a manner or a style or even a fixed text that John’s disciples had inherited from the one called “the Baptizer.” Whatever it was, Jesus’s disciples wanted Jesus to give them that same thing, but it’s not necessarily a given that what they asked for was what they got.
You’ll no doubt have noticed that the text recorded by Luke is not quite the same as the version we’ll be saying later in the service as we typically do, when the pastor doesn’t forget. Luke’s version doesn’t include a few of the familiar phrases that are in that popular version, which is patterned after the text recorded in Matthew 6. Luke records the address of the prayer as simply “Father,” instead of “Our Father in heaven” as in Matthew; “your kingdom come” is not followed in Luke with “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”; and the end doesn’t include the plea about not leading us into temptation. But perhaps the most jolting difference is in what happens when, after we have prayed for our daily bread, we turn to the petition for forgiveness.
We say, “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Other denominations borrow from different text translations and say “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” – that seems particularly popular among Methodists. This of course leads to some amusing situations when “debts” and “trespasses” groups are together in the same service, and the running seminary-type joke about Presbyterians being obsessed with money while Methodists are fixated on property.
The really interesting part, though, is in the little words. Matthew records Jesus telling the disciples to say “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Luke’s version is a bit different; “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Whoa. The prayer Jesus gives the disciples assumes that we are forgiving those who do us wrong. We state this, if we pray the prayer this way. I don’t know about you, but thinking about the prayer this way would give me pause before launching into the prayer. Umm…am I really living up to that?
Even with all this just within the model prayer that Jesus gives, Luke records more, and we miss out on what Jesus wants his disciples to understand about prayer if our reading ends before we get to this part. It’s possible, though, that across the centuries our minds haven’t always been attuned to this instruction very well for one important reason; what Jesus has to say here is not about us, we who (with the disciples) are seeking some kind of nailed-down instructions for getting exactly what we want when we pray. Jesus isn’t giving us a formula for Praying the Perfect Prayer; Jesus wants us to understand the God to whom we pray, the God Jesus calls “Father”.
Jesus gives us this instruction in a mini-parable and a handful of seemingly silly hypothetical examples. The mini-parable is one that has confused readers more than once. A man unexpectedly receives a guest at midnight (remember, we’re in an age before 24-hour quickie-marts or Wal-Marts), and goes to his neighbor to plead for bread. The neighbor is already tucked into bed, the house all locked up (in a modern retelling we’d say the alarm system was already set), and it would frankly be a big hassle to get up and fish out a loaf of bread. However, the petitioner is persistent, and Jesus notes that even if the neighbor’s friendship or “neighborship” isn’t enough to get the man out bed, he’ll eventually get up and give him bread just to get him to go away.
When readers stop here we get a strange picture of God, as some cranky old sleepyhead who has to be pestered into answering our prayers. Needless to say that’s not Luke’s point, which we understand when we finish the whole teaching episode. So, let’s finish the teaching episode.
We get one of Jesus’s more eloquent sayings in Luke’s gospel; “Ask … search (or “seek” if your memorized scripture mental file is all in the King James Version) … knock” is one of those eloquent passages that stays with us pretty effectively. But again, we can get crosswise if we stop here.
Verses 11 and 12 can be a little troubling for us. In the age in which we live, it is sadly easy to imagine parents who would give their children a snake when they ask for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. We know that fathers (or mothers) aren’t always kind or giving to their children. We know too well that fathers (or mothers) can be abusive, destructive, or even deadly to their children. We really need to listen to the cries of those for whom the word “Father” does not bring forth an image of a loving and caring parent, but instead summons nightmares and trauma. We do not need to be so attached to our particular words and phrases that we cannot hear the pain of those for whom the words are not words of comfort and reassurance.
But finally, we get to the key point that Jesus is trying to get us to hear. It’s worth hearing again:
If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

While we might not be keen on being called “evil,” hear what Jesus is saying: we (Jesus’s listeners) know what it means to give our children good things. We know how to do the right thing for our children. If you have ever been a parent, you probably learned along the way that being a good parent is quite a different thing than giving your children everything they ask for. I’m just gonna guess that you never gave your six-year-old a chain saw as a toy. I am sure she was a clever child, but probably she’s not quite ready for that kind of thing at this point, and (I’m just guessing) you knew that. We give our children what they need, not necessarily what they want.
If we have enough basic sense and enough basic goodness to do this (or most of us, anyway) for our children, how much more will God do likewise? How much more will God give us what we need when we ask? God knows us well enough not to drop ten million dollars in our laps just because we ask. God knows us well enough to know what kind of jerk we’d become if we suddenly had that dropped in our laps – possibly much more destructive than the six-year-old with a chainsaw. 
I am pretty sure that the Rolling Stones were not seeking to express a theology of prayer in their song, but it’s actually not a bad summation; “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find … you get what you need.
This is a hard truth. We don’t always get what we want when we pray. If we always got what we want, Lynette Ramer would be here with us this morning if she weren’t off on vacation, instead of at her home under hospice care. But if we continue to pray for Lynette, we just might find that she gets the peace and the rest she needs.
We don’t always get what we want when we pray. We pray for peace, not just in Baton Rouge or Orlando or Nice, but also in Munich or Baghdad or Kabul, and yet the assaults and the attacks and violence keep happening. But if we continue to pray for peace, we just might find that we become the bringers and makers of the peace that we need.
How much more will God give us the Holy Spirit when we ask?
How to pray: we give God the glory, we ask for what we need, we forgive, we pray persistently, we trust God to give us what we need – we trust God to give us the Holy Spirit. Maybe that’s not as easy to memorize, but maybe that is what we need to hear.
For a lesson on how to pray, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#728            Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door
#465            What a Friend We Have in Jesus
#464            Our Father, Which Art in Heaven
#39              Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Credit: Of course, in our church we say "debts"... ;-) 

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