I guess there is no escaping it. If we are to be true to this morning’s lectionary readings, we are going to be spending some time thinking about prayer. Now you might think that this is a strange beginning for a sermon. Or not. Maybe you are really comfortable and happy with your prayer life. And if you are, that is a wonderful, blessed and grace-filled thing. For many of us, though, prayer is something that, at least at some times in our spiritual lives, is one of those things we wonder about, question, and even wrestle with.
Like the disciples, I think we all have a sense that prayer is important. And, like them, I think many of us feel like it’s something we are not really sure about. We wonder if we are doing it well enough, doing it right. We wonder if God is pleased with our prayer. Maybe we have some baggage from the past, things that crop up as niggling little doubts, as feelings of shame or guilt in our prayer life. This might come up especially when things are not going well, if we have been praying “for” something and feel as if our prayers are not “being answered,” or if we are going through one of those times that we all experience when God simply feels far away and we wonder who moved.
As Episcopalians, we have a wonderful source of prayer in the prayer book. There are, in the Book of Common Prayer, prayers for just about every occasion one could imagine. Blessings of this and petitions for that. If you ever need a prayer for anything, just look and you will likely find one. This is both the good news and the bad news. While it provides us with untold riches in prayer, it can, I think, also act as a kind of crutch in getting us into a mode of thinking that prayer is all about asking and words and expectation, when really it is so much more than that.
M. pointed out last week that Luke’s Gospels over these weeks of ordinary time are themed around what it means to be truly living a life of faith, loving your neighbor even when it requires going out of your comfort zone to do so, being willing to stop “doing” to “be” with Jesus in silence and prayer and study, even when doing is the more comfortable and socially rewarded role. And today we hear how prayer fits into that picture of living the Christian life--remembering who and whose we are requires that we be grounded in relationship to God, which is really what we are talking about in describing prayer.
But sometimes this is hard for us, and we need not feel badly about it. Apparently it was not too clear for the disciples, either. They had seen Jesus pray. They knew that this was something that was important for Him, that it sustained Him, fed Him. And, it seems, they also “got” that it was something they did not entirely understand. But unlike so many other things that they were kind of dense about, in this case, they came right out and asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Now I don’t know what they were expecting. I wonder what we would be expecting if we came to a “prayer class.” Maybe some nice neat and tidy rules, a set of guidelines? A formula…if this, then that? Because that would be kind of comforting. Especially if it could guarantee some kind of results. You know, like If we just ask God in the right way for things, we could be sure we would get the answer we want. This certainly is one “theology of prayer” out there in the culture, one that we might have heard of, and at some level might even subscribe to. It is the theology that informs some contemporary spiritual programs that lead us to believe if we think about things in the right way, and even approach God in the right frame of mind, we will surely get what we seek, especially if what we are seeking is a certain kind of material abundance and security. But among other serious shortcomings of this theology, it is far too one-dimensional and linear to reflect the complexities of our spiritual lives and relationship with God, and it sells both short. It portrays God as a kind of holy vending machine. We put in the right combination of words and intentions and out comes the desired commodity. And yet who of us has not been there in our prayer life? Often in times of desperation or need, we find ourselves feeling almost as Abraham must have in the Genesis reading, bargaining with God for just one more chance, one more try, one more better offer.
And so to the disciples. They too had questions about prayer. As devout Jews, the disciples of Jesus surely knew how to pray, and prayed often, but when they watched Jesus at prayer, and perhaps saw the deep connections between his prayer life and everything else he did and said, they longed to go deeper. And perhaps they had a sense that somehow prayer for Jesus was different for Him than anything they were experiencing. “Lord,” they asked, “Teach us to pray.” And so He does. And as is usual for Jesus, he gives them (and us) a lot more than was asked for, a lot more than was expected. Not surprisingly, He begins his teaching on prayer by praying. And He says, “Father or Abba,” using a word that would suggest that He is addressing someone close, familiar, beloved. When first-century Jews generally gave reverence to God's name, they used the word YAHWEH. That name was then and still is thought so special and holy that it was and is rarely said by Jews. So we can guess that this got their attention and maybe even raised a few eybrows among the disciples.
Jesus then goes on to ask that this beloved Abba’s name be hallowed, that is, that this Abba God “be in truth, who you really are.” Jesus is asking that Abba God reveal himself to be the God he is, the God of love that Jesus knew Him to be. Again, the unexpected, as in so much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, those surprising combinations that forced people to stop and rethink what they thought they knew and were sure of.
Jesus asks then that God’s kingdom come, which for Jesus is what exists when pretense and falsehood, injustice and all of the other conventions that were (and still are) so important, fall away. Perhaps He is taking yet another opportunity to tell them, in His own unique way, that this business of praying is not quite so simple, not just a formula or a ritual, but something much more. And that perhaps they might expect the unexpected, that the very act of prayer might change things, or change them, in ways they had not even considered. They might consider, as we say, being “careful what they pray for.”
Jesus goes on in the next phrase of the prayer to ask His beloved Abba for bread for the day. While we might romanticize this, or make it metaphorical, it might be as simple as a true reflection of the reality of the life of the incarnate flesh and blood person of Jesus of Nazareth as he lived day to day with, as he reminded the disciples a few chapters earlier in Luke, “no place to lay His head (Luke 9:58).
And again, as Luke has Jesus say the familiar phrase, “and forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” Jesus draws them to a place they likely did not expect in their quest to simply be taught to pray. He reminds them that forgiveness is essentially pure grace, and, as theologian Gerhard Ebert puts it, there can be no question of its cause lying in some achievement that earns it. One who really forgives from the heart is liberated from the vicious cycle of action and reaction in which we often find ourselves; it is not simply as if our forgiving were merely something that is demanded of us as a result of our receiving forgiveness. One who rejoices in receiving forgiveness almost has to let others have a part in it.
And finally, Luke has Jesus conclude His prayer with the phrase “and do not bring us to the time of trial.” This was, we are told, a common ending to prayers of that day, and reminds us not only of the generality fragility of daily life in that time, but of the trial that faced Jesus only a few days hence.
Immediately after concluding His spoken prayer, Jesus goes on to the illustration story. I can’t help but think that He knows these guys pretty well by this time, and gets that they need things spelled out rather clearly. “Ask.” He tells them. “Search. Knock and the door will open. If your child asks for a fish, who would give him a snake, or a scorpion instead of an egg?” Hey, this is all sounding pretty good, almost like that vending machine theology I mentioned earlier. But then Jesus, once again surprises them, and us. “How much more,” He says, “will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” What? Who said anything about the Holy Spirit here? We are asking for bread and fish and eggs, forgiveness and being spared from our trials! In our limited minds we ask for what we can imagine to be what we want, and yet God knows that this is what, beyond anything, we truly need, the indwelling Spirit of Christ Jesus in our hearts. It is not God who changes, not circumstances that alter, but we who are transformed. This is truly the Good News of this Gospel. If the answer to our prayer, no matter what the question, what the need, what the request, what the pain, is always the indwelling, present, loving spirit of God, from which nothing can separate us, then it is true that we can indeed BOLDY say, “Our Father…”