Sunday, July 29, 2007

Learning from the Lord's Prayer

Sermon for Proper 12, Year C
Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15 (16-10); Luke 11:1-13

Many years ago, Marion Hatchett, Professor of Liturgics at the School of Theology in Sewanee, TN, was invited to participate in an ecumenical symposium on prayer and worship. Before one of the meetings, a colleague from a less liturgically-oriented tradition stepped to the mike. Thinking he could pull a fast one on his colleague, he invited Marion to come forward for prayer. “Marion, you’re a good Episcopalian. Would you start us off this morning with one of those prayers out of a book?” So Marion walked up to the mike, said, “Let us pray,” and then began: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name ….”

The point of Marion Hatchett’s little stunt is clear: Even the most avid proponents of so-called “spontaneous” prayer have to acknowledge that the supreme Christian prayer of all time – the norm for what it means to pray as a Christian – is a prayer out of a book. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. And we find it in that book we call the Bible.

If we take the Lord’s Prayer as the norm, it can teach us a great deal about the nature of Christian prayer in general. This morning, I want to touch on just four things it tells us:

1. Christian prayer is primarily corporate;
2. Christian prayer is intimate;
3. Christian prayer is bold; and,
4. Christian prayer is specific.

First, Christian prayer is corporate.

It’s been said that “we are defined by our prayers.” How we pray together shapes group identity and gives each of us a sense of belonging to a community greater than ourselves.

That formation can make an indelible imprint. Indeed, it can be so powerful that even some persons with dementia can still recognize and respond to the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

So using the Lord’s Prayer, we are defined as belonging to Jesus. And that is a corporate identity. Notice that the disciples say to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray …” (Luke 11:1). It’s a group activity – a matter of common prayer. We see this also in the specific petitions Jesus gives to his disciples: “Give us each day our daily bread.” “Forgive us our sins.” “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”

As Christians shaped by the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, we follow this norm of corporate prayer in our worship. It’s not just about “me and Jesus.” It’s about “we and Jesus.” That’s why we use set forms for prayer. For by corporately repeating the same prayers week after week, we are shaped in ways that deepen and strengthen the bonds that unite us to God and to each other.

The common prayer of the Church is the womb that gives birth to our personal prayers. And it is the means by which our prayer lives are sustained when we don’t feel like praying, or when we don’t know what to say. What a comfort it is at such times to pray the words of one of those prayers out of a book, like a beloved Psalm, a favorite Collect from the Prayer Book, or the Lord’s Prayer.

Christian prayer is intimate.

While Christian prayer is first and foremost a group activity, it is also a means by which our hearts and souls are laid bare before the loving gaze of God.

We see this truth underscored when Jesus addresses God as “Father.” This language is problematic for many people today. It sounds gender-exclusionary. For some of us, it might conjure up painful memories and feelings about our own fathers.

It’s true that the language of God as “Father” has sometimes been misused. And it’s often been misunderstood. We do well to remember something I once saw written on a coffee mug: “God is not a boy’s name.”

And so I think it’s important to note that, in the way Jesus used it, there’s a deeper intention in this language. The Aramaic word Jesus used for Father – Abba – suggests a kind of intimate relationship with God that might have seemed shocking to his contemporaries. The point is not masculinity, but intimacy.

And so Jesus teaches his followers that the God we pray to is not an impersonal force or a distant, uncaring, or vengeful deity. On the contrary, God is like a loving parent. God is like Jesus taking the little children up in his arms, laying his hands on them, and blessing them (cf. Mark 10:13-16).

Jesus claims to have a unique, personal, and intimate relationship with God. And in the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches his disciples that we, also, have access to that same kind of intimacy with a loving God.

That makes Christian prayer bold.

It’s bold for mere mortals to claim such access to the Maker of heaven and earth. How dare we claim that, in this infinite universe, God cares about each and every one of us; that God looks upon every individual person with tender mercy and affection? But that’s precisely what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to do.

But it gets bolder. The petitions Jesus teaches us to use as models for how to pray, the verbs are all imperatives. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re daring to tell God what to do! We’re telling God: “Keep your name holy.” “Bring your kingdom and set all things right.” “Give us each day all that we need to live and thrive.” “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” “And protect us from all harm.”

There’s no groveling here. There’s no special pleading, or saying, “If you think this is a good idea, Lord,” or, “If you have the time to get around to it,” or, “If I’ve been a really, really good person and you’re pleased with me today.”

No, the Lord’s Prayer presumes to say to God, “This is what needs to happen.” And without so much saying the magic word “please,” we tell God: “Make it so!”

This is not the boldness of impertinence or blasphemy. This is boldness born of radical trust in God as the One who loves us so much that, of course, these are the things God wants to have happen! We are simply daring to petition for what is already in accord with God’s gracious will.

And so Christian prayer is specific.

Someone once told me that they never pray for outcomes, that that’s selfish. Instead, they only pray that God’s will be done.

I can see the point of that if by “specific outcomes” this person means things like praying for a good parking space at Kroger or asking God for a third Hummer.

But the Lord’s Prayer shows us that there are certain specific outcomes that God wills for us, and that it’s okay to claim those outcomes and petition God for them with boldness and persistence.

One of the best definitions of prayer I’ve ever heard is this one: “Prayer is keeping company with God.” Keeping company with God – as in spending time, developing friendship, and cultivating intimacy.

Regardless of where we are in our prayer lives, the Lord’s Prayer gives us a model for how to keep company with God. It reminds us that keeping company with God cannot be separated from keeping company with each other in worship and fellowship. It encourages us to claim our baptismal birthright of intimacy with God. It inspires us to be bold and even audacious in our petitions. And it reveals the specific outcomes that God wills for the well-being and transformation of the world.

So keep on praying that wonderful prayer out of a book we call the Lord’s Prayer. Pray it daily. Savor each word and phrase. Let it shape your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God. And know that it has the power to draw us deeper into relationship with the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, the One who requires more from us than we expect from ourselves, and the One who loves us more than we dare imagine.

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