St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
What comes to mind when you think of prayer? Do you pray the rosary? Do you recite The Lord’s Prayer? Do you simply whisper “God, help me!”? Prayer is often thought of as speaking words to God, asking for what we need, and, usually, in lofty, poetic language. But that definition of prayer is, I think, too narrow. I think of prayer as anything that nurtures our relationship with God. If taking a walk in a forest nurtures your relationship with God, that is prayer. If reading scripture deepens your connection with the holy, that is prayer. If sharing a meal with a friend brings you closer to the sacred, that is prayer. Caring for others, listening to music, watching a sunset – all these can be prayer.
The disciples of Jesus were devout Jews, so they knew how to pray, and likely prayed often. But when they watched Jesus at prayer, and saw the consistency between his prayer life and all that he was doing and saying, they saw something deeper and more powerful than they had ever experienced in their own lives. They have been following Jesus for some time now, learning the lessons of the parables, watching the way he interacts with a wide range of people, and they are trying to be disciples – to follow their teacher and mold their lives to his model. Now they begin to see the deep and intimate relationship that Jesus has with God through prayer, and they long for that relationship themselves.
They ask Jesus to teach them to pray, as John the Baptizer taught his disciples. The distinctive prayers of a group in those days would have identified them as disciples of their leader. So, Jesus gives them a simple prayer that becomes characteristic of the Christian community; that is, it expresses the identity and longings of the church in all places and times, from its earliest days in the ancient Mediterranean world to this very Sunday, right here. This prayer, known as The Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of Our Savior, has been spoken by every follower of Jesus since the first twelve.
All of us seek a better world that will come with God’s kingdom. We all need bread to eat, forgiveness from the wrongs we have done, and we all want to be saved from the trials we cannot bear. And we all yearn for that intimate relationship with God that is like that between a parent and child. It is a simple prayer, a bit less varnished here that the version we have memorized, which reaches into the core of our being and touches our deep needs, both those of our individual selves and those of our community. This is, after all, a communal prayer for our needs, all of us children of the one parent God.
We start by hallowing God’s name. Hallowed means “to be made sacred.” In the ancient world, a name expressed the nature of a person or place. The name of God is considered sacred by the Jews, so sacred that it is never pronounced. In ancient Hebrew manuscripts God’s name never contains the vowels. When it is read aloud, it is replaced with Adonai meaning “Lord” or Hashem meaning “the name.” In English translations it is indicated by the word Lord rendered in small capital letters. But when Jesus said that we should pray that the name of God be made sacred, we are really asking that the nature of God be made sacred or complete. God is the creator of the universe, and is holiness itself. God, may the holiness of all creation be made complete.
There is one focus for all the parables of Jesus – the kingdom of God. What is it like? The land of a rich man produced abundantly… A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… A sower went out to sow… There was a man who had two sons… The reign of God is about forgiveness, liberation, justice, grace, starting over, good news for the poor, bread for the hungry, release for the captives. God, “Your kingdom come” and make all things new.
And speaking of bread for the hungry: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Not all the bread we can eat. Not everything that we desire. “Daily bread” means enough food to sustain life for today. In ancient times this was a challenge for most, and it remains so today for billions of people around the world, in our own nation, and even here in Union. Give us, every one of us children of the one parent God, the food we need to make it through today.
Forgive us, God. As we read through the ancient texts and our history books, we can’t seem to stop messing everything up. Sometimes we mess things up so badly that there is no going back to what once was, only the facing of a new and changed reality. And yet, as often as we are forgiven, as much as we take for granted the endless mercy and forgiveness of God, in the same breath we challenge ourselves to give the same grace to others. God, help us to forgive. Help us to let go of our own anger, hurt, fear, and resentment at the wrongs that have been done to us, and help us to embrace the freedom that comes from offering forgiveness.
“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Honestly, God, we’re not ready. We didn’t study. We’re unprepared. We’re not ready to answer for what we have done. We’re not ready to face half of what the early Christians faced at the hands of the Romans. And we’re definitely not ready to take our own walk up Calvary. We know the trials will come, God, just… please, not yet.
And that’s it. Simple and to the point. But there is something more to this prayer that catches the imagination of the disciples. It starts with the very first word. Jesus addresses God as “father.” In Aramaic the word is abba, more closely translated as “daddy” or “papa”. This is not a distant, disinterested God who does not care for the little people, but rather the close and comfortable parent, who knows our needs before they are spoken and gives the good gifts that meet our deepest needs.
This intimate connection and dialogue with God was quite unusual in those days. Prayer and supplication to the gods was done in the high places, before the altar, in the Temple. To simply converse with God, to speak directly to God wherever and whenever you pleased, would have been striking. The disciples learned from Jesus that prayer is a conversation between us and a loving parent, a parent who listens to us, cares for us, forgives us, provides for us, and protects us. The disciples learned that no matter who you are, or where you are, right now God is listening, and perhaps, if we are patient, is speaking too.
There is an old John Denver song that touches on the two-way conversation that prayer is meant to be. “Talk to God and listen to the casual reply.” It is not explicit in the biblical text, but I’m pretty sure Jesus listened to God as much as he spoke. How often do we listen when we pray? How long do we wait for an answer? We are more likely to simply say, “God, thank you for all the good things. Please help me with the bad things. OK, thanks for listening.” And then we go on to try working things out depending only on our own devices. We hardly stop to breathe when we pray, it seems.
Maybe it’s about trust. Do we really trust that there will be an answer? Or maybe, we already know the answer, and we don’t really want to hear it. After all, it is God we’re praying to. God knows what is on our hearts and minds, and all the ways in which we try to avoid doing what we know we should do.
Jesus gets at this issue of waiting for an answer by telling the story of the friend at midnight. Persistence is the method that will get the friend up out of bed to open the door. There will be an answer to your prayer, Jesus is saying, but you may need to keep asking and listening until you get that answer. Prayer is a faith practice, and practice means repetition, diligence, perseverance, and patience. And, of course, the answer may not be what you were expecting.
Ask, and it will be given you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you
As Luke tells it, God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. Now, this may not be the answer we were looking for. Neither was Jesus the messiah that people were expecting. But the Holy Spirit may be the answer we need. Remember, this is the prayer of the community – OUR Father, give US. This prayer is not a personal prayer but the prayer of a people waiting for the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and stir up new life in them. This prayer is our community calling out to God together, preparing ourselves to be transformed by the answer. So, when we pray The Lord’s Prayer, we should be prepared that what we have asked for will be given to us. There will be an answer. Is it just me, or is it a little warm in here? Amen.
 John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High.”