Teach Us to Pray – guest sermon by Nancy Williams-Berry

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’

 – Luke 11:1-4

I find it interesting that the disciples did not ask Jesus to teach them to pray till so late in the game.  Here we are in Luke, almost half way through his account of the life of Jesus, 6 chapters after Jesus has called his disciples and this is the first time the disciples want to know how to pray?

Maybe they weren’t accustomed to needing prayer.  Then again, this question may be something that needs to be asked periodically throughout life.  Perhaps we might need to ask Jesus for the same thing.  Teach us to pray.

So many times I feel inadequate in my own personal prayers.  I get into a rut or I don’t feel anything is happening in my prayers.  Maybe you feel the same at times.  You might even have this experience:  When someone asks you to pray out loud in front of people, it’s panic time.  When that happens you’re likely to resort to old favorite prayers memorized long ago.  Somehow, though, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” doesn’t seem to work in all situations.  Ministers are, of course, expected to always be ready to pray.  I discovered that for the first time when I attended my 25th high school reunion.

The people planning the reunion knew I had just begun Seminary and so they assumed I would love to pray the blessing at our meal.  Unfortunately, they waited until we were all seated, food in front of us ready to be eaten before they even asked.  As I recall now, I think I came up with something other than “God is great and God is good,” but I wasn’t at all pleased with what I did.  My comfort level with praying out loud, extemporaneously, has improved, thank goodness, over time and with lots of practice.

The Lord’s Prayer is one that we sometimes resort to when we don’t know what else to pray.  It is a beautiful prayer and of great importance in the life of the church, but oftentimes we say it by rote without much thought behind it.  This particular version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke today is a little briefer and more pointed than the one we know so well from Matthew 6.  It is also missing the ending doxology that was added by the early church, the part that says “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”

Realize, too, that the Lord’s Prayer in both versions is a “model” prayer.  That is, it is not the only prayer we can say, though it is a good one.  It has a structure which can guide us as we pray to God using our own words.  The disciples did not say, “Teach us a prayer that we can say over and over so we don’t have to think about what we are praying.”  They asked Jesus to teach them to pray.

The first thing Jesus does is to address God directly.  Jesus calls on “Father,” a reminder to his disciples that they are coming to one who loves and cares for them as a parent might for his or her child.  It is a term that is meant to indicate the closeness Jesus feels to God and his total dependence on God for everything.  How we address God says much about who we think God is and what we think God is like.  There are many titles and ways to address God in addition to Father, and those ways might work better for some people.

The traditional use of the word “father” and all male pronouns for God has helped establish the belief, still very prevalent in many churches today, that only males are made in God’s image – females cannot be; or that males have power and authority that women don’t and shouldn’t have; or that males should rule over females – that males are favored by God over females.  The church has often used this word and understanding of God in oppressive and authoritarian ways.

As our earliest beliefs about who God is are very much formed from the model of our parents, children with abusive fathers or silent, non-communicative fathers, or tyrant fathers often have an image of God as a violent, unpredictable, wrathful tyrant.  That most children who are in religious households equate God with their fathers is not surprising given the use of almost exclusively masculine pronouns for God and the fact that Jesus was male.

However, since Jesus shows us what God is like, then a rageful, authoritarian image of God cannot be correct.  We learn from Jesus that God is open and accepting of all persons.  Jesus shows us that God wants to be in relationship with both males and females and desires for both to be faithful and responsible disciples.  We learn from Jesus that both men and women can learn and can be leaders in spreading the news about God’s love.

On the other hand, “Hallowed be your name,” says Jesus.  God is holy.  God is mystery.  God is other than we are.  God transcends all our understandings of who God is.  Yes, we come to God as a loving parent, but as comfortable as we may be with God, there is always a part of God that is beyond our reach.  When we pray, it is important to remember that God is not just a buddy of ours.  In worship, especially, we are reminded that we stand in awe of God and in praise of God’s marvelous deeds and creating power.

Unfortunately, for many people it is difficult to even think about God’s holiness without connecting it to God’s dangerously righteous hatred of sin as well as the threat of God’s anger, which could blaze out at any time for the slightest mistakes.  Roberta Bondi, a professor of church history at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, tells a story from her past.

In that story, she remembers an experience of what she thought of then as God’s holiness.  Roberta was 11 years old when her family moved to a new town.  They began attending a new church and Roberta became part of the Sunday School class for those in her age group.  The church was short on Sunday School space so the class of pre-adolescent youth met in the sanctuary of the church.  Their chairs were set up in the front of the sanctuary on a platform right next to the communion table, and right next to the communion table were two slender pedestals on top of which were delicate vases holding flowers.

Roberta writes, “My disastrous encounter with holiness occurred on one clear Sunday morning when the daffodils were blooming, and the air had the good, cold smell of damp earth.  Inside the church, eight of us early adolescents, dressed in our Sunday best, sat in a ragged circle next to the communion table.  Mrs. Jones tried to focus our restless energy on the eternal things of God by having us take turns reading out loud the boringly babyish story of Noah’s ark.  Needless to say, she never told us the worse-than scandalous following story about Noah and his sons, which would have riveted our attention fast enough!

“At any rate, Mrs. Jones’ efforts were in vain.  The two or three patent-leather-footed girls rolled their eyes and snickered behind their hands, while the boys, with their slicked-back hair, white shirts, knitted ties and blue suits like their fathers, leaned on the back legs of their metal chairs, stuck their fingers in their collars, whispered loudly and elbowed one another.

“Bored half to death, the two boys on either side of me turned their attention to tormenting me.  Furtively, they moved their chairs as close to me as they could get, positioning their Sunday school bulletins so that they could poke me in the sides without Mrs. Jones seeing it.  Within a few minutes, I was giggling, jerking and jumping in my chair to escape their fingers.

“The end of all this was inevitable.  Rocking back to get away from their hands, I tipped over backwards.  The folding chair on which I was sitting went down off the platform we were sitting on and crashed behind me into the white pedestal that held the gold vase on our side of the communion table.  The pedestal fell away from me and the vase flew forward.  My feet still in the air, I turned my head and saw the vase lying beside me on the smoky blue carpet.  It was cracked neatly in half.

“Oh, I tell you,” writes Roberta, “I have not had many things happen in my life that filled me with as much raw fear.  I remember in sharp detail my terror at the thought of what God would do to me.  I knew that my behavior was not only unforgivable, but must certainly draw down the fiercest of punishments from God.  After all, I had violated what was holy.”  (Roberta Bondi, Memories of God)

As Roberta grew older, she left that extreme understanding of God’s holiness and wrath behind.  As a teenager, she thought instead that God’s holiness was more like oppressive human behavior.  Roberta had friends of a fundamentalist faith who believed that being holy meant making themselves pure and setting themselves apart and above others by not drinking, smoking, playing cards, swearing or engaging in any form of sex, such as dancing, because, as they said, “The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.”  God’s holiness meant that we special holy humans were above and better than others.

As an adult Roberta asks now, “Did they think that compassion, forgiveness, or generosity had anything to do with holiness?  Did they think that the refusal to judge the morals or Christianity of other people who disagreed with them had anything to do with holiness?”

I don’t know that I experienced the terror of God’s offended holiness as much as Roberta did, but for a long time, I certainly understood that holiness meant being holier than thou and doing all the “correct” things, thus lifting me and other pious folks above others who were not quite as “good.”

Yes, God is holy and that holiness is a difference that is beyond human ability, but, God’s holiness comes to us in many ways.  It may be in an awe-inspiring way like Moses experienced upon seeing the burning bush or the blinding light that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus.

It may be the breathtaking beauty of a sunset in the West or the awesomeness of a grand canyon.  It might be the still small voice after the thunder and lightening and roaring wind that the prophet Elijah experienced as he waited in the cave for God to approach him.  It may be the trembling silence of a candlelight service as people bow their heads together in silence.

God’s holiness is something to attain to, something to desire, something that we would want to be in the presence of.  Yes, that holiness can be frightening, not so much as the source of God’s wrath but more in the sense of its mystery and beauty.  The more we are near to God’s holiness, the more loving we become – not the more disdainful of others.

Well, you might have noticed that I’ve gone on for quite a while here, and I’ve only approached the first line of the Lord’s Prayer.  It is so packed with important things that many people have written books about it.  However, given the time constraints I want to conclude by tying some things together.

In the second part of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus prays for God’s kingdom to come.  When he does and when we pray for the kingdom to come, we are praying not just for ourselves but for all people.  We are praying for what God has promised:  a new, transformed world where there is no more hunger or pain or illness or crying; no more suffering and loss; no more hate and prejudice and violence and war; a world where all people will turn to God and praise and thank the one who loves us so very much.

These beginning words of the Lord’s Prayer set the context in which we bring our petitions to God.  Those petitions come next in the prayer Jesus taught.  Jesus knew that God listens to our deepest needs and wants us to share those needs.  We ask God for many things in our prayers:  our daily needs; our desire to be able to forgive; our deep aversion to being tempted.  We ask for many more things than this prayer would teach us to pray.

If we can begin our prayers, however, by remembering who God is and by truly seeking God’s kingdom, then the petitions we bring for ourselves and others will be more and more what God wants for us.  In the words of the first hymn this morning, “All things bright and beautiful, all things wise and wonderful:  the Lord God made them all.” Our goals and God’s goals for all creation will be one.  Lord, Teach Us to Pray.  Amen.

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