by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 11:1-10
According to last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus praised Mary, sister of Martha, for simply wanting to BE in his presence. Maybe prayer for Christians is, at its most basic, time spent intentionally in the presence of Jesus. It was fitting that last Sunday we didn’t analyze prayer; we simply prayed. We prayed in a variety of ways. We simply were in prayer.
Today, however, we read that Jesus’s disciples begged him to teach them to pray— because apparently John the Baptist taught his disciples a special prayer. Since Jesus consistently withdrew from his disciples when he prayed (See Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:29), maybe they suspected there were special words, gestures, and postures that empowered his prayers and accounted for his spiritual depth.
So Jesus accommodated their curiosity. He prayed aloud. Right then and there he modeled a verbal prayer. It was short and simple—shorter and simpler in Luke’s Gospel than the more familiar version of “The Lord’s Prayer” as it appears in Matthew’s. This prayer is being prayed aloud this morning in churches throughout the world. This prayer may have given cohesion to Jesus’s first followers. It was something to pass along to successive disciples. This beloved word prayer, maybe composed by Jesus off the cuff with no intention for us to memorize it and reverence IT, became a quasi-creed for the original disciples in ways Jesus might not have intended. But the simple and succinct wording surely reveals the spirituality of the author of our faith.
Hear again the prayer’s five clauses:
1. Father, hallowed be your name.
2. Your kingdom come.
3. Give us each day our daily bread.
4. Forgive us our sins.
5. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Much has been said about what Jesus asked for in clauses 3, 4, and 5. He asked, as should we, for daily bread (that is, our most basic physical necessities), for God’s forgiveness (our most basic spiritual necessity), and that we not have to face times of trial (which might represent both physical and spiritual causes of suffering).
Jesus then followed his prayer with a parable (which, for brevity’s sake, I omitted from today’s reading). Finally, he encouraged his followers to ask of God, and he promised they’d receive what they asked for. Those who preach a Prosperity Gospel use verses like these to claim you can ask God for riches and you’ll be given riches.
But foundational for making our petitions before God are the first two clauses of Jesus’s teaching prayer. These two sentences run counter to the Prosperity Gospel and are the focus of today’s sermon: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”
Jesus instructed his disciples to begin their prayers by acknowledging God as “Father” whose name should be hallowed, honored. The relationship Jesus experienced before God—and which his followers also could expect—was that of a beloved child before a loving parent. Rather than cowering before an angry God, we’re to trust in God’s lovingkindness. Otherwise, how could we move forward in an attitude of hope? How else can we position ourselves in relation to the world we contemplate in prayer—if we are not grounded in love, if we do not trust that love is foundational for any real engagement in this world? Prayer begins as we, like beloved children, consider our needs and the needs of others who also are dearly loved. We begin prayer not in fear but with faith that Love will answer and Love will be the answer.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus also begins this prayer by addressing God as Father but immediately signals what the rest of Luke’s version of the prayer bears out: Jesus is speaking in first person plural. He’s addressing “OUR” father who provides “our bread,” forgives “our sins,” and wants to spare “us” from trials and sufferings. In other words, Jesus speaks for his disciples. This is not a private prayer. Jesus did pray privately. He had, in fact, just returned to the disciples after praying alone. But this ancient prayer is offered by one person on behalf of many and today is often repeated by many in one united voice. It’s not “my father” I address through “The Lord’s Prayer.” I’m not asking God forgive MY sins and let ME escape trials. It’s “our father,” “our sins,” “our trials.” We’re in this together when we offer this prayer. My wellbeing is bound up with yours.
Some of you have noted that progressive Christians may find it difficult to pray communal prayers. Pastors or other worship leaders who voice a prayer in a worship service on behalf of all those gathered usually do so in the conventional way by, for example, addressing God as a being. In the case of The Lord’s Prayer, the pray-er addresses God as a father. I’ve just explained the value in imaging God as “our Father.” But let me now acknowledge that the father image for God is limiting. Some Christians explain that memories of their own abusive fathers make it painful to image God with this common metaphor. Others simply object to an overreliance on masculine imagery for God which, over time, accumulates into a devaluation of women. (As Mary Daly put it, “If God is male, then male is God.”) Still others object to addressing God at all—believing that God is not simply a being or personality to converse with but a force or energy or ultimate reality to participate in or to experience or be affected by. Prayer, they argue, is more about opening oneself to transcendence and transformation and union.
I can appreciate the discomfort some experience with communal prayers that presume to express what everyone is feeling or thinking, that assume that words can capture our deepest feelings and thoughts. Progressive Christianity struggles now both to retain the beauty and stability of traditional prayers and spiritual practices and also to expand the experience of the Divine through new prayers and practices–including spiritual exercises we might adapt from other religions in our pluralistic culture. These are exciting times for Christians who can treasure our traditions and not overly literalize the liturgy—even as we experiment with new ways to articulate and mark sacred experiences. Praying together in a religiously diverse community challenges us to be accepting of varied traditions—while still authentic in our own practices. Even private prayer may be hard for progressives who are continually on a spiritual journey in which prayer practices and language are in flux. Some want a very fixed ritual of prayer. Others believe a dose of spiritual disequilibrium can be generative. Variety in one’s prayer life might be lively, making less susceptible to fall into rote practices. What an important challenge to be intentional about what prayer means and how to practice prayer.
Let’s turn now to the second clause in Jesus’s model prayer. It’s no less a challenge for those who want to pray as he taught. The Lord’s Prayer is premised on desiring, above all, God’s kingdom. After addressing God as parent, we pray specifically for the coming of God’s kingdom, that God’s ways will hold sway. Jesus had taught the multitudes (five chapters earlier) what God’s kingdom will look like when it finally and fully becomes a reality on this earth: the poor will be in charge, the hungry will be fed, and those who currently weep will laugh (Luke 6: 20). You and I are not in a proper position to pray until we genuinely long for God’s upside down kingdom where (to use Matthew’s language) the meek inherit the earth and the peacemakers are the heirs of God (Matt. 5: 5, 9).
Maybe it’s only when we really embrace the kind of world God wants to usher in that we’ll know how to pray. Perhaps only then will we be participating with God in reordering this world, in re-prioritizing its values, in asking for the right things for the right reasons with compassion and loving kindness.
The Lord’s Prayer shows us what is in line with God’s will. In such a world everyone would have sufficient food and basic needs met; imperfect people would be deemed worthy of forgiveness and offered opportunities to redeem their errors; and no one would have to suffer. This prayer implies that God’s compassion is at work in the world to counter any forces that are trying to deny basic human needs, deny possibilities for redemption and starting afresh; deny our right for compassion and gentleness. When we can genuinely pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, we contribute to the conditions that will allow the kingdom of God to come ever closer to a reality.
Notice that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them TO pray. Not HOW to pray. You and I don’t have to understand the “how to’s” of prayer. We just need to start praying. “Just do it,” Saint Nike said.
Prayer isn’t a complicated process of intricate steps. We begin with hearts of compassion. We proceed by imagining a world grounded in God’s love. We are then able to articulate OUR needs (not MY needs only). Given a community that prays together with such openness to God’s ways, such commitment to others, it’s no wonder Jesus could conclude his instructions on prayer by saying that, under these circumstances, “Ask and you’ll receive. Seek and you’ll find. Knock and the door to the kingdom of God will be opened.”
Jesus was not known for his public prayers. Elsewhere he advised us to go into our closets to pray privately (Matt. 6:6). He said don’t draw attention to yourself. To be honest, some of the most offensive prayers I’ve heard were public prayers that started football games or political functions.
Several public prayers were spoken at the Republican National Convention last week. No doubt many more will be spoken this week at the Democratic National Convention. Maybe you heard critiques of an especially awful prayer given at the RNC by Rev. Mark Burns. He gave a “benediction” (which means a blessing, literally a “good word”) in which he named Hillary Clinton, his sister in Christ, as “the enemy.” The Christian Century called that prayer “a benediction that wasn’t.”
In contrast, Rev. Steven Bailey prayed words on the final day at the convention that, to me, seemed rooted in God’s now and coming Kingdom:
“Eternal God, we invite your spirit to come into this room and guide our actions tonight. . . . We are not here to ask you to bless what we have designed. We are here to ask you to transform us: To make us better. Make us courageous. Make us tireless in seeking a more just nation for all who live in this land. . . . We know that we will only be a great nation when we are a good nation – when every citizen is fully vested in the promises of citizenship and fully shares in the opportunities of this great land. . . . Eternal God, hope of all who call out to you . . . may we each be one pivot point where the world swings from what it is to what it can be. We may call you by different names, we may pray in different languages, we may come from a multitude of perspectives – but tonight we share this moment in history – as we live together on this fragile planet. Give us grace, give us courage, give us compassion, and give us hope. Amen.”
I add my “Amen” to this prayer.