How to Pray: Sermon for January 11, 2015

Matthew 6:9-13

9 “Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Some of the first prayers I ever remember saying were during football games. My dad’s side of the family is all from Washington, DC, and they are all Washington football fans, and my dad in particular takes games very seriously. In fact, on most Sundays in football season my dad and I both watch the game, hundreds of miles away from each other, and we text one another through every touchdown, every fumble, every interception.

I knew football was something important in my family growing up. In fact I remember being about six years old and watching Washington play the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. We were watching them on TV, and I could see everyone was so intent and so anxious. And so, though I didn’t understand much about God or prayer or how to pray, I decided to take action. And through the game I kept praying that the pass on third and long would connect, or the field goal would make it through the uprights.

Washington won that Super Bowl, and the players did okay in that game, but I held myself partially responsible for praying the way to that Lombardi trophy. And I thought I was on to something good with this prayer stuff. But then the next year, my team went to the Super Bowl again. And this time they played the Raiders. And, despite my best attempts at prayer, they were absolutely crushed.

It was probably my first experience of religious disillusionment.

I don’t pray about football much these days, though I still sometimes catch myself saying, “Oh please, God, let him catch it,” and I feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to talk to God, but I still feel self-conscious and like I’m doing something wrong. I still want to know, “Am I praying the right way?”

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nMaybe you’ve asked that too. If you have, you’re not alone. Even back in Jesus’ day, people were wondering if they were praying the right way. And one day one of Jesus disciples said to him, “Teacher, teach us how to pray.”

Jesus responds by teaching them a prayer that we recite here every week, and that Christians around the world have recited daily since: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds a little different than the words we say now, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s as close as we have ever gotten to a perfect prayer. And that makes sense, because it came right from the source.

When you look at the prayer, just in those few lines, there is so much there that is so rich. Jesus calls God “Father”, which means he is inviting us to enter into a conversation which is personal, and loving. We ask that God’s reign would come. We ask for our daily bread, trusting for God to provide what we need. And ask forgiveness, and we ask for help forgiving others. And, finally, we ask God to keep us safe, and out of harm’s way.

Really, everything you need is in that prayer. If there is such a thing as a “right way to pray”, this is it.

Now at this point you might be thinking, “that’s all very good and well, but I have prayed before and I don’t think it works.” Maybe you prayed for something you really and truly needed, not just a football game, and you didn’t get what you need. Or maybe you prayed for someone you loved dearly who needed healing, and you ended up losing them anyway. Or maybe you have just cried out asking, “God, are you there”, but you haven’t had any response.

I wish I could give you an easy answer at this point, one that explained all that, but the fact is that I can’t, and it would be condescending for me to try. And at this point a lot of people would quote the words of CS Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

And, he’s right about one part of that. Prayer does change us. If you’ve ever gotten into a regular routine of praying, you know that. Your attention shifts. Your priorities change. You feel your life change in ways that make it better.

Two of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, and the Serenity Prayer, are two good examples of prayer that changes us. They teach us how to order our lives. They remind us of what matters and what we can do. And if we really mean what we pray, they change us.

And that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But if prayer were only a one-sided conversation with ourselves, it wouldn’t be all that much better than something written by a motivational speaker. We would feel good, but where is God in all that?

Prayer is not just about us. It’s about God, and it’s about a conversation that we are having with God. And time and again in Scripture, we are provided with examples of a God who does listen to us, and who does respond. That doesn’t always mean that we get what we want, and that doesn’t always mean that we are answered with a “yes”, but it does mean that, somehow, we get what we need.

But, on our side, that means that we have to be a part of that conversation too. And sometimes that means that we have to recognize that prayer is more than just words. It’s not just a wish made to God.

Sometimes the best kind of prayer can be our own action. Prayer is a form of action because it is inviting God’s involvement. But good prayer doesn’t stop with words. In fact. prayer cannot just stop with words if it is real. Prayer can take many forms. And actions can be prayers as well.
When you write out a donation to disaster relief, that is a prayer. When you go and help rebuild houses, that’s a prayer. When you give food to those who are hungry, that’s a prayer. When you work for justice and peace, that’s a prayer. And when you get up in the morning, and get out of bed, and commit yourself to loving the people around you as best as you possibly can, that’s a prayer too. A life of action, a life of living out your faith, is the best prayer you can say.

And it’s also the best way you can change the world, and be a witness to what God is doing in it. Because there’s another part of prayer, too, and it’s one I was reminded of in a big way this week, and that’s the way that prayer helps to shape our lives together, and helps to tell the story of who we are and what we believe.

I think that Jesus was trying to tell us something when he said we should start our prayers with “our Father” and not just “my Father”. I think he was reminding us that prayer is better when it finds its home in community. And sometimes it is most powerful there too; more powerful than we could ever imagine.

Many of you remember Jane and Michael Henderson, who were the co-pastors at this church in the 1990’s. And many of you remember their daughter, Abby. She grew up in this church, going to Sunday school, sitting in worship, listening to the prayers, and later joining in them herself.

Abby is now a minister herself. And this past week we were both at the same continuing education event out in Arizona, and we had the chance to share several meals together and to talk about this church, and how it had shaped her, and I was reminded in a profound way about what a community gathered together in prayer can teach. Your prayers helped to shape her.

But you don’t have to just look at someone who grew up in this church twenty years ago to see that it works. Because the examples are all around us. One of the parents of one of our five year olds told me a story about this this week, and she gave me permission to share it with you this morning.

On Sunday mornings, during the prayer of confession and after the time of silence that we keep, I always pray something along the lines of this: “Brothers and sisters, hear the good news, who is in a position to judge us? Only Christ, and Christ came to love us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven, Amen.”

I don’t think of those lines as particularly memorable, particularly not for a small child. But the other night at bath time, one of the moms in our congregation walked in to find her five year old looking at her brother and saying “sisters and brothers, hear the good news!” and then talking about the very everyday ways that Jesus loves us.

I was blown away. And I was reminded of how important prayer can be for our community. Because our prayers, the ones we say together every Sunday, are more powerful than we can imagine. Because sometimes prayer is about telling a story, and we tell the best stories when we tell them together. We teach the stories to whole new generations. And those generations will teach those stories to generations after them, and long after you and I are gone, the story we tell in prayer here in our life together will continue. The prayers will go on.

It’s a heavy responsibility. But it is also an unbelievable joy. Prayer is so much more than a set of words on a page. Prayer is a whole way of living in the world. And prayer is the lifeblood of a church, and of the world.

And so, pray. Pray to change yourself. Pray to change things. Pray with your hands and feet and heart. Pray to tell the story. And pray with one another, starting here, so that the story will be told from generation to generation, until God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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