Audio is not available this week due to outdoor worship on Sunday.
I had a friend in seminary who attended the Episcopal Church. And part of being in the Episcopal Church involves using the Book of Common Prayer, which is this compendium of prayers and services that serve as the basis of every prayer in the Episcopal Church. He joked about how in their church, no one had to check the page number for a prayer, because they just had to let the book fall open and the well-worn spine would open it right to the page it needed to be.
We might not have a Book of Common Prayer in the Lutheran church, but we do have a set of prayers we use regularly. In fact, we’ve got a lot of prayers that we use outside of church that I’m sure we could all say from memory—whether the bedtime prayer of “now I lay me down to sleep,” or the mealtime “come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” or maybe we even know Luther’s table blessing “bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts.” Memorized prayers are a big part of our collective prayer life as Christians.
So what happens when we don’t have a memorized prayer to turn to? Pastor Jeff and I know the “look” that tends to happen at gatherings where someone needs to pray and there just happens to be this pastor here. The first time I went to a family get-together after starting seminary everyone turned to me to bless the food before we ate. Offering prayer to God that just happens to be in front of other people is very intimidating to so many of us. And on some level, it seems a little odd that prayer—that most basic thing we all do as Christians—would be so intimidating to share with others.
I think it’s because prayer is a lot more than just a conversation with God. When we pray, we’re not just saying some memorized words or necessarily having a casual conversation with the Almighty. I think, instead, we recognize on some level that what we pray is saying something deeply true and deeply important about who we believe God is, and what we believe God thinks of us.
So no wonder we are quick to borrow other people’s words when we pray. And whose words are better to borrow when praying to God than Jesus’ own?
This is such a beautifully intimate scene between Jesus and his disciples. I mean, Luke includes that little detail about how the disciple waited until Jesus had finished praying. And then the request is just so completely earnest that I feel like any one of us could put ourselves in that disciple’s place and it would be exactly as true and real of a report. “Jesus, rabbi, teach us how to pray.” He’s not just asking Jesus to tell him some words to pray. He’s asking Jesus to help them name who God is, because he knows Jesus knows the Father better than anyone. If they could pray like Jesus, they could come to know God better.
Who, then, is the god that Jesus tells them about through prayer? First, God is a parent—the best parent. God is the parent who looks after us, God’s children, by providing us with the things we need, forgiving our sins, and strengthening us in times of temptation. God makes God’s name holy by acting in the world to make the kingdom known in and through us. Jesus uses a metaphor of a neighbor giving bread to another neighbor who had an unexpected houseguest, or a child receiving an egg from their parent. Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.
But you may have noticed, it doesn’t always seem like God answers prayer the way that Jesus seems to be saying God answers prayer. What we ask isn’t always given. What we seek is sometimes lost. Sometimes all the knocking we can muster won’t open that door. And we could contort ourselves into knots trying to explain the metaphysics of prayer and why seemingly unanswered prayer is actually answered in a way we didn’t expect—but I think there’s a more important lesson to learn. Prayer isn’t just about who God is. Prayer is also about who we are.
When Abraham was talking (let’s face it, praying) with God by the oaks of Mamre, he knew God was planning on destroying Sodom. He also knew that Sodom was a city filled with irredeemably evil people—despite big houses and copious resources, they were content to let visitors sleep in the square rather than invite them into their home. Despite being enormously wealthy, they refused to lift a finger to help the poor in their midst. And yet, Abraham bargained God down to agree if there were ten righteous people in that city of thousands, God would spare the whole city for their sake.
What does that prayer say about Abraham? He looked at what amounted to a city filled with thousands of avowed terrorists and asked God to spare them all if there were ten good people among them. He was more concerned with preserving innocent life than eliminating the threat of evil. To even lift that prayer to God says something about who Abraham was, and how he was shaped by who he understood God to be. What do our prayers say about who we are? And how have the prayers we’ve said shaped who we are?
Think about the neighbor looking for bread for a guest in the middle of the night from Jesus’ parable. Despite being put out and caught off guard by the late-night guest, this character was willing to endure shame and embarrassment—an even bigger deal in Jesus day than it is in ours—if it meant his guest would have something to eat. He was outwardly focused, and his prayer to the other neighbor reflected that part of who he was.
Do our prayers pull us out of ourselves, to focus our energies on caring for our neighbor? Do our prayers reinforce dividing lines we imagine between us and other people, or do they break them down? Do our prayers put our trust in God to make the world better, or do they assume bad things happen by God’s will? And how do our prayers, the words we say and the things we focus on, shape how we enact our faith in the world?
Prayer is much more than a conversation. Our prayers are the truest words we can say about who God is to us, and who we are before God. The words we pray when we’re speaking with God are a confession of faith as true to each of us as the Creeds. And I think that’s why it’s really okay to pray with prayers other people have said, because in the great tradition of the Church there have been some people who have had really important things to say about God through their prayers. And it’s also important to pray our own truth, because God shapes us through prayer and the realities it names.
So when you pray, pray like Jesus taught you. Pray with complete trust in the goodness of God. Pray knowing that God is the good parent who gives you the Holy Spirit. Pray trusting that God is at work in and through you, filling you with the hope of the kingdom for the sake of the goodness of the world. Pray, and make room for the Spirit to be at work making you who God is calling you to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.