July 28, 2013: Teach Us to Pray

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Who taught you to pray? Since we are here, I assume we’re trying to follow Jesus. So you do pray, daily, right, and maybe more than once a day? Did you learn from a parent or a Sunday School teacher? Did you learn by practice? I think children are better at prayer than adults. Adult trust levels grow encrusted with experiences that make us suspicious over time. “Ask and we get?” We have, and we don’t. “Knock,” and no one opens. “Seek,” but we can’t find. Some give up, and you can understand why. Prayer’s non-results can disappoint us.

Just hanging out with Jesus or at the church doesn’t mean you’ll know how to pray. It’s rather easy, though. Something in us can’t help but pray. Even an avowed atheist I once knew muttered: “Oh, God!” when he dropped his cell phone from a dock into the lake. “Oh really,” I said, “Did I just hear a prayer?” Prayers don’t need to be long.

Jesus’ disciples ask his help with prayer. That’s how we get the “Lord’s Prayer.” It’s important to Christian faith. We say it often, so often we can easily forget what we say.

“Father” – do you get that? Our Creator, the Almighty God of the Universe, Jesus says, “Call him ‘daddy,’ Abba.” It’s okay. God is both sovereign lord and holy parent. And by calling God, Father, we get a new set of relatives. We are God’s beloved children, even when we act otherwise. That guy who cuts you off in traffic could be a brother. Your sister could be the snarky waitress. God’s family can look pretty messy. If we dare call God our Father or Parent, we’ll see others differently. We treat all persons as sisters and brothers. We love out of the love God has for us.

We “hallow” or honor God’s name. Encountering God’s love changes us. Change means we honor God by aligning our lives – our wills, our desires, our love – with God’s. If we get this right, people glimpse God’s kingdom in us, on earth as in heaven. So be careful when you hallow God’s name. Being a Christian is more than saying so. It’s also living a life that honors God.

But prayer doesn’t end when our words stop. Prayer brings us to new places, new understandings. Truth often comes better in a story than a lecture. So Jesus tells a story. A friend arrives at your door in the night, unexpectedly, after you’re in bed. He tells you he hasn’t eaten all day. Your cupboards are bare. In this land, you don’t tell someone, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” You figure out how you can. So you start pounding on your neighbor’s door. He mumbles, “Go away.” “But friend, here’s the problem.” You tell him. He says, again, “Go away.” But you keep knocking. Finally he gives you what you ask, not because he’s moved by compassion. He’s annoyed. He gives you food to get you to leave him alone. “Here! Take it. Go away before you wake the entire family.” We are to pray, to seek God this way: faithfully, relentlessly, stubbornly. Is God a stubborn neighbor?

Now watch what Jesus does. You may or may not be a parent, or stepparent. I imagine the majority of us have parents, since again, we are here, whether they always claimed us or not. Your mama, at least most days, would never dream of handing her little darling a scorpion or snake, let alone do it. God’s care and love for us are better than the best parent’s. God loves us enough not to give us what we want. We sometimes have a hard time knowing what we really need. That’s not what we want. God gives what we need. God gives the Spirit who helps us keep faith in the tough times, when we don’t get what we ask; when we seek, but don’t find; when we knock and get no answer. I marvel that some only validate God if they get what they ask and want, rather than trust Jesus to be right about God. What we deduce from our experiences can be wrong. Don’t give up. Jesus says God gives only good things. Just don’t be too quick to judge what you are or are not getting. What looks bad may turn out to be good; and good could turn out badly. Being in relationship with God means showing up, all the time, not just when we’re sad, scared, or at the end of our rope, and run out of options. Prayer is ongoing conversation, speaking and listening, and focused on God. That brings God into us. Prayer changes us.

Sam Wells, former Dean of Duke Chapel, returning home to be rector in England, met a woman who’d left the church after a rector refused to marry her and the man who loved her.[1] For 75 years she stayed away. She’s now in her mid- 90’s. She’s come back. Sam asked her why she left. Here’s what happened. Because of a mill accident she’d lost three fingers on her left hand at age 16. “The rector said that since I didn’t have a finger to put the wedding ring on, he couldn’t marry us.” So Sam, stunned and embarrassed, asked her, “So what in God’s name brings you back now?” She tells him, “God’s bigger than the church. I’ll be dead soon. The Lord’s Prayer says forgive if you want to be forgiven. So I’ve decided to do that.”

I hope this elderly one will learn that we forgive not to gain heaven when we die. We forgive because God’s already forgiven us – and wants us to live with others as God is with us. She may not be around long enough to get that. That’s okay. What matters is that she’s come home. God is bigger and better than what hurts, wounds, and disappoints us. If you don’t know that yet, ask, seek, knock. And for God’s sake, keep pounding and praying. Jesus said that – so we can know God, our audacious holy parent comes close and gets personal to heal and to love us all home

[1] Dr. Samuel Wells, What’s Really Killing the Church, Christian Century, July 21,2013.


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