In the name of one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You’ve heard it said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Our gospel reading proves the truth of that. The disciples see Jesus praying, and when he’s finished, one of them says to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He must feel as if his prayer life is inadequate. Maybe he wonders if he’s praying often enough or long enough or using the right words And I believe the same is true of us today, at least that’s my experience. People are very reluctant to pray out loud, especially in front of me because I’m the “professional.” Truth be told, I often feel like my prayer life is inadequate, and maybe you do, too.
If so, we’re in luck because we’ve come to the right person and the right gospel since “Jesus prays more often in [Luke], and he has more to say on the topic of prayer than in the other three Gospels combined” (Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, Mark Allan Powell, p. 92). So, Lord, teach us to pray.
First, Jesus gives us a set of words to use, and the most important word in that entire prayer—I believe—is the first one: Father. The word father—or mother, for that matter—has so much meaning packed inside it. There’s the relational aspect. In order to be a parent, you have to have a child. And the parent and child share a bond of love and trust. There’s also a power differential; children can’t provide for themselves; they’re dependent on their parents. And what about the biological aspect? Parents don’t just give their children life; they also pass on their genes to their children. So there’s the concept of image and likeness; children grow up to look like their parents.
What does all this tell us about prayer? When we pray, we’re to pray as the little children we are and say, “Dad, I say your name with respect because in giving me the gift of life, you’ve also given me your name. Your name is holy; that makes my name holy, too.
Mom, I’m small and weak and hungry. Give me the food I need every day, so I can grow up to be strong like you.
Dad, I’m young, and there’s so much I have to learn. When I don’t know or forget or lose my way, find me and bring me home. Forgive me so that our relationship can be mended, and then let me try again. Teach me how to forgive the people who hurt me because that’s the only way your kingdom is going to come.
Mom, the world can be a scary place because your kingdom hasn’t come yet, so protect me. Keep me safe in your arms and don’t let me be put to the test. Amen.
So . . . , those are the words Jesus teaches us, and we’re going to pray them in just a little bit. Next, Jesus teaches us about whom we’re praying to, again using the parent/child metaphor. You see, a friend might be reluctant to lend you what you need because of a late hour and a locked door and the children asleep in bed with him, so you’ll have to keep knocking until he gives in and gives you what you need. But our heavenly Father has no impediments to giving. God isn’t bound by time like we are; twelve noon is the same as 12 midnight as far as God is concerned. God never sleeps, God’s door is never locked, and God never says, “Go away. Don’t bother me.” God is always happy to see us.
And if we who are weighed down by sin are able to give our children good gifts—I mean, who among us would give our child a snake when she asks for a fish?—just imagine how much more God in heaven, who’s perfect, will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask?
So go ahead, ask, search, knock. You won’t be disappointed. God will give us what we need because God’s nature is to be generous. God loves to give. In fact, in two weeks we’ll hear Jesus tell us, “Don’t be afraid, little flock. It’s your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Think about that! Giving makes God happy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Not only that, Jesus is done with his teaching. At least for today.
I’m not though. I’ve got a few things to add, and, if I may be so bold, I’ll use Luke as my model.
Gina was preaching in a certain place, and when she was just about finished, one of the parishioners said to her, “Gina, teach us to pray.” She said to them, “When you pray, don’t say any words. Instead, use your imagination. Imagine being face-to-face with God, just the two of you. God is looking at you, so picture warm, loving eyes and a tender smile. Imagine being in the presence of someone who loves you and accepts you just the way you are—warts and all. Imagine how safe it feels to be with God, so safe that you can shed all your fears and defenses the way you would shed your clothes in the presence of your lover. Imagine standing naked before God and not feeling any shame or embarrassment because God truly sees you, and all that God sees is beautiful. Now bask in the warmth that radiates from God and imagine God saying your name in love. My beloved ______. My beautiful _____. My precious _____. Finally, rest in the peace and safety of God’s arms and stay there as long as you like. Amen.
What is prayer? It’s spending time in God’s presence. Prayer is how we let ourselves be loved by God, and how we let God love us back. Prayer is—can be—intimacy with God, if we let it. And, like any intimate relationship, it needs to be tended so it can grow and thrive. Prayer is our daily bread, the sustenance that nourishes our relationship with God, whether we pray Jesus’ words, our own words, or no words at all.
Why do we pray? Because our deepest longing is for God, and God’s deepest longing is for us, and prayer is how that longing gets satisfied.
In the name of one God: the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love which binds them—and all of us— together. Amen.
*I’m indebted to John Shea whose essays on this gospel passage inspired my sermon: “Praying Someone Else’s Prayer” from The Relentless Widow, pp. 207-214 and “The Secret of the Towel” from Gospel Light, pp. 156-161