Who, Not How

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 11: 1-13

Hands - 07-24-2126

Today I want to start with the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer. Did you catch that one in today’s reading? We talk a lot about the Lord’s Prayer, but there another prayer that comes right before it. It’s okay to look back, if you like—this is an open-book quiz. This prayer I’m talking about comes in Luke 11, the first verse, from the mouth of one of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

“Lord, teach us to pray.” That may not strike us at first as a prayer, but it’s actually a pretty good one, isn’t it? Have you ever prayed that? “I wish I could pray better.” Or, “I wish I could pray like____ (insert name here).” Or maybe a New Year’s Resolution: this year I’m going to pray more. I won’t ask for a show of hands for who’s done that one! I would guess that all of us at some point, maybe right now, have shared the desire of these disciples to be “better” at praying.

How amazing would it be to have a special prayer lesson from Jesus, of all people? This is a guy who clearly knows how to pray! So the disciples go up to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Teach us to pray.

I wonder if they thought Jesus would teach them a special trick. “All right, if you really want something, make sure you ask like this.” Surely Jesus would know the best technique. Or maybe they simply admired the depth and intensity of his spiritual life. He woke early in the mornings to go off and pray alone, and he prayed with large crowds of people; he would pray over meals with his disciples and pray intensely in a garden at night. Prayer for Jesus was everywhere, connecting him with God and enabling him to live in a clear, purposeful way. Teach us to pray like that, the disciples asked.

And he does. So today, we look at what Jesus teaches them about prayer.

Let me be clear that the goal of this sermon is not for me to teach you to pray. Jesus is the person for that job, not me, though I will look carefully at what he teaches. And I should also say upfront that there is a lot I don’t understand about prayer. Top of the list is that age-old question of why some prayers seem to get answered and others don’t. Why do some people who are sick get better and some not? Why are some of our most desperate prayers met with silence? There are paradoxes here that I don’t understand and don’t expect to ever figure out. I’m not going to try to answer those questions today. And I’m also not going to give you any special techniques for how to pray better. Here’s why: I don’t think Jesus cares about technique.

When it comes to prayer, method doesn’t really matter. What matters, what Jesus teaches us, is the relationship with God lying under that prayer. It’s a question of who, not how. Rather than a secret technique, Jesus teaches his disciples who God is and who they are in relation to God.

So let’s look at his answer, starting first with what he teaches about God.

From the opening words of the prayer, we are told to relate to God as our father, and then Jesus uses a couple of illustrations to make his point. “Which of you… if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” The absurdity of those questions is obvious. Parents don’t put their kids in harm’s way; you don’t let kids play with knives or jump off buildings or play with snakes and scorpions—at least I hope not! Good parents give children what they need to grow and thrive, not things that will hurt them. And that’s true even when the kids don’t like it.

There’s a funny blog online called “Reasons my kid is crying.” On that website, people upload pictures of their toddlers in full meltdown mode, with a caption explaining the various reasons why. I’ll read some of the captions, and I’ll let you imagine for yourself an image of the most miserable, dejected toddler you can imagine.

  • I wouldn’t let her drink the yummy blue juice that goes in the dishwasher.
  • Because he didn’t want to get in the bathtub. Then because he didn’t want to get out.
  • It took me more than 0 seconds to take his shirt off.
  • Someone else was walking on the sidewalk.
  • She wants to be in the corner of the room and in bed at the same time.
  • Asked for a waffle. Refused waffle. Asked why the waffle was taken away. Screams because she doesn’t have her waffle.
  • He wants the windows down in the car but not the wind in his face.
  • We asked him to stop hitting his big brother with a fly swatter.

They go on, but you get the idea. That’s part of parenting: little kids crying because they want something that’s not good for them, or not possible, or not even logically consistent. It’s funny to watch, because we see how they don’t quite understand how the world works yet.

Do you think God ever hears our prayers that way? Not that God is laughing at us, but that God sees our experiences and prayers with a broader understanding and perspective that we don’t have. And God is not mad about that, or disappointed, any more than a loving parent is mad at an infant for not understanding the intricacies of physics or economics. God as parent loves us despite our limitations.

We should acknowledge here that this metaphor has its downsides. Not everyone experiences parental love that is kind and generous, and no human parent is perfect. And it’s also worth saying that although we use the term Father, we are not saying that God is a man; we can see qualities of mothers and fathers when we encounter God.

But despite those caveats, the image of God as parent is a powerful one, and it reminds us of something important that we should remember when we pray: like any good parent, God already wants what is best for us. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying again: God already wants what is best for us.

Prayer is not about talking God into giving us what we want, or trying to prove that we are faithful enough to deserve good things. Prayer is not a kind of cosmic manipulation, where if we get the words just right, our wish comes true. So when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he doesn’t say, “Okay, guys, here’s the secret. Here’s what you have to say.” He reminds them to start by saying, Father. God already wants what is best for you; you don’t have to get the words just right to get your message through.

And Jesus probably could have stopped the prayer right there, with the profound dynamic of parental love encapsulated in that single word, “Father”. But he continues, and I think the petitions that follow teach us something about ourselves.

If God is father, who are we? Well, children, of course, but what does that mean? What does our half of the relationship look like?

When I was growing up, I remember a cartoon that was on the bulletin board at church—maybe you’ve seen it—which shows a panicked student sitting at his desk, looking terrified, with the caption, “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools.” They say that need is the great teacher of prayer. When we find ourselves in a tough spot, like an exam we didn’t study for, we naturally turn to prayer. Our needs bring us to our knees, and we turn to God for help.

When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches us to see that we are always in need. Take a look again at the words here, as Luke presents them, and see how plain and concrete this prayer is. This is not: “o thou everlasting and incomprehensible greatness, we do humbly beseech thee in thy lofty heights…” No. Jesus’s prayer is not flowery and ornate. It’s real. It’s for people who are hungry and need food. It’s for people who ache for God’s kingdom to come because they are suffering right now. It’s for people who have messed up and need to be forgiven. It’s for people who struggle with temptation. In other words, it’s for us. It’s for real people who are humble enough to admit they have real needs.

I wonder if that’s why it is hard to pray sometimes. We prefer to be in control, to be self-sufficient, to see ourselves almost as gods. But the truth is, we are always in need—of direction, of daily bread, of forgiveness, of protection. If you’re going to pray like this, it means taking on a posture of being dependent on God, and not sufficient by yourself. If you pray these words, it means you need God, and you are not God. You are a child.

Prayer allows us to see ourselves with the right perspective, the perspective of our relationship with God.

Jerusalem, Israel, is home to many holy sites and historic churches. One of those, atop the Mount of Olives, a short, steep walk away from the Temple Mount, is a church called the Pater Noster, which is Latin for… “our Father”. It is a site that came to be regarded as the place Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer. Architecturally, there are some 4th Century Byzantine ruins there, but the main attraction for most visitors is the courtyard containing 140 large, colorful ceramic plaques displaying the Lord’s Prayer, each one in a different language. You can watch tour groups search for and then flock around a particular plaque, depending on where they are from: Italian for this group, Swahili for this one, Arabic for another. There’s something magical about finding your own language, but also in seeing so many other translations of this same prayer.

Today, in churches all over the world—in Jerusalem, Beijing, Barcelona, Charlottesville—Christians will gather and recite these words, an amazing commonality that connects us all together. There will be different languages, different liturgies, different theologies, even slightly different wording. Catholics, for instance, do not include “For thine is the kingdom…”. Yet those differences don’t really matter, because this is not a magic formula we have to get just right to get God’s attention. The important thing is not even the words themselves, but the relationship that lies behind them. It is that relationship that is seen at the heart of the prayer Jesus teaches, that relationship with a God who is a parent who loves us and already wants what is best for us, not a distant authority figure to be appeased or manipulated. It is that relationship that we nurture when we pray.

So now, as we close, let us connect with God and unite with sisters and brothers around the world, as we pray once again the words that Jesus taught us, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:  for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”