In the first church I served they told a story about an early pastor of the congregation who had been called right out of seminary. At his very first church council meeting the pastor asked the vice-president of the council to begin the meeting with prayer. In his thick German accent the vice-president replied, “Dat’s vat ve hire you vor!” I’ve always enjoyed that story because it says so much about a couple of things. First of all, it says that some people view pastors as hired hands who are employed by the church to do those things which the members, themselves, feel uncomfortable doing. Secondly, it says something about how many people feel about prayer. “Let the pastor do it! He knows how!”
I suppose that’s understandable. Pastors get asked to pray a lot, so they get much practice. It’s assumed they know the proper format of prayers – what to say and how to say it. Pastors are usually pretty good at verbalizing things. So I suppose it’s understandable that they get asked to pray as much as they do.
What pastor would not like for members to ask to be taught to pray – like the disciples were asking in today’s gospel. “Teach us to pray,” they implored Jesus. “John taught his disciples to pray in his way. You teach us to pray in your way.’ So Jesus taught them the basics of prayer. He did it very quickly and simply. He taught them what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer (or, to Catholics, the Our Father), the one piece of holy scripture that virtually everyone knows by heart. The one we heard today, from Luke, is the Cliff Notes version of the one we are more familiar with from Matthew’s gospel.
We’ve all memorized and can recite the prayer. Some of you chew my right ear whenever we don’t say it the way King James translated it over 400 years ago – the “traditional” way. Others of you chew my left ear whenever we don’t say the newer ecumenical version which we will say today and for the rest of the summer. You know who you are!! Then there was the one about the member who said to the pastor, “I want to pray the Lord’s prayer just the way Jesus taught it.” So, the next Sunday the pastor had it printed out in the bulletin just that way – in Aramaic! I suppose all this would be important if Jesus had said that this particular prayer was the one we were supposed to say, using the exact same words he said. But in Matthew’s version of the prayer (the one we say), Jesus did not say, “Pray these words.” He said, “Pray, then, like this.”
The Lord’s Prayer is not the sum and substance of prayer. It is a model of what prayer life out to be. In it we begin by addressing God by describing God’s relation to us – our Father; our parent; our creator, our protector, our sustainer. Then we do what we always ought to do before we ask for anything from God: We praise God’s name. “May your holy name be honored.” Or, “Hallowed be your name.”
Prayer isn’t just a part of worship. ALL of worship is prayer. Think about that: ALL of worship is prayer. Now, think about this: When all of what we think or say or do is thought or said or done to the glory of God, then our lives can be lives of prayer. That’s a pretty incredible concept! Prayer isn’t just words we say or think, but prayer is all of what we do in the praise and glory of God.
Note that it was only after Jesus first addressed God by acknowledging God’s sovereignty and only after he praised God’s holy name that Jesus finally got around to asking for something. And what he asked for first was the most important. Before asking for food, before asking for forgiveness, before asking from relief from temptation he asked for the most important thing that you or I or anyone else could ever ask for. He prayed, “May your kingdom come.”
When Luther taught this prayer to children he reminded them, in his catechism, that God’s kingdom comes whether we ask for it or not. But expressing that hope in conversation with God is our way of just saying, right out loud, that life came from God and ultimately God gathers all life back into her arms and reigns supreme over all the forces. He is Lord of bread. She is Lord of forgiveness. He is Lord over all that tempts and puts us to the test. She is all of that.
God’s kingdom comes whether we ask for it or not. At baptism God brings a tiny little bundle, which doesn’t know the first thing about prayer, into his kingdom. When we kneel at the communion rail, the body and blood of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, brings the kingdom to all whether they have prayed or not. As a matter of fact, the wonderful and glorious thing about God’s kingdom is that it comes to us despite what we do or don’t do, what we pray or don’t pray.
Now, if God’s kingdom does come, whether we ask for it or not, it comes when bad things happen to us. All of us know of instances where something terrible happens to a loved one. There is a car accident… heart attack… a stroke. A life hangs in the balance. The prayers start. Help this person, God. Don’t let the bad thing happen. There may even be an organized campaign – possibly a prayer chain. The Facebook posts go viral. Hundreds of prayers are lifted to God on behalf of this person.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that prayer is not helpful or not necessary. But I do not believe that God goes makes decisions about what happens to us on the strength of our prayers. Some of you are old enough to remember the “Queen For a Day” t.v. show which aired back in the ‘50’s. Looking back, it was a pretty ridiculous show. They’d get three women who were down on their luck to sit on a stage and tell their sob stories. In the end, the audience got to applaud for the women it thought should be “Queen For a Day” and receive a lot of cash and swag. That had a big applause meter and the woman who had the saddest story or who could shed the most tears while telling it usually made the needle register the highest on the ole applause meter. That was pretty uncaring – especially for the losers who walked off with consolation prizes.
I hope that we don’t somehow think that the little baby, born of white, upper-middle class parents – but born with a defective heart – I hope we don’t think that this child, lying in the intensive care unit as all the people in the hometown and home church pray – I hope that we don’t think that his child has some sort of divine advantage over the center-city street person who is dying of cirrhosis of the liver and who has not one single person to lift a prayer for him by name.
I do not believe that God answers prayer “Queen For a Day” style. God’s kingdom is there. It is there for the tiny, innocent, sweet little baby and it is there for the gaunt, disheveled wino. God’s kingdom comes! Praise God that God’s kingdom comes! Certainly, we ought to pray! And, when we do, we should do it the way Jesus taught We should start with praise for the good news that God’s kingdom comes to us at baptism, that God’s kingdom comes to us when we hear the word and share the Eucharist, that God’s kingdom will come triumphantly on the other side of the grave.
Yes! Pray for the little boy! Pray for the wino! Pray for your own daily bread and for forgiveness of your trespasses, and your own times of trial.. But pray in the knowledge and faith that whether the line on that heart monitor keeps on jumping or whether it goes flat – God’s kingdom comes! It comes!
Text: Luke 11:1-13