Teach Us to Pray – Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:5-13
Sermon by Bonnie Kline Smeltzer
University Baptist and Brethren Church
February 26, 2012
How many of you remember a prayer that you were taught as a child? What was it? Let me take a guess or two. How about “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food….” Or what about “Now I lay me down to sleep….” I don’t remember being taught either of those prayers but I remember praying them at meal and bedtimes. Any others that you remember? [collect responses from congregation]
I also remember being taught that my prayers at bedtime might be made up of two things. First I thanked God for all that I could think of that happened in the day and then came the “God bless” section which could go on forever! I’d started with God bless mom and dad, God bless my sister, and proceeded to make my way through the family, my current best friends, the starving children in Africa, and whomever else I believed needed God’s blessing. And of course if I was really tired that section was shortened.
When I asked my husband Ken if he remembered being taught a prayer he said, “My parents didn’t teach us rote prayers. We sang our prayers!” And he immediately burst into song singing one of his mealtime favorites – For health and strength and daily food we give thee thanks O Lord.
My son Jesse remembered learning the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday School and most of all, getting a prize for memorizing it. Like his dad, he too thought of mealtime prayers that we sang around the table – Johnny Appleseed and Back of the Bread came to mind first.
For many Christians our prayer repertoire includes some of the childhood prayers I’ve already mentioned, some singable mealtime graces, and the Lord’s Prayer. And for some prayer has not moved too far beyond their childhood practices.
I would venture to say that many of you feel uncomfortable praying and developing some kind of prayer practice, whether it be saying grace at meals, prayers to begin and end the day, or even prayers in times of struggle and crisis. And leading a prayer? Well that could send many a person into a panic attack!
I recall a family Thanksgiving gathering at my grandparents home. As a child I was unaware of what must have been a high expectation around prayer. Evidently my uncle, the eldest son knew that he was going to be asked to offer grace for the meal and he was prepared. Afterwards my grandmother commented on what a lovely prayer it was. My uncle beamed at the compliment. Later that afternoon we learned the prayer my uncle offered that Thanksgiving day was found on a pair of salt and pepper shakers he held under the table.
Why is it that we have such difficulty praying? What causes our anxiety about prayer?
I think many of us, like my uncle have a distorted notion of what prayer is. We think prayer must be this eloquent offering of words that will earn you an A, much like an English essay.
We rarely trust ourselves to pray spontaneously, or we find praying an overwhelming task because we need time to compose just the right words and flowing phrases. Prayer becomes a practice that we think has to be done the right way. And so we turn to experts
of the salt and pepper shaker variety, prayer books, pastors and religious leaders and even the internet! One can find prayers of all kinds on-line. A quick google search reveals a short list like this:
prayers for healing
prayers for the sick
prayers for hope
prayers for strength
prayers for Advent
prayers for the dying
We’re not alone in our anxiety about prayer. In Luke’s gospel the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray like John the Baptist taught his disciples. They watched him pray and they come to him asking to be taught. I wonder what it was that they observed? Did Jesus display some kind of peace or some great passion born out of prayer? Was it his power to teach and heal that they hoped to gain?
The disciples observed something in Jesus that they hoped to receive through learning to pray. And they also had the expectation that Jesus would teach them to pray just like his cousin John taught his disciples. And Jesus offers them what we have named the Lord’s Prayer.
In Luke’s gospel the prayer is shorter and comes after the disciples request. In Matthew’s gospel the prayer is longer and more closely resembles the prayer most Christians recognize. It also comes in a larger passage about prayer where Jesus is giving explicit warnings about being careful not to pray like the hypocrites who pray in the synagogue or on the street corners for everyone to see and hear. Instead Jesus says to pray then like this and offers the Lord’s Prayer.
In both gospels I think Jesus is offering a model or a pattern for prayer. Pray then like this he said, not pray these exact words. I don’t think he ever intended this prayer to be memorized and used as we do today. Instead, Jesus was offering his disciples then and now an invitation to deepen their relationship with God through this conversation we call prayer. For prayer is a conversation – a time of talking and listening. And that conversation will take different paths for each of us.
I like what Mary Lou Redding says about prayer – one size does not fit all. She writes,
“The way I talk to God and listen to God is unique to my relationship with God….Communicating with God does not rely on magic words that will impress God or open the door to getting what we want. It’s not a matter of checking in with God at some exact time every morning or evening. A mother does not worry about grammar, spelling, and punctuation but about receiving a letter from her child. In the same way, God isn’t concerned about form but about connection. Prayer is a gift that forms the cornerstone of our connection with God. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it:
All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home. Weary, sobbing, the soul, after roaming through a world festered with aimlessness, falsehoods, and absurdities, seeks a moment in which to gather up its scattered life. . . . in which to call for help without being a coward. . . .For the soul, home is where prayer is.
The prayer for praying that Jesus gave us begins by asking us to enter a close relationship with God, inviting us to find our soul’s home.
Today we begin a Lenten journey of prayer and reflection. By studying the Lord’s Prayer we begin a journey of finding our soul’s home. Each week we will examine a portion of the Lord’s Prayer hopefully finding new meaning and power in this pattern for prayer that Jesus offers. Each week the Lord’s Prayer will be presented in a different form – drama, song, familiar recitation, and new versions and paraphrases. In doing so it is my hope that we move beyond mindless memorization of this prayer to a heartfelt living and breathing of it.
By the end of Lent I hope that we will never pray this prayer again without thinking about how radical and hopeful it is. For as one theologian says this prayer is “a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth.”
So let us begin the journey of learning to pray – the journey to find our soul’s home – the journey to rest in the heart of God. Amen.
[followed by the Lord’s Prayer skit, liturgist begins praying the Lord’s Prayer and is interrupted by woman’s voice from the balcony speaking as God]