Below is my sermon that I preached at Christian Valley Church in Cataula for the first of our summer pulpit swaps. I forgot to record the sermon, so here is the text.
My son Tai and I started the sermon with a short skit. He played God, and I played me.
(Person): “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
(Person): Who said that?
(God): I did. You called on me… you said “Our Father, who art in heaven”
(Person): You mean you’re really listening to this prayer, God?
(God): Of course I am!
(Person): Uh-oh. Well, I…um… sometimes tune out while I’m praying this. I’ve been saying it for so long that it’s just routine now.
(God): I know. In fact, you have done a lot of things while you’ve prayed this prayer. You’ve planned what you’re going to wear to that event tonight. You’ve thought about how much money you have in your bank account, what you’re going to say at next Vestry meeting, what time you have to pick up your kids tomorrow, whether people will like your new hairdo, what your friends will think about your new car, and a lot of other things.
(Person): (sheepishly) Sorry.
(God): Well go on, say your prayer. I’m listening.
(Person): “Hallowed be thy name”
(God): Hold it. What do you mean by that?
(Person): Hallowed means holy. May your name be holy. It means I shouldn’t take your name in vain, so I should say “Oh my gosh” instead of “Oh my God” or “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
(God): Well I’m glad to see you learned something in Sunday School. What does it really mean?
(Person): I don’t know.
(God): It means that everything you do should be done in my name, and should be done with reverence. When you talk about going to church and you give off the image of being a Christian, you can’t gossip and put people down, especially in the same sentence.
(Person): I do that a lot, huh?
(God): Yes, you are very good at that. Continue with your prayer.
(Person): “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
(God): Take control, huh? Sounds great! Consider it done.
(Person): Come on, it’s not that easy. And that’s not what I meant.
(God): And why not?
(Person): Well, you’re not a magician. We have to carry out your will. You don’t control us like puppets.
(God): Very good! And what are you doing about it?
(Person): Doing? Well, I don’t know, I mean, I’m a good person, Lord. I go to church every Sunday, I work at FOCUS, I sing really loudly in church, AND I’m even a PRIEST, which makes everyone proud.
(God): I’m not impressed. What about your temper? And all that pride? You’re a control freak. And what about the way you spend your money, all on yourself?
(Person): Stop picking on me! I’m just as good as some of the rest of those people in church. Heck, half of them can’t even show up every week like I do. And most of them aren’t nearly as involved!
(God): Excuse me, I thought you were praying for my will to be done. If that’s going to happen, it will have to start with those who are praying for it, like you.
(Person): Oh, all right. I know I’m not perfect, but I’d much rather not think about all those imperfections. I could probably name quite a few.
(God): So could I.
(Person): Look, Lord, this is taking a lot longer than it usually does. I need to finish up here. “Give us this day our daily bread”
(God): If you are talking about edible bread, I give you more than enough. But don’t forget that you cannot live by bread alone. You must nourish your soul with me, the bread of life, as much as you nourish your body.
(Person): What is this, an exercise in finding all my faults? Here I am just doing my religious duty, and you just decide to break in and remind me of all my hang ups.
(God): Praying is a dangerous thing. You could wind up changed, you know. That’s what I’m trying to get across to you. You called me, and here I am. It’s too late to stop now. Keep praying, I’m interested in the next part of your prayer (pause). Well, go on.
(Person): I’m scared to.
(God): Scared? Of what?
(Person): I know what you’ll say.
(God): Try me and see.
(Person): “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”
(God): What about Jane?
(Person): See? I knew it. I knew you would bring her up! Lord, she took all the credit for Lobsterfest when I did most of the work. She made sure everyone thanked her publicly and her name was in the newsletter and then she went around tooting her horn about how she made $25,000. Not to mention how she tries to take over Vestry meetings, even though I’m the one in charge. I’ve sworn to get even with her!
(God): But your prayer. What about being forgiven in the way that you forgive others?
(Person): I didn’t mean it.
(God): Well, at least you’re admitting it. But it’s not much fun carrying that load of bitterness around inside, is it?
(Person): No, but I’ll feel better as soon as I get even.
(God): You won’t feel any better. You’ll feel worse. Revenge isn’t sweet. Look at how miserable you are. Do you think that’s really going to change if you get even with her? You’ll never be satisfied. But I can change all that.
(Person): You can? How?
(God): Forgive Jane. And just as you have prayed, I will then forgive you and only then will you be able to remember how much I love you. With me there is always love and forgiveness. Let me worry about Jane. It’s not for you to judge.
(Person): You know, for the first time, I’m realizing how much I want to be right with you, more than I want revenge on someone, you’re right, it won’t make me feel much better. All right, I forgive her. Help her to find the right road in life, Lord. She’s bound to be awfully miserable now that I think about it. Anybody who goes around doing the things she does to others has to be out of it. Some way, somehow, help her.
(God): There now! Wonderful! How do you feel?
(Person): Hmm. Not too bad. Not bad at all. Actually, I feel pretty good! You know, I don’t think I’ll have to go to bed angry tonight for the first time since I can remember. Maybe I won’t be so tired from now on because I’m not getting enough rest.
(God): You’re not through with your prayer. Go on.
(Person): “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”
(God): Good! I’ll do that. Just don’t put yourself in a place where you can be tempted.
(Person): What do you mean by that?
(God): Don’t turn the TV when you know you have work to do. Also, about the time you spend with your friends, if you can’t influence the conversation to positive things, perhaps you should rethink the value of these friendships. And please don’t use me for an escape hatch.
(Person): I don’t understand the last part.
(God): Sure you do. You’ve done it a lot of times. You get caught in a bad situation. You get into trouble and then you come running to me, “Lord, help me out of this mess and I’ll promise you I’ll never do it again”. You remember some of those bargains you tried to make with me?
(Person): Yes, and I’m rather embarrassed now.
(God): Which bargain are you remembering?
(Person): Well, there was the time I was stuck in traffic and I was late for the Vestry meeting. I remember praying, “Oh, God, if you get me there, I’ll never lose my temper again”
(God): Did you?
(Person): I’m sorry, Lord, I really am. Up until now I thought that if I just prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, then I could do what I liked. I didn’t expect this to happen.
(God): Go ahead and finish your prayer.
(Person): “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen”
(God): Do you know what would bring me glory? What would really make me happy?
(Person): No, but I’d like to know. I want now to please you. I can see what a mess I’ve made of my life. And I can see how great it would be to really be one of your followers.
(God): You just answered the question.
(Person): I did?
(God): Yes, the thing that would bring me glory is to have people like you truly love me. And I see that happening between us. You’ve gotten some of those old sins exposed and out of the way now. You are realizing that without forgiveness, you continue on the same vicious cycle in life instead of being able to grow and be happy. But better yet, you are seeing how much prayer can actually change you when you mean what you say. I never asked for big, empty words, just like my Son, Jesus told you. When you pray from the heart, there is no telling what we can do together.
How many of you would consider yourself “good pray-ers?” I knew a woman once who was so good at praying, she would do it with her eyes open. She was so intense that she didn’t need to visualize God in her mind. She saw God in your eyes and directed her prayer there. It was a bit unnerving, but powerful.
But if you’re not practiced enough to pray with your eyes open, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Even the disciples, those who lived and traveled with Jesus didn’t consider themselves to be good at praying, and that’s why they ask Jesus how to do it. Jesus, in his great patience, gives them the formula. He gives them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
We’ve formalized the Lord’s Prayer, and oftentimes find ourselves in the routine of saying it rather than praying it. While I love the formality of the King James Lord’s Prayer, I don’t think Jesus was creating a document for us to read to God. Instead, the Lord’s Prayer is a fantastic pattern for prayer.
Jesus starts simple. “Father…” He addresses God as his father. Not “Lord,” not “Almighty God,” not “Creator of the Universe,” he calls him father. It’s personal. It’s casual. It’s intimate. It speaks to the closeness of the relationship between Jesus and God. How would you address God? If you would address God impersonally, perhaps you haven’t gotten personal with God. For Jesus, that name is holy…it’s hallowed. Pray personally.
“Your kingdom come.” Luke’s version of the prayer doesn’t include “your will be done.” For what kingdom are we praying when we pray this prayer? For Jesus, the kingdom meant a community that stretched throughout the whole world. A kingdom of equality, peace, justice, compassion, and love. We need to be careful when praying this kind of prayer, because when Jesus prayed for it, he lived in another kingdom. There was only one king in that kingdom, and it wasn’t God. For him to pray for God’s kingdom to come also meant that the powers and principalities of the world might be thrown down, that there would be no other government but the one where the Lord reigns. Pray radically.
“Give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus cared about his body and the bodies of the people whom he loved. Jesus wasn’t dependent on anyone but God. This is a prayer of trust that somehow he and the community of disciples whom he loved wouldn’t starve to death. This is a prayer for the hungry, not for the indulgent. Pray compassionately.
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” This prayer supposes that we already forgive people. Yet forgiveness is one of the hardest things with which we struggle. God doesn’t withhold forgiveness from us if we don’t forgive, however, we won’t know what forgiveness feels like unless we start forgiving others ourselves. Pray for forgiveness.
“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” What is Jesus praying for here? No matter what happens, we will be met with trials. Life will happen and our faith will be stretched like a wire. Praying that trials won’t come seems impossible. Jesus prayed for impossible things. But just because they’re impossible doesn’t mean we can’t pray for them. Pray impossible things.
So it’s simple: Pray personally, pray radically, pray compassionately, pray for forgiveness, pray impossible things. If you pray like that every day, you will change. If we all pray like that every day, we all will change.
After Jesus teaches them the “how,” he gives them the why in the form of a parable: “And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
We have a 2-year-old who is learning to talk. When he wants something, he repeats it. “Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama…..” It drives us crazy, but actually his persistence is admirable. What if we prayed like that to God? I don’t think God is as annoyed by our heartfelt requests as we think. But we rarely are that persistent. If something doesn’t happen immediately, we give up hope. But if we pray like a 2-year-old, with such persistence and regularity, we might get somewhere.
Jesus ends his lesson on prayer in Luke by boiling prayer down to one word: ask. Prayer is dialogue, it’s about questioning, conversing, catching up, and sharing. Prayer is active, not passive. It requires diligence, discipline, creativity, routine, and spontaneity.
Baptists and Episcopalians are the praying-est people I know. We pray very differently. Here’s my challenge to the people of Christian Valley and the people of St. Nicholas. If we are going to have real community between our churches, what if we established prayer partners? What if we took a real leap of faith today and paired with one person from the other church and decided to help one another pray? Pray for each other, teach one another how you pray, and remind one another to pray. Pastor Seldon, will you be my prayer partner?
The best thing the disciples did when they weren’t confident about their prayer was to ask Jesus for help. Let’s help each other pray. Let’s pray personally, radically, compassionately, for forgiveness, and for impossible things.
Let us now hold hands and pray in the words our Lord Jesus taught us:
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.