July 28, 2019
7th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
If I were to come down the aisle, and ask someone to stand and say a prayer for us, would you start to panic? If I walked a little further prepared to ask, “Can you tell us about your prayer life,” would you start looking down hoping I wouldn’t catch your eye.
Did you feel the anxiety in the room just go up? There’s nothing like a church meeting when the chair says, “Is there someone who would like to say the prayer?” It’s one of the only times we’re good at practicing silence at Gloria.
Prayer makes many of us nervous, whether it’s having to pray in front of people, or our own self judgment: “I should be praying more than I do.” Some of us are not convinced that prayer works. We’ve asked for things that never came. We’ve watched people we love get sicker, rather than better. We wake up in the morning to hear that the news is worse. Church went longer than an hour.
We may use nicer words like petition or intercession, but most of us probably think that prayer is how we get God to do things. Pull the lever, cross our fingers, and hope God answers.
When my dad was diagnosed with cancer and was going through treatment, my parents met me in Columbus, Ohio for the biennial assembly of Lutherans Concerned. Traditionally, one of the nights of that conference was a liturgy of healing. I’ll never forget going to the prayer station with my mom and my dad. To that point in my life, healing prayer had been rather abstract, maybe praying to get better from something that probably would have worked out on its own, anyway. This time, tears streamed down our faces as we prayed for his life.
Six weeks later, he died.
Did we fail? Not have enough faith? Not enlist enough others, especially those who seem closer to God? Or did God decide not to answer our prayer for some mysterious reason that we’ll never know? Maybe it was presumptuous for us to ask for full healing? Should we have been more general, praying for God’s will to be done? Was it God’s will that dad died?
I can’t tell you that I know how prayer works, or what’s the correct mechanism, or how the right words get shaped? Maybe you have a better answer. I’d be interested to know. I can tell you that if we come away fearful that we’ve failed, or convinced that we don’t really have faith, or that God is making some calculation about our worthiness, we have, perhaps, misunderstood prayer.
The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. Maybe they ask because they can’t figure it out, either. Or maybe they’ve seen how Jesus was drawn to his times of prayer. Perhaps they saw something in him that they yearned for themselves: a sense of peace, a groundedness, a clarity.
He gives them what we call the Lord’s prayer. Today we have Luke’s version, which is a more stripped-down model of the one that came into regular usage. We’ve been working this prayer ever since. It’s really the only prayer that unites all Christians around the globe. We’ve certainly been persistent in our use, as Jesus suggests we should. Mostly we repeat with a kind of rote fondness, not even needing to attend to the words. But it goes deep. Sometimes we mean every syllable.
For Jesus, prayer isn’t a mechanism to get right, but a way to be in a relationship with a very particular God.
Jesus’ prayer gives us guidance about who God is: lovingly and relationally focused on human beings, much like a parent watches over a child or loves a child through all their trials and broken relationships. It invites us to hold as holy the same things God holds as holy. It yearns for God’s ways to become our ways, for heaven to be on earth. It seeks provision for human flourishing, at least enough for today, leaving tomorrow to tomorrow. It gives us a standard for working through our forgiveness toward one another: do it just like God does. It asks for help in times when we’re tested beyond our ability.
Two psychologists asked people to watch a short video of two teams, one in white shirts and one in black shirts. They were instructed to count how many times the people in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The players move around. It looks like one of those shell games. Hard to follow the ball. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the crowd, stops to beat her chest, then calmly walks out the other side. People were asked how many times the ball was passed, and did you see the gorilla? Everyone had a number on passes, but only half saw the gorilla. Fifty percent didn’t see a person in gorilla suit, who stopped to beat her chest!
The experiment has been used to demonstrate how much we miss because we’re focused on what we’ve been trained to focus on. Apparently, human beings miss much of what’s actually going on around them. Perhaps the Lord’s prayer is simply a way to train us to see what we normally miss, to see a wider frame, to see God’s hand at work. A simple prayer: Open my eyes to see the answers you’ve been giving, even before I asked.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not wrong to place our deepest needs, our laments, our pain into the hands of God: to name them out loud with great specificity and directness. God wants us to bring our whole lives into relationship with Trinity.
To be persistent in prayer is to bring ourselves again and again to that place where God is alive, which, of course, if our faith is to be trusted is EVERYWHERE. Prayer is simply the space/the attitude/the words/the mechanisms through which we put our lives and our world in God’s hands and trust that God is a loving and liberating God. Of course, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is our proof, our concrete sign that God answers our deepest cries for redemption and new life.
By the way, I saw the gorilla right away. BUT I had been told to watch for it.
And now, so have you.
(http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html). Andrew Root, “Being a pastor within the secular frame means teaching people how to pray” Christian Century online, June 25, 2019. http://tinyurl.com/yyn8dlz5