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Prayer Variations

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Let me suggest that the right way to pray is the way that works for you. It’s worth trying different ways to find the ones that work for you – and they may change over time. 

Today’s texts: Colossians 2: 6-19 and Luke 11: 1-13 

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Listen again, if you will, to those first words we heard Jill read today from the Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

What an interesting request.

Jesus’ followers come upon him praying fairly often, the way Luke tells the story.

Just after Jesus’ cousin John had baptized him, Luke tells us, Jesus was praying and the heaven’s opened and God’s Spirit descended upon him and God assured Jesus’s that he was God’s beloved. (Luke 3: 21-22)

In the early days of his ministry of healing and teaching, crowds would often gather. After a while, writes Luke, Jesus “would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” (Luke 5: 16)

jesus_prayingJust before he went out to select a dozen of his disciples to be his closest followers, Luke tells us that Jesus spent the night at a mountain in prayer. (Luke 6:12-13)

Another time, Luke tells us – see if this sounds familiar – “Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him.” That time, instead of the disciples asking Jesus a question, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

Then there is that story of Jesus taking Peter and John and James with him as he went up a mountain to pray. And they would see become dazzling white as they saw the figures Moses and Elijah next to him. (Luke 9: 28)

So by the time Luke gets to today’s story, the sight of Jesus praying is a familiar one. He does a lot of things to make a difference in people’s lives, he is a masterful story teller and teacher. But underneath all of that is this sense of Jesus pausing for prayer.

You can understand how the disciples who had been watching this might want to learn to pray the way Jesus did. It seemed to be important to him. It seemed to have an effect on his life. They knew from Jewish tradition that prayer played an important role and they apparently knew that John the Baptist had taught his disciples some ways of praying.

They had been watching Jesus pray. They knew he would withdraw to a quiet place. But what was he saying? What was he doing? Could he teach them?

They are hardly the only ones who have looked for guidance in how to pray – or even for guidance in trying to figure out what it means to pray. All manner of spiritual systems have evolved to help people find some way to connect their beings to the divine.

That makes sense, because we have different personalities, people live in different cultures, people have different experiences and all of those give shape and meaning to prayer. Let me suggest that the right way to pray is the way that works for you. It’s worth trying different ways to find the ones that work for you – and they may change over time. There are so many variations we have to choose from.

Today, though, Luke puts the focus on two things – how to pray and what it means.

When you heard Jesus tell the disciples how to pray, when you heard the words he used, you may have done a bit of a double take. The words sounded familiar, but not quite right. There are some reasons for that.

The version of the prayer of Jesus with which are most familiar comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount, the way Matthew tells the story.

The fact that it has a similar, if not identical form, in Luke suggests that this had become a common prayer in the earliest days of Christianity. It also shows up in a First Century book of church practice known as the Didache. That version closely mirrors the one in Matthew, so that seems to have been the one in most common usage.

There’s another reason why it sounds a bit different than what we are used to. The translation of the Gospel according to Luke that we heard today comes from the Common English Bible, one of the newest of the many translations of the original Greek into English.

It is the work of 120 biblical scholars from 22 faith traditions, including our own United Church of Christ. But it was truly a very broad group of scholars, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church – a predominantly black denomination – and the Evangelical Free Church – a more conservative group (Blackhawk is part of that denomination); the Mennonites and the Moravians as well as the Roman Catholics and the Seventh Day Adventists; scholars from Reform Judaism and Episcopalians. The list goes on.

I mention that because different translations give a little different sense and feel to familiar stories and phrases.

So when this reading starts, “Father, uphold the holiness of your name,” that sounds very different than Matthew’s “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

We could take apart of the translations and the versions phrase by phrase, but let’s not do that this morning. Instead, let’s be aware that even in this most common and widely accepted of prayers, there are variations – and that’s OK.

Let me say just a few more words about this prayer of Jesus, and then go on to the broader issue of how and why we pray.

One of the things some folks struggle with these days is the use of the term “Father.” For Jesus, for Jesus’ times, he used a particularly intimate noun for father – “Abba” – to describe his relationship to God as especially close. The letter writer Paul picked up that term as well in his writings to the people of Rome and the people of Galatia. This was a term that had power and resonance in the earliest Christian communities.

For many of us today, the concept of God is not tied to a specific gender. Some people begin this prayer, “Our Father, Our Mother.” A version I heard recently that made sense to me was “Our Loving Parent, who is in heaven.”

The important thing, though, is getting Jesus’ sense that God is not a distant, unapproachable, intimidating figure, but a being close to us who cares about us. God may be in heaven, God may be holy, but God’s realm is right here with us. And we pray that it may be so, that God will make this reality for us.

And then there are some specific points.

“Give us the bread we need for today.”

Give “us.” It’s a plural pronoun. We are not just looking out for individuals but for all of us. And we are asking for what we need, not for wealth and riches at the expense of others.

“Forgive us our sins.”

Here’s where the wording gets tricky again. Around here, we say “forgive us our debts.” That’s the language from Matthew, reflecting his focus on writing to a Jewish audience, using the imagery of the Hebrew scriptures around debt and satisfying debts. It’s an imagery Jesus used in other stories.

Over the years, in some traditions – especially Catholic and Lutheran – that morphed into “trespasses,” capturing the notion of things done wrong rather than debts owed. And in Luke, the word used is generally translated as “sin.” Luke seemed to be directing his writing more toward a non-Jewish audience, so he used a more direct term.

One more language note on this. The Common English Bible – the translation of Luke we heard this morning – uses this for the comparable phrases in Matthew: “Forgive us the ways we have wronged you, just as we forgive those who have wronged us.” I think that has a nice feel to it.

What’s really important here, though, is not the word choice but the message. If we expect forgiveness when we do wrong, we must embody forgiveness in our lives.

The last phrase in Luke’s version is pretty straightforward.

“And don’t lead us into temptation.”

We are asking God to protect us from the bad things that we encounter along the way – not only to protect us from them, but to keep our reactions to them consistent with Jesus’ message of love overcoming fear, not giving into the temptations to hurt or exploit or diminish others.

Once Jesus has given his followers these words as a model for prayer, he goes on to talk about prayer with some phrases that are pretty familiar and comforting. “Ask and you will receive. See and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.”

It sounds almost magical. If ask for that pony, I will get it. If I ask for the Milwaukee Brewers to finally win a baseball game, maybe they will like they did last night. . If I ask for that cancer to go away, surely it will be gone.

Except. Except. That’s not really what Jesus says prayer is about.

Later in Luke, Jesus will be in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his executed, praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)

Prayer became a way of asking, yet accepting.

On the cross, he prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34)

Prayer became a way of adding meaning to tragedy.

And his last prayer was at a table after his resurrection with two disciples in the village of Emmaus: “When he was at table, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them.” (Luke 24:30)

Prayer became a blessing for others.

At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminded his listeners that even though humans are imperfect, they still do good things like giving gifts to their children. “How much more,” he adds, “will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

Not the pony. Not the Brewers’ victory. Not the cure for cancer.

What Jesus promises us for our prayers is God’s Spirit in our beings.

Prayer is where we connect with God.

In that connection,
we can sense God’s love,
we can find hope in God’s being,
we can find strength to go out
to embrace even our enemies,
to break bread with those who doubt us,
to take on the hardest challenges in life knowing that we are not alone.

We pray in many different ways. When we are together, we have a chance to share words like the words that Jesus gave us. I think this common time of prayer is vital for shaping us as a community.

But time for prayer alone is vital as well. Go back to the beginning of today’s story.

Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

When it comes to prayer, we are lifelong learners.

So let’s end with another way of praying – through music.

The lyrics to this hymn by Ruth Duck, a UCC pastor who teaches worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. It’s #521 and it’s called “In Solitude.”