“Received, Found, and Opened” Colchester Federated Church, July 24, 2022, (Luke 11:1-13) Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

There’s a helpful prayer I heard somewhere along the way that we can say when trying to be better people.  It goes like this: “Dear God, so far today, I’ve done all right.  I haven’t gossiped or lost my temper.  I haven’t been grumpy, nasty, or selfish, and I’m really glad of that!  But in a few minutes, I’m going to get out of bed.  And from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help.  Thank you.  Amen.”

Today’s Gospel story is about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray—in a slightly different way than that prayer.  It’s a story in response to the earnest request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”[1]  It centers on the most famous prayer we have in the Christian faith—the Lord’s Prayer.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is often depicted as going off on his own to pray.  It’s one of the distinguishing features of that Gospel.  Jesus eats a lot and prays a lot in Luke.  There are many verses that say things like, “Jesus was praying in a certain place” or that Jesus went off on his own to pray, often before the disciples woke up for the day.[2]  Jesus—the teacher, healer, Son of God, Messiah, Prince of Peace—Jesus the human being was also a man of prayer.  His prayer life defined who he was as a person of the Jewish faith as it was part of his way of staying grounded in his mission of compassion for everyone he encountered. 

Jesus taught his disciples a formulaic way to pray, a way of prayer that we still use.  In our English Bibles, we translate the word Jesus used for God as “Father.”  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Our Father who art in heaven.”  In actuality, Jesus called God “Daddy.”  In Hebrew, the word he used was Abba.  Jesus’ name for God was remarkable because Jesus was claiming that he had a special relationship with God, designated by the familiar title he used to speak for God in prayer.  God was not “Yahweh” to Jesus or even “Father” to Jesus, God was “Abba” to Jesus—a term of familiarity and endearment, a term that suggested a personal relationship.  In recognition of this, today some churches pray more inclusive versions of the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the most famous comes from The New Zealand Book of Prayer.  It begins:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven.[3]

And that translation just gets better from there!  The point is that when Jesus went off on his own to pray, Jesus was praying in a way it seems that few had before, at least not publicly.  And Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the same way, referring to God on more personal terms.  Maybe for some of us that is Father.  Maybe for others it’s Mother or Eternal Spirit or Source of all.  We are allowed to connect with God using many and varied names; connection is the point.  That teaching has come down to us because we can pray to God in a profoundly personal way too—Jesus taught us how.

Some of us grew up learning the Lord’s Prayer with trespasses: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I grew up with debts and debtors: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  If I’m not laser focused, you will hear me stumble during the Lord’s Prayer sometimes (that happened a few weeks ago) because CFC is the first church that I’ve been part of that uses “trespasses.”  Even though the Lord’s Prayer is famous and familiar, it does have variety.  Perhaps the way that we learned this prayer as children ourselves stays with us in a way that’s hard to shake.

Prayer is an aspect of our Christian faith that we’re often taught to do as children.  It’s an important worship element when we gather on Sunday mornings.  We worship God in Christian community—we sing, read scripture, listen to a sermon, and pray together—both for one another and for the world.  Prayers can be simple or complex, memorized or spontaneous; prayers can be written down as a poem or prose or even as a letter addressed to God.  Prayers can be spoken aloud, sung, or lifted up to God in the silence of our hearts.  Prayers can be famous or prayers can be something we’ve never heard before. 

The Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster wrote a book on Christian spiritual practices called Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth.  We tend to say “spiritual practices”, but some would call them “spiritual disciples.”  Practices like meditation, prayer, fasting, study, solitude, service, confession, worship, guidance—all of these ways that we put our faith into action and deepen our relationship with God.  Foster reflects that to pray is to change because prayer “brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit . . . prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.”[4]  That is a unique way to think about prayer because it’s not just for the person we are praying for—prayer transforms the one who is praying.  Prayer has a way of softening the heart toward another person.  Maybe this is why Jesus gave the instruction that his followers were to even pray for those who persecuted them.  That is a next to impossible teaching from Jesus.  But you know what?  It helps the person praying to not become bitter or angry or hold onto hatred and resentments because Lord knows that is not a good path to go down.  Prayer does change us, and Jesus knew that because he prayed all the time.

Moreover, if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable when we pray, to be honest and open, amazing things happen.  We can be received, found, and opened.  Theologian Henri Nouwen reflected, “Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched.”[5]  Praying is about relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself (God) to enter into the very center of your being.  Praying sometimes takes the form of talking, but it requires practice for many people to adopt prayer as a form of listening.  Theologian Soren Kierkegaard reflected, “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking.  But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”[6]  Prayer is listening.

In the end, Jesus encourages his disciples to pray.  Jesus is telling us to make the effort whether that comes in the form of talking or listening.  Because if we don’t pray, if we don’t open ourselves up to God, if we don’t listen, if we don’t ask the hard questions—nothing will change, nothing will happen.  We definitely won’t find answers because we’re not even asking questions in the first place.  Prayer isn’t an easy fix for all the problems of life, but it’s a start because it entails an opening of our hearts.  Our lives will be enriched when we pray the way that Jesus taught us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 11:1, CEB.
[2] Luke 11:1.
[3] The Lord’s Prayer: Māori & Polynesia in The New Zealand Prayer Book, https://livinghour.org/lords-prayer/new-zealand-maori/
[4] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, pg. 33.
[5] Henri Nouwen, “First Unclench Your Fists,” Beliefnet, https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2006/06/first-unclench-your-fists.aspx
[6] Soren Kierkegaard as quoted by Richard J. Foster in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, pg. 39.

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash