Sermon: “Teach Us to Pray”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 28, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, for Shaun Loria kindly serving as the liturgist — and thank you for welcoming me back.

It’s usually bad form for preachers to talk about their families from the pulpit, but I’m going to talk about Daisy all the same.

She’s is a twelve-year old bichon frise, weighing about sixteen pounds with white curly hair and big, round black eyes.

White dog with bow on head
Freshly groomed

Today, she charms everyone she meets when we walk in the neighborhood. I’ve heard her called a teddy bear, a little lamb and a muppet. But when my husband Jonathan and I got Daisy from the then-Washington Area Rescue League, she was sick and underweight (just over six pounds), with lopsided buzz-cut, and obviously very scared. Already a “senior dog” it would have easy to look past her, and to be fair, we weren’t sure what we were getting. We didn’t know much about her background, other that she came in with other dogs and was surrendered by a relative of her original owner, who had died. But we took her home. She shook all the way, and that night she slept under our bed. She’s doing much better now, almost six years later. Now, she sleeps up top and is a good as gold. I mean: sometimes she’s fussy, but who isn’t? When she wants to cuddle, she’s sweet as all get-out.

Thin dog
Day four. So many questions on both sides.

But when she wants something, she will let you know. I will be sitting on the sofa, working on a sermon say, and I’ll hear her tip-tap down the hallway. Then arriving, she’ll stop and look me dead in the eye and whirr. And then she’ll whirr again. And tap her paw on the wood floor, and then whirr again.

What does she want? Food? To go on a walk? Attention and a cuddle? A second chance at puppyhood? Who knows.

But if I choose wrong, she’ll whirr and tap her paw and then I try again. She usually gets her way. It’s sometimes a nuisance to have a fuzzy, four-footed perma-toddler, but she doesn’t ask for anything that’s not appropriate for a pet dog. And even if she did, how would I know?

The unknowing is the hard part, particularly when she’s stressed, or pained or afraid. I still think of her on that first day. But she can’t tell us what’s wrong, and we can’t tell her how we will help, if we can.

So, it makes me wonder what she thinks of us. Are we our fathers, her pack or her puppies? Or are we simply the catering staff? Ae we something more like God, a God who answers prayer with Milk Bones and bully rubs?

I didn’t sign up to be a Dog God, and I certainly don’t have a god-like disposition. And besides we — you and I, human beings — have more in common with dogs than we do with God. There was a time when we were not alive, and are now alive, and sometime when we won’t be. We have bodies, which must be fed and cared for. We have emotions that sometimes enhance our understanding of the world, and sometimes distort it. We are social and depend on others of our own kind, and suffer when we’re deprived. All of that we share with dogs, and none of which we share with God.

And if it’s hard for me to understand the one dog that I live with, how much harder is it to understand the One God, whom none of us has seen. That’s why I want to speak to you about prayer.

Prayers are a tricky subject, and not always happy. Coming from the South, I know that phrase “I’ll pray for you” can be just as easily an insult as a real concern of one’s welfare. An insult in meaning that you need prayer because something is deeply wrong with you. There’s nothing kind about it. It also implies a kind of spiritual superiority from the speaker, and right to claim spiritual dominance, perhaps even abuse. Nobody should give that any room at all.

We also have that cultural, verbal fudge “keep me in your thoughts and prayers” to broaden what prayer means and to rescue it from sounding trite, or well-wishes from sounding sectarian. Or at least until recently when activists rightly pointed out that “thoughts and prayers” is another way of saying “let’s do nothing” about the scourge of gun violence, for instance. Thoughts and prayers cost no resources, no time, no anxiety, no stained friendships, no angry quarrels. In too many cases, it’s literally the least one can do, so I can’t say that it’s wrong to be tired and frustrated with “thoughts and prayers.” At least not in a civic arena where the full power of prayer is neither appreciated nor particularly welcome. The age of mandatory religion is, fortunately, behind us. That’s one reason that I’ll tell people that I’ll pray for them if they ask for prayer in the first place. And if they don’t ask, I’ll still pray for them, but that’s between God and me. I don’t want to come off as manipulative or saccharin. Prayers are tricky.

But that also means for those of us who do pray, who choose our faith, who sacrifice to strengthen it, and benefit from growing within it, prayer takes on a new value in a new meaning. We can’t take it for granted, and need to explore what should and shouldn’t be.

Today’s passage from the gospel of Luke is some of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.

You probably noticed in the middle of the lesson, Jesus teaching his students (the disciples) how to pray. So when I start, “let us pray, as Jesus taught his disciples, saying…” this is what I mean. We are not only worshippers, but also Jesus’ students.

The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most valuable and universal resources that Christians have. You will find it well-used and well-loved wherever you find Christians, whatever else might divide us. It’s one of the things first memorized in attending Christian worship, if only from sheer repetition. In seminary, we could joke “are you a debtor or a trespasser?” And one of the ways that Christians in the Unitarian Universalist Association have measured if something — say a church or an event — is Christian or not is whether or not the Lord’s Prayer is present. I even use it to time the silence after the pastoral prayer.

A aside: you might have also noticed that what Jesus taught the disciples isn’t quite the same as what we pray here. The form of the Lord’s Prayer is one of those things that distinguishes Protestants and Catholics: the Catholics stop with “deliver us from evil” as Jesus says in this passage, while Protestants continue with a doxology, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” Why the difference? Simply, the doxology was a part of the worship in the Byzantine court, and in time it got slipped into the biblical text. So by the time the Protestant reformers translated Luke into their native languages, the doxology was part of the Greek they were translating. Later generations of translators had earlier, and more authentic texts, so the doxology wasn’t present to translate. But it was by then already a fixture in Protestant worship.

But the passage in Luke is arguably about how to pray, not a particular formula of prayer. In Jesus’ time, the Temple at Jerusalem was still standing. There, priests made sacrifices of animals, grain, oil and incense. Jesus does not speak of them, but sincere and simple prayer, as in fact other Jews had made since the Exile centuries before. The Temple was gone by the time Luke recorded these words, and the sacrifices ended; prayer is what the Jewish community in its place, including its not-yet-broken-off Christian minority. Simple heart-felt petitions, directed to God as Father rather than God as Overlord, for a balance between heaven and earth, and a hope for a universal good. Paul’s lesson to the Colossians underscores this: do not be distracted by that which is optional. The prophets, speaking for God, warned their hearers about useless sacrifices, when the people lacked mercy and gentleness. The psalmist comforts us “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17, KJV) The age of prayer is the age of the sincere spirit.

Little wonder the Lord’s Prayer spread. But then there’s that other part of the lesson from Luke: the parable of the Bothered Neighbor. (That’s not what it’s usually called, but maybe it should be.)

Did Jesus mean that we should bother God in prayer? How else are we to interpret the passage about asking your sleeping neighbor for bread, who then relents. Or the parable of the Unjust Judge — that’s in the eighteenth chapter of Luke — who wouldn’t do what was right, but would do the right thing just to just to get this widow off my back. Or the Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, when he teaches about the coming of the Holy Spirit: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14 NRSV) There’s a theme here: bother God persistently, and you will get what you want. Except that runs counter to both scripture and plain common sense.

Anyone who has lived long enough knows that one’s wishes and desires are not always fulfilled. Not often fulfilled. Sometimes not fulfilled at all. It’s not foolish to expect God to help, especially if nobody else will. After all we profess that God loves and cares for us, and why would God want to make us more miserable or feel more alone? So we rely on God’s human community. Sometimes God puts us in the right place and right time to be the right help for others, and we should take that call. I’m not saying it’s logical. I’m not even saying it’s anything more that confirmation bias. But to those who need a prayer answered, it is an answer to prayer.

And yet prayer is more than a prelude to good work. Our good acts won’t undo hurricanes or earthquakes. They come too late to undo ethnic cleansing or structural racism. They are powerless before “the last enemy”: death.

Our prayers are sometimes answered in the ways that we wouldn’t want them answered. Sometimes there’s an absence that leads to new prayers. Or the unstated “no” forces us to abandon what seemed to be the right path for us. And sometimes we get answers when we didn’t ask the question, like an inkling of that “peace which passes all understanding” without praying for anything at all, without asking or even knowing that we needed it. All of this is tied up in the mysterious way that prayer happens. These answers and non-answers and presumptive answers drive us, in so far as in us lies, to greater spiritual depth, and more prayer.

What we should avoid is treating God as some kind of vending machine which will dispense wishes, or clear answers, or happy thought on command, and then thinking “it’s broken” if you don’t get what you asked for. Maybe you learned this kind of prayer while growing up or from your neighbors, relatives and friends, but you’re unlikely to hear that at this church.

There’s more than a couple of problems with this approach. If you don’t get what you prayed for, you can blame God. Bad theology makes confirmed atheists. Or if you don’t get what you prayed for, then it’s easy to blame your lack of faith. You should have prayed harder or believed deeper. And what kind of help is that? Or what kind of God is that? It’s just another way of saying that you’re not worthy of God’s love, and that also needs to stop right now. A God who would work on those terms isn’t worth worshipping.

Treating prayer as a payment in a transaction with God is also a violation of what God has taught us through scripture and tradition. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not take the name of God in vain. When Jesus went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the accuser, Satan, that he might have all things it was Jesus who reminded him not to put the Lord God to the test. Which is another way of saying that God is not our wishing box in which we pour our desires and hope to have a predictable, desirable outcome. Life with God, instead, is our reward and portion.

Looking back at the passage from Luke, there was a detail I don’t want to miss: the pesky neighbor’s particular request. Jesus could have used any example for any need, but he spoke of needing bread to give to guests who had just arrived: ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’

That, as we say, is a clue. An arriving guest. Loaves of bread. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three angelic visitors. There are earlier echoes of Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God — it’s all a bit ambiguous, and ripe for a mystical interpretation — Melchizedek who greets Abram with bread; whose priesthood is seen in the letter to the Hebrews as a foretelling of Jesus’ eternal high-priesthood. And speaking of Jesus, bread and friends, one of the reasons the communion service is so powerful for so many people is in it he is made known to us in the breaking of bread. We do not commune with the bread and wine, but with the God who made it — and us.

I have to think this detail is about prayer, too. Prayer is how we meet deity, whether formal or informal, planned or spontaneous. For whatever else we can say of prayer, it is in God’s nature as we understand it to draw us toward God’s self, that we might have the divine life “on earth and it is in heaven.”

2 Replies to “Sermon: “Teach Us to Pray””

  1. I read your sermon in its entirety and enjoyed it immensely. I’ll look for more, thanks. Mom

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