Psalm 130; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 11:1-13
Less than a year ago, late on a Sunday night on October 2nd, 2017, a lone gunman killed more than 50 people and injured more than 500 people after he opened fire on a large crowd attending a three-day country music festival in Las Vegas. On the day after this massacre, one of the deadliest in our nation’s history, Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts wrote an article entitled “Enough of just shock and prayers and tears after mass shootings.” He went on to say, “There is now a grim routine to all of this…Like a favorite movie, you can recite the lines by rote. Politicians pronounce themselves ‘shocked and saddened.’ Landmarks all over the world dim their lights. People say, ‘we are all Las Vegas – or Newtown or Aurora or Orlando – today. And everybody offers thoughts and prayers for the victims.” The author goes on to suggest that while prayer has its place, as the Bible puts it, “what good is it my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
When we look to Jesus we discover this same truth: his faith, his life of prayer and love for God did not stand alone or lead him to withdraw from the world. Rather, his faith, his regular practice of talking with and trusting in God, is what empowered and motivated him to action, to go out into the world to bring God’s love and power to others. In the life and teaching of Jesus we discover that we need not, dare not choose between a life of prayer and a life of action. Rather, we see that giving of ourselves through a life of action on behalf of others is rooted and sustained in the daily, life-giving practice of prayer, talking with God.
When we look to the Bible we see that a vital life of prayer first of all changes us. I recall a story of a young man who was studying to be a priest. One day his mentor asked him what motivated him to become a priest. The student replied: “I want to change the world, to make it the world God created it to be.” To which his mentor responded: “Keep studying and praying and come back to me in one year.” A year later and a year wiser, the student returned to his mentor. Again, the mentor asked him what motivated him to become a priest. This time the student replied: “I want to reform the church, to make it the community of faith and love that God created it to be.” To which his mentor responded: “Keep studying and praying and come back to me in one year.” Another year later and another year wiser, the student returned to his mentor. Again the mentor asked him what motivated him to become a priest. This time the student humbly replied: “I want to change myself, to become the person God created me to be.” To which the mentor responded, “Welcome to the priesthood.”
When I studied to become a pastor, my hope was, with God’s help, to provide leadership for churches to change the world. While I never have lost sight of this goal, I have learned during my forty years of being a pastor that any hope of changing the world begins with changing me. And even at this point of my life I know, perhaps more than ever, that the work of changing me is never completed! There is a reason that the prayer which Jesus taught us to pray includes the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In prayer I bring not just my best self, but my whole self to God. I do so not in fear, but with the persistent confidence that God not only knows everything about me, but is quick to forgive and to help me and each one of us to become the people God created us to be.
In addition to providing a safe place of unconditional love and forgiveness, talking with God in prayer can help us change the way we deal with life’s anxieties. As Paul wrote to his Christian brothers and sisters in his letter to the church in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, bring your requests to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
Learning to let go of anxiety through prayer is what was experienced by author Anne Lamott when she decided to use what she calls her “God box.” As she described it in her book, Help Thanks Wow The Three Essential Prayers, “One modest tool for letting go in prayer that I’ve used for twenty-five years is a God box. I’ve relied on every imaginable container- from a pillbox, to my car’s glovebox, to decorative boxes friends gave me. The container has existed in time and space, so you can physically put a note into it, so you can see yourself let go, in time and space. On a note, I write down the name of the person about whom I am so distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am so toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. I might have a brief moment of prayer and it might come out sounding like this: “Here. You think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how to best proceed.” Then I agree to keep my sticky mitts off until I hear back…and, like me, maybe after you put a note in the God box, you’ll go a little limp, and in that divine limpness you’ll be able to breathe again.”
We seem to be living in a time of increased anxiety, as noted in a new book out entitled The Age of Overwhelm. Anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, can rob us of our joy, of our hope, of our very breath and energy and can damage even our closest relationships. In talking with God we can bring our concerns, our stresses, all the things that make us feel overwhelmed to God. In prayer we open ourselves to letting God be God and we can discover the peace which surpasses understanding.
As Leah pointed out a few Sundays ago, prayer is the food that feeds our faith. This is what the disciples saw when Jesus prayed and this is what the disciples hungered for when they came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. The disciples wanted the same kind of nurturing bond with God and the same kind of transforming peace and power that Jesus gained from his personal and dynamic prayer life. Bottom line, they wanted prayer to change them to become more like Jesus, so they, like Jesus, could be God’s instruments of change in the world.
So how does prayer empower us to help change the world? In both the words of the Lord’s Prayer and in the teaching which follows it, Jesus binds prayer to our hearts in a way which connects us with the greater world. Five short sentences constitute the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in Luke’s gospel account. The first sentence, “Father, hallowed be your name,” Jesus calls us to address God as “Abba” a word which invites us to think of God as a heavenly parent- one who created a human family in which we are all God’s very own children. This teaching of Jesus was a radical affirmation of God’s inclusive love in a world where life was so fragile, where women and children were viewed as mere property and where outsiders were looked down upon as unclean and unworthy. In contrast Jesus’ prayer taught his first followers that there is one God who is over all creation and who seeks to love and be near each of us.
Clearly we are living in a world where life is still fragile for far too many. When we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, we commit ourselves to a worldview where everyone matters, where all children are God’s children and all people are loved and valued by the same God. This is the worldview we base our actions on and bring to the greater community, to places of business, to schools, to community organizations and to our neighborhoods.
Acting on behalf of all our neighbors also is connected to the second sentence of the Lord’s Prayer- “Your kingdom come.” This phrase is the first petition offered in the Lord’s Prayer. It signifies our seeking God to direct our lives, to use us to help bring peace and justice into this world. In Jesus’ story that follows the Lord’s Prayer, the persistence of the man seeking bread to share with a friend is not mere persistence. Rather, it is persistence in a specific, good cause. Jesus affirms this man’s persistence and encourages us to be persistent in our prayers. But for Jesus, persistence in itself is of no value. Rather, Jesus calls us to be persistent in seeking first God’s kingdom, God’s purposes for our lives and for the world. Jesus’ teaching about prayer is in sharp contrast to modern-day evangelists who suggest that God dispenses favors and blessings like a heavenly vending machine and who teach people to pray with persistence for a new luxury car, a bigger home, or a personal financial windfall. Unlike these contemporary “gospel of wealth” preachers, Jesus connects persistence in prayer to seeking what God values and especially to receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to help us live out those values to create a better world.
At the same time, Jesus does encourage us to pray for our own daily, personal needs. “Give us this day our daily bread.” This recognizes our physical needs for daily nourishment. “And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who sins against us.” This recognizes our spiritual and relational needs for forgiveness and reconciliation. “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” This recognizes our need for God’s protection and strength to face and endure times which test our faith. That Jesus includes these three petitions to meet our own personal needs, recognizes the truth with which we started today’s message: only when prayer, talking with God, feeds our faith, heals our hurts and fills us with the power of God’s Spirit will we be able to help change the world.
Empowerment through prayer to change us and to change the world was illustrated throughout the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. This movement for justice, for a better America and a better world where all God’s children have the chance to thrive, was rooted in the faith and prayers of thousands of African Americans who gathered each Sunday to pray and worship in their churches. It was in their churches that these ordinary people of faith learned to love first through a embracing a life of both personal prayer and social action. It was from their churches that these ordinary people of faith were sent off with food and prayers to travel together on buses to participate in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 – 55 years ago this coming Tuesday. Most of us recall the well-known speech from that day, the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered so powerfully by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it is important that we also remember that behind this one unforgettable speech and this one famous man of faith were the countless and continuing prayers of hundreds and thousands of untitled and unknown people of faith – not only those who had sacrificed to travel to Washington, but the many more who had marched in their hometown streets for freedom and remained nonviolent while being brutalized by the hatred and violent force of their attackers. It was the power of prayer that inspired, united and sustained them to make all the sacrifices necessary to bring shame upon their enemies, to stir the hearts and consciences of all Americans and to create a better America for us all.
This is the kind of power the disciples saw in Jesus. This is the kind of power they sought when they came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. And so might we. Like those first followers of Jesus who wanted to help build God’s kingdom on earth, like those ordinary people of faith who came together 55 years ago to dream and work for a better nation, may we seek with all our hearts to learn to pray as Jesus prayed – prayer that changes us and, in turn, changes our world. Amen!