I was initially puzzled when I saw that my assignment for today was to craft a sermon on the Lord’s prayer. What more can one say about it? All of us know it, we memorized it when we were children, we have prayed it hundreds of times, and it’s longstanding familiarity probably exceeds anything else in our formation as Christians. And then prayer and reflection revealed to me two matters that warrant our attention. The first is acknowledgment of this prayer’s familiarity. Because all of us know the saying that familiarity can breed contempt, we know that regular and routine contact with anything sometimes make that painfully true. So I invite you to join me in seriously thinking about the prayer Jesus taught his disciples and our comfortable familiarity with it. Because I’ve sometimes done it myself, I’ve come to suspect that some of us pray the Lord’s prayer while others of us just say it. And that’s what supports the first of my two special interests. In brief, I’ve come to think that it may be the essential role that this prayer plays in our worship – its repetition and frequency and sheer redundacy – that sometimes shows how a devout practice can encourage detachment and disengagement. And should that happen, as it regrettably does when activity is not accompanied by contemplation, some of us will likely pray the Lord’s prayer while some of us will merely say the words. To put it plainly, going-through-the-motions prayer may not be contemptuous but it’s not real prayer at all and it’s disrespectful and offensive to God. So I think that familiarity is a real challenge for us when we pray the Lord’s prayer. But I’m glad that we sing much of the liturgy here because I believe that singing as we do helps us to think more seriously about the words than merely saying them. So I have asked my dear wife, Donna, our children’s catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, to teach us the Lord’s Prayer as an echo version of the prayer that she teaches to our children. Thank you.
You doubtless noticed that Donna included the doxology (“for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever”). It’s a glorious doxology, and she might have left it out because it is not part of Luke’s account of Jesus’ prayer and a later addition by the Church. But despite all the authenticity question, and given my druthers, I’d prefer to pray Jesus’ prayer as Luke remembers it, if only because it was his remembered response to the only request his disci-ples ever made of him. They asked him to teach them how to pray and he gave them a pattern, a model, a prototype. And in it he made clear that our conversa-tions with God are always words spoken by a speaker and heard by a listener – dialogic we might say. So I often ask myself: when I pray our Lord’s prayer, am I really thinking about what I’m saying or do the words just come trippingly off my tongue? That’s always a test for me – to think seriously about what I am so fa-miliarly saying. I learned it as a toddler and pray it every day. Over more than eight decades I’ve prayed it thousands of times. But I don’t think I’m unique, and I suspect that my test could also be your test – to pay serious attention to this prayer that’s so familiar to us that we sometimes don’t give it a second thought. I think that’s really worth thinking about – but there’s no need to dwell on that challenge because just calling attention to it is probably sufficient.
More important is the prayer itself. Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this prayer hurry to dissect the prayer itself and ignore its context in Luke’s account – and that’s my second special interest in this prayer. Two Sundays ago the gospel was about how we should be neighbors to each other, even if they are hated Samaritans. Then last Sundays readings were about how Abra-ham and Sarah, and later Mary and Martha, demonstrated hospitality. Today, following his mod-el prayer, Jesus tells another story along similar lines. Suppose you drop by a neighbor’s house at midnight and ask for three loaves of bread because an unexpected guest has arrived and you have nothing for him to eat. In those days people made just enough bread for one day and when Jesus said “our daily bread” his disciples knew he meant daily. So what was this fellow to do – there were no emails or telephones, no 24/7 Subways or Dunkin Donuts or Pizza Huts – and most people were sound asleep shortly after sundown. But there was a tradition of community solidar-ity and hospitality so you thought you could expect your neighbor would help to provide your guest with something to eat. Still, we’re unsurprised at his irritation when he’s disturbed at mid-night. “Don’t bother me,” he says, “the door is shut – I can’t get up and give you bread.” But persistence eventually persuades him to get out of bed and give his neighbor what he asks for. And that makes our Lord’s opening gambit rhetorical. ‘Suppose you have a friend who comes to you at midnight with a request’, turns out to be exactly what friends are for. Jesus’ work, we say, is to make us God’s friends – and in this story, he says that specifically. This is exactly who God is – a friend to whom we can go in the needy midnights of our lives and ask for help.
That’s the important followup story. As for the prayer itself, we know that Luke’s ver-sion is similar to but not identical with Matthew’s. His text is shorter and has only five petitions as compared with seven in Matthew. In addition, Matthew adds “but deliver us from evil” – and we know that the Church added the doxology. Otherwise, both prayers consist of two parts. Im-mediately after “Our Father” comes a litany of requests – a closely linked series of petitionary prayers. In fact, both Luke and Matthew make petitionary prayer the sine qua non -the essential condition – of conversation with God. Let your kingdom come on earth, give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, lead us not into temptation, save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil – all active verbs. Of course, our prayers also include praise and thanksgivings – but Jesus’ model prayer is all about begging, asking for favors, making supplications, pleas, and appeals – all of them intensely personal and petitionary – one to one – addressed to our Father in heaven.
Years ago I prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and remembered that this is the most sacred space in Judaism – the site where tradition says King Solomon built the 1st temple. The Babylonians destroyed that temple in the 6th c. BC. Then Zerubbabel began build-ing the 2nd Temple 525 BC – and it was finally finished 500 years later when Herod the Great completely refurbished it. But it was reduced to rubble again by the Romans in 70 AD and now the Western Wall, that Jews call the Kotel, is all that remains. I later learned that, as a sign of our times, Judaism’s holiest prayer site has entered the Twitter age. Thanks to social media, we do not have to be personally present at the Wall to pray. The Western Wall now has its own social network address and people can tweet their prayers. Without leaving their Lazyboys and barca-loungers anyone around the world can tweet prayers, have them printed, and taken to the wall – where they will join thousands of handwritten notes (like mine) that have been placed between its 2000 year-old stones. There’s no charge for placing a prayer through the ‘Tweet Your Prayers’ site but visitors to the web site are invited to make an electronic donation. So far as I know, there is nothing similar yet for the Vatican or Canterbury or for St. Titus!
And that prompts my final observation about our Lord’s prayer, which is this: the primary mode of prayer in the Bible is earthy, just as our work in the earthy world is a holy activity that’s an offering to God. So whereas prayer as a mystical experience transports us out of this world and is basically escapist – Jesus’ prayer is striking different. His prayer makes asking and knock-ing and seeking the sine qua non of prayer – prayer par excellence – the consecration of both our-selves and the world to God’s purposes. It’s our liturgy – our work – it’s what we do on God’s be-half in the world as a place of God’s blessing. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request was to give them a common liturgy that is literally their vocation – their work. To put it another way, his prayer displays the prototype of a Christian life. He did not give instructions about praying – he offers us a form, a paradigm – a model that teaches us both how to pray and how to live.
The English word ‘prayer’ is derived from the Latin word ‘precari’ and it means to beg, to entreat, to ask earnestly for a favor, for help? Jesus says we must keep on keeping on – that our begging and asking have to be persistent. We can’t be afraid of rejection. “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” All active verbs – exactly like charity and forgiveness – and if we, as irritable as we can be at our children’s incon-venient asking, know how to give them good things, just imagine how much more generously our heavenly Father will give his blessing to those who ask him.
When Jesus addresses his Father as “Abba” he uses the Aramaic equivalent of ‘daddy’ or ‘papa’ – the same familiar and intimate words we use when we address our human fathers. Please look again at the lectionary insert, and particularly at the last few lines of the gospel where Jesus instructs his disciples to knock, seek, and ask. In the little story that follows, he promises that we will receive what we ask for – that the door will be opened – and that we will find what we seek – that our heavenly Father’s generosity and hospitality far exceeds that of those from whom we rightly expect the most liberality and hospitality, viz., our earthly parents. Of course all of us know we don’t always get what we ask for. Our greatest confidence is simply that our prayers will be answered – so I think St. John Chrysostom gives us the right perspective when he says that God answers our prayers “as may be best for us”. I think that phrase is spot-on because the Bible speaks only of God’s ‘good gifts’ – and it’s patently true that only ‘good gifts’ that are what Jesus promises in this prayer. Maybe God waits for us to ask for good things before giving them. Or maybe we get changed by God’s comeback to what we pray for. Or maybe we are given a dif-fer-ent understanding of what we really need and want. Or maybe most important of all, we are taught how to get put into a posture and place where God can talk to us
That’s the model prayer that Jesus gives us. It teaches us that it’s not just OK – it’s alto-gether right to petition God – to beg God tirelessly and patiently for the things that matter to us. And maybe that’s why, after the prayer itself, Jesus tells this little story to give us hope. Just think about it, he says: if a friend will get out of bed in the dead of the night – and if a plain, ordinary, garden-variety, dog-tired friend – will help you at midnight after a hard days’ work – don’t you think that the Lord God Almighty – the Holy One, blessed be his name, whose mercy endures for-ever – don’t you think he will be at least that approachable! Don’t you think that if you come to his house in your deepest darkness and knock on his door, he will open it and you will have thrust into your hands something more than a few crusts of day-old bread! And remember this: when it comes to your own kids, you don’t act like a jerk – so why would you suppose God would act that way toward his children! So don’t ever forget this – when your hospitality is at its best, God’s gracious and generous welcome is immeasurably richer and better and anything we can offer each other. All we have to do is ask for what may be best for us. Thanks be to God. So be it. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.