Sermon: Teach Us to Pray

“Teach Us to Pray”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 28, 2019

Psalm 85:8-12
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
   for God will speak peace to God’s people,
   to God’s faithful, to those who turn to the Lord in their hearts. 
Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who are in awe of the Lord,
   that God’s glory may dwell in our land. 

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
   righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
   and righteousness will look down from the sky. 
The Lord will give what is good,
   and our land will yield its increase.

Luke 11:1-13
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come. 
Give us each day our daily bread. 
  And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!’

I love that this passage compares God to an irritated neighbor. God, of course, comes out favorably in that comparison, but it makes me smile because so many of us have that friend or relative – or maybe we have been that friend or relative – who comes begging a favor at the most inopportune time but who through sheer persistence wears the other person down. If even we humans with our disgruntlement and suppressed eye rolls can be bothered to respond to someone in need, Jesus implies, surely God will answer us when we come calling. 

It makes me wonder: how many of us in our prayer lives have felt like the friend asking for an inconvenient favor from a God who would rather not be disturbed? 

I discovered in our Lenten study and Learning to Pray that many of you grew up like I did: somewhere along the way, I absorbed the idea that prayer was something you did mainly on behalf of others, not on your own behalf. No one ever said it out loud, but I got the impression that asking God to help others was good and holy, but asking for something I wanted or needed was, if sometimes necessary, a bit selfish. 

Of course, most of us will go to God to ask for help if we really, truly need it: if we’re waiting on a diagnosis, or have a scare driving on the highway, or we get in some sort of a fix (it’s surprising how fast “Please let there be a spot free” rolls off my tongue in the Trader Joe’s parking lot at 5pm when I have both kids in the car). 

But often there’s a lingering sense of reluctance or guilt for having bothered the Creator of the Universe with something so surely beneath the Divine attention as our own needs. And if it’s a matter of something really minor, well, forget it! There are plenty of other people in the world who have it way worse than we do; God’s got a lot more to worry about than whether we get over our cold or whether we close the deal or whether our kid will finally, for the love all that is holy, go to sleep already.

But when we think about prayer this way, we’re missing the point. This passage reminds us that it actually has nothing to do with the content of what we’re asking or on whose behalf, and everything to do with the act of asking. Asking God for what we need – and doing it as liberally as Jesus describes here – asking! seeking! knocking! – creates intimacy with God.

If we feel comfortable asking God to help a family member or church friend, but not to help us in our times of trial, we’ve set up a sort of spiritual bottleneck, preventing ourselves from reaching out to God and preventing God from reaching us in the struggles and stresses we keep deep inside – and ultimately denying God access to our hearts. 

Have you ever had the experience of not realizing how deeply a problem was affecting you until you named it out loud to a friend? Once a month I go to spiritual direction – a sort of therapy for pastors – just around the corner at the convent. Walking up the hill to the house where I meet with my spiritual director, I often find myself wondering “What am I going to talk about with Kathleen today? I’m not sure I’ve really got anything going on that’s worthy of her attention.” Yet each month, I find an hour’s worth of stresses, questions, doubts, and discoveries to mull over with her. And it’s funny, because although I always feel fine on my walk there, in retrospect it always seems like a slog through leaden molasses compared to the way I feel as I walk back home when I’m done – and not just because I’m headed downhill! I feel so much lighter, buoyed up with joy and filled with gratitude for all the myriad ways God is working in and through me. And all because I was able to say it aloud to a friend, knowing God was listening.

Prayer on our own behalf – naming what we need to God – has the very same effect: it relieves us of burdens we didn’t even realize were weighing us down, letting God in to help carry – or even eliminate – the load.

You might not have noticed this before, but in the Lord’s Prayer – the prayer Jesus gave the disciples when they asked him for a tutorial in how to pray – over half of the things we use it to pray for are asks that our own needs be met, both physically and spiritually: food; forgiveness; that we be kept safe from affliction (the literal translation of “temptation”) and that we be rescued from all evil. That ratio is no accident; Jesus knows intimately that we need God’s help, in so many ways. And the more we can acknowledge that – the more we can exchange our idea that stoically avoiding prying for ourselves is selfish for the idea that it is brave and powerfully vulnerable to let God in to the heart of all we face. 

What if we tried to not make it any harder than necessary on the God who loves us so? What if we tried actually doing as Jesus suggests – asking, seeking, knocking – as if God will meet us at every turn, as Jesus promises: “how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”  What if we tried praying – not only for others, and not just because we need something – though that’s fine too – but as a way of drawing closer to the God who wants nothing more than to help us through it all?