When You Pray

Prepared and preached for First Presbyterian Church, Apopka.   Primary text: Matthew 6:5-15.

Today and next week, we’ll be looking at this passage as a means to explore several aspects of prayer together.

You probably recognized the second part of the passage – the way that Matthew captured what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. It also happens to be the center and centerpiece of the Sermon on the Mount – the first and longest collection of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel.

This sermon establishes Jesus as the teacher – authorized by God – of the people of Israel. Almost analogous to an inaugural address. An overarching theme is established in these teachings – that believing in Jesus means doing, not simply hearing or agreeing with what he says. In order to be ready for their commissioning – via our shared Great Commission – at the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, his followers must become disciples who can teach all that they have been commanded… and taught.

First are the beatitudes, then the reminders of how the church is to function in the world as salt and light. Then he offers six statements that follow a pattern of antithesis, Jesus saying “You have heard it said, but I tell you now…” In these, he sets his teaching alongside of and then adds to the rabbinic tradition, revealing more completely God’s will in the interpretation of God’s law, as well as the primacy of love.

This short discussion of prayer we read is the middle segment of Jesus’ teachings on personal piety through the lens of 3 practices: just before it comes giving, fasting after. Now, none of these practices were new to the disciples; they would have been as familiar to his followers then as they are to us today.

And much like the “You have heard it said, but now I say” antitheses, Jesus establishes a pattern for revealing a more God-honoring way. For each practice, he offers an example of how and why NOT to perform these obligations, before describing the proper practice and what the heavenly reward will be. We see this in the first verses – Jesus paints the picture of the hypocrite standing in a very visible spot.

I should note that Jesus is not concerned with corporate worship at this point; he is teaching about private prayer. These private prayers happened out in public because it was customary for Jews  – who knew the patterns of temple worship – to stop at 3pm and pray, like a scattered congregation.  But unlike temple or synagogue rituals and prayers, these had no prescribed patterns or wording. It was simply a time to stop and pray near the end of a day.

The hypocrites Jesus speaks of would be the ones who made a show of praying in public – out loud in the middle of everything, turning a private conversation with God into a sort of performance art. These prayers were no longer directed toward God, but offered for the benefit of a human audience. Thus these people receive their only reward right away- the attention of the humanity.

Now Jesus would not have expected most of those listening to literally pray in a private room, as most homes would be so simple that they wouldn’t have rooms or cells with that level of privacy. He was speaking metaphorically,  asking them and us to consider how our surroundings, our physical posture, and our voices can create a sense of focused connection with God rather than the people around us.

But let’s bring this into our own context. Perhaps you have observed people eating out alone, taking a moment to bow and pray before the meal. Generally, they offer a brief silent or whispered prayer, easy enough to miss if you aren’t looking their direction at just the right moment. Once in a great while, though, you come across someone working really hard to ensure that everyone seated nearby is aware they are praying and just how skilled they are at it.

Without getting too Judgy McJudgerson about this, I do have wonder about those pray-ers when I see them… for whose benefit are they being offered? The other Christ-followers in the room, so that they might be shamed into praying before they eat? To set an example for those who don’t claim Christianity as their faith?  It’s hard to say.

But if even one of those is partly true, the focus of the prayer is no longer on the God to whom the prayers are meant to be lifted.

In the next verse, Jesus warns against another issue- being the sort of pray-er who babbles, piling up empty phrases in hopes they make the prayer more effectual. A seminary prof of mine warned us several times during our doctrine classes against what he called “manipulating the symbols.”  He was talking about the way sometimes preachers, teachers – and even people praying alone – arrange and rearrange words, phrases and imagery so that their prayers and conversations sound spiritual or theological. But when words become baubles or flowers arranged decoratively without concern for the depth of their meaning, there is no substance or value.

The writer of the Second Helvetic Confession (my third favorite of those collected in our Book of Confessions) says of prayers that they should neither be long nor vexing. He and Dr. Colyer were thinking more of corporate prayer, but Jesus indicates the same rules apply for our private prayer life: speaking plainly and to the point when approaching God in prayer places the focus on the heart, not the words.

Jesus wants followers who are authentic, honest and focused.  Followers who are truly present for themselves and for God as an act of worship- loving and honoring the God who loved them first.

Author Anne Lamott recently published a book of essays about what she called the three essential prayers – Help, Thanks, Wow. Those themes probably sound familiar… maybe the first two moreso than the last.  Three of the most honest – from the gut prayers I ever offered were never uttered aloud, and they were the simplest… just 2 words each.

“I quit”

“Show me”

and “Thank you”

I will confess all three were bathed in tears because in each of those moments I had come to the end of myself and had no-one and nowhere else to turn but to God. I was looking for help, for direction, and for proof. And in each case, the truth that God knows what we need before we even ask, was made abundantly clear.

Back in 2001, I had just started work at CC. Three months earlier, I had lost my job.  Well, honestly, my job was taken away from me and given to someone else.  While I was out of work, God was working on my heart, using this time to draw me closer. But because of the pain caused by my former employer, I was mostly just going through the motions in my relationship with God.  Oh, I was dutiful enough- volunteering, worshiping, going to Sunday school, but far from passionate.

Then one morning I found myself driving to work and singing along to a song on the Christian radio station. The chorus went something like “Show me your glory.  Send down your presence; I want to see your face.” As I parked the car, I realized I wasn’t just singing, I was praying.  I was asking God to show me.  I had reached a point at which I needed proof that God really did hear me, that God really did care about me and my little part of the world.

As you do, I pulled myself together, got my bag and went to my desk. I was already thinking about what was to come that day at work, leaving behind what had happened in the car.  And then I saw it…  in front of the monitor at my desk A cookie.

But not just any cookie… it was a my favorite kind of cookie.  A chocolate chip cookie.

But not just any chocolate chip cookie.  It was one of those big, soft cookies that make me remember my Oma’s kitchen.

And then I saw the note.  It said:
“Dear Laura, on the way in to work this morning, God told me to stop and get this for you.  So here it is, with love from God and me.”

My co-worker, Scotty, who had really only known me for a couple of weeks and with whom I had never discussed cookies, had signed it.  But this cookie was clearly an answer – from God – to my most heartfelt need… And it was   provided even before I had put words to that need.

You see Scotty had arrived an hour earlier.  She been to the store and written the note well before I was singing and praying in my car.  And because Scotty was also faithful, God spoke directly to me… in the form of a cookie.

I heard – loud and clear – that I hadn’t been abandoned; I hadn’t been forgotten.

It was a small kindness, really.  All in response to small prayer, especially in relation to the big, awful messes in the world. And God knows all about them, too. God knows and cares about all of it- the hurts that can be soothed with a phone call and the violence that will not end before the triumphal return of the Risen Christ. And God is at always at work answering our prayers for all those things –  in ways that are seen and unseen.

You may have noticed by now that I like words. Playing with them, working to find the right combination to express what I’ve learned or discovered in a way that will help someone else learn, too. You might also have deduced by now that I am an extrovert, a people person who gets energy from being with people, talking, collaborating, swapping stories, laughing…

So, it may not come as too much of a surprise that silence is not something that comes naturally to me. I’ve had to learn to sit in silence, allowing space for this too-busy brain to relax and stop creating it’s own weather patterns and noise pollution.

Space that allows me to listen intently, not waiting my turn to say what I’ve already planned, but absorbing what the person opposite me is saying, as well as what they are not saying.

Space that allows me to listen intently to God, not waiting to tell God more about what I want, not piling on more and more and more words, but remaining open to a word, a song, a nudge, an new prayer, and even prolonged silence.

You see, prayer as a spiritual practice is a conversation, a private conversation with the one person who deserves our best – our focused and undivided attention, our direct and honest speech, and our open, trusting hearts.

In Luke’s account, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. We don’t see that request in Matthew’s gospel, but it remains clear that Jesus was teaching.  And the content of the Lord’s prayer is a powerful model of just what he was saying to them throughout the sermon on the Mount. We’ll dive into that next week.

I want to go back for a moment to the idea of creating space to listen in prayer, because it is  especially important in times of discernment. Whether individually or in groups of any size, discerning God’s will and distinguishing it from our own agendas and desires requires great intentionality and focus.

This congregation has been and remains in a time of discernment – praying about your future as the First Presbyterian Church of Apopka. Even as the Pastor Nominating Committee does its work, the session and board of deacons continue to serve the people as spiritual leaders.

There is a very human tendency to work the logistics, follow the process and strive to meet our human and organizational deadlines. But the God we know through the scriptures has never been bound by logistics, process or timing.

At risk of moving from preaching to meddling, I want to challenge each of you to create space to listen as you pray.

In your meetings and in your own personal devotions, add a few moments of silence in the presence of God. Between those times of listening, take the time to ask others “What are you hearing?”  without agenda, without anticipating an answer, and remaining open to surprise.  Because our God is oh-so-fond of surprises.

Let me share one more little story:
One of the first presbytery meetings I attended as a ruling elder commissioner was at El Redentor Church near Tuskawilla. I had helped with the band leading worship, so when it came time to find a seat for the day, I had to squeeze in between commissioners from other congregations. People I didn’t know.

During the report from the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, a woman I didn’t know was certified as a candidate, and her pastor stood to pray for her.  The church was silent, but for the pastor’s voice, the rest of us in that pious Presbyterian prayer slump,  when I heard someone say, “That will be you one day soon”

I looked up because I was so surprised… who would be so rude to speak aloud in that moment? But all the heads near me were still bowed… then I heard it again.  “That will be you”

At that point, I realized it was a voice calling me. The same voice that had called me many years before – when I wasn’t yet ready to say yes. I honestly had no idea how to proceed in the moment, other than to say in my heart… “Ok?”

I didn’t tell anyone – not my pastor, not my best friend.  After all, who would believe that God had spoken to me at a presbytery meeting, of all places. But that day marked the beginning of a great conversation. I had questions for God.  Lots of questions.  And they have been answered –  through people, through scriptures, through quiet moments and journals and even dreams. The conversation continued through seminary and up to the day that  I stood in front of the Presbytery being prayed for the day I became a candidate for ministry.

And I’m still listening, trusting God to guide me to where I am meant to be each day, and where I will be called eventually as a vocation.

I don’t know how God will speak to you… and I certainly can’t promise an audible voice… But speak God will… today, next week, and in the coming months.

And I trust that when we offer our hearts to God, open our minds to more than we can ask or imagine, and allow the space to listen, the conversation will continue. And it will bring a great adventure.


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