When You Pray, Part 2

Written for and delivered at First Presbyterian Church of Apopka
Primary text: Matthew 6:5-15, as well as Mark 10:46-52 and Genesis 18:20-33

This week we’ll focus a little more on the portion of this passage often called the Lord’s Prayer. We could actually call it the Disciples’ Prayer, given that it was provided for them – for us – as a structure to learn from, to follow in our private prayers.

That is the context here- Jesus has just provided two examples for how we ought (and ought not) to pray. First, the focus needs to be on God, not on us; personal prayer is not for the benefit of those who might see or overhear us.  Second,  the language we use should be simple, from the heart, and straightforward. God doesn’t need the frills or stall tactics. God knows your needs and is waiting for you to ask.

It strikes me that Jesus shows us what God’s waiting might look like when he meets Bartimaeus. Jesus would have known from the circumstances and the man’s appearance that he was blind. The man’s friends had encouraged him to seek help from Jesus, that this was his chance to be healed. When Bartimaeus calls out, Jesus comes over and he asks, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”

Every time I read this, I think… “Come on, Jesus…You know what he wants… “ He wants to healing.  He wants to stop begging. He wants his parents to be free of the stigma of a son whose disability must represent some unforgiven sin. He wants to see!

Jesus knows all of this, and that he can offer even more- new life – both physical and spiritual. But he gives the blind man the opportunity to ask, so that Bartimaeus has agency in the situation, and so that he and all those who witness it will know from whom the healing comes.

You see, praying also pushes us into a space in which we must come to terms with what we have, what we are hoping or longing for, to whom we entrust those requests, and to whom our gratitude will ultimately flow.

When we begin the prayer Jesus teaches with Our Father in Heaven, we are placed in conversation with God. And God replies with tender love and great patience, What is it that you want me to do for you?

Jesus teaches us that we are praying to God as we would approach our own fathers. It’s possible that in speaking, Jesus might have used the more familiar term “Abba” – but he definitely intends a parental term. In our time, we might think of Father as formal, but it is far more personal than Adonai, or Lord as would be used in corporate Hebrew prayer,

God is not only Jesus’ father , but ours. And when we learn to make that claim in prayer, we are trusting that God is a good father, one who has our best interests at heart. But in the next phrase, Hallowed be your name, Jesus reminds us that name of God is to be cherished as holy and set apart, unlike the other gods of the ancient world, whose names and likenesses are recorded. The God who chose the Hebrew people never revealed a name beyond “I am.” We are approaching a God who is familiar, yet mysterious, loving and yet powerful.

Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.

God’s kingdom and will are not of this realm, at least not yet. Not entirely. But God’s will is still done here on earth. We can see it, and thus we can express the hope of God’s kingdom to come. And we can pray in expectation of the changes that God’s will can and does bring to bear in our lives and in the affairs of the world.

When we pray this, if we mean what we pray, we’d best expect that God is listening and that God is able to do what we ask and more than we can imagine. But we also need to expect that God is aware of much more than we can imagine, can see far past our own horizons. God’s will won’t always match up with our will and that therefore, God’s answers won’t always satisfy our desires. As any child from Central Florida who has ever prayed for a snow day can attest…

But the fact that we are not building snowmen does not mean that prayer has not effect. Our reading from Genesis is a conversation between God and Abraham, in which Abraham challenges the Lord, boldly requesting that God reconsider his plans to destroy Sodom.

There’s a lot going on in this story that we won’t be able to dive into today. But I want to point out a couple of things that apply directly to our conversation on prayer. Abraham approaches God with a mixture of familiarity and humility.  He knows God, has been on quite a long journey with God. Abraham has made mistakes, as we do. And through them, Abraham has learned much of God’s nature – of grace and mercy, of faithfulness. And Abraham has experienced God as a conversation partner.

Over time, Abraham learns that God will follow through, though not always how and when Abraham might prefer. So when Abraham approaches God, he does so trusting that God will listen, which God does.  God’s timing is not always our preferred timing; God’s provision is not always what we expect. But Jesus teaches us to pray for timely provision…

Give us this day, our daily bread.

This particular line is really interesting, and it’s hard to translate. The word translated as daily only shows up here, in Luke’s version of this teaching and in an early discipleship document called the Didache. If you break it down, by root and prefix, you could go with  day to day or of the day.

So we could pray, “day by day, give us the bread we need.”  I suspect Jesus was calling to mind God’s provision of manna to the people of Israel in the wilderness – just enough day to day, not more, not less. It’s harder for us here and now, to understand. Especially we who have plenty.

This was a prayer addressing a very real need for many of Jesus’ followers. It addresses a very real need for many people around us, and around the world. I wonder, as people of plenty, who often have more food than we need in a day, more stuff than we need in a lifetime… I wonder if we might be the answer to someone else’s prayer today. If we might provide someone with the bread or the blanket or the cash they need for today, or tonight or tomorrow

Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors

There’s a subtle difference there between the way we typically recite this prayer and the way Matthew captured it. Did you catch it?   As we also HAVE FORGIVEN By the time we ask the Lord to forgive us our debts, we are to have already forgiven others ourselves. We should approach God for forgiveness only after we have released someone else of that burden.

I fear our current prayer “as we forgive…” might give us a little more wiggle room than was intended, especially when you drop down to verse 14. The warning here is that holding onto grievances, keeping account of debts- emotional or financial- lacking forgiveness, letting the sun set on our anger… any and all of these keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s forgiveness.

How very different our lives can be when we are freed from the bondage of anger over disputes and slights from the past. How very different our communities could be when we work to reconcile those differences that cause brothers and sisters to walk away, wishing harm or at least some small amount of smiting would befall those with whom we are angry. And how very different the world might be if the people who gather in God’s house were to model that sort of grace and forgiveness often and publicly.

This is what Jesus is teaching… We are to approach the throne of grace daily, asking not only for our material needs, but for God to speak grace and love over our debts, our sins, enabling us to forgive still more. But our personal needs are not separate from our place within the community, the family. What we say and do and give to one another matters both to our spiritual health individually and as a body – the Body of Christ.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one

If sin is that which separates us from God, and pulls our attentions away from our first love, the temptations and trials against which we seek protection are myriad, including the sin of isolation.

We cannot isolate our prayer life from our economic and social activity if we are to be in honest and straightforward conversation with ourselves and God. We must be aware of how our actions and our inaction, how our relationships with our neighbors and with our environment affect the provision of daily bread for all.

And we must be aware of how our actions and our inaction, how our words and our silence affect our families, friends, neighbors, and the sisters and brothers with whom we worship, whether they are in need of forgiveness or a chance to forgive.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it hard to develop relationships open enough to be that accountable. Actually, I doubt it’s just me, otherwise we humans wouldn’t be so skilled at building walls & fences, crafting curtains and shades for windows, and creating firewalls and passwords to maintain some space between us.

Maintaining honesty with the one who will return to judge the quick and the dead – who knows when a fair falls from my head, thus already knows that thing I’m still ticked off about from last year – I find the idea of being that known really intimidating.  And maybe a little bit freeing. After all, it’s a lot less work when you aren’t trying to hide…

Of course, the God who knows my needs before I speak them, knows my heart intimately. God knows my sins, knows my grudges, knows my fears, knows my doubts.

And knowing all those things, all those things, even still God loves me
Knowing all those things, even still God loves you.
Even still, God loves us.

And God listens,
Ready to strengthen, to comfort, to heal, to forgive.
Ready to guide, to reconcile, to build up, to renew

And still God is asking, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”

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