Sermon Seeds: Shaped By Prayer
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12
Hosea 1:2-10 with Psalm 85 or
Genesis 18:20-32 with Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Shaped by Prayer
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
The disciples find Jesus at prayer. They’re on the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus will face suffering and death, and he’s teaching them along the way. The lessons of discipleship have been coming, one after another, reflected in our readings in the past few weeks. We’ve learned about the importance of traveling light on our mission (don’t even carry bread, Jesus says, suggesting it will be provided along the way), the centrality of love for God and neighbor (including those folks we’d rather not call “neighbor”) and, in the story of Mary and Martha, the importance of both listening to, and doing, the Word of God.
What comes next could form the basis of many sermons, but the preacher may want to resist the temptation to examine each line of the Prayer of Our Savior (the Lord’s Prayer) or to unpack the unusual parable of the man knock, knock, knocking on his neighbor’s door at midnight, or to explore in depth the well-known verses on asking, seeking, and knocking. Instead, we may ask: what is this passage, as a whole, teaching the disciples – and that means us, too – about what it means to follow Jesus? After all, that’s what disciples do – they follow, and model themselves on, their teacher. That’s why they asked Jesus to teach them to pray, just as John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. In those days, you would be known by the prayer that was distinctive to your group, gathered around the teacher you followed.
The disciples were, of course, men of faith who were raised in a setting in which they had certainly been taught to pray. But did you ever think you knew how to do something until you saw someone do it so much better, or you saw the remarkable effects of how they did it, and you wanted to say, “Show me how you do that”? Throughout the centuries, in many different places and cultures and many different faiths, spiritual teachers mostly teach “how,” and many people come to them not so much for answers but for ways to practice their faith so that they can have the same peace, strength, and wisdom as their teacher.
I think those disciples saw the power of the Spirit of God in Jesus. I think they saw the strength, the power, the wisdom of God in Jesus, and they wanted to be strong, and full of power, and wise, too. (Most of the time, by the way, the disciples didn’t seem to know or understand what they were asking for, which makes them once again pretty much like us.) And Jesus responded with a short prayer that has indeed become the prayer that marks us, identifies and unifies us as Christians.
We come to church from many different places, not just geographically, and we’ve followed many different spiritual paths. Many of us were raised in one of the mainline Protestant denominations – Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal (even, some of us, but not many, in the United Church of Christ!) – and many others grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. Some were raised in a non-Christian tradition, such as the Jewish faith. And some of us were not raised in any religious tradition at all. To most if not all of us, however, the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples in this week’s reading is something familiar, something we share in common. It is the one prayer that we are most likely able to recite by heart: in fact, it’s amazing and very touching to hear the stories of pastors who visit people who are suffering from strokes or memory loss who, when the Lord’s Prayer is begun, are able to join in, however slowly, and recite each word.
Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with God. There are many references in the Gospel of Luke to Jesus at prayer, and I suspect that he listened just as much as he spoke. In any case, he tells the disciples – and again, that includes us, too – that we should talk with God as we would to a loving parent, a parent who listens to us, cares for us, forgives us, provides for us, protects us. Jesus doesn’t talk obscure, intellectual theology. No, he brings the reality of God’s love home to the people in terms they – we – can understand, the language of everyday relationships (at their best and their “not so good”). He gives us the words to say, and an attitude as well, when we pray, and then he tells a story and gives a little exhortation to persuade us that, if we who are limited, weak, even evil, have sense enough to answer the door and help a neighbor,or to give our children good things, not bad ones, well, then, of course, God, who is infinitely greater, more loving, more generous than we are, will give…”the Holy Spirit” to us.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches in a similar passage that God will give “good things” to those who ask. But we’re reading the Gospel of Luke, and Luke says that God will give “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask. At first, that may disappoint us. We want the good things, right? We want health, happiness, safety, and maybe, if we’re really honest, we want some success, some comfort, some prestige…after all, we’re only human.
However, this promise of the Holy Spirit is the key to understanding the passage as a whole, because the Holy Spirit and a sense of call always seem to go together. This prayer Jesus gave us is not just a comforting, private little prayer to get us through our tough times and personal crises. This is the prayer of the community, a community that was promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it didn’t become “the church” until Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, just as Jesus promised. And this community, the church, is called. We are called to be the Body of Christ. We are called to be light, to be salt, to be leaven for the world. We are called to be bread for the world. We are called to live and breathe in radical dependence on, utterly trusting in, the God who made us and listens to our prayers and calls us by name, the God who forms us into a community that prays together, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not just for me, but for all of us. Not for the long-term, but day by day by day. This God gives us the Holy Spirit to depend on and draw strength from. We can trust the Holy Spirit.
Of course, this is easier said than done. We are more likely to depend on our learning, our physical and mental capabilities, our own devices, our ability to figure things out for ourselves. Years ago I heard a wonderful story about Mother Teresa and a famous ethicist who came to work at her house of the dying in Calcutta, at a time when he was seeking a clear answer to how best to spend the rest of his life. She asked him what she could do for him, and he asked her to pray for him. She said, “What do you want me to pray for?” And he said, “Pray that I have clarity.” She replied, “No, I will not do that – clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” The ethicist observed that Mother Teresa always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, but she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
And so it seems to me that spending time with God in prayer – in regular, intimate conversation – and opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, will lead us on the way of compassion, and it will lead us to transformation, not just as individuals but as a community. Because this prayer is the prayer of our community and not just a private one, it reminds us, challenges us, urges and inspires us as a community not only to form this prayer with our lips but to be formed ourselves by this prayer, formed and shaped into a community of compassion and justice that makes sure that all of God’s children have “their daily bread” – and all that that phrase implies today, all that they need from the abundance with which God has blessed us. The prayer calls us to join in the building of God’s kingdom not up in heaven, but here, on earth, a reign of justice, healing, mercy, and love. How often do we pray for what we want more than what we need? What kind of life would it be to live intentionally from day to day, having only our daily bread, as so much of the world’s population does, although not by choice?
For me, and I believe for you, too, the church is not something abstract. It is something we experience as embodied creatures with a need for community and companionship on the journey, on the pilgrimage of faith. It helps me to know that, even when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, alone in my room, there are other Christians in other places, praying the same prayer, forming the same prayer in their hearts and on their lips, and all of us being formed and transformed by it. (There is a beautiful wall hanging just inside the Amistad Chapel here at the Church House in Cleveland with the Prayer of Our Savior in Arabic, made in Egypt, a powerful illustration of our multicultural church and the many languages in which we address God. See the further reflection note below for more information.) My brothers and sisters in faith know that it is hard for me to forgive even though I stand in need of forgiveness myself, so we pray to God for one another and ask not only for God’s mercy on us, but that we might be transformed into people of mercy ourselves.
This story about Jesus and prayer and trusting God reminds me of something that once happened to my best friend from seminary when she was helping at a worship conference. The preacher invited those gathered to come forward and be anointed as they said what it was they were praying for. He told them that the children should come forward, too. My friend Mary told me about a little boy, about nine years old, who came up to her station. Mary asked him what he wanted her to pray for with him. He said, “I want you to pray that I will go to heaven.” And so she did.
It seems that we could learn a lot from nine-year-old boys (and girls). Isn’t an intimate relationship what Jesus is describing when he uses the word “Daddy” for God? Isn’t this close and loving relationship what he describes when he speaks of the love of a parent who would give only good things to their beloved child? And doesn’t this kind of prayer say something about “who God is” to us? God is the One we can trust, the One who loves us, the One who is present with us, day by day, providing what we need. Not clarity, but trust. Not our own efforts, but trust.
Imagine receiving the Holy Spirit in answer to prayer. What would that look like in our own personal walk of faith, and in the life of the community? How would we be transformed?
Our other reading, from Psalm 138, unlike Jesus’ Prayer, sounds very personal, using “I” language instead of “we” language. But the last verse is one of my favorites from the entire Bible, and I believe it goes perfectly with the theme of trust and call: “God will fulfill God’s purpose for me; your steadfast love, O God, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” If the Lord’s Prayer is a “corporate” prayer, not an individual one, and “we” pray to our loving Parent-God, asking for “our” – not “my” daily bread, then we could also pray this psalm in the same way: “God will fulfill God’s purpose for us; your steadfast love, O God, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
We are the work of God’s hands, and we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us become then, in our life as a community, daily bread for the rest of the world, for one another and for all of God’s children.
For further reflection:
Description (written by Peter Makari), next to the wall hanging in the Amistad Chapel of the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland:
“The Lord’s Prayer in Arabic: This calligraphic rendering of the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic was made in Cairo, Egypt by Fattouh, a Muslim artist/craftsman in the Tentmakers’ District of Old Cairo. The text begins with ‘Our Father’ in the center circle, in green. It continues, ‘who art in heaven…your will be done’ around and above that, in burgundy; the two rings below, in navy blue, contain the rest of the text ‘on earth as it is in heaven…forgive us our sins’ and ‘as we forgive those….Amen.’ It is one of two that Mr. Fattouh made. He is proud to be the first in his trade to produce an appliqué of the Lord’s Prayer. There are approximately 15 million Arab Christians in the countries of the Middle East. For Muslims, Jesus (known as `Isa, in the Qur’an) is a prophet of God, the Messiah, born a virgin birth, was saved from the cross and did not die, was raised to heaven, and will come again bringing peace to the world. It is an appropriate interfaith convergence for the Amistad Chapel, as it is likely that at least some of the Mende people aboard the Amistad, freed from their captivity in the slave trade by the forerunners of the American Missionary Association, were Muslim. More than 60% of Sierra Leone’s population is Muslim.– On permanent loan from the family of Peter Makari.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Pray, and let God worry.”
Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”
Mary Gordon, 21st century
“Prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
George Bernard Shaw, 20th century
“Most people do not pray; they only beg.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“There are really only two kinds of prayer: help me, help me, help me, and thank you, thank you, thank you.”
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”
She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”
When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.” Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
O God, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O God,
and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Sovereign will speak,
for God will speak peace to the people,
God will speak to the faithful,
to those who turn to God in their hearts.
Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear God,
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.
God will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before God,
and will make a path for God’s steps.
Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”
I give you thanks, O God,
with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down towards your holy temple
and give thanks to your name
for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name
and your word above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O God,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of God,
for great is the glory of God.
For though God is high, God regards the lowly;
but the haughty, God perceives from far away.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
God will fulfill God’s purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O God, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
(Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.)
He 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 the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.