Shaped by Prayer
Sunday, July 28
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shaped by Prayer
Generous God, in abundance you give us things both spiritual and physical. Help us to hold lightly the fading things of this earth and grasp tightly the lasting things of your kingdom, so that what we are and do and say may be our gifts to you through Christ, who beckons all to seek the things above, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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!”
All Readings For This Sunday
Hosea 1:2-10 with Psalm 85 or
Genesis 18:20-32 with Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
1. What does the Lord’s Prayer say about “who God is” to us?
2. How does it affect your hearing of this text when Jesus says that God will give us the Holy Spirit, rather than “all good things”?
3. Why do you pray?
4. Why do you think Jesus highlights persistence in his teaching about prayer?
5. When have you, and/or a situation, been changed by prayer?
Reflection by Kate 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: 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.
This passage from Luke’s Gospel, as a whole, is 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. 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, people 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.
When the disciples saw the strength, the power, the wisdom of the Spirit of God in Jesus, 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.
A two-way, intimate conversation
Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with God. There are many references in the Gospel of Luke to Jesus at prayer, and we sense 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 giveÖ”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 prestigeÖafter all, we’re only human.
The Holy Spirit and our sense of call
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 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. There’s 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 about 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.”
Prayer is an intimate conversation
Jesus teaches us 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 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, 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 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.
The church is not something abstract but 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 in 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.
What is God’s purpose for you?
This week’s reading from Psalm 138, unlike the Lord’s Prayer, sounds very personal, using “I” language instead of “we” language. But the last verse 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, than 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.
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?
A longer preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-28-2013.html.
For further reflection
Description (written by Peter Makari), next to the wall hanging in the Amistad Chapel 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 heavenÖyour 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 heavenÖforgive us our sins’ and ‘as we forgive thoseÖ.Amen.’ It is one of two that Mr. Fattouh made. He is proud to be the first in his trade to produce an appliquÈ of the Lordís Prayer. There are approximately 15 million Arab Christians in the countries of the Middle East. For Muslims, Jesus (known as `Isa, in the Qurían) 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.”
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.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Pray, and let God worry.”
George Bernard Shaw, 20th century
“Most people do not pray; they only beg.”
Mary Gordon, 21st century
“Prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to.”
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”
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.”
About Weekly Seeds
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.