Shaped by Prayer
Sunday, July 24
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 Matthews
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 “our neighbor”) and, in the story of Mary and Martha, the importance of not just listening to, but doing, the Word of God.
So what is this passage, as a whole, teaching the disciples – and that means us, too – about what it means to follow Jesus?
Show us how you do that
After all, that’s what disciples do: they follow, and model themselves on, their teacher. That’s why they asked Jesus to teach them how 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. (“They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” but also “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Prayer.”)
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.
Wanting what Jesus has
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. When they watched Jesus at prayer, and saw the coherence between his prayer life and everything else that he did and said, they longed to go deeper into the life of the Spirit that filled him. (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 different, and we’ve followed many different spiritual paths, especially in the United Church of Christ. Many of us were raised in one of the mainline Protestant denominations ó Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal (some of us even in the United Church of Christ!) ó and many others grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition.
The prayer we share
There are other faith backgrounds represented in just about every congregation, as well, including the Jewish faith, of course. 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 today’s reading is something familiar, something we share in common. It’s the one prayer we’re most likely able to recite by heart (along with Psalm 23): in fact, it’s amazing and very touching when pastors visit people who are suffering from strokes or memory loss but are able to join in, when the Lord’s Prayer is begun, 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 ó and that includes us, too ó 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. He brings the reality of God’s love home to the people in terms they ówe ó can understand, the language of everyday relationships (at their best and not so best).
Faith is a matter of the heart
Could today’s story be a missing piece in the life of many faithful Christians? Isn’t it possible for a person to go along, trying the best they can to “do good” and avoid sin, to study the Scriptures and attend worship every week, and yet to miss out on that relationship of intimacy with God that can happen in prayer? I once heard a speaker describe the poignancy of those who live their entire (long) lives “serving God” but do so without a spirit of joy or love, and he asked us to consider the nature of true faithfulness if we have missed the mark of offering our gifts in such a spirit of love, a spirit that must surely be at the root of a life of prayer, or better, the fruit of such a life of persistent and consistent prayer.
Jesus gives us the words to say when we pray, and then he tells a story and gives an 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.
What are we praying for?
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches in a similar passage that God will give “good things” to those who ask. But Luke says in our reading today 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, and a little wealth wouldn’t be so bad, eitherÖafter 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 Holy Spirit, in fact, it didnít become “the church” until Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, just as Jesus promised.
Not “me,” but “us”
And this community, the church, is called. We are called to be the Body of Christ – 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 knows us, who 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 me, but 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’re 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 ó 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.”
From prayer to compassion
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” ó 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. It is something we experience as embodied creatures with a need for community and companionship on the journey, on the pilgrimage of faith. Even when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, alone in our room, there are other Christians in other places, praying the same prayer, forming the same prayer in their hearts and on their lips, in many different languages, and all of us being formed and transformed by it. In those moments, we are one.
Hearing the prayer from others
(There is a beautiful wall-hanging in the Amistad Chapel at the Church House, the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, with the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic lettering, made by a Muslim artisan in the Tentmaker’s District of Old Cairo ó a powerful illustration of our multicultural church, and the many languages in which we address God. I once had the privilege of showing this beautiful work to a couple who stopped by as they were walking past the building – they were from Cairo themselves, and they read the prayer out loud, in Arabic, for me. What an amazing and sacred moment that was.)
It is so difficult sometimes to follow the way of Jesus. For example, it’s hard to forgive even though we stand in need of forgiveness ourselves, so we pray to God for one another and ask for God’s mercy on us, but even more, we pray that we might be transformed into people of mercy ourselves.
Formed by prayer
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, though not by choice? Indeed, Jesus teaches us to pray not for “my” daily bread but “our” daily bread, and if we really listened each Sunday as we prayed these words together, perhaps there would truly be bread shared for all the world to have what they need each day. In that event, our prayer will have shaped us more than our shaping the words we say, and our trust in God will transform the world.
My best friend from seminary told me a story about a worship conference she attended. 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.
The trust of a child
It seems that we could learn a lot from nine-year-old boys. Isn’t a trusting, 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.
Our other reading, from Psalm 138, unlike the Lord’s Prayer, sounds very individual, 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, 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, as a community, 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 precious, beloved children.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
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.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 20th century
“You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.”
S¯ren Kierkegaard,, 19th century
“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.”
(Anne Lamott later added “Wow” – a prayer of praise and wonder.)
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the 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.