Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Simplicity of Prayer

The lessons for this sermon are taken from the two-year Eucharistic lectionary from Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 and can be read here: Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14 & Luke 11:1-4. Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever been star-struck? It won't surprise you to know that I don't often bump into A-list celebrities here in Decatur, Alabama (or those on the B- or C-lists either). Back when I worked on the ground crew for the Cubs, I felt some butterflies in my stomach the first time Sammy Sosa said hello. I once ran into Karen Corr, the world-champion billiards player, in an airport bookshop. I wanted to ask for her autograph but didn't have anything for her to sign, so I gave up and watched her walk away. And Vince Vaughn was walking into the American Girls store in Chicago as Elizabeth and I were walking out, but I pretended not to notice because I know my wife has a bit of a celebrity crush on him. I guess I've never really been star-struck, but I haven't had much of an opportunity.

Back in my hometown, there was a spiritual celebrity of sorts whom everyone that knew him held in high esteem. Francis Wilson was a retired Methodist minister, and he was widely regarded as the foremost authority on prayer. As a child, I remember my mother telling me that, if Francis Wilson was still alive when she died, she wanted him to do the funeral. That left a powerful impression on me. My first encounter with my mother's mortality was focused on the prayerfulness of one she admired deeply. When I was a young teen, our youth director remarked at how nervous she was when Francis Wilson asked whether they could spend some time in prayer together. She recalled how intimidating it was to be in the company of one whose prayer life oozed holiness. She confessed how terrified she was when Dr. Wilson asked her to pray. But, she assured us, it really wasn't anything to be scared of. Prayer is, after all, just a conversation with God. That was something that Francis Wilson knew and taught, and, if you could get past the intimidation factor, you might see how easy prayer can be.

In Luke 11, we read that John the Baptist had become a bit of a prayer celebrity. The disciples when to Jesus and said, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." I'm sure Jesus wasn't offended by that in the same way I would be if someone came up to me and said, "Would you preach good sermons to us the way your predecessor did?" Still, it's funny to me to think about someone asking Jesus to follow someone else's pattern--to be compared in any sort of way with another prophet. I don't think Jesus' terse answer was delivered out of any sort of frustration, but the response he gave was intentionally different from the sort of elaborate, impassioned, carefully crafted prayer the disciples were expecting: "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."

That's it. The end. There's not much to it, really. Five brief petitions: 1) May God's name be hallowed--respected as holy; 2) May God's kingdom come; 3) May God give us what we need for today; 4) May God forgive our sins just as we have forgiven others; and 5) May God keep us from being tested beyond our limits. Even a quick summary ends up being longer than the prayer itself.

When I read Jesus' prayer, I begin to wonder whether this is an antidote for being star-struck in God's presence. Is this a sort of 30-second elevator speech that a petitioner would make if she or he ever found himself in the presence of the Almighty? Is this supposed to be a well-rehearsed pitch so that, when we find ourselves in that elevator moment, we won't screw it up?

Prayer is just a conversation with God, but we need to remember that it is God to whom we are speaking. Yes, God is father; God is friend; God is lover, even. But, in all of those things, God is also God. I wonder what would happen if we stopped to consider that every time we approach God in prayer we are entering the presence of God himself. I wonder whether we might allow ourselves to become a little star-struck. I wonder whether, in that moment, we need something simple to say--something that conveys the fullness of our request but doesn't get lost in unnecessary details.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Luke's version is even shorter than the one we know, and maybe that's an invitation to keep our prayers even shorter and simpler than we expect. How might the simplicity of the Lord's Prayer reshape all of our prayer and remind us that, in even the most intimate conversations with God, our prayers are directed to the Holy One? Might these well-rehearsed words breathe new life into us and our relationship with God?

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