“Teach Us How to Pray”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of Christ Church Greenwich
Delivered on Sunday, July 24, 2022
My grandmother chain-smoked Camel cigarettes, ran a travel agency in San Benito, Texas and loved to travel the world. Once a year, she left the small town, where my grandfather had once owned a citrus farm, to visit us. On one occasion, she brought three little wooden crosses and asked my father to hang one of them over each of her grandsons’ beds.
Then, she taught us how to kneel, clasp our hands and pray. Being our grandmother, we readily obeyed, and from her we learned that God was good and a source of strength that we could turn to on a daily basis. Prayer became a sort second language, but like any language it was not easy to learn, especially as the language of prayer is more about silence than sound, and listening than speaking. Prayer is simply the ability to be with God. And like a foreign language, prayer gives us a new perspective on life. It opens the door to an outlook of faith, hope and love.
There are as many ways to pray as there are people who pray. William James wrote, “Prayer is a conversation with the ultimate partner.” Think about it. Before we can open our lips to pray, God already knows what’s on our heart. God has an answer before we realize that we have a problem, and God is available 24/7 and in all places and situations.
When I was a boy, my grandfather gave me a toy engine and showed me how to use two wires to connect it to an eight-volt battery. All of a sudden, the motor starting whirling, and I could hook things up to the motor shaft and make things happen. God is like the battery. We are like the motor, and our prayers are the wires that connect us to God so that grace, healing, forgiveness, love and comfort can flow into our lives.
If you study the lives of the saints, you will see that they all share one trait in common. Each saint had a profound practice of prayer. “Prayer is the sword of the saints,” wrote Francis Thompson. Saints are persons who attuned themselves to God like a radio tuned to a certain frequency.
Jesus was a person of profound prayer. He frequently withdraw to “a deserted place to pray” (Luke 5:16). Sometimes, he spent the entire night in prayer (Luke 6:12, 9:18) Before embarking on his ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying to align himself with God’s Spirit. Before calling his disciples, Jesus prayed. Before feeding the five thousand, he prayed. Before preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he prayed. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed at the Last Supper. Before being arrested in the garden, he prayed, and while hanging upon the cross, Jesus prayed, not once, but several times.
Prayer gave Jesus energy, strength, and mission clarity. That’s why the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” They knew that prayer gave Jesus wisdom to teach, compassion to heal, power to perform miracles, and the ability to lead, and reconcile. So Jesus said to his disciples, “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.
The Lord’s Prayer appears in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, but Matthew’s rending is the version that we normally recite. The Lord’s Prayer is the one prayer that has spanned the world for centuries. It has been translated into every conceivable language. It is the only prayer recited in every major Episcopal Church service – Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline, Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, ordinations, and funerals. During the past 2,000 years, more Christians have memorized the 55 words of the Lord’s Prayer than any other words.
The Lord’s Prayer gives us a template as to how to pray and how to relate towards God. With each instruction that Jesus gives he draws us into a deeper relationship with God. In prayer, we will find ourselves in a conversation with a friend who knows our every weakness, fear, and concern. There is nothing that we can face that Jesus has not already undergone. This is the God who comes after us when we are lost, who dines with us when we are alone, who welcome us home after we have squandered chapters of our lives, and who keeps us from falling too far.
Jesus commands us to pray for the most basic things of life – food, forgiveness, and fidelity. “Give us…forgive us…lead us…and deliver us…” It seems so forward and brazen, but we are dependent, so we must ask, “Give us.” We are guilty, so we must pray, “forgive us.” We can easily get lost, so we must pray, “lead us.” It is when we are at our weakest and honestly and humbly pray that we so often encounter the Source of all Strength.
The first word that Jesus taught them to pray is “Our.” It is a reference to a father that makes everyone related. It transcends every nationalistic, political, racial, cultural, or religious prejudice that would divide us. The word “Our” reminds us that Jesus died to keep us united – one people and one Creator God. “Our” tells us an answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes, I am not only my brother’s keeper, but I am my brother’s brother. We are all family.
Much has been written about the second word of this prayer – “Abba,” which means “Daddy.” It reminds us that when we reach out to God we are calling on family. God is like a beloved parent who knows us better than we know ourselves and longs to comfort, heal, guide, protect and provide for us. The word “Abba” reminds us that God sees us his own children. We can call God “father” or “mother.” The gender does not matter. What matters is that God loves us like family. As the psalmist notes,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
When we said, “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name,” we can join John Wesley, who said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” To be true Christians, we do not start with ourselves, our good intentions or moral activism. Rather, we start with God. “Hallowed by thy name.” If we are in a right relationship with God, everything else has a way of falling into place and our worries vanish. Thomas Wolfe summed it up this way:
The deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or
another was central to all living, was man’s search for a father, not merely
the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the
image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his
hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united.
We ask for our “daily bread.” The word translated as “daily” is challenging to translate. It can mean “daily” or “tomorrow’s” or “necessary.” We are instructed to pray only for what is “necessary” to get us through this day. Take one day at a time for that is all that we can do.
When Jesus teaches us to forgive, he uses the present tense verb to acknowledge that forgiving others is a never ending process for us, while in praying “as God forgives us,” he uses the Greek past imperative, which conveys that the definitive forgiveness that God has already bestowed on us. We are forgiven once and for all by God and can move forward trusting in this.
The final sentence appeals for preservation in the face of trial. It should not be translated “lead us not into temptation,” for God never does that. Rather Jesus asks us to pray for protection from events that would test or imperil our faith. Help us not to get into situations where we risk giving up on God and cutting ourselves off from our ultimate resource.
How do you prayer? Who taught you to pray? What do you pray for? Tell me your prayers and I can tell what’s most pressing on your soul. The first lesson in prayer is just to do it. “Ask… seek… knock…” It is good advice for any of us who have lost the thread of the conversation with God. But most of us are praying more than we give ourselves credit for. We converse with God throughout the day and ponder things as if God were seated beside us. That, too, is prayer.
Sometimes, we can only utter a single word, like “Help,” and direct it Godward. Such a prayer is a good start. When our prayers are little more than sighs too deep for words, expressing our hurt, fear, anguish, longing, or gratitude, God can fill in the rest. Anne Lamott wrote that she has two basic prayers: “Thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, help me, help me.” The 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “If the only prayer that you ever utter is ‘Thank you,’ it is enough.”
I encourage you to try counting ten things each night before falling asleep and ten things each morning before getting out of bed for which you are thankful. When you turn your mind to gratitude, it shifts the activity of your brain to a positive place. It is impossible to be afraid while focusing on gratitude.
George Buttrick one wrote, “…if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource, and sublimest joy.” To pray is to converse with our ultimate friend. Hence, Jesus told a story to drive the point home. “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…’”
Jesus describes an unlikely scenario. None of his hearers would expect a friend to refuse to help in such a situation for it would violate all conventions of hospitality and incur shame. Jesus’ point is that if the sacred obligations of friendship and hospitality that Jews were bound to honor cannot compel a friend, God, our ultimate friend, will supply our needs because we are persistent in asking.
God does not dispense favors and blessings like a vending machine. But we are told to “Ask… seek… knock…” Pray so persistently that it borders on presumption, knowing that God gives what is necessary and beneficial, but not whatever we desire. God’s way of giving exceeds that of human friends. But the ultimate prayer for Christians is always, “not my will, but thy will be done.”
Pray in whatever humble way that you can for the Holy Spirit helps us to pray in our weakness and ignorance with sighs too deep for words (Rom. 8:26-27). Teach those entrusted to you to pray as Jesus taught us to pray to God as our ultimate friend. Be shameless in your presumption that God is listening and like a loving parent wants to care for you and yours. Ask, seek, knock, and it will be given to you. Amen.