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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Luke 11:1-13

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

July 25, 2004

Lord, teach us to pray,” said the disciples who had been peeking through the bushes at Jesus as he prayed in “a certain place.” A simple request, and the lesson began.

It's summertime, and a lot of us are thinking about school. You students who have to go back in a couple of weeks are thinking about how little time you have left to enjoy yourselves. You teachers who have to go back in a couple of weeks are thinking about how little time you have left to enjoy yourselves. These days, school is all about TCAPS and leaving no child behind. We have to make sure that our published statistics are better than their published statistics, that our grades qualify us for the right colleges and the right lottery-based scholarships. School is very public, no matter where you go.

If Jesus was teaching how to pray in this world, he would have had to submit a lesson plan, and there would have been tests to see how well the students performed. Something as important as prayer, after all, and you'd expect at least one good PowerPoint presentation from Our Lord.

Father, hallowed be thy name.” Luke even gives us the short version. About 38 words in five sentences, give or take, depending on what translation you have. That's all Jesus has to say as example of how the disciples, and we, should pray. The Lord’s Prayer is short and sweet.

The content of the prayer is directed at God, at first, but it points right back at us just as quickly. We ask God to forgive our debts, and then we remind ourselves how good (or how not-so-good) we are at forgiving the debts of others.

If we pray as Jesus teaches us, prayer is a humbling experience – as daring to speak to the Creator of the universe ought to be. We humble ourselves not in order to schmooze God into giving us the stuff we want; we're humbled by the very act of prayer.

In Matthew's version of this teaching, Jesus adds a quick lesson on the posture of prayer. He says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

He says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

The personality of prayer is as important as the words, maybe even more important. It doesn't matter whether your hands are folded like this or like that. It doesn't matter if your eyes are open or closed. It doesn't even matter if you say, “Amen,” at the end, which we're all taught is just good manners. At the School of The Rock of Our Salvation, the lesson on The Lord's Prayer is a lot less complicated than we might expect. Which, in turn, is a lesson on The Lord who prayed that prayer, and who hears our prayers, and who even now takes our prayers to God.


Luke’s version of The Lord's Prayer is so short and sweet that it leaves out the “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

The old story goes that the little boy told his parents that God's real name is Howard, because that's what we say in church every Sunday: “Howard be thy name.” (Do we have any Howards here today? That's quite a compliment. You should remind Mrs. Howard of that.)

God is Father, not because the Father Howards of the world are like gods, but because God the Creator is the Father of all creation.

God is to be hallowed. God's name is to be holy when it passes out our lips or through our minds. God is completely different from us humans formed of dust and water. The Psalmist writes, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them? What are mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8). And yet we have the power to lift our voices and speak the name of God. Don't take that privilege casually. Don't think that the Almighty just lives and breathes to listen to what you have to complain about today. Daring to speak to God is an extreme adventure that ought to be taken seriously.

Have any of you ever gone rappelling? It is so exhilarating. You tie your rope around a tree. You put on your gloves and your helmet and your harness. And then you hold on and lean back off the cliff and then go bouncing down the rock face. But that first step off the cliff is the site of some serious thought, yea verily even prayer. You want God to hallow the rope, the harness, the helmet. The adrenaline starts to flow. If we were really aware of what we're doing when we pray to God the Father Almighty, we would hallow our prayers with equal intensity. The writer Annie Dillard says that if we really understood what we're doing in worship, then instead of handing out bulletins at the door, we'd hand out crash helmets. Prayer is hallowed time, and we enter into it acknowledging that this is an extreme sport of the most extreme kind.

Your kingdom come.” Ah, it's good to be king. If we're honest about it, a lot of our prayers are asking for what we'd like to have if our kingdom came. You remember the Janis Joplin song, “Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?” Now most of us aren't so crass as to ask God for that. And not that there's anything wrong with driving a Mercedes. But I have to wonder how different our prayers sound than the prayers of someone in a part of the world where they've never even seen a Mercedes.

We are the men (and women) who would be king. Praying that God's kingdom come, when you turn it around, is praying that God will dethrone us, by whatever means necessary. Praying God's kingdom come is praying that God will effect personal regime change on each of us. And if God dethrones us, then all the stuff we need to look kingly becomes the property of the occupying force.

How different would the world look if each of us, every day, were occupied (or preoccupied) with serving the kingdom of God? How different would our prayers sound? How different would our spending habits be if we thought of God as confiscating for His kingdom the stuff that we think makes us kingly? Do you ever look at your stuff and wonder, “What in the world would God do with this?” It might do us all good to look around our personal castles and ask that question. What would Jesus buy?

Give us each day our daily bread.”

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in John 6:34. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Spiritually speaking, Jesus is the daily bread for which we need to pray. Amen, amen, and amen. But coming in the sentence that follows a prayer for God's coup d'etat of our little kingdoms, the prayer for daily bread sounds pretty down-to-earth. Like the daily bread and water prisoners receive. Which is very true. Our daily existence, the existence of everything, is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. Were it not for God's loving kindness, nothing would exist anywhere.

We come to places like this and we remember. We remember the people who settled places like this, when there were no cell phones to have dreadful reception in the valleys, and there were no phones at all. When there was no running water, no electricity. When daily bread was grown and ground by hand, if daily bread existed at all. We are so lucky. We can choose whether our daily bread will come from Food City or from Panera. A lot of us have been told by our doctors to cut back on our daily bread. So we have to make ourselves remember the people and places where daily bread is a luxury, to think of those who count their meager blessings instead of counting carbs.

As was the manna in the desert for Moses and the Israelites, daily bread is daily life. And as we pray to have no less than we need for one day, realize it or not we're also praying that we'll consume enough of that life for one day, and no more.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” That's a little different read than the version we get every Sunday: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I always liked the translation we got from Roddy Biggs several years ago. “Forgive us our dents as we forgive our denters.” It makes sense, especially if you drive a lot. I did a wedding here at the Lily Barn once, and when we said the prayer, every single person asked forgiveness for their “trespasses.” Except me, the one leading the prayer. There I was, the only debtor in the bunch. I wanted to say, “I'm sorry. I'm Presbyterian. We're seriously into debt.” Since it was a wedding, I resisted that urge.

I find it interesting that depending on the age of the Bible translation you read, the greatest sin was either stepping on someone else's turf or defaulting on a loan. Of course, we're speaking of trespasses and debts in a spiritual sense. I think. Both ways of saying it are true, when you're thinking about how we tend to encroach on God's territory and/or can't begin to repay God for his goodness. From God's perspective, we must look as though we're continually pretending to be big shots at the same time we're up to our eyeballs in debt. A pretty sorry state, unless God forgives us.

And then we turn around and pray that we'll be as forgiving when someone steps on our toes or fails to return us the dignity we deserve. The prayer makes us realize how far we fall short of our heavenly example, and you have to wonder if Jesus cut his eyes around the room as he was teaching that particular line, and if the unforgiving disciples lowered their eyes when he looked at them.

Do not bring us to the time of trial.”

For early Christians who prayed the prayer, a “time of trial” was a very real and deadly fear. They remembered the trial of Jesus. They could watch their friends as they were dragged before the authorities to be tried for heresy or treason or whatever else was the offense du jour. The “time of trial” was not deciding whether your conscience would allow you to download some music from the Internet without paying for it. For early Christians, the time of trial almost certainly was a prelude to an execution.

The time of trial for modern American Christians is very different. Now, we're the ones calling the shots. In these very changing, very global times, it's our tolerance that's being tested. Christ's words on our lips pray that we won't be brought to the point where we have to try and judge those who are different. “Judge not,” Jesus said, “lest ye be judged.” (Luke 6:37) And in that same verse he continues, “Condemn not and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” This is not an easy prayer. And in Luke's version especially, it doesn't promise us a rose garden without some very prickly thorns.

And, in Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer, that's it. The prayer ends there. Not even an “Amen” to divide our heavenly thought from our next stream of wicked ones. Maybe the prayer isn't supposed to end. Maybe Jesus just wasn't hung up on style. Or maybe Jesus was teaching something else.

Something I'd never noticed until this past week is that the disciples don't ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. They don't say, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” They say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It's a small distinction, but a big difference. Anyone can teach you how to pray. Anyone can say, “OK, you want to pray right? Here's Step A, Step B, Step C.” Jesus himself had a model which thanks be to God has been preserved in scripture so we can say it at least once a week together. What's harder is teaching someone (teaching yourself, maybe) to want to pray in the first place. What's hard is teaching someone to trust that prayer is a worthwhile activity, that prayers are heard and are answered and are divinely helpful. Which is, according to Luke, where Jesus devotes a lot more words.

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 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!”

Where Jesus finally goes with this isn't the Lord's Prayer as much as it's the Lord's testimony about prayer. More than teaching us how to pray, he's teaching us to pray in the first place. I find that very consoling, and also very encouraging.

I think there are some of us who don't pray because we're worried that we're going to mess it up. That we're going to say the wrong thing. That we're going to offend God by our lack of scholarly eloquence. Baloney! The only way you'll offend God is by not trying. And if you don't know what to say, say what Jesus did. It's hard to go wrong with his material.

We have a friend who had open heart surgery last week. He had a heart valve replaced for the second time. It's his third heart surgery, and he's only in his 40's.

After the surgery, when he came to in the ICU, when they took him off the machines and pulled the breathing tube out of his throat, he looked at his wife and whispered something as loud as he could. “What'd you say?” she asked him. And she leaned closer, and put her ear up to his mouth. He said again, “God... is... good.”

You could say a thousand scholarly words, and not say nearly as much as that one, simply beautiful prayer. I have a feeling God looked down and smiled at this disciple who got it right. It's not how you say it; it's that you say it. And that you keep saying those prayers from your heart and for your heart, and for the hearts of this world who need God, whether they know it or not.

Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”