Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Prayer (Luke 11:1-13)

Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who was wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.’”
He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night.  Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread because a friend of mind on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me.  The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed.  I can’t get up to give you anything.’  I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness.  And I tell you: Ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.  Everyone who asks, receives.  Whoever seeks, finds.  To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.
“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish?  If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?  If you 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?”

Today we are continuing in a series of messages called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Each week, we are thinking of ourselves as spiritual hitchhikers - dependent on God’s grace to make our spiritual journey - trusting God to meet us and provide us with what we need.

I have asked you to keep an image in your mind of God driving around in a bus full of grace, making periodic stops along the way where people can hop on - where we can experience God’s grace in our lives.  We’ve said that there are two things people need to do in order to experience the grace in each of those places - the first is to----show up, and the second is to----have an open and willing heart.

The grace bus has already made several stops along its route, and we have experienced God’s grace  in Holy Communion, baptism, and healing.  Today, we pull into the next stop: prayer.  May we pray.

Today’s text opens when Jesus is off praying somewhere, and his disciples come to him and say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (v. 1).  It would seem the disciples of Jesus are still asking this question.

What I would like you to consider this morning is this: prayer has more to do with who God is than it has to do with what we say.  Our text opens by telling us that Jesus addresses God as a loving parent, with both intimacy and familiarity.  Jesus’ prayer assumes a parent who is not remote, but accessible, not violent and overbearing, but supportive and caring.  Our text ends in the same place - verses 9-13 tell us what this loving, responsive God is like: giving when asked, opening the door when it is knocked upon, not deceiving us or harming us, but always looking out for our own good.  Jesus is telling us that we are praying to the God who shamelessly loves us like a parent, who loves us better than even the best earthly parent loves their child.

I find a great deal of comfort in this.  Prayer is, first and foremost, about a relationship with a God who forgives our shortcomings, and who loves us with an indescribable love.  Prayer doesn’t require a specific formula, the incantation of certain words, or a vending machine that only accepts correct change, because prayer has more to do with who God is than it has to do with what we say.

Further, you can’t really mess up when it comes to prayer because all prayer is basically one of three expressions.  When you boil it down and strip away the fancy words, all prayers are either saying, “Help,” “Thanks,” or “Wow!”  There may be some other sentiments that get mixed in there, some other versions and variations of these basic three responses.  Lord, teach us to pray.

Our text today is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, or more appropriately, the Disciples’ Prayer.  Luke’s version of this prayer is briefer than the more familiar version of this prayer found in the 6th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  One of the things I love about this prayer is that it finds a way to say, “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow” several times over in just a few lines.

Let’s start with “Wow.”  This prayer begins with Jesus saying, “Father, uphold the holiness of your name” (Luke 11:2 CEB).  More familiar translations might say, “Father, hallowed be your name” (NRSV).  The English word “hallow” means “to sanctify, make holy, make sacred, to set apart.” The way it is used in this text is more a sense of revealing or upholding what is already there.  In this case, our prayer does not bestow holiness upon God, for God is already holy.  We’re asking God to show us God’s holiness, not because we need God to prove it or because God owes us, just because we know God is holy, and we’d love to catch a glimpse of it.

To say, “hallowed be your name” is us saying, “God, you are holy.  You are powerful and majestic, you are beautiful and creative, you transcend time and space and human understanding.  You are Grace, you are Love, you are more Wonderful than our minds can comprehend; You are Holy, whether we acknowledge you or not.  Even so, hallowed be your name.  Grant us grace that we might have eyes and hearts that can see the glory of your holiness which is all around us, even now.”

It’s sort of like God puts on the most spectacular show every day, and when we say “hallowed be your name,” we’re saying, “Please God, give us tickets to the show.”  Every evening, it’s like God puts on the grandest event you’ve ever seen - I’m talking Cirque de Solei meets NCAA Final Four meets CATS on Broadway meets the Daytona 500 meets the Disney Laser Light Show meets the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.  When we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we are saying, “God, we’d like tickets to the show, VIP back-stage passes, invitations to the after-party.”

To our amazement, God says, “OK.  Done.  You’re on the list.”  And we respond by saying, “Wow.”

Who God is and what God does is more than enough to take our breath away, but the real kicker is that God graciously invites us to see the show.  God who is holy has not only invited us to see and participate in the splendor unfolding around us, but has even invited us into a relationship, the intimate and nurturing relationship of a parent and child, not because we are deserving, but simply because God loves us.  And we say, “Wow.”  Our lives, both here and in the world to come, become a symphony of constant praise, and we realize that everything around us, having encountered the holiness of God, is constantly telling the glory of God.

(Dave - “Holy, Holy Holy” v. 4 response)

Sometimes, our prayers are an opportunity to say “Help.”  Help-type prayers are probably the most common and familiar to most of us.  Help prayers are when we ask God, beg God, or even demand that God do something, either on our behalf or on behalf of someone else.

Often in our help-type prayers, we find some other feelings mixed in, as well.  There may be feelings of sorrow or lament, there may be feelings of desperation and exasperation, there may be feelings of numbness or indecision or completely being overwhelmed.  We offer a help prayer because we need help; we’ve come to a point where we realize that we can’t do it on our own or through our own faculties, and we need some assistance, which is why we’re asking God for help.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that help prayers are more effective if we offer them first rather than as a last resort.  Starting the day by saying, “Lord, help me through this day” puts us in a place where we start out recognizing our dependence on God and our constant need for God’s presence in our lives.  Starting out with this recognition helps us keep God at the center, keep the conversation open constantly, and live as if we really are dependent on God’s grace, rather than only inviting God into our lives in the midst of life’s crises and desperate situations.  Make no mistake, God is still there with us in those crises - yet God doesn’t want to be called in only on special teams, but would really like playing time through the entire game.

The more often we ask God for help, the more we keep the conversation open, and the more we open ourselves up to the constant movement of God’s Holy Spirit within us.  God’s help becomes something that is not a desperate play in our book, rather, it becomes our entire life’s gameplan.  Prayer is about nurturing our relationship with God, and God’s line is always open when we call.

(Dave - “O Lord Hear My Prayer” response)

There is one more basic type of prayer in addition to “Wow” or “Help.”  That’s when we say, “Thanks.”  This one should be an easy one.  When someone does something nice for you, or helps you out, how  do you respond?  You say, “Thank you.”  Saying “Thank you” is a simple way to say, “Hey, you’ve done something for me, and I appreciate it!”  More than just a polite thing to do, it acknowledges that person and keeps us from taking them or their gift for granted.

We were taught to write Thank-you notes as kids, and we sent them for gifts we received at birthdays, holidays, and graduations.  When we’re at a restaurant, and the server refills our water, we say, “Thank you.”  Ashley and I have spent the last 11 months writing Thank-you notes for gifts at our wedding, and panic mode has set in as we’ve realized that we only have a month left to get them all completed within, at least according to the etiquette guides, a socially-acceptable timetable before everyone gets to start gossiping behind our backs about how rude and ungrateful we are.

When someone does something for us, we say “Thank you.”  Question for you this morning: Has God ever done anything for anyone here?  Raise your hand if God has ever done anything for you.  Truth is, God does stuff for us all the time, even more than we could ask or imagine, God is doing.  The creative gift of life, reconciliation through Christ, the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit - God has done, is doing, and continues to do for us all the time, and we respond by saying, “Thanks.”

Have you ever noticed that some of the most joyful people are those who know how to say “Thank you”?  They say it frequently, constantly acknowledging those around them and letting them know that they are not taken for granted.  Likewise, have you ever noticed that some of the most joyful Christians are those who know how to say “Thank you” - not only to other people, but to God?  When we realize that all of life is a gift, and that God has given freely, generously, and abundantly to each of us, in infinitely greater measure than we deserve, what else can we say but “Thanks”?  I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person who lives my life in such gratitude that everything I think, say, or do gives acknowledgment and thanksgiving to God.

(Dave - “For all that you’ve done” response)

One last thing about how we experience God’s grace through prayer.  Obviously the three basic types of prayer - “Wow,” “Help,” and “Thanks” - help us experience God’s presence, whether we are overcome by God’s holiness, asking for God’s assistance, or expressing our gratitude to God.  Yet, we’ve already said that prayer is the conversation of a relationship, and every relationship involves both give and take, speaking and listening.  Prayer, therefore, is just as much about listening to God as it about having God listen to us.

My first grade teacher, who will turn 90 this week, taught our class about the importance of listening.  “You have two ears and one mouth,” she said.  “So you need to spend at least twice as much time listening as you do speaking.”  Given my love for talking, I was reminded of this lesson with greater frequency than were others in the class.

Every relationship, every conversation, involves both speaking and listening.  Listening necessarily requires that we give our attention to the other, as well as an openness to what they are saying and a willingness to be changed by what they share.  This is true in our human relationships, and this is especially true in our relationship with God.  Effective prayer, that truly nourishes and responds to our relationship with God, will devote twice as much time to listening to God as it does speaking to God.  It requires the intentional setting aside of our distractions and giving God our full attention, so that everything about us - internally and externally - says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.  Not only am I listening, but I am open to what you will reveal to me, and I am willing to be changed by this time with you.”

When we listen, when our hearts are open to hearing from God and being transformed by what we hear, then we have made room for the active grace of God in our lives.

The disciples of Jesus said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Teach us who God is.  Teach us to listen.  Teach us to respond as we say, “Thanks,” “Help,” and “Wow.”

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