June 18, 2023
The Grace of Prayer
‘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.6But 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.*
7 ‘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.8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 ‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.*
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,*
but rescue us from the evil one.*
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Today we’re beginning a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, called “teach us to pray.” That is the request of the disciples in Luke, “Lord, teach us to pray,” which then leads Jesus to teach them the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve been looking forward to this series, because there is so much richness in this prayer, and I was going to begin by saying that the words of the Lord’s Prayer are some of the most familiar words on the planet, said by hundreds of millions of people every day and every week. But then – as you maybe you saw – Jeopardy happened on Tuesday night. Three contestants of the game show failed to answer a question asking them to complete a line of the Lord’s Prayer. The clue was, “Our Father who art in heaven, _____________ be thy name.” None of the three even took a guess. No one buzzed to give the question. Let’s see if we can do it, “Our Father who art in heaven, __________ be thy name. What is ___________?” Hallowed.
So for the next seven weeks, we’re going to study the Lord’s Prayer. This is prayer that is short enough to memorize and pray several times day, and it is a pattern of prayer that contains within it a whole world of theology. Going back to the earliest days of the church, in the Didache of the 4th century, the Lord’s Prayer was prayed regularly as a prayer and a template for prayer. It is so deeply rooted in the theology of the Hebrew scriptures, Jewish scholars have said that if Jesus had simply been a great rabbi then this prayer would have likely made it into the liturgy of the synagogue.
As we get going by looking at this story in Matthew where the prayer is taught, I want to start the series by inviting you into the grace of prayer. Because there are some ways of seeing prayer that are not full of grace, and they will inevitably trip us up. As Jesus prepares to teach this prayer, he identifies two false perspectives on prayer here in this text from Matthew.
The first false way of thinking about prayer is to see prayer as a kind of spiritual fitness test, a kind of spiritual assessment in which God or other people (if they hear you) are evaluating your spiritual abilities. Kind of like taking free throws in front of the class in eighth grade, or teeing off at the first tee with people at the clubhouse watching to see how you’re going to hit it. There’s a way of being self-conscious about prayer, as if it’s that kind of spiritual fitness test.
The text says that Jesus and the disciples are walking and Jesus notices some spiritual leaders stopping to pray. Now this was common because a faithful Jew at that time was supposed to stop to pray three times a day. So what they were doing was good, but the way they were doing it was not good. They were praying loudly, so that everyone could hear what they were saying and be impressed by their prayer performance. Jesus calls them hypocrites and says, do not pray like this. Prayer is not a spiritual performance assessment.
Now, most of us hate to pray out loud in public. We’re not in any danger of stopping on the street and praying out loud. But many of us, maybe most of us, do feel an anxiety when we pray about whether our prayers are good enough for God. Did we use the right words, or ask for the right things, or in the right order, or with enough eloquence, or with enough humility? Because, underneath, we’re worried that God is grading our prayer.
Jesus says God is not grading ours prayer. “Pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will hear you.” Jesus says. This is the grace of prayer. Prayer is communion between you and God. There are no rules about what to say or how to say it.
Teresa of Avila said, “Prayer is an act of love. Words are not needed. All you need is a will to love.” All you need is a will to love, because prayer is presence, prayer is communion. Prayer is not a test.
Another false view of prayer that will inevitably trip us up, is to see prayer as a one-sided negotiation. This is where we bargain with God. God if you will do ____, then I will… make the most of my life, I will be the person I know I should be. I will go to church every Sunday, I will give more than 10% of everything I have away, I will pray every day, I will help every person I see, I will feed hungry people, I will be kind to telemarketers, I will say yes every time the pastor asks. God, I will do anything if you will just ______________.
It sounds humorous to think that God would be up for bargaining, but we all have prayed that. I certainly have. When we are desperate – for healing when we are scared, for direction for when we are lost, for a way out when we are stuck, or way through when we are overwhelmed. Every person who has ever deeply hoped for anything, has prayed a bargain with God.
After Jesus looked at the hypocrites who were praying loud prayers, he then talked about people who prayed in this kind of one-sided negotiation. He said they “pile up empty phrases… for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Maybe you’ve piled up empty phrases thinking you will be heard, or more likely, like me, you’ve piled up empty promises, promises you never had a chance of keeping, thinking God would hear.
Jesus says, do not do that, for your Father – your heavenly parent – knows what you need before you ask. This too is the grace of prayer. When we pray, we are not coming to a God who is a stranger. We are not coming to distant divine power, who may or may not care for us depending on what we say or what we promise.
When you pray, you are coming to a God who created you, who calls you by name, who counts the hairs of your head, who knows the secrets of your heart, a God before whom nothing is hid, and yet who loves you more than you can imagine, a God who wants nothing but your deepest good.
John Calvin said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. Prayer is laying hold of God’s willingness.”
Prayer is not a one-sided negotiation. Prayer is communion with the One who wills and wants what is good for us.
This is the grace of prayer. This is why, after Jesus tells us how not to pray, he says to pray in this way, “Our father who art in heaven.” Next Sunday, Shannon is going to go into depth on that line of the prayer, but for today I want you to see that with that simple language Jesus is inviting us into the true nature of prayer, communion with a God who loves us.
Most of you know that recently I lost my Mom, and today marks two months since the day she died. There is still tremendous grief within me that I am working through, but I can tell you without a doubt what I miss the most about my Mom today. I could call her anytime, and she would always answer the phone. There is no one else in my life who does that. That was something only my Mom did, and it was precious, to know that someone who loved me as unconditionally as she could and wanted nothing but my good was always available to take my call.
That is the kind of relationship Jesus invites us to find with God in prayer, that and so much more, infinitely more. When you pray, begin by saying, “Our Father.” This is not a spectator grading your performance, this is not a banker adding up your spiritual IOU’s. This is a parent, a father and a mother, who wants to hear the conversation of your heart. And more than any earthly parent, God is always available, sees in secret, knows our needs more than we know them ourselves, and always desires our deepest good.
A couple of years ago, I went to visit a member of FPC-A, who was recovering in skilled care from heart operation. I went in the room and she was sitting in the chair, with our head slightly down, and eyes closed tight. I thought she was sleeping and I was about to slip out quietly when she opened her eyes and smiled. “I’m sorry to wake you,” I said. “No, you didn’t wake me,” she replied, “I was praying.” Thinking maybe she was in some distress, I said, “Do you pray often?” She said, “Oh yes, all the time. God is my friend. God has been my friend since I was small child. I talk with God all the time. I can share anything with God. And often I just sit and know that God is near me.” God is my friend.
That is the grace Jesus invites us to experience in prayer. God is our friend. Prayer is communion, presence with a friend. There are many ways to do this. You can pray with words out loud, or words in your heart, or words in your journal. You can pray kneeling, or walking through your neighborhood, or sitting in a comfortable chair. You can also pray with silence, you can pray laughter, you can pray with tears. You can pray with sighs too deep for words. God understands it all. All you need is a will to love, a desire to be present.
I want to close with this thought from Anne Lamott, who wrote a wonderful simple and wise book about prayer a few years ago called “Help, Thanks, Wow.” She says, “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.”
That is the grace of prayer, simply showing up to God. Not a performance. Not a negotiation. It is showing up to the one who flung the galaxies into space, who spun you into being, who loves you beyond all imagining, who is always available and ready to hear.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina