“Lord, teach us to pray...”
Year C Proper 12
Col 2:6-15 (17-19)
July 29, 2007
Be careful of simple words said often.
“Amen”: We are present. We are open.
We hearken. We understand.
Here we are. We are listening to your word.1
First, I would like to thank Ursula for inviting me here to preach. I have just come from singing at Lincoln Cathedral and then at Durham with the choir of St. Mark’s Church, Berkeley, California. Our week (and a bit more) of leading people in sung prayer has been an experience both exhilarating and exhausting. St. Benedict was right--prayer really is the “Work of God”! At home, during term-time, I am an Instructor at the Episcopal School for Deacons, an intensive program for the training of vocational deacons for all of the diocese of northern California and beyond. Ursula suggested that I speak about this, and I think there might be a connection between our readings--especially the Gospel-- and the ministry of deacons, though it may not seem obvious at first.
Our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel speaks to us of prayer. It is notable that Jesus knows how to pray, how to have an intimate conversation, speaking and listening to and with God, his Abba, his Father in the closest sense. But his disciples must ask to learn how to pray, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” So if, as St. Paul says, we are buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through faith (the Early Church Fathers would say, “Christians are made (through baptism), not born”) then prayer is more taught than caught. It is something we teach our children. One of my earliest memories is of my Presbyterian mother saying bedtime prayers with me, which always included the Lord’s prayer. And we hone our “prayer lessons” over the days and years of our lives, growing in our relationship with God; listening more and speaking less. Sometimes, however, we encounter dry times, or simply take our prayers for granted, or fail to pray at all. Fortunately for us we have little excuse, for there is not a service in the Prayer Book (whether of the Episcopal Church of Scotland of of the Episcopal Church in the United States or anywhere else in the Anglican Communion) that does not have somewhere within it the Lord’s prayer.
Be careful of simple words said often...
Jesus’ prayer reflects his deepest desires: for reverence for God as Father (or loving parent, if you prefer); for the coming of the Kingdom in which God’s will is perfectly reflected from heaven to earth and back again; for everyone to have what they need to feed body and soul each day; for reconciliation with God and each other; and for our safety in times of trial. To pray as Jesus prays is to make Jesus’ deepest longings and desires our own.2 But this is not just a little theological nicety or a pious thought. Jesus’ prayer makes demands upon us that affect the way we live our lives in the world. Which brings us to the second part of our Gospel lesson--and to the School for Deacons.
Perhaps the disciples’ next question after “Teach us to pray” was “And what does this prayer have to do with us”. So Jesus tells this little parable about a persistent friend and what it means to persevere in prayer. That someone would get up in the middle of the night to give his neighbor some bread for his persistent friend--daily bread--this could be called “applied theology”--what it means to pray in the real world.
Each weekend at the School for Deacons students engage in course work which focuses on all the normal seminary subjects, but with an emphasis on the service of deacons to the poor and marginalized, which is the essence of the diaconate and will comprise a large part of their ministry. They apply this knowledge in Field Education, Hospital Ministry, in many ministries around the diocese and in their home parishes, as well as in their secular jobs which they will continue after graduation and ordination. But there is also a regular schedule of worship, in which every student participates and where the liturgical ministry of deacons is modeled. To form deacons, we engage them in a constant conversation between ministry in the church and in the world. We try to teach them, as Gail Ramshaw says, that:
When [the deacon] who works with the poor also
proclaims the Good News, calls on the people for
prayers of compassion and waits on the table and
the people recognize the connection between the
deacon’s ministry without...and within, liturgy forms
the people of God in a life of Christian service.3
The final part of the Gospel reading speaks of the overwhelming desire of God to shower good things upon us--even more than a parent wanting to do good his or her children. This is how God is. God has no need of our prayers, yet desires that we take up Jesus’ own words, and then to shower upon us everything we ask, encompassed in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now if you are thinking that there is a large gap between Jesus’ desires and our own, between what we ask of God and what God gives, you are right. We have only to look at a verse in the Psalm for today to see this:
Mercy and truth have met together;*
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
I love this verse and only wish it would come to pass. On one of my previous trips to the U.K. I visited Westminster Abbey, a favorite place. Someone pointed out to me (really too far for me to see) that there are four statues: Mercy, Truth, Justice (Righteousness) and Peace: the Four Virtues. At Evensong, I heard a sermon from the then Sub-Dean which pointed out that the statues of Mercy and Truth actually look away from each other. How far from a perfect alignment with God we are! Yet we persevere in prayer, just as Abraham of our Old Testament reading, or the neighbor of Jesus’ story, or as the disciples who wanted to learn to pray. But we must remember that it is God who gives us the desire to pray in the first place, which makes our prayers a reflection of God’s work in us.
Be careful of simple words said often...
In a few minutes we will say the Lord’s Prayer--our final act of preparation before receiving the very life of Jesus in Holy Communion. When we place our “Amen” on that prayer, we take upon ourselves Jesus’ desires and we allow him to take our “Common Prayer” and make it holy. We take all of the pain of our lives and of the world, all of the divisions in our Anglican Communion and we offer them to Jesus for healing and reconciliation. We take all of the service of our lives and offer it to Jesus, asking for strength and grace and safety. We take all the thanksgivings of our lives and offer them to Jesus for praise. And to Jesus’ prayer (and returning to the poetry of Barbara Schmich) we say:
“Amen”: We support. We approve.
We are of one mind. We promise.
May this come to pass. So be it.