Proper 12, C, 7/24/16
Today’s Gospel describes the origin of the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. He responds, “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 form of the prayer would have been familiar to the Jews. It begins with acknowledgement of God as the Holy One. It then acknowledges God’s purpose, the bringing of God’s kingdom. Only after these do the petitions come.
I want to focus on the first petition – Give us each day our daily bread. In the past I’ve thought that meant give us those things necessary to daily life. At text study some years ago, Brian Wolfe gave us a short course on the original Greek, which did not support my assumptions at all. The Greek words used suggest something higher, daily sustenance in a spiritual sense, more like a calling for Sophia, which is wisdom or enlightenment.
Jesus goes on to say, “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.”
Taken by itself this might mean you can have whatever you ask for. I’ve heard people claim this – that if you pray hard enough all things are possible. Why not pray to find a parking place? Why not pray to win the lottery? We believe this shows the real danger of taking scripture out of context. Look at the last part of today’s reading.
“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!”
Aha! Jesus is talking about asking, seeking, knocking, in search of the Holy Spirit, not worldly goods or happiness or some sort of advantage for the seeker or saving us from harm/disaster/grief in this life. Jesus is talking about what happens when we seek the Holy Spirit – when we seek to encounter the Holy in our daily lives.
Christians from day one have prayed this prayer daily or weekly, but as I was thinking about this interpretation, I wondered how prepared we are to have our prayers answered? Praying for a comfortable life is not the same as praying for an encounter with the Holy. Rather its’ just the opposite. How comfortable were the lives of those people in the Bible who were touched by the Holy Spirit? Why would it be any different today?
Here’s the problem. When you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, you are opening yourself up to change, because such an encounter demands a response. Many of us aren’t prepared for this. “Sure I’d like to see and experience the holy each day, but I want to go on living my life the same as now.” It’s just not possible!
One thing about change that I’ve noticed is that I’m much more interested in changing other people than I am in changing myself. If I don’t watch out that may even creep into my prayers – “Dear God, please help Anna be less critical, and take Henry’s anger from him.”
When it comes to responding to the Holy Spirit’s call to us, I’d rather support those who are doing than do it myself. I think of this as being a Good Samaritan from a comfortable distance. I don’t think that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit has in mind for us!
Think for a moment about any of the televangelists you have seen. They and some Christian churches teach that if you follow all the rules, God will take care of you and protect you. Then, when disaster strikes a family, the assumption is that they must have done something wrong, no matter what they claim. Our tradition accepts the reality that bad things happen to everyone, and that rather than praying for an easy life, we pray for the strength to endure. We don’t pray for a parking space, we pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit in good times and in bad.
Somewhere recently I heard a story about Mother Teresa. An interviewer asked her what she asked for when she prayed. She replied, “Oh, I don’t ask for anything. I just listen.”
“And what does God say when you listen?” the interviewer asked.
She replied, “Oh, God listens too.”
This is the path of the mystic. However, you can experience it too with a little practice of a kind of prayer called Centering Prayer. This is a form of prayer that consists of sitting and listening, not attempting to silence the world around you, but to just not paying attention to it.
There are other forms of prayer that are very different. About thirty years ago I led a workshop with a friend that related four different forms of prayer to the Meyer-Briggs personality sorter. It was fascinating to me, because it helped explain why some forms of prayers just don’t work for me, while others seem so meaningful. And all of us seemed to agree that there’s a connection between the type of prayer that works and one’s personality type.
I’ve always liked what Anne Lamott said about prayer. There are only two prayers that are necessary: one is “Thank you!” The other is “Help!”
However, the Lord’s Prayer strikes me as good for everyone. It is simple, straightforward, and sums up all our petitions into a short form. Maybe it is better to pray this way and leave out any specifics. Asking for specifics, sort of puts us in God’s place, doesn’t it? And asking for specifics is, as they say in the computer business, likely to produce unpredictable results. Not asking for specific results is also another way of saying, “Thy will be done.”
So consider carefully what you pray for this week. Try praying the Lord’s Prayer each day with this understanding, that when you pray for daily bread, you are praying for transformation. How does it feel? What do you fear? Can you leave your fears behind? The Holy Spirit is here, always ready to meet us. Can we greet her with open arms and accept with joy the changes that come after? With God’s help, we can. AMEN