“Knock, knock, knocking at Heaven’s Door” Lk. 11: 1-13
Martin Luther’s Large Catechism teaches us that “we should be encouraged and drawn to pray because…God takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words we are to use.” Luther is referring to the prayer Jesus offers his disciples in today’s Gospel reading from Luke, which we now call The Lord’s Prayer. Many of us probably know it by heart, possibly in several versions. Still, often people feel like they don’t know how to pray or even why we should.
Does prayer change anything? In today’s reading from Genesis, Abraham is convinced that his petitioning can change God’s mind, and maybe it does. Medical studies often show that patients who pray or have others pray for them make more significant recoveries than those who don’t. But we all know good and faithful people who pray and pray and pray for healing or hope or an end to war or innumerable other causes, and their prayers appear to be unanswered. So what is the point of praying?
We pray because Jesus demonstrated its importance in his own life—he often prayed with and for others, and he took time apart to converse with God privately. We pray because much of what happens in prayer is an unmasking of our true selves, an intimate revelation to the Source of our being about who and what’s on our minds, which builds relationship—both with the people for whom we pray and the God to whom we pray. Finally, we pray because Jesus asks us to. It’s as simple as that.
But how do we pray? This is a perennial question. In fact, early in the year 1535, Peter Beskendorf, Martin Luther’s friend and barber, asked Luther to teach him how to pray. Luther answered him in a public letter called How One Should Pray, for Master Peter the Barber, sharing both theological concepts and practical suggestions. I’ll offer some of them to you, along with the assurance that your own desire to pray is in itself a prayer.
The first part of Luther’s letter to Master Peter consists almost entirely in how to prepare to pray. “It is of great importance that the heart be made ready and eager for prayer,” Luther says. He suggests that the best posture for prayer is either kneeling or standing, with hands folded and eyes up to heaven (I guess he didn’t think much of sitting). Regarding the prime times for prayer, he proposes, “the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false deluding ideas which tell you, ‘Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour, first I must attend to this or that.’ Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.”
Luther then complains at length about monks reciting long prayers in Latin while their minds stray to whether or not the cows have been milked or the farmhand has unhitched the horses. Instead of reciting prayers and psalms mindlessly, Luther urges Peter to pray in his daily experiences, and to give prayer his full attention at all times. He refers Master Beskendorf to his own profession to warn him against multi-tasking:
“So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair, and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look elsewhere, he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat! Thus, if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, ‘The one who thinks of many things thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’ How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer.”
Luther frets that “The Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort or joy in its proper use.” To prevent further damage to this much abused prayer, Luther suggests walking through the Lord’s Prayer, one petition at a time, searching for both instruction and personal response. That’s what we will do.
The first thing Jesus asks his followers to pray for is that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. What does that mean? Where or what is God’s kingdom? It is not a geographic place, anymore than heaven is. God’s kingdom is the reign of God—a subversive and radical way of living that God has been urging people to adopt ever since the Garden of Eden. God’s kingdom is a society in which each person, animal, vegetable, and mineral is valued, honored, and respected—not for what they do, or how popular they are, or how beneficial they are to others, but simply in themselves, because God made them. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are praying that all the broken parts of creation be made whole; that everything and everyone would have enough to eat, enough to do, enough comfort, enough joy. Just enough.
It is important to be mindful that when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we are not commanding God to correct this world’s imbalances. When Jesus teaches this line of the prayer, he reminds us that a world of abundance for all is God’s dream, and we are asking to be part of it. More than that, we are proclaiming that we are part of it, and that we, too, long for the fulfillment of God’s dream of harmony and healing and reconciliation to spread across the earth, and that we are willing to work toward making this dream a reality.
To do this kind of difficult work, God knows that we need extraordinary strength and courage. And because God knows and understands us, God doesn’t ask us to manufacture this fortitude, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get on with it. The very next thing Jesus does is urge his disciples to ask God for daily bread—that is, for all the things we need from day to day: for friends, for favorable weather, for meaningful work, for a safe place to sleep, and for the courage to live as we pray. It’s worth noticing that Jesus instructs us to ask for these things daily. Why is that?
The poet Lisa Colt writes about prayer not as something we do, but rather as an undoing. She says that prayer undoes us. I wonder if Jesus asks us to pray for what we need daily to help undo our sense of control. When we pray for daily sustenance, those of us who tend to think we are self-sufficient are reminded that we are entirely dependent on God’s generosity. We ask for daily bread so that we remember it is God who gives us everything, that nothing and no one is ours to possess. As a general rule, we are not very good at undoing or being undone.
Perhaps that is why Jesus talks next about forgiveness. He tells his disciples to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven—to release whatever we are holding over one another. In the Presbyterian version of the Lord’s Prayer, this part is rendered: “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors,” which I think is a helpful turn of phrase in an economy like ours. This part of the prayer shows us that Jesus doesn’t expect us to earn forgiveness, to pay back our debt of gratitude to God in full or even in part. There is no doing penance. The starting point for those who follow Jesus is that we have been forgiven already. Our balance sheet has been wiped clean. We are absolved. It is finished.
Now we are to pass on that same blessing of grace to everyone who injures us, or violates our sense of wholeness. Forgive your boss? Forgive your ex? Forgive your families, your teachers, your co-workers, your pastors, everyone who has ever let you down? Forgive that person who sets your teeth on edge just by walking into a room? Yes. We pray for the courage and humility to forgive as we have been forgiven, because everything about God’s kingdom—including God’s very identity!—is tied up in grace and freedom and blessing.
Which makes the next line sort of jarring: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Or, in newer ecumenical language, “Save us from the time of trial.” Why does Jesus tell us to pray that? Is it likely that God would lead us astray? If we don’t explicitly ask for God’s protection, are we likely to be struck down by demonic powers? No. While God never participates in evil, this part of the prayer reminds us that evil is a very real part of our world. Maybe there isn’t a little red guy with horns and a pitchfork, but certainly there are forces at work in the world that lead us away from God, that sever our relationships with God our neighbors and even cause us to lose touch with ourselves. There are forces that distance us from people of other colors and cultures and social standings and religions, even when all the parties involved are well-meaning and wish it were not so. Try as we might, we cannot overcome these forces alone. We rely on God’s encouragement and sustenance in the struggle. To undo the powers of evil at work in the world, we have to regularly acknowledge our inability to save ourselves. We have to keep remembering that God is God, and we are not.
Though Luke doesn’t have Jesus say it, and Roman Catholics tend not to include it, Protestants usually finish The Lord’s Prayer with praise for who God is and how God relates to us. The kingdom, the power, and the glory are not ours. All that we are and all that we have—including this prayer itself!—are gifts from God! God is stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and more faithful than we are. What is remarkable is that God wants to partner with us. God believes that WE are part of how God’s kingdom comes into the world. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are not giving God a grocery list of what needs to be done; we are aspiring to adopt God’s vision for a creation that is peaceful, abundant, and harmonious as our vision too. We are recognizing the privilege we have in being asked to partner in the work of bringing God’s kingdom to this time and this place.
Luther’s treatise for his barber includes an entire paragraph about the word Amen, with which we generally conclude prayers. It’s so good that I’m going to read the passage to you in its entirety:
Finally, mark this. You must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing beside you, and you are standing among them in a common, united petition, which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer. This I know as a certainty and a truth.’ That is what Amen means.
Most importantly, Luther wanted to convey to Master Peter that prayer isn’t just talking to God. Luther expects God to speak to him also—that’s what the concentration and singleness of heart are FOR. He is confident that once his heart is warmed up, the Holy Spirit will interrupt whatever form of prayer he is practicing in order to preach directly to him. He writes, “If the Holy Spirit should come when these thoughts are in your mind and begin to preach to your heart, giving you rich and enlightened thoughts, then give Him the honor, let your preconceived ideas go, be quiet and listen to Him who can talk better than you; and note what He proclaims and write it down, so will you experience miracles as David says: ‘’Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.’
Praying is a risky proposition—it leaves us vulnerable and open in one another’s presence and in the presence of God. But it has great power. It is part of the process of unraveling our heartstrings from around our own particular idols—whether those idols are self-sufficiency, or the rightness of our particular cause or point of view, or a certain image of who God is and what the church is (or should be) about.
To pray as Jesus taught is a daunting task, and therefore is best done with the assistance of others. We participate in God’s kingdom and power and glory when we lift our voices together in The Great Undoing. We embody God’s dream of the Church and God’s dream of all creation when we unbind one another and set each other free. Lord, teach us to pray: “Our Father…”
You can listen to this sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 7-28-19” name of the sermon.