Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Sermon for Children's Sabbath

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Children’s Sabbath
October 20, 2013
Micah 4:1-5, Luke 18:1-8

May the Word of God be spoken, and may the Word of God be heard. Amen

Ten months ago I stood in this pulpit
and began my sermon this way:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ Jeremiah 31:15

This haunting lament from the writing
of the prophet Jeremiah was,
of course, in response
to the senseless and brutal killing
of 20 elementary school children
and their teachers in Newtown,
just a few miles down the road
from where we sit.

Ten months later, most of us have moved on.
  That’s what humans do;
  that’s how we cope.
Life goes on, and memories fade,
and we move on.
But for the families of those 20 children,
and those teachers,
it’s not that simple;
memories may fade,
but the pain never completely goes away.
Life is not and never will be the same.
The world has been irrevocably changed.

Like Rachel, they are weeping for their children, still.

The brutal death of 20 innocent children
was dramatic enough
to capture the world’s attention.
We vowed that this should never happen again.
Nonetheless the deaths from gun violence continue
in Hartford, in Bridgeport, in New Haven,
in Chicago, in small towns and large cities,
and many of them do not make the headlines.
Do you know how many individuals have died
since the Newtown tragedy
as the victims of gun violence?
Although statistics are surprisingly
difficult to come by,
and the best data likely under represents
actual numbers
the figure as of yesterday is at 9563.
Yes, 9563 gun deaths in the United States
in the last 10 months
more than the number of US service people killed
in either Afghanistan or Iraq;
actually more than the two combined.
One source estimates that an average
of 7 children a day die from gun violence.
And over the past 50 years,
 three times more children and teens
 died from guns on American soil
than U.S. soldiers were killed in action
 in wars abroad.
Between 1963 and 2010,
an estimated 160,000 children and teens
died from guns on American soil,
while 52,820 U.S. soldiers were killed in action
in the Vietnam, Afghanistan,
and Iraq wars combined.
That is sobering.

Like Rachel, we weep for our children
children (and adults who are still
someone’s children)
 who die
from senseless gun violence.

Now you might be wondering
why I am bringing this up today.
This is a sermon, and we’re supposed
to be talking God stuff, right?

We are getting to that, I promise.

This morning we are joining congregations
of all faiths across the country
in observing the National Children’s Sabbath.
This is the 22nd such observance,
and each year a theme is chose to draw attention to
the needs of children in this country.
This year’s theme is
“Beating swords into plowshares:
Ending the violence of guns and child poverty.

If that sounds familiar,
it’s because it comes from the passage
we heard read from the prophet Micah
a few moments ago,
and it echoes a similar passage
found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
Micah  is proclaiming a vision of a world to come,
a world in which God truly reigns,
a world in which wars are no more
and swords are beaten into plowshares
tools of death become the tools of life,
tools that ensure that all will be abundantly fed.

Can you imagine such a world?
A world of peace?
A world in which we need not fear for our children?
A world in which everyone is fed and fed abundantly?

That is, my friends, the world God calls us to.
That is the world God promises.

And yet like Rachel we still are weeping for our children.

We weep for our children,
and as much as we long for change
we feel powerless to make that change.
In the face of powerful cultural forces
that not only shape our world
but also insist that it MUST be this way,
we feel helpless; we become resigned
to the ways things are,
and we just quit trying to change them.

This morning’s readings, however,
give us a different message.
If there is one theme that runs through
all of our readings today it is persistence.
That persistence is reflected in Jacob
wrestling with the stranger in the night.
Somehow Jacob recognizes
that he is in a wrestling match with God
and he persists until he receives God’s blessing.
 In a way Jacob represents
the whole people of Israel,
a people who although often recalcitrant
are still willing to struggle
to receive God’s blessing.
Even when they stray
the persistence of a faithful few
sustains them in relationship with God.

That notion of persistence is even stronger
in our gospel reading
where we find Jesus,
still on his way to Jerusalem,
teaching those around him
with yet another parable.
Jesus tells the story of a widow
who repeatedly brings her case
to a judge so that she might receive justice.
This judge, we are told, respects
neither God nor humans,
 and he turns her away time and again.
The widow, however, does not give up.
She comes back over and over
until the judge,
possibly just to get rid of her,
gives in.
Persistence, it seems, pays off.

It’s tempting to hear this parable
as a promise that if we just pray
hard enough and long enough
we will get what we want.
And while we are certainly called
to be persistent in prayer,
the lesson in this parable, is I think,
more complicated than that.

The widow comes before the judge
seeking justice against an undefined opponent.
We don’t know exactly what is going on,
but we do know that widows
lived in precarious circumstances,
and that in Luke’s gospel
widows are often representative
of the oppressed,
so it’s not hard to figure out that her need is dire.
Through her persistence this widow gets justice,
more than likely something that allows her
to continue to survive.

Because it fits with our idea of how prayer works,
we tend see ourselves as the widow,
asking for what we need,
with God responding
more quickly than did the unjust judge.

But this is a parable…it’s open to interpretation;
let's look at it from another perspective.
What if God is actually the widow
and WE are the unjust judge?

What if God is crying out to US
to do justice in the world
and we are failing to heed that call?

What if God is coming to us over and over again
begging for justice from us
and we are turning deaf ears to God's plea?

Think about it.


At the end of my sermon 10 months ago,
I said that God is weeping with us
as we weep for our children.
God is present for us in our grief,
and in our outrage.
God calls us to a different world.
I believe that God is with us
as we seek justice for our children as well.
On this Children’s Sabbath
we are reminded of God’s vision
for a world in which war and violence are no more; we are reminded of the persistence of Jacob
in seeking God’s blessing,
we are reminded of the persistence of the widow
in seeking justice.
We too are called to be persistent,
persistent in prayer
AND persistent in working for justice,
justice and peace for all of God’s children.
We must act to end gun violence
We must act today, now,
persistently, until our children,
the world’s children are safe.

In April, four short months after the tragic shootings,
Mark Barden, father of one of the children killed,
  addressed the nation after legislation
to tighten registration requirements
for gun purchases failed
to pass through Congress.
He concluded this way:

“We return home with the determination that change will happen -- maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We've always known this would be a long road, and we don't have the luxury of turning back…

We will not be defeated. We are not defeated, and we will not be defeated. We are here now; we will always be here because we have no other choice. We are not going away. And every day, as more people are killed in this country because of gun violence, our determination grows stronger…

Our hearts are broken. Our spirit is not.”


I will not presume to offer solutions
for the issue of gun violence from the pulpit;
I will only contend that such solutions must be found.

God is calling us to seek justice,
God is calling us to be persistent.
God is calling us to beat our swords into plowshares,
to live in peace,
to reflect to each other
the abundant love God holds for each of us,
for all of God’s children.
God is calling us to the day when we no longer
have to weep for our children.

May it be so.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

LIke Rachel we are weeping for our children

A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
Jeremiah 31:15

This morning, we gather to celebrate
the third Sunday of Advent;
we light the rose candle,
and we hear readings full of joy
—joy in the words of the prophet Zephaniah,
in the beautiful Song of Isaiah,
and in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Today, though it might feel like a normal Sunday,
we know things are different.
We can see some of the difference:
I’ve chosen to forgo the rose vestments
I’d normally wear on this day,
and our paschal candle, a symbol of Easter,
            of the resurrection,
is lit alongside our Advent wreath.
The more significant difference, I dare say,
is in our hearts.
For there can be little joy in our hearts
as we mourn the senseless killing
            of 20 innocent children
            and the adults who taught them
            and cared for them
just a few miles from where we sit.

Instead our hearts are cracked open with grief,
filled with longing for what we have lost,
overflowing with sorrow for lives cut so short,
for promises unfulfilled,
for futures not realized.

Like Rachel, we are weeping for our children.

We are weeping and yet grief is not our only emotion;
if you are anything like me,
your hearts may also be torn by anger
that this could happen,
filled with rage over a world so broken,
heavy with fear that it will happen again,
weighed down by despair over how to respond.

Like Rachel, we are weeping for our children.

It is in moments like these I am especially grateful
for the words of those who have come before us,
the words in our prayer book
and in scripture
that remind us
that death does not hold the final answer for us,
that we are a resurrection people,
and that as St. Paul wrote
in his letter to the Romans,
                        “… neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present,
nor things to come,
nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our LordRomans 8:39

Even with that consolation,
even with that promise,
we weep for our children
and we long for a way to respond.
It is easy for us to feel helpless,
to feel powerless in the face of evil,
to feel hopeless in the face
of such overwhelming loss.
And it is true,
we cannot do anything
to bring back those who are gone,
to take back the hurt,
to erase the damage inflicted on those in Newtown,
and on the greater world
But there are nonetheless things we can do.

We can pray. 
We can pray for the repose of the souls
of all those who have died.
And we can pray for all who mourn,
all who are suffering,
all who have been touched by this horror.
We can pray that we might be called together
to address the roots of such senseless violence,
and we can pray that God holds us close
as we deal with the tragic aftermath
of Friday’s shootings. 
We can pray because in prayer
we are called into God’s presence,
we are touched by God’s spirit,
            we are held in God’s gentle grasp.
We can pray because God can take it,
            when it is too much for us to bear
            God can take it
—take our grief,
take our tears,
take our anger,
take it all.
We can pray.
We can admit that we live in a broken world.
A world that is tattered and torn,
a world that has strayed far afield from God’s hopes,
God’s desires for us,
As God’s beloved children
created in God’s own image.
We can acknowledge that we live in ways
that often are contrary to the values
that Jesus teaches us in the gospel,
that we frequently fail to recall Jesus’ admonition
that above all we should love God
and love our neighbor,
that we fall far short of caring for others
in the way Jesus would have us do.

And we can act.
We can act by reaching out
to comfort those who mourn,
by not forgetting them as days go by,
by offering our love
and our reassurance
that God is still with us,
in the midst of all this.

But our action must not stop there.
As Martin Luther King wrote in 1963
after the killing of four innocent young girls
in a church bombing,
             “We must be concerned not merely
about who murdered them,
but about the system, the way of life,
the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

We too must be concerned
not just about this murder,
this senseless shooting,
but also about all the conditions
that conspire to make
such acts of senseless horror possible.
We must confront those things
even, especially the ones that may be painful
or contentious to talk about,
and we must openly and honestly address them
—things such as better ways
of controlling access to guns,
especially assault weapons,
ways of ensuring better access
to mental health care
for those in the throes of mental illness,
ways of acknowledging  and dealing with
the  glorification of violence in our culture
—and if you think I overstate this,
just look at the most popular movies
and video games on the market—
and the influence that violence has on our psyches,  whether conscious or unconscious.
We must act bravely and firmly
to challenge the status quo,
we must not let ourselves be silenced
by those who say
we cannot or should not change. 
In memory of all the innocent children,
we must act.

Like Rachel, we are weeping for our children.
And my friends, God weeps with us.
God is with us in our grief,
our anger, our sorrow.
God is with us now and always.

God is with us now and always.
Is that, in fact, not the hope of Advent,
the hope that sustains us?

Even though joy may not be in our hearts this day,
the hope of that joy is ever present.

We hear that hope in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
With weeping they shall come,
   and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will turn their mourning into joy,
   I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow
Jeremiah 31:9,13b

And we hear it in the words of the psalmist:
Weeping may endure for a night
but joy comes in the morning. Psalm 30:5

That joy is perhaps never more evident
than in our celebration of the nativity,
as we welcome and honor
that tiny babe wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in the manger,
that tiny babe whose life means so much for ours,
and in whose death our promise of salvation rests.

Even in our grief, that hope, that joy,
that saving grace are there for us.

Like Rachel, we are weeping for our children,
and God is weeping with us
but that is not the end of the story
for weeping may endure for the night
but joy will come in the morning.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Let justice roll down like waters...

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13

Amos 8:4-7

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen


It always comes down to money.

For as long as humanity has dealt with any kind of accumulation of wealth, we have argued about it. And fought about it. For as long as we have used money, some have more and some have had less, and some have used wisely and some have squandered it, and some have been honest and some have lied and stolen and cheated. For as long as we’ve had money, it has exerted an inordinate power in our lives.

Some things never change.

Jesus knew this. Jesus talked more about money and our relationship to it than almost any other subject. Amos knew this. As a simple herdsman he probably never had much money but he understood its power.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that both our Hebrew scripture reading and our gospel involve MONEY—money and its use and misuse, money and our relationship with it.

In our Hebrew scripture we hear from the prophet Amos. Amos was called by God some 800 years before Jesus’ birth—called to leave his home in a small village south of Jerusalem and travel north, to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to deliver God’s words, God’s warnings to a people who seemed to be forgetting what their covenant with God really meant.

The Northern Kingdom, you see, was enjoying a period of relative peace and prosperity, a time when all should have been well. But instead, greed was rampant and the gap between the rich and the poor was ever widening. What’s more, the people seemed to forget that their relationship with God entailed more than just observing the Sabbath, and the holy days. They forgot that what they did the other six days of the week mattered. They forgot that their behavior in every realm of their lives reflected their relationship with God. It had gotten so bad that some were even heard wishing for the Sabbath to end quickly so that they could get back to business—back to cheating and lying and exploiting in order to increase their wealth.

It fell to Amos to point out to the people of the Northern Kingdom, to the rich and prosperous—which of course included the king—the error of their ways. It fell to Amos to remind them that their God was a God of justice, and that as God’s chosen people they were called to live just lives themselves, to order their lives in such a way that all could prosper, and to show special concern for the powerless-- the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, the needy, and the poor.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” Amos cried. (Amos 5:24)

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Amos’ words were not well received. Some things never change.

Which brings us to the gospel. The parable of the unjust steward—or the shrewd steward, take your pick—is one of the most difficult passages in the gospels to understand. Jesus tells the story of a man, a manager, who was called on the carpet because there were rumors that he’d been squandering his boss’ wealth—whether it was through mismanagement or thievery we don’t know. The boss, the master, demands that the manager bring him a final accounting so that he can dismiss him and manager, understandably perhaps, freaks out. “I’m too old to labor and too proud to beg,” he says to himself, and then an idea comes to him. He calls in two of his accounts, and reduces the debt that each owes, hoping of course that being indebted to him they will care for him when he’s out of work and on the street. Then the “shrewd” manager returns to the master who instead of being even angrier at this continued mismanagement of his assets, commends the manager’s behavior. It’s puzzling indeed.

What’s even more puzzling is that Jesus does not lash immediately, condemning this dishonest behavior. Instead, he almost seems to recommend it, perhaps employing a little sarcasm, appreciating the irony of the situation when he says to his disciples, “…make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Whatever we think of the outcome of the parable, and of the manager’s actions, one thing is clear—dishonesty begat more dishonesty. Lack of faithfulness begat more unfaithfulness. Devotion to money above all else ruptured relationships and caused a cascade of behavior that just multiplied the wrongs. The last line of the gospel highlights this: You cannot serve God and wealth.

We cannot serve God and wealth. Like the message that Amos brought to the people of the Northern Kingdom, this message from Jesus is one that is hard to hear—it was hard in Jesus’ time, and it’s hard now, because we have a love affair with money. Money means power, it means luxury, it means never wanting for anything, and what’s wrong with that?

Well, this is what’s wrong with that –when we make money the be-all and end-all of our existence – our god as it were – we buy into a system that is incompatible with the world God created and envisions for us. We become, like the manager who cheated his master to make up for cheating that same master, like the people of Israel who observed the Sabbath all the while longing for its end so that they could return to their scheming ways, destined to continue behaviors that promote our own well-being at the expense of others. We participate in, we support unjust systems to serve ourselves.

God wants something better for us, for all of humanity, all of creation. God wants a world in which every living creature is cared for, in which the needs of one are not met at the expense of another. God wants a world in which “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

That doesn’t mean that we must give up our money, abandon our jobs, or empty our retirement savings. But it does mean that we must remember that God is the source of all that we have, and that God holds us accountable for how we use that abundance. We can’t serve God and wealth, but we can use our wealth to serve God, to restore a world in which there is true economic justice for every human being, in which we all live in the security of knowing that our needs will be met.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

In heaven all the tables are round

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 29, 2010
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen

When I was in the third grade my family moved from North Carolina to West Virginia, and I found myself as the “new kid” in the class. Being the new kid is always a little bit daunting, and this time, was no different. I missed my old friends and the only house I had known and my grandmother, but I began to make new friends and to adapt to a school where kindergarten through high school was on the same campus and we had a whole hour of recess at lunch time. And I really liked my new teacher, Mrs. Montgomery. Well, except for one thing: she kept talking about something she called “reseating” and I had no idea what she meant. She made it sound important, monumental even, and whatever it was would happen when we received our report cards. I was mystified, but I was also embarrassed to ask any of my new friends what she meant.

Come mid-year I found out. One cold snowy morning Mrs. Montgomery had us all drag our desks out of the neat straight rows they were in to the back of the classroom, and then she proceeded to instruct us in where to replace them—this was the mysterious “reseating;” you know, re-seating, getting new seats? Some how I had never made that connection. And it turns out that reseating was based on our grades; yes, in third grade, we were being lined up by our class rank: the child with the highest grades overall sat in the first seat in Row 1, and the child with the lowest grades was in the last seat in Row 4.

Of course, in third grade we hadn’t yet become too concerned about our grades, but we did understand that somehow where Mrs. Montgomery had us place our desks said something about us. And it became clear that being in Row 1 conferred some status, while being in Row 4 bordered on shameful.

I did make it into Row 1, although never into the first seat; after the first week or so, where we sat didn’t’ seem to matter that much unless our teacher made a comment about it. I admired the boy who sat in row 1, seat 1, but for reasons that had more to do with his sense of humor and friendliness than where he sat. And I always felt a little sorry for the girl who ended up in the last seat in row 4. Sandra had Down Syndrome, although we didn’t know enough to call it that. She was in our class because there were no special education services in the small school system, and she simply was passed on to the next grade every year. Sandra was friendly and cheerful, but I can’t help but wonder if she too didn’t sometimes feel the shame and stigma attached with her seat.

I hadn’t thought about third grade and “reseating” for a long time, but when I read this week’s gospel it was the first thing that popped into my head. I expect that Mrs. Montgomery, because she genuinely seemed to care about her students, meant reseating to be motivational, to prompt us to work harder; whether it actually served that purpose I don’t know, but I do know that for me at least, reseating was my first exposure to the notion that our gospel revolves around—the notion that that position matters.

Position matters—literally where you sit, and figuratively how your ‘standing’ is assessed by others matters—in our culture and in Jesus’ time. Being at the front of the line, at the head table, in the corner office matters. Status and honor and place matter.

At least to us. But to Jesus—not so much.

Jesus you see doesn’t see things the same way we do. For Jesus what matters is first of all being a child of God. What matters is loving God and loving others. Jesus doesn’t think more highly of us if we’re in Row 1, seat 1; Jesus doesn’t care if we’re in the corner office or stuck in that windowless cubby next to the elevator. In fact, Jesus might seek us out more quickly if we are at the end of row 4 or in the stuffy cubbyhole.

That’s a hard lesson for us to hear, it runs counter to the way we know things work in the world; like Jesus’ followers we live in a culture that is wont to rank order, compare, and judge. Prestige and honor and wealth matter.

Or do they?

When Jesus is at dinner with the Pharisee, he watches as the guests take their seats, and he sees them jockeying for position. And then as he reflects on their behavior he offers two sage pieces of advice for those who would follow him, those who would seek the kingdom of God.

First, he says, don’t immediately take the best seat, or even the second best. Instead go to the end of row 4, and maybe later you’ll be invited to move up. At least you won’t suffer the humiliation of being asked to move down; and really, it doesn’t matter anyway.

As startling as that might have been, what Jesus says next must have been even more jarring: When you invite guests, don’t even think about whether they can reciprocate. In fact, you should invite those you know CAN’T reciprocate: the poor, the hungry, the homeless. Invite them to the table; give them a seat of honor—because THAT is what the kingdom of God will be like. That is what the kingdom of God IS.

Jesus in not just playing Miss Manners; he’s concerned with far more than dinner parties and wedding feasts. Jesus is talking about LIFE. No matter what hand we’ve been dealt in this world—a world where then as now things never seem to come out equal and fair, we are all beloved children of God and we are called to love one another—not abstractly, but in our actions, every day. And if we’re among the lucky, the fortunate—as most of us are—it is all the more important for us to look out for those who are at the end of the line. We’re not called to judge them, we’re not call to blame them for their fate; we’re not called to tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No, we are called to invite them to the table as our brothers and sisters in Christ; we’re called to feed them and care for them and we’re called to work for justice, and to right the wrongs in the world that make it so easy for people to end up at the end of the line.

Because in God’s kingdom there won’t be a head table, our desks won’t be in neat rows. In God’s kingdom all the tables will be round, and all the plates will be full. In God’s kingdom, the only status that will matter is being God’s beloved child.

We don’t have to wait for God’s kingdom either. God’s kingdom is not just in the bye and bye—it is NOW – not complete, not finished, by any means, but it’s here; it’s here in that wonderful already-but-not-yet way, shimmering on the horizon and experienced in glory in those moments when we are able to live just as Jesus calls us to live— when we forget about earthy status, earthly prestige, earthly honor; when we invite everyone to the table to be fed and cared for and loved. Because in God’s kingdom, that’s what matters.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 25, 2010
Luke 11:1-13

Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen

Do you remember how you learned to pray? Perhaps it was as a child, learning to say grace before meals: “God is great, God is good, now we thank God for our food…” or prayers before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” Perhaps you learned to pray the rosary, or maybe you memorized the confession and the Lord’s Prayer in confirmation class. If you were raised in the Episcopal Church, as I was, the words of the liturgy may have seeped into your consciousness, “we acknowledge and bewail our manifest sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed,” whether you understood them or not. Or if you grew up in a family where church going and prayer were not part of your routine, your first prayers might have been born out of desperation, “Help me, God,” or “Take care of her God,” or even, “I’m sorry, God!” or from a heart overflowing with relief and love, “Thank God he’s okay!”

Prayer is one the most elemental parts of our lives as people of faith. In our corporate worship we join in prayers to praise God and to ask God’s blessings for ourselves and others. As a parish we regularly pray for forgiveness, for healing, for strength, for patience. In our private prayers we ask for guidance, for God’s presence in our lives and for help in living as God would have us live.

As fundamental as it is to our lives though, in many ways, there is nothing harder than prayer. It’s often described simply as “talking with God,” which seems easy enough, right? But prayer requires us to open ourselves up, to bare our souls to God, and to let go of our need to be in control. At times, rather than being a source of peace and comfort, prayer can raise our anxiety levels. We wonder if we are praying enough, if we are we doing it “right”. We wonder what should we pray for and what it means when our prayers aren’t answered or at least not answered as we’d like them to be. We wonder if prayer still matters.

20th century preacher George Buttrick captures our ambivalence about prayer when he writes, “If God is not, and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit. If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly; it were nobler to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, [our]worthiest art, [our] best resource and sublimest joy.”[1]

In today’s gospel we get Jesus’ own take on prayer. Throughout the gospel of Luke we find Jesus praying: he withdrew to deserted places or to mountaintops to pray, he prayed before he called his disciples and when he fed the five thousand; he prayed in the garden before his arrest, and from the cross. Prayer was an integral part of Jesus’ life, and his disciples had witnessed this as they traveled with him.

Of course, as religious Jews, his disciples were no strangers to prayer themselves. No doubt they began their days with the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” blessed their food before eating, and prayed before they fell asleep at night. And yet, in watching Jesus immerse himself in prayer, they saw or felt or sensed that there might be yet more to know and so they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus replies with a prayer that is simple, straightforward, and covers all the basics—in a way a template for how to pray in general. The strength of this prayer is testified to by its persistence through the ages. In this prayer Jesus gives us a vocabulary, words to address God—Father he said, but we might just as well say Mother or Parent—the point is that we are to address God intimately, as one with whom we are in relationship, as one who loves us as a parent loves a child, indiscriminately and unconditionally. And then, hallowed: holy, sanctified be your name; your kingdom come. In the ancient world, where God’s name was too holy to be uttered, this invocation envisions God’s power and dominion in a world that then, as now, must often have felt out of control.

It is only after our relationship with God and God’s dominion in the world are acknowledged, Jesus tells us in this prayer, that we are to petition God to meet our needs. And in those petitions—which are corporate “we” not individual “I” we ask for the essentials, for those things we need to sustain life: food for the journey, forgiveness for our sins—those thing which take us away from God—and notice this: that forgiveness is hinged on our forgiveness of those indebted to us; and finally faithfulness—let us not be put to the test O God, because we surely will fall short.

This form of prayer Jesus gave to his disciples and to us, of course, is not the only way to pray. But in its beautiful simplicity it holds out for us something even more important than the words it employs; it holds out for us the promise that we often seem to be seeking when we question the reasonableness, the usefulness, the validity of prayer. In this prayer, Jesus invites us into relationship with the God who created us, loves us, and who desires, even needs our prayers. Jesus invites us into intimate relationship with the God who is Holy, the one in whom the power and glory reside, and then Jesus assures us that we can—should—ask that Holy One for those things we need, and we should be persistent, shameless even, to use a more precise translation of the Greek, in our asking. Jesus invites us to pray and then to release those prayers as we might release a helium balloon, letting them go where the spirit will take them, letting them become fuel for God’s action in the world.

When we enter into that kind of relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Holy, in and through prayer, then prayer, no matter what words we use, or whether we use words at all, indeed becomes for us our “worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”


[1] George Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1942) 15. Emphasis mine.