Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Essntial Prayer

Essential Prayer
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 26, 2016

Matthew 6:5-15
Luke 11:1-13

          As you might have gathered from the scripture readings, this is a sermon about prayer. You will notice that I have done something unusual in in choosing, for our hearing, two gospel passages – the lectionary passage for today from Luke, and its somewhat parallel passage from Matthew. I know that this is against the rules, but I will take the risk, since neither Tom nor Ernie is here. Both passages, as you heard, talk about Jesus giving instruction in prayer, and, in particular, giving his disciples a model prayer, the words of which we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, I assume that all of you know, by heart, the Lord’s Prayer. You probably know the prayer as it is recorded in Matthew’s gospel, rather than the shorter version we find in Luke. Luke’s version, as saw in your pew Bibles, omits some of the phrases that Matthew includes. The problem is that the various ancient biblical manuscripts, which form the basis of our Bible, sometimes say different things. Because the manuscripts were, of course, hand-copied, usually by monks, over many centuries, words were added or omitted through the ages. Any good study Bible will tell you, through footnotes, the variations. Thus, if you are a Catholic, your acquaintance with the Lord’s Prayer comes from the traditional Vulgate, translated by St Jerome from Greek to Latin. In manuscripts that he was using, what we Protestants call the ending of the prayer  - “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever (and ever) -Amen” is not there. If you are attending Catholic worship and start to add those phrases when the prayer is recited, you are outed as a Protestant. But when the premier English Protestant Bible, the King James Bible, was translated in 1611, the authorities used a Greek manuscript that had, added in the margin, For thine is the kingdom, the power, etc. So it was incorporated into our Bible, and our tradition.

But these are merely items of interest; they are not the point of this sermon.

“What is the point?”, you ask? Well, I haven’t got to that yet. I’ll tell you when I do.

Actually, the main question I kept thinking about, after I received the kind invitation to preach today, was: Why bother with church? And that still is the underlying question I’m pondering. I hope to approach some sort of answer by the time I conclude.

Why bother with church? I realize of course that you may not be asking that question right this minute – though perhaps you are – because you are here. You must have a reason to be here. But what is that reason? And why is it that fewer and fewer people, according to recent surveys – seem to bother with church?

I think the answer has something to do with prayer.

Note the different ways in which these two gospels introduce the Lord’s prayer. In Matthew, it is part of a longer discourse that Jesus is giving on prayer, where he talks about hypocrisy and public display. But in Luke, Jesus responds to a direct request from his disciples, who come to him and ask him to teach them to pray. But why do they do that? It’s funny. Luke says the disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Hmm. Very interesting. Paraphrasing, the disciples say, “Lord, John has taught his disciples to pray, but you haven’t taught us. John’s disciples know more than we do. Teach us to do what they can do.” Hidden beneath the surface of this text is perhaps a latent competition between disciples of John and disciples of Jesus. Which knew more? It reminds me of a time when my children were small.  Stephen, in first grade, was envious of his older brother, Daniel, who was in third grade. One day Stephen complained to us, ”Daniel knows all about vowels, but I don’t even know what vowels is.” Jesus’ disciples did not want to fall behind John’s.

Now we assume that the John mentioned here is John the Baptist.
So you see the problem: John’s disciples were Baptists, and Jesus’ disciples were Congregationalists. Or maybe Presbyterians. In the Baptist tradition, which I know very well, having been brought up in it, people are taught to pray, aloud, when called on. And in most Baptist congregations, the preacher often calls on a member of the congregation – often a deacon, but not always – spontaneously and without warning, to lead the congregation in prayer. And if you are properly trained, you are prepared to do that. You stand up and pray, often for a long time, making an all-inclusive list of things to be  prayed about. If I called on anyone in this congregation today to lead us in prayer spontaneously, some of you might need medical attention. Jesus’ disciple, who were Congregationalists and Presbyterians, needed a definite prayer, preferably short, that they can read, or memorize. Else they have no idea what to say. The prayer that Jesus gave his disciples, whether it is Luke’s version or Matthew’s version, is short and memorable. It is the Christian prayer, shared by all disciples, including  Baptists. And, as Saint Augustine says, this prayer covers everything. And it is the only thing that Jesus ever taught his disciples  to say. He said: SAY THIS. This is  the only liturgy authorized by Jesus.

So let’s see, sticking with the short version, Luke’s version, what it says.

Father  - that’s how it starts. It acknowledges that we did not create ourselves. We have come into being as a gift, and we are part of a great magnificent mystery – a mystery which our scientific discoveries only deepen.

Hallowed be your name.  The mystery is holy. We should approach all being as mystery and treat it with holiness, never losing sight of the holiness of life and its giver.

Your kingdom come. Things are not finished yet. We, and our world, are in process, moving toward a purpose yet to be realized, a reality that will fully embrace the holiness of life, made manifest in perfect love, mercy, justice. And we are a part of that.

Give us each day our daily bread.  We are also material creatures, whose material existence depends upon nourishment, which we require every day, upon which we depend, but which we never create. We merely cultivate what is already in our world.

And forgive us our sins as forgive everyone indebted to us.  We mess up, continually, in small ways and in very large ways. We hurt other people, intentionally or accidentally. None of us can do without forgiveness, and we cannot be forgiven unless we also forgive. That’s just the way it works.

And do not bring us to the time of trial. There will be things that we just don’t think we can handle – that we know we cannot handle. Save us during those times.

Now, I know that there are people who have problems with parts of this prayer. Some don’t like it because they say it assumes, or promotes, patriarchy: by talking about God as Father, some say, male privilege is perpetuated. And there is a valid critique there, because heaven knows in its history the church has been slow to fully embrace gender equality. So if it is important for you to say “our Mother,” I don’t think Jesus would object. It’s the meaning, not the precise word. Mother/father – God is the source of our very being. But let’s not use “Parent.” – a term which, I think, depersonalizes the prayer. And if kingdom is offensive to you, use queendom, or divine purpose. But learn this prayer, because it is the prayer that Jesus taught us, and it is what we need to say, to believe, to live for, and to live with. It is the prayer we must pray, as Jesus said, continually. We must keep on praying it, keep asking, keep knocking, keep seeking – even when it seems that no one is listening.

So finally we are back to my question: Why bother with church? You know, when, many years ago, after my seminary education at Vanderbilt, I recognized that I had been predestined to be a Presbyterian, I was comforted by the old adage; When Presbyterian ministers stand up to preach, they know that everyone who is supposed to be there is there. But it seems more and more that God intends people to be somewhere else. And why is that? I think it’s because, for many, church has become an empty obligation rather than a joy. It’s natural. Human beings seek joy and hope. If they are not finding it in church, they ask, “Why bother?” If you get nothing out of going to church, you will stop going. That simple. So what is there to get? Two things. A reminder of the mysterious love that encompasses us all, known for us supremely in Jesus Christ, and a community that shows that love to one another, and to the world.

People are attracted to different styles of church. Roman Catholics and Episcopalians are deeply attracted to a liturgy, a format or prayer and praise that does not often change, where the words become second nature. Protestants, whether they are staid Congregationalists or Presbyterians, say they want a stimulating sermon and beautiful music. Younger millennials want lively music, projected on a screen, with simple lyrics, informal sermons, and no dress code. But what all want is a sense of community that affirms and expresses the love of God, the mystery of being, and the hope that our lives can contribute to increasing goodness in this world.

You know, I sometimes worry about this church a bit. That may surprise you. I worry that, when new people come here, they may find it hard to connect. Tom has been trying to encourage us all to come to coffee hour. He’s right, but coffee hour doesn’t work if you only talk to people you already know. I think people often huddle in familiar groups because we feel reluctant to engage people we don’t know. Maybe we think: “ I should know who these people are, but I don’t. Are they visitors? What will they think if I introduce myself to them? Will they be offended that I don’t know them?” Rather than risk being wrong, we are shy.

I am suggesting that it is awfully hard for visitors to know how to break the ice. William Sloane Coffin once told me that most congregational churches in New England are so cold that you can ice skate down the center aisle. That’s what he said. I’m just quoting him.

Of course, the point is to welcome people into a community where Christ is at the center. A community where people continually pray, with words and hearts  and deeds, the Lord’s prayer.

I will say one other thing that I hope it will challenge you, lovingly. I know how important it is to many of you to close each of our services with the recitation of your covenant, which you revised just last year. I have no problem with the covenant, except for one  word: “our.” I become uncomfortable when I am asked to pledge allegiance to “our church.” No, it’s not our church. It’s Christ’s church. The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, I think it’s called. Perhaps it would help if, at the conclusion of worship, a word was said such as this: “Whether you are a student or a newcomer to town or a long-time resident, we invite you to be a part of this community of Christ. We want to get to know you. In this congregation, it is our custom to close our worship by remembering and reciting our church covenant, which reminds us of our commitment to each other and to the world. We invite you to join us in this weekly renewal of our commitment, if you wish. And afterward, we invite all of you to join us for refreshment and conversation at the coffee hour downstairs. You are very welcome here. ”

Some things need to be said over and over. As Jesus reminded us in today’s Lukan lesson, prayer never ceases. We have to keep at it.  When it seems that the forces of violence and greed and hatred and ignorance and indifference will overwhelm us, we have to keep praying that prayer “thy kingdom come” – knowing that our puny efforts, if we make them consistently, will make a difference.

Why bother with church? Because that’s where people learn to pray the Lord’s prayer. That’s the point.  I told you I would tell you when we finally reached my point, so there is it. That’s the point. Why bother with church? Because it’s the  place where people learn to pray the Lord’s prayer, together, over and over, continually,  until our lives are shaped by it and we really mean it. Amen.