“Prayer” Exodus 32:7-14
Rev. Sean Weston Luke 11:1-13
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
July 8, 2018
The year was 1738, in England. A preacher named John Wesley was burned out. He was having trouble with his faith. He said to himself, “stop preaching. How can you preach to others if you don’t have faith yourself?” He asked a friend, another preacher named Peter Böhler [BOOh-lar] if that meant he should stop preaching and find a new line of work. After all, how can you preach to others if you’re not sure of your faith yourself?
In response, Böhler said no, absolutely not! Wesley responded, quite reasonably, “but what can I preach?” Böhler answered, “preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” John took his friend’s advice, and the next day he ministered to a man on death row. “My soul started back from the work,” he said, which is a 1738 way of saying “it was really, really hard for me. Something deep inside me resisted.” But he followed his friend’s advice. Preach faith till you have it. Wesley ended up being one of the most influential preachers in church history, co-founding the what is now the United Methodist Church. That’s good advice, I think. But the idea doesn’t just apply to those of us who preach. You might have heard similar advice in the phrase “fake it till you make it.” Maybe someone has reminded you that when you smile you are more likely to feel like smiling. Maybe you’ve discovered that during conflict with a loved one, saying “I love you” out loud softens your heart even when you don’t feel very loving. Preach faith till you have it. Fake it till you make it.
I doubt that was what Wesley expected to hear. It was surprising enough that he made note of it in his journal. He seemed to expect his friend to say, “you’d better lay off the preaching until you get yourself right.” After all, what we believe affects what we do. How we feel shapes how we act. But it goes the other way too. What we do shapes what we believe. How we act shapes how we feel.
We see this in the way Jesus responded when his disciples said to him “Lord, teach us to pray.” Today, if you want to learn how to pray like the disciples did, you might look for a book or an article. And you’ll often find a focus on having the right attitude and beliefs about prayer. Have the right attitude, and you’ll pray right. Have the right beliefs, and God will certainly respond to you.
But Jesus didn’t sit them down and say “well, first you need to make sure you have the right attitude. Your faith better be right, and make sure you’re open to God and ready to keep trying day after day.” No, he simply gave them words. An actual prayer. which we now call the Lord’s Prayer. The version Sherry read is an interpretation so different from the way we say it that you might not have recognized it! There are actually a lot of different ways to say the prayer, and not just the usual sins/debts/trespasses issue. But here, we find where it came from.
After Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s prayer, he explains things a bit more. In classic preacher fashion, I would like to suggest three points from that passage that can serve as guideposts in a faithful prayer life.
The first is that prayer can never just be about yourself. Prayer always turns your heart outward to the needs of others, the needs of the world. “Imagine,” Jesus says, that it’s the middle of the night and an old friend of yours is traveling through and stops by. You don’t have anything to offer, so you go wake up another friend asking for bread. At first your friend doesn’t want to get out of bed to help, but you keep at it until he agrees to get you what you need. So, Jesus is saying, God is so much more generous that that unhelpful friend, so when you’re trying to God will help you when you ask. The story is about praying to God for help meeting the needs of others
But, and this is point number two, God is not a vending machine. Prayer is not a dollar bill we put in to get out whatever we want. A lot of times this passage is used to make it seem that way: “ask and you’ll get; seek and you’ll find.” But you always have to look at the bigger story to understand scripture. Jesus said those things after telling a story. Not a story about asking God to make sure that your favorite team wins, or that you get a higher test score than your classmates, or that your bathroom renovation goes well. It’s fine to pray about those things, but don’t be surprised when you don’t get what you asked for. God makes no promises to give us everything we want for ourselves. But when we ask God for what you need to help make the world a better place, Jesus says, God will show up.
But you have to ask. And that brings me to point number three, which is just keep praying. If you have no idea where to start, don’t over think it. Start with the words Jesus taught. You can never go wrong that way. Pray them once, or pray them over and over again. Pray when God seems far and when God seems near. Pray them alone. Pray them with others. Pray them in church. You don’t have to have faith, or have your own words. You don’t have to feel like it. Let God take care of that for you. Just keep praying. Pray until God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. Keep praying until your friend has enough food to eat. Sometimes when you pray, you will feel like God is with you. Other times it’ll feel like you’re just saying words. But over time, saying the words changes you. It helps you be more faithful, trusting, forgiving, loving, just, peaceful, and merciful. Just keep praying.
There’s a reason that many of us have been saying the Lord’s prayer in worship ever since the day Jesus taught it. As somebody who is really bad at memorizing, I know it by heart. Even if I can’t pray anything else, I can pray that prayer. It is like an anchor for me. When I was 14 years old I wasn’t much of a pray-er. I didn’t know the first thing about what I believed about anything. Some days I still don’t. But when I found myself stranded in the wilderness during a 100-year-flood, seriously coming to grips with the possibility that I wouldn’t make it out alive, it was the Lord’s Prayer that came to me
Sure, I started with the vending machine prayers. God, please save my life. I promise I’ll be a better person if you do. I’ll be the best Christian ever. I’ll never hurt anybody. But even then I knew that prayer fell short. I turned to the Lord’s prayer and said it over and over and over again. As I prayed, something happened: I found a sense of peace in the rhythm of those ancient words, a gift of calm “okayness” that no matter what happened to me I was held in the love of God. During my time of greatest need, I found myself no longer just concerned for myself. I moved from fear for myself to fear for my loved ones, those who would be left behind. My heart ached imagining my family’s grief. I prayed that they would be okay no matter what happened. And even as I prayed for them, I received God’s promise that they would be okay.
That gift was far greater than any vending machine God could have provided. If God had told me I’d live through the night, I wouldn’t believe it anyways. Instead, God showed me the big picture. God reminded me of a world full of pain and brokenness, tragedy and injustice, violence and oppression. A world where people die in natural disasters for no reasons. But then God reminded me of God’s promise to keep pouring love into all the broken places, until earth becomes just like heaven. When I really needed it, I was ready to hear God tell me: “No matter what happens, life will go on. The world is a big place, and your life isn’t the most important thing in it. Even so, I love you. No matter what happens, your family will be okay. You’ll be okay.” I hope and pray that, should Jesus someday call me to lose my life for the sake of his kingdom, I remember what I learned that day in prayer. There are things more important than my life.
I did not get through that because of rock solid beliefs about eternal life. I didn’t get through that because I already believed God was good, or because I knew that people can find ways to live even through the most terrible grief. No, I got through that because two thousand years ago Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. Then somebody taught me the Lord’s Prayer as a kid and had me memorize it. I got through it because I said that prayer at church week in and week out, when I felt it and didn’t, when I understood it and didn’t. I got through it because when I needed to know how to pray, I remember that Jesus had taught me how. He had even given me the words to say.
The first mistake a lot of people make when thinking about prayer is believing that there is one right way to pray. It might seem like everyone else knows how to pray right but you just have no idea and don’t want anyone to find out. But the truth is there is no one right way to pray.
The Lord’s Prayer works really well for me, and it’s a wonderful way to start for many people. But it isn’t magic. Different things work for different people, and there are lots of ways to pray. I’d encourage you to explore a bit to find something that works for you. There’s a guide in your bulletin introducing you to just a few of them. Some of you may have tried them all already. Some of you might feel like you don’t need to grow in your prayer life at all. But if – like me – you have a lot to learn when it comes to this prayer thing, I encourage you to try some different things. Some will connect. Some won’t. That’s okay. God doesn’t expect us to pray with a perfect faith. God just wants us to pray.