Sunday, August 4, 2013

How should we pray, and why?

Texts: Psalm 85 (love and justice), Luke 11:1-13 (the Lord's Prayer)

How should we pray, and why?

In our reading from Luke this morning, we heard one of the three original sources of what Protestants call "The Lord's Prayer" and what Catholics call the "Our Father."

The one from Luke is the shortest of the three. A longer and more influential version is found in Matthew 6. The third ancient version is from a First Century book called the Didache, or the Teaching of the 12 Apostles. The version in the Didache includes the ending "for thine is the power and the glory forever," which is used by most Protestants but not by Catholics.

[Although it did not end up in the New Testament, the Didache helped the early church establish its sacraments, ethical teachings and organization.]

Despite these three sources and their differences, The Lord's Prayer is the single most unifying element of Christian worship. The prayer is so well-known that it might surprise us when we look at it more closely.

A book about the Lord's Prayer that I read this week begins by saying "it is said by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions church . . . It is called 'The Lord's Prayer,' but it never mentions 'Lord.' . . . It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this or that doctrine, but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines."

The book is by the famous biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan and it is called "The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord's Prayer." I bought it in June in Estevan at the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church, and I will return to it later.

Our first Scripture reading, Psalm 85, is also a prayer, and it contains familiar elements. The first is thanksgiving for the actions of God in the past. The second is a request for more help from God, to restore the people again in the face of new defeats. Finally, it comments on the nature of God's love and faithfulness and God's desire for justice and peace.

I like the final section of the Psalm. But the first two parts present difficulties for me. Is the good fortune of the people in Jerusalem really the result of the action of God? Likewise, is their later defeat and misery also the result of the action of God? Many psalms say this. But while I understand why the authors 2500 years ago held such ideas, they don't work for me today.

Last week, I watched a TV documentary on PBS about the role of American churches in the Civil War of 150 years ago. It showed that many American denominations -- Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian -- split into pro-slavery and anti-slavery wings in the years leading up to the Civil War. It showed how both the Union government in the North and the Confederate government of slaveholders in the South claimed that God was on their side in the war.

Many people became disillusioned with church in the face of the horrible slaughter of the war, in which 600,000 people were killed. But there was also a revival of church fortunes after the war in the defeated South, which surprised me.

This documentary highlighted several things about church history that disturb me. There was the fact that pro-slavery Christians had an easier time finding passages in support of slavery in the Bible than their opponents had in finding ones to oppose it. Second is the role churches play supporting most wars, often for both sides, as was the case in the U.S. Civil War.

A few years ago, I aruged with my Old Testament professor about the U.S. Civil War. One of our textbooks favourably quoted U.S. President Abraham Lincoln when he said that the defeat of the South reflected God's Judgment on slavery. While this idea is certainly in line with many Bible passages, it does not fit with the God to whom I pray.

I told the professor that I resented having to buy and read an expensive textbook written by an author who accepted the idea that God's Judgement is expressed through human wars.

Personally, I don't believe that God acts in major events such as war -- or small ones like illness. But if God doesn't act in such events, why, then, should we pray?

For me, prayer reminds us of the most crucial things that we face at any given moment. It helps us remember what we hold sacred. And it allows us to give thanks for what we have already been given, namely the Grace of God's Love.

When I pray for the victims of war, I am not asking God to stop war. I pray because I hate war and seek inspiration to struggle against it. When I pray for people who are sick and in pain, I am not asking God to effect a miraculous cure. I pray that those of us who are sick will be aware of God's presence. When I pray for people who have lost loved ones, I am not praying that God will restore the dead to life. I pray that those of us who mourn will find some healing in the face of terrible pain.

Finally, I pray to give thanks for the presence of God's Spirit in both good times and bad. I pray to remember the Gift of Grace revealed in our lives.

This week, we pray again for the families and friends of six young people killed last weekend in Lloydminster. We pray because, in the face of such grief, we have nothing other than prayer. We also pray because the pain of their loss reminds us of how sacred life is, and also how short it can be.

There is much in our lives that does not reflect our sacred values, but life is still a pure gift; and for that fact, we give thanks and praise. Our world contains too much violence and pain, but we also give thanks that ultimate salvation is available to us all.

The Lord's Prayer expresses much of this, I think. It names God as Father -- a loving parent. It looks forward in hope to God's reign of peace and justice. It takes note of our need for bread and for forgiveness, even as it also gives thanks for bread and forgiveness. Finally, it reminds us of the temptations we face.

In his book, John Crossan argues that a key temptation against which the Lord's Prayer stands is the temptation to act with violence in the name of God.

On the night of his death, Crossan suggests, Jesus prays a short version of the Our Father prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he cries out: "Abba, Father. Take this cup away from me. But not my will, but your will be done." Jesus completes the prayer, Crossan says, a little later when he tells his followers to avoid the temptation to attack the Roman soldiers when they arrest him.

Churches, unfortunately, often fall victim to that temptation. The U.S. Civil War is just one example among many. In supporting wars on whatever side, churches try to follow Christ in his work for God's reign of justice. But they fail, I believe, because they do not also follow Christ on his path of non-violence and love.

New life is given to us as disciples of Christ, but this new life can be obscured by violence and war. That is the overall message I take from Scripture despite what some biblical passages say in support of war, or what leaders like those in the Union North or the Confederate South of the U.S. claimed 150 years ago.

At the end of our Gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us that the Father sends the Holy Spirit to those who ask. As St. Paul wrote in Romans, "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." We do not always know how to pray. But the Spirit knows.

Life in the Spirit does not mean that wars won't happen. It doesn’t mean that young people won't die needlessly. It doesn't mean that we won't experience sharp pain or loss.

What life in the Spirit does mean is that God will intervene in our prayers and help remind us in good times and bad that God is with us, and that our salvation is secure.

So as always, let our prayer today be, Thanks be to God.


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