“Lord, teach us to pray!” This week, I somehow locked onto the disciples needing to ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In Matthew, Jesus teaches the basics of prayer right after calling the disciples. Luke goes through 11 of 24 chapters before a disciple asks Jesus to teach them about prayer. Luke’s order is curious. Is not prayer a discipleship essential? In Luke, the disciples are already deeply engaged in the church work of healing, preaching and feeding before Jesus teaches them about prayer. They have left everything to follow Jesus, Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus has sent out the disciples in groups of 2 to offer healthcare and preach good news. When the 12 return, they process the experience with Jesus who then sends out 36 groups of 2 to repeat the Kin-dom work in other cities and towns. Why wait until the leaders are already so busy to teach the disciples about prayer? Jesus’ critics noticed this pattern and questioned Jesus, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” (Luke 5)
Now Luke fills the Gospel with prayer: Zechariah is praying in the Temple during evening prayers, Mary and Elizabeth write prayers, the prophet Anna never leaves the Temple or stops praying, Jesus prays during his baptism. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying to prepare for his mission. Jesus prayed on the Mount of Transfiguration, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and all night before calling the disciples. On the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” repeating Psalm 22 from memory. In fact, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray after Jesus returns from his regular prayer time apart. Luke notes that “Jesus often withdrew to the lonely places to pray”. (Luke 5) That withdrawing presents a puzzle: how can the disciples learn about Jesus’ private prayer life, if Jesus withdraws from them to pray?
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to pray in secret and never make a show out of prayer and worship. Don’t pray on street corners or wear outsized Phylacteries. Wear a cross or yamaka as a personal reminder of your commitment, not as a public billboard. “Close the door, pray in private”, and avoid empty phrases and the magical repetition of power words. (Matthew 6) If setting aside time to close out the world and renew your soul was a problem in Jesus’ day before bound books or text alerts from the New York Times, then surely we need to withdraw each day so that we might align our souls with love, joy, peace, patience, justice, hope and self-control. Close the door and pray! I once heard how a submariner sailor found a quiet place with headphones and those airplane eye-covers while lying on the bed bunk that was theirs for only 12 hours each day.
Why does Luke’s Jesus wait 11 chapters until the leaders are already busy with church work to teach them to pray? Perhaps, it was because the disciples were already praying. Jesus and the disciples lived and moved inside a rich world of Jewish prayer, worship services, and spiritual disciplines. Jesus carried all 12 disciples to synagogue each Saturday. They all made three pilgrimages each year to the Temple for the holy weeks. Church historians tell us there were no uniquely Christian prayer books or hymnals until 400 years after Pentecost! The early church worshiped in the synagogues. Linger on that openness to treasures old and new! (Luke 13:52)
Jesus did not need to teach the disciples to pray because they were already praying the Jewish prayers they had prayed all their lives. There will be Christian innovations, cultural adaptations, and new interpretations within the Christian movement; we worship in English, sing Wesley’s hymns, and play the organ, but we need to remember that Jesus did not throw everything old out. On the cross Jesus lifts up the beautifully heavy lament of Psalm 22. Jesus wasn’t interested in burning things down; Jesus came to lift people up and build God’s kin-dom on earth. If we become students of the New Testament, we will see that even the great apostle Paul who became “the apostle to the Gentiles” by radically welcoming all people and rejecting circumcision and kosher diets as non-essential describes the Christian movement as “a wild olive branch grafted onto” the tree of Judaism. (Romans 11) Paul, who preached amid the pagan idols on Mars Hill, kept his roots connected to the tree our faith sprang from declaring, “I am an Israelite!” Linger on that mysterious ecumenical balance.
Asking Jesus to “teach us to pray” does not undo the prayers the disciples already knew by heart. Why in matters of faith, mystery, awe, art, worship, and music do we at times think we are the only ones who have it right? Why do we feel we need to emphasize what is different between us and the Jewish tradition our faith grew out of? Jesus warns us that when we are busy judging others, we are blind to what God is doing in the world. (John 9, Matthew 7) Jesus warns that our certainty that “we know” and that “we see” is a sign of our spiritual blindness. (John 9) Mary magnificently reminds us that “God scatters our arrogance” (Luke 1) “Humble yourself before the Lord, and God will lift you up” (James 4). Openness may be the heart of all prayer. ( Mark 3)
I once went to a funeral in the Eastern KY mountains for a church member’s son who was killed in a tragic logging accident, right after his three children spent the week with us in VBS. The service was in a metal building without windows. The pastor wore a long, out of fashion white suit with a red polyester shirt and worn out tennis shoes. The music was loud, long, and a frenzied kind of Pentecostal rock and roll. The pastor shouted, sweated, and shook in a spiritual frenzy. I was watching the exits, ready to bolt. I was not open to God, but closed off; judgment suits, shoes, styles and grammar. The pastor opened the Bible wide with one big hand and then gently called each child, the widow and mother by name: “Oh, precious children, oh dear ones, Jesus, Our Savior’s heart is breaking with us today.” You could feel the God of all comfort flowing from this preacher’s wide-open heart. I was the arrogant one closed off to God. Let us not repeat the sins of Elijah, thinking we are the only ones properly connect to God. Without a sense of humility, without a welcoming of mystery, and without an openness to learning, our prayers will likely remain spiritually stale and often self- congratulatory ramblings– not “a deep fire in our bones” that awakes us or a stream of living water that renews our parched souls. (Luke 5, John 7) “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened, ask and you will receive.” (Matthew 7) That is not a one-time search, but a continual state of openness, questioning and learning.
It would be a mistake to think the disciples were not already praying and being renewed by their years of spiritual practices when they asked Jesus “Lord, teach us to pray” Still, why does Luke wait 11 chapters until the disciples are already very busy to teach about prayer? Could it be that the Creator, who shaped us, Christ who guides us, and Holy Spirit who comforts us, does not speak to us in one depersonalized unaltered fixed code? Maybe, as Paul said, there are “a variety of gifts” and expressions of faith, but one God who made us all? (1 Corinthians 12) Maybe the disciples were already praying, every time they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger or brought healthcare to the sick? (Matt 25) Could it be that some come to Christlikeness best by the interior route of prayer, while others find their way to prayer-like Communion by the doing the things Jesus did? Indeed, Paul compares the doing of the right thing to making an offering to God “on the altar of service”! (Philippians 2)
Maybe Luke, the physician, more easily found faith by doing the things that Jesus did? Prayer deeply feeds some souls, but others come alive with service or the work of justice. In our Waverly build, we raised a wall with the roof rafters attached, and it stood there before us like the silhouette of a church. It felt like the holiest kind of work we could do, and despite the heat on that decking, I imagine some of us felt closer to God sheltered under the shadow of that rectangular wall and triangular roof than when we sit together in our pews on a Sunday. James reminds us to be doers of the Word of God and that faith without actions is dead. Maybe some people are shaped into Christlikeness more by doing the things that Jesus did than by praying? So the disciples are 11 chapters in, with two ministry tours completed, when Jesus teaches them to pray. Maybe Jesus could wait so long to teach about prayer, because feeding, clothing, housing, welcoming, forgiving, and liberating people is in itself a kind of prayer?
Jesus model prayer is not just words but action steps; a kind of a to-do list
Bring in the kin-dom: feed, clothe, welcome, uphold, liberate all people.
Give us (not just my house- but all of us) the bread we need to live. Fight hunger.
Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone. Forgive everyone.
And don’t lead us into temptation.
The Lord’s Prayer reminds us how to live and we pray the Lord’s Prayer best by living it out. Prayers become action and actions become prayers. We need both prayer and practice. Prayer balances, centers, and renews our work. It is hard to keep doing justice and loving mercy without walking humbly with God. Some good people who care deeply about justice dry up or grow bitter because they do their work apart from the prayers of a faith community. Prayer reminds us of our connection to God and one another; it shoots an electric current of justice through us and allows living water to flow into our parched souls. However, prayer apart from deeds only grows self-righteousness and spiritual arrogance. Prayerfulness and practice must go together for us to experience wholeness. Maybe the flow or constant looping of doing faith and then processing faith in prayer and community is exactly what it means to pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17 KJV) Amen