Sermon: Proper 12 RCL C – “Teach Us to Pray”

In Mt. Vernon, Texas, Drummond’s Bar began construction on expansion of their building to increase their business.  In response, one of the local churches started a campaign to block the bar from expanding with petitions and prayers.  Work progressed right up until the week before the grand reopening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.  Afterwards, the church folks were rather smug in their outlook, bragging about “the power of prayer,” until the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that the church “was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, either through direct or indirect actions or means.”  In its reply to the court, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building’s demise.  The judge read through the plaintiff’s complaint and the defendant’s reply and at the opening hearing he commented, “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that now does not.”

I remember things I learned in seminary, but I don’t always remember where I read them or who said it, this is one of those items. The discussion revolved around congregations and what they expected of the church and specifically what they wanted from a priest. One of the number one answers: teach us how to talk to our God. Teach us how to pray. That request has been around for a while: “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Jesus answered the disciples by saying, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” He gave us what we know as The Lord’s Prayer. It is short, easy to remember, and the petitions are simple, but as I’ve told you before, if you were to pray the Lord’s Prayer properly, it would take you all day. It requires that praying “without ceasing.” It is a coming into the presence of God through adoration and intercession. My understanding of these two terms – adoration and intercession – and honestly, my understanding of prayer itself comes from a very short chapter, “Man of Prayer,” in Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s book, The Christian Priest Today. Please forgive me for relying on him heavily this morning.

Although they are of great benefit, Archbishop Ramsey states that we are not “successful” in prayer, that is, coming into the presence of God by “achieving certain devotional exercises.” His point: you can rattle off the Lord’s Prayer a hundred times a day, but unless you are present with God, you will achieve nothing. You can speak with passion and force, but unless that same fire that is in your voice is actually in your soul, then you are only talking, not praying. In addition, our set formulas are equally ineffective. For example, I listen to some folks pray and if they say, “Father, God” one more time, I may have to walk out. And then there are the passages that follow “Father, God… we just {and fill in the blank}.” And of course no prayer is complete without the magic bullet “… in Jesus’ name” as its conclusion. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Theologian Stanley Hauerwas states, “to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in his authority seeking his agenda and purpose.” He calls the addition of “in Jesus name” a “fine tradition,” and adds, “but whether or not we say those words has nothing to do with whether we’re actually praying in Jesus’ name or not.” What does determine if we are praying in Jesus’ name is whether or not we are in agreement with God’s will and word – not our will and word. So, if it is not our formulas or devotional exercises, what is it in our prayers that allows us to come into God’s presence? Ramsey writes, “You find you are ‘with God’ not by achieving certain devotional exercises in his presence but by daring to be your own self as you reach towards him” in “naked sincerity.”

A certain man prayed, “So far today, God, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent. I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, I’m going to get out of bed and from then on I’m probably going to need a lot more help. Thank you.  In Jesus name. Amen.”

When I pray, I wish I were actually as holy as I would like for God to believe that I am, but the truth is, I’m not. I can go before God with “Thees” and “Thous” and all the “I, Your humble servants” and God’s response will be, “Who do you think you’re kiddin’?” He and I both know it is a lie. Yet, as Paul teaches, “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” My entering the throne room of God and coming into his presence in prayer is not dependent upon my holiness. It is dependent upon and made possible only through the holiness of Jesus, the Son of God. Adoration is recognizing that fact and coming into God’s presence and sitting quietly – not speaking, not asking, not questioning – only being with Him in naked sincerity. “Father, hallowed be your name,” then silence… that is adoration. It is from this place of quietness that will flow our intercessions. As Ramsey states, “Because you are with him and near him whose name is love you will have the people you care for on your heart. In this way adoration turns into ‘intercession.’”

In the Book of Exodus we read about the Lord giving Moses instructions on how to construct the Tent of Meeting and the vestments the priest was to wear when they enter to minister before the Lord. There were several pieces of the vestments, two of which were the ephod and breastplate.

The ephod is an outer sleeveless garment and in putting it together the Lord instructed Moses to take two onyx stones and engrave the twelve names of the sons of the Israel, six on each stone, and attach the stones to the shoulders of the ephod. For the breastplate, it was to be made of gold and on the front were to be attached twelve of the finest gems, in four rows of three. These twelve stones were also to represent the twelve sons of Israel, metaphorically representing all the people of God. The ephod with the stones was designed so that when the priest entered the Tent of Meeting, he would “bear their names [the names of the sons of Israel] before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance.” In addition, the priest would “bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual remembrance before the Lord.” This is intercession.

We often think of prayers of intercession as making requests to God on behalf of ourselves and others. That is true, but not a complete definition. Archbishop Ramsey tells us that to intercede is “to meet, to encounter, to be with someone on behalf of or in relation to others.” In other words, to intercede is not only the request itself, but it is also going before God, meeting with God on behalf of another. Like the ephod, you carry the burdens of others on your shoulders and you bring them in before and lay them before God. Like the breastplate, you hold the people in your heart and bring them before the throne of grace. When words fail us, when we prattle on unsure of what we are saying, or even when the concerns are so many that they are overwhelming and we can’t even remember them all, we can still be confident in knowing that our prayers are heard, for as Paul teaches, “the [Holy] 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.”

“The daily time of being quietly with God becomes ‘adoration.’ And because you are with him and near him whose name is love you will have the people you care for on your heart. In this way adoration turns into ‘intercession,’ the bringing of people and needs and sorrows and joys and causes into the stream of the divine love.”

During the renewal of your baptismal vows you are asked: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” You respond: “I will, with God’s help.”

How do we fulfill that portion of our vows? How do we pray? We stand before the very presence of God in naked sincerity with His people on our hearts.

Let us pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
 hallowed be thy Name,
 thy kingdom come,
 thy will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
 as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
 but deliver us from evil.
  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
 for ever and ever. Amen.

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