Trying times

“Praying for peace and healing love,” has been, for the past couple of weeks, the message on the sign by the road. We want to tell the people who drive by what we are about, and praying seems to be the first thing that comes to mind these days. It doesn’t mean we’re not working or protesting or seeking better answers than the quick and loud ones we are hearing day in and day out; it means that we turn to God with our questions, our fears, our rage, our broken hearts, our despair and our hope.

My own prayers over the past weeks have largely been shaped by news alerts: story after story of violence, terror, and ugliness washed over me, with just enough air between them, it seems, to whisper, “Lord have mercy.” It’s been one long litany of lament.

The gospel reading given to us for this day begins with Jesus finishing his prayers, when one of the disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus prayed often, and perhaps the disciples sensed a connection between the kind of person he was and his habit of prayer. They may have had questions very similar to the ones we bring: When and how often should we pray? Where should we pray and why? Are we to keep our eyes open or close them? Are we to stand up, sit down, or kneel? Do we stretch out our hands like the branches of a tree or fold them? Jesus’ response is remarkably short.

When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

The words sound familiar; the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer comes from the gospel of Matthew and from the long tradition of use in the worship and instruction of the church. At Vine Street we say the prayer in the King’s English with “thy” and “thine,” thoroughly in love with the premodern pronouns that elevate these words from ordinary speech and infuse them with the aura of things that have been handled and used by many generations before us. The words in Luke are bare in comparison: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. There is no ornament, no flourish, there are no filler words – just simple imperatives: give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial. Jesus teaches us to pray with few words and clear focus. He teaches us to speak of God’s holy name and kingdom right next to our need for bread and forgiveness. This is how closely they belong together. Jesus teaches us to speak of God’s eternal purposes and our daily need almost in the same breath. He teaches us to ask for the consummation of God’s creation in God’s glorious reign of peace and to follow that cosmic-scale request with the most everyday petition for something to eat. Nothing’s too big. Nothing’s too small. We are invited to turn to God in all things and to trust in God’s mercy. Do we pray for bread and forgiveness because we are worried that we might receive neither unless we ask for them daily? No, we pray daily because we need to remember daily that we are recipients of precious, life-giving gifts, given to us for sharing. We pray with these words because we hope that remembering God’s mercy to us will help us become merciful toward each other.

In the fifth and final petition of the prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask God, “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” We pray that the things and events that test our faith will never be stronger than our faith. And these are trying times for disciples of Jesus in this country. Some of us are tempted to trade in our trust in God’s promises and our hope in God’s future for some angry nostalgia for an America that never was. Some of us are angry that it’s taking white folk so long to grasp how deeply the sin of slavery has wounded our life together and that still the pain is being felt overwhelmingly by black bodies. Some of us are tempted to dismiss the hard work of truth-telling and reconciliation-seeking as whining and blaming. Some of us are to utterly disoriented and discouraged, we just can’t believe there’s much we could do to make a difference.

Do not bring us to the time of trial, Jesus teaches us to pray in trying times. Praying we hold on to the relationship God has established with us. Praying we hold on to the vision of life God has revealed in Christ. Praying we hold on to the promise of being clothed with power from on high.

Jesus prayed often, and his praying grounded and shaped his living and his teaching. “Do not set your minds on what you are to eat or drink; do not be anxious,” he taught generations of disciples. “These are all things that occupy the minds of the Gentiles, but your Father knows that you need them. No, set your minds on his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” Many things occupy the minds of those who do not know themselves to be God’s beloved, but we are to set our minds on God’s kingdom. We are to let the promise of God’s coming reign give direction to our lives, how we think, speak, work, hope, vote and spend our money – everything; and all the things we tend to be anxious about when we forget that we are God’s beloved will be given to us as well. “Have no fear, little flock,” says Jesus, “for your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:30-32).

In his teaching Jesus refers to God as “your Father,” reminding us that we belong to God’s household and that God wants what is good and life giving for all members of God’s household. When Jesus teaches us to pray, he invites us into the intimate relationship he has with the one he calls Father, and so we join him in prayer, we let his prayer become ours. Four times in Luke’s telling of the gospel, Jesus addresses the Holy One of Israel as Father. First here, teaching us to pray with him,

“Father, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come.”

Then again in Gethsemane, praying through the night of trial,

“Father, if your are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).

And two more times on the cross, saying,

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)

and finally,

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

On the cross, God revealed the power of forgiveness to renew and restore what sin has destroyed. The path of divine justice revealed on the cross is love that embraces the enemy for the sake of reconciliation. Jesus proclaimed repentance and forgiveness as the door to the kingdom and God affirmed his servant life and his royal teaching by raising him from the dead.

These are trying times and while we cannot fully name the powers that threaten us, we can certainly sense their presence: they seek to convince us that we do not belong to God’s household, that we are neither God’s beloved nor each other’s brothers and sisters, and that loving our enemies is a ridiculous idea.

“Praying for peace and healing love,” the sign outside our sanctuary says, telling those who drive by that the people who gather here are holding on to God’s vision of life. We have so many questions about how and when and where and why to pray, and Jesus’ teaching gives focus to that flurry: remember whom you address in your prayers and with whom you are praying. Prayer is not about this and that and the other, and properly done this way or that way, prayer is about living attentively in the relationship God has established with us. In this relationship we are invited to bring and give voice to all our needs and wants, our hopes and fears, our frustrations and our pain, and to let God love us and reorient our lives toward the peace of God’s kingdom. We pray to be shaped by nothing but love.


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