Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sermon for April 27, 2008

Audience and Actors
Matthew 6:5-14

Have you ever heard The Yuppie’s Prayer? It goes like this. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my e-mail to keep. I pray my stocks are on the rise and that my therapist is wise. That all the wine I sip is white and that my hot tub is water tight. That racket ball won’t get too tough and that my sushi’s fresh enough. I pray my cell phone always works, and that my career won’t lose its perks. That my microwave won’t radiate and my condo won’t depreciate. I pray my health club doesn’t close and that my Money Market always grows. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lexus they won’t take.” It’s a trite, silly prayer, but I would guess that it’s prayed often enough in one form or another. The fact is that everyone prays. Listen to the people around you during the week. During routines of normal life, some people might not even tip their hat to God. But when crisis hits life, they will hit that “Spiritual 911” button. “Oh God, help me! I’ll do anything” Everyone prays. Jesus assumes that. Look at the first verse of today’s gospel reading. Jesus doesn’t say, “if you pray,” he says, “when you pray.” Everyone prays. The issue is whether our prayers are authentic or not.

This past week I was thinking about some people I’ve heard about who view prayer as the main business of their lives. Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer declared, “I have so much business I cannot go on without spending at least three hours a day in prayer.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church insisted, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” He backed it up by devoting two hours each day to his prayer time. Adonirum Judson, America’s first foreign missionary, withdrew from work seven times a day to pray. Then there’s Doris and Jim. I met them when I lived in Boston. Doris and Jim were elderly and I raked the mountains of oak leaves in their yard every fall. Doris and Jim were praying people. When they got up, they prayed. When they served me lunch, they prayed. When they went out to the grocery store, they prayed. When they needed a new car, they prayed. In fact, Doris’ burgundy Grand Marquis bit the dust. So instead of shopping for a new car, Doris prayed. She prayed for another burgundy Grand Marquis. She liked that color because it was easy to find in the parking lots. After two weeks of prayer, someone called her and offered her a car. “What color is it?” she asked. You already know the answer: it was another burgundy Grand Marquis. I could go on about men and women who wake up early and stay up into the late hours of the night in prayer

These people inspire me. I also get discouraged when I compare my prayer life to theirs. Those giants of the faith are so far beyond anything that many of us have experienced. It can be easy to fall into despair. But, instead of beating ourselves up, let’s explore a number of ideas that can enhance our prayer lives. Today we are going to think about how to put prayer into practice.

1. Private Prayer – Avoid Outward Displays of Piety
In Matthew’s gospel, some of the religious leaders have a problem. They like to stand on street corners and in public places while they pray. They want everyone to see how holy they can be. To Jesus, this seems more like a public concert. Their prayers have become the theater of performance and show, the theater of appearance and deceit. In this theater, prayer is a public parade and the theater of religion becomes a gaudy charade. Jesus redefines the theater. He calls his followers not to a theater of spectacle or display, but a secret theater. In the drama of salvation, the stage is a locked room, the actor is the disciple and the audience is God. The place of encounter between God and his people is not the temple, or a church. It is the locked room where the disciple meets God one on one. Jesus practiced what he preached. He was followed by crowds and surrounded by people who demanded his time and energy, and he still found chances to sneak away to spend periods of private prayer with God.

Behind these two theaters, the actors prepare their scripts and get ready for their performances. Do you know what the Greek word for actor is? Hypocrite! We are taught that hypocrisy is a terrible thing. But the way I see it, we are all hypocrites when it comes to prayer. We all prepare what we want to say for God and where we want our recital to take place. The question is not whether you are a hypocrite. The question is about what kind of hypocrite you want to be. As an actor, for whom do you perform?

Jesus suggests saving it for God – going to a secret place, appearing on stage before God alone, and acting as if heaven has touched earth.

I want us to be a church that prays – a group of people who find time to be alone to talk to God. I know that as soon as I say that, most of us can think of ten reasons why we can’t do it. We don’t have time. There are too many distractions. We’re too tired. Our minds wander. The truth is if prayer is important enough to us, we will find time to do it.

If you are not used to praying daily, then be prepared to be discouraged at first. You mind will wander. You will begin to pray and then think of what you are going to have for lunch, and then think of all things you have to do, and then think bout what’s on TV tonight. You may not be able to focus on praying for more than one minute. It will be easy to give up. This is the when you need to hang in there the most. God will meet you where you are and help you move deeper. But it takes practice.

Think of prayer in terms of training ourselves. When I get discouraged in prayer, I try to remember the Kenyan cross-country ski team. Did you know they had one? There is no snow in Kenya, yet the country sends a team of two athletes to the Olympics. They Kenyan Nordic team consistently score on the bottom of the standings. Even though they are last, they never give up. If I was on that team, I’d be tempted to find a new sport. But they always finish their race and keep competing. Prayer is a lot like that. We don’t become Olympians in prayer over night. We prepare and train ourselves over a period of time. We don’t give up when we are thinking of how good that leftover Chinese take out would taste when we meant to spend the time talking to God. Stick with it. After a few months, we will still be in the race. Don’t be satisfied with quitting. God has infinite treasure to give us. Ask God to help you and to teach you. God will answer.

2. Avoid babbling: Outlines in Prayer
Jesus talks about another group of people in today’s passage. These people think they can move God with their long-winded prayers. They heap up empty phrases. They believe that if their prayers are long and intricate enough, they will tire out the gods so that they will be granted divine favor. In traditional Roman and Greek prayer, the item sought after would be described as exactly and minutely as possible, just in case the gods granted the wrong favor. Jesus tells his followers that there’s no need to babble on in prayer. God isn’t like the deities of the age. God knows what you need before you even ask. The same goes for us as well. We can’t manipulate God with wordy prayers and repetitive words. God does not need to hear flowery phrases and grammatically correct sentences. Simplicity is always better. Brother Lawrence was a monk who lived in the 1600’s. In his classic book on prayer he writes, “It isn’t necessary to be too verbose in prayer because lengthy prayers encourage wandering thoughts. Simply present yourself to God as if you were a poor person knocking on the door of a rich person, and fix your attention on God’s presence.”

I find that people babble on when they don’t know what to say. People get uncomfortable. They don’t know how to begin or end. They either say nothing, or they say too much. Sometimes I find it helpful to pray with an outline. It keeps my mind focused and gives some structure to my thoughts. Here are a couple of suggestions.

The first comes from today’s gospel passage. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers the words of what we now call The Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is not a string of magical, comforting words we say together on Sunday mornings. It is a prayer outline. Take the Lord’s Prayer with you during your quiet time and pray through it line by line. Focus on the phrase, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by they name.” Stop and think of qualities that make God praise worthy. You may even want to write your ideas down in a journal. Then move on to the next phrase – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Stop again and pray for ways in which the knowledge of God can be spread, in your life, in your family, in our community, in the world.” When you are ready, move on to the next phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Pause again and pray for specific needs in you life and in the lives of your family and friends. Pray for healing and for God’s nurture. Keep going like this through the entire Lord’s Prayer, phrase by phrase. And remember, the goal is not to get through the outline. We are teaching ourselves how to sit alone in the presence of God.

Here is another outline. Use the word ACTS as an acrostic to help you remember some ways to pray. A stands for Adoration. Begin your prayer by praising and adoring God. C is for Confession. Let God know how sorry you are for the times you have fallen short of what you know God wants for your life. Allow God to cleanse you from sin and feel God’s forgiving touch. Also take time to forgive others. T is for Thanksgiving. Take some time to show gratitude to God for specific blessings in your life. Finally, end with the S, which stands for Supplication. This means asking God to answer your needs. Present your requests to God and wait patiently for God’s peace that passes all understanding.

Let me suggest one more way to pray. A man named Frank Laubach wanted to learn to pray in such a way that just seeing another person would be a prayer. Just hearing another person, like a child talking or a person crying, would be a prayer. This idea is simple yet powerful. When you see or hear a person, pray for him or her. Laubach talks about flashing hard, straight prayers at that person. In public places, silently invite the love of God through Christ to touch people. It’s as if you’re throwing a cloak of prayer around each person you contact. Imagine if thousands of people were praying short, direct prayers like this on behalf of others. The atmosphere of our families, towns, even our nation, would be changed. And YOUR own soul would change for sure. You would begin to live every moment with a sense of God’s presence.

There are many other ways to pray. I have offered a few suggestions. If you want more ideas or information, please come talk to me. When it comes right down to it, I don’t care how you do it -- I just want you to pray. The most important thing is that you devote some time to private prayer. I desire so much for each of you to be close to the heart of God. I want each and every one of us to know the joy of knowing the comfort, and power, and healing, and love that comes through prayer.

So pray. Don’t wait until you feel like it or else it will never happen. And may God give each of us the patience we need in order to become people of prayer.

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