Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Lord's Prayer

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.

Dogs are not terribly reflective creatures by nature. I know, your pet’s the exception. But as wise and thoughtful as your dog might be, isn’t it true that you’ve seen plenty of other people’s dogs eat something or chase something that really wasn’t a good idea? The briefest moment of reflection on past experience would have kept them out of trouble.

Consider the car chase. One of the Far Side cartoons that confused Gary Larson’s readers most was a captionless drawing of a dog howling on an overturned car. Some thought the cartoon’s humor must be obscene since they didn’t get it. But Larson said he just thought it would be funny to draw the one dog in human history who finally took down a car. What are dogs thinking when they run off after a car? Not much, probably.

A dog on a car chase is a pretty good picture of a misdirected desire, wouldn’t you say? But at times we humans don’t seem to do much better, do we? Are our desires ordered in ways that lead to the wholeness and joy of the life intended by God for us? Or do our desires sometimes lead us off on futile chases after who knows what? And if our life and our desires do seem too much like those of the dog in pursuit of a car, what’s a body to do about that?

Well, you’re in luck. This is one of the few times you’ll hear a clear, straight answer delivered from an Episcopal Church pulpit. And better yet, you’re going to hear that you’re already doing what we need to do to keep from being car chasers, so to speak. What’s a body to do? Say the Lord’s Prayer.

So that’s pretty much the sermon. We’re car chasers, but we can change that by saying the Lord’s Prayer. But since people around here don’t tend to blindly accept everything preachers say, and because you’d be so disappointed if the sermon were too short, we’ll go ahead and flesh this out a bit.

“Teach us to pray,” we just heard Jesus’ disciples ask. And Jesus responds with the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer Christians of all sorts, shapes, and stripes are still praying twenty centuries later. Then after Jesus gives his disciples a prayer, he talks to them a little about prayer.

At first glance, Jesus seems to be teaching his friends how to get God to do what they want God to do. He says that we should just keep pestering, and eventually God will give in and give us what we want. And once he’s established this method, Jesus goes a step further and says that praying rightly or persistently is a sure thing: “everyone who asks receives… everyone who searches finds… for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

But there’s a problem here. Is this the world you live in? Do you get everything you ask God for? If so, I’ll bet your beagle regularly takes down station wagons too. So what was Jesus doing?

Well, we might have a hard time with this story because we’re taught to think about prayer in a particular way. Our questions about prayer are usually about when or how or whether prayers are answered. We send some request out towards God, and we want to know how it comes back to us. I pray that my dog will stay on the porch, and then watch to see whether God answers yes, or no, or I’ll get back to you.

If this is my concept of prayer, what we just read in Luke seems to suggest that if I keep asking, eventually God will relent and keep Fido from chasing my neighbor’s El Camino.
Jesus’ teaching seems pretty straightforward even if our prayers don’t seem to work this well, but look at this scene again. Did you notice that God is portrayed as a tired, grumpy friend who begrudgingly opens the door of his house at midnight because you just won’t go away? And in the second example, God is the kind of parent who won’t give his child a scorpion when she asks for an egg. Well, great. Isn’t that setting the bar pretty low for the Master of the Universe? To say that if God were a parent, God wouldn’t give scorpions and snakes to unsuspecting children?

Jesus doesn’t give us a lot of information about the role of God in prayer in this scene. He seems much more interested in our desires. And maybe this is because he’s teaching us that prayer is less about getting what we want than changing what we want, because our desires are some of the most powerful parts of ourselves.

What do you ask for in your life? Which doors do you knock upon? What do you seek? Chances are your life is pointed in the direction of that goal. But what if we know that at times our desires aren’t sending us in a life giving direction? How do I change what I want?

If the Lord’s Prayer is the most famous prayer in Christian history, not too far down the list is a short one by St. Augustine: “Lord, make me chaste. But not yet.” Some say Augustine is the reason so many Christians have felt so bad for so long about some perfectly good and normal sexual desires. This might be so. But St. Augustine believed that our desires are inherently good, because our desires are created by God. Sin is not too much desire. Sin is disordered desire or misdirected desire. And following Christ is about joining a community in which our deepest desires over time are turned in a better direction.

Perhaps this is what Jesus was teaching us. The prayer he gave his disciples was a prayer that their desires be realigned. “Thy kingdom come,” they were to pray. Imagine what power would be unleashed in this world, he seems to be saying, if what people really asked for and knocked for and sought after was the kingdom of God rather than all the silly things we spend our time wanting!

The trouble is that God isn’t the only one vying for our desire. Right now we’re being told that we have to unleash our economic desire to pull our country out of a recession. Wanting more things seems to be patriotic duty. When’s the last time you heard anyone suggest that consumer demand might be too high?

We do still know that wealth and fame and power won’t ultimately make us happy. It’s great fun to read the headlines in the magazines at the supermarket checkout, headlines about how the lives of people who can have anything they want are going up in flames. We love to pity the lives we wish we had. How much more mixed up can our desires get than that?

But Jesus insists that there is another way. He says that prayer is naming where we’d like our deepest desires to be aimed. And he says this reorienting of our desires through prayer happens in community. Remember the original request? “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Now maybe Jesus’ disciples were just jealous. Maybe they felt second rate since their leader hadn’t even given them a team prayer.

But everyone in the story understood this prayer was meant for a community. Jesus’ prayer doesn’t begin “My Father, who art in heaven…” Nor does it continue with “Give me this day my daily bread…” Changes the tone a bit, doesn’t it?

Be a community that prays for the coming of God’s kingdom and your desires will change, Jesus says. Ask, seek, and knock in this way and in this kind of community and you will receive what you ask for. Your desires are powerful God given gifts, he tells us. Don’t waste them.

It’s a dog’s life for too many of us too often. Something big and fast and shiny races by and we’re off. We don’t know quite what it is or what we’d do with it if we ever actually caught up with the object of our desire, and we can spend whole decades of our lives in pursuit of things without stopping long enough to wonder whether they’re really worth having.

But God has given us a vision of another kind of life. And Jesus showed us how to pray. He showed us not how to get what we want when we pray. He showed us how to change what we want when we pray. And he charged us to be a community whose desires are not perfect, but whose desires turn a little more each day away from empty distractions, and toward the kingdom of God. The one thing we were truly, truly made to want. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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