I find it interesting where Luke places the Lord's Prayer. This form of prayer that we have come to know and love and memorize and repeat weekly when we gather for worship (or at least a sort of a version of it) appears only in the gospels according to Matthew and Luke, and on top of that they are slightly different in each gospel. I debated which to include as today's reading for a while, because they each have unique aspects to bring to the conversation about prayer. In the end I chose Luke's version for a couple of reasons, its context being one of them.
The chapter and verse numbers that have been imposed on the text after Luke's writing make this less obvious to us now, but the Lord's Prayer is taught in this gospel immediately following the famous story of Mary and Martha. Mary and Martha are sisters who are receiving Jesus in their home. Culture, good manners, and a love for Jesus dictate that they show him hospitality when he is a guest. Martha, who was the one who actually invited Jesus in, gets herself busy quickly making preparations, we assume she's bustling around in the kitchen, fetching water to make Jesus comfortable, or other things like that. Mary isn't bothered by all these usual tasks and instead sits undistracted at the feet of Jesus listening to what he is saying. Famously, Jesus compliments Mary for her choice saying, "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
From there Luke launches into the story of his disciples asking him to teach them to pray. I don't think this is by accident, and for that reason I think the two stories teach us together. Mary is complimented for her decision to just be with Jesus. She is complimented for her lack of distraction by many other things. She is complimented, I think, for nurturing her relationship with Jesus and not letting her busy-ness get in the way. When the disciples recognize for what she has been complimented, they want to know how to do it, too. The closest thing they know to ask for is a way to pray.
Prayer is not a big divine help button, although, I know I often treat it that way. Prayer is not a divine "Phone-a-friend" where we look for a quick answer to a tough a question then move right along to the next. Prayer is not a place to list out our pleases, thank you, I'm sorrys, and what abouts like a big long grocery list, on tumbling after another with no space to breathe or listen. And most of all, prayer is not a one way street.
In our adult education last week, those who gathered heard Marcus Borg talking about spiritual practices in general and prayer more specifically at times. Borg related his own recollection that seemed to resonate with a number of us. He talked about how as a child prayer was a "supposed to," something you just did because you had to, almost a requirement even. He said he prayed without a thought to the purpose of prayer. As a child, for him, and I imagine for many of us, prayer was primarily about asking for things. I'd add that it wasn't even always the self-centered things of childhood - a new toy, a puppy, and less annoying sibling - but even prayers asking for good health for others, help with a difficult situation at school, a friend.
As he grew, though, Borg told us that prayer has become something different. Jesus lifted up Mary's example of focus, attention, and presence. Jesus praised her for her lack of distraction and her gift of time to their relationship. Like any human relationship a relationship with God can only develop by paying attention to it. A relationship with God can only strengthen when it is given focus and attention and presence. A relationship with God can only grow deeper by spending time in it.
This is what prayer is all about, spending time in relationship with God. Too often we worry about whether the words we have said were just right. Too often we stress about whether we started correctly, got it all in the right order, or asked for the right things. Especially when we are praying out loud before others or on their behalf we want to make sure we say everything in just the perfect way, but in reality our prayers are not our words to each other, our prayers are our time spent in relationship with God.
Prayer is the practice of opening our lives and our hearts and our minds before God. Prayer is the practice of being present with God. Prayer is the practice of so aligning our spirit's with the Spirit of God, so aligning our lives with the life of Christ, so aligning our creativity with the Creator of all, that nothing else can happen, but the kingdom of God of on earth. Prayer is the words we utter aloud or in silence, the words written or sung, the words moaned or even the words unformed, but prayer goes beyond any words we can imagine and even those we can't, because prayer is the act of Mary, sitting and listening and being present with Jesus. Prayer is the act of the psalmist, trusting in God, waiting with God, walking with God, being led in what is right, what is love, what is faithfulness.
Prayer is the act of making time for God and time with God so that our relationship with God is cultivated and" nurtured and strengthened. And when that happens, oh, then we see what our prayer can do. The whole of the Lord's Prayer, the words we find in Luke, an expanded version in Matthew, and the even longer version we pray most weeks in worship, can, I believe be summarized in the very first petition - - "Thy kingdom come."
"Your kingdom come," God's kingdom, we invite, not our own. God's kingdom we ask for, not the kingdoms of this world. God's kingdom, God's purposes, God's will, God's grace, God's forgiveness, God's provision, God's guidance, we ask for, not the wisdom of this world that is foolishness. "Your kingdom come" should be the center of all our prayers spoken and unspoken, and at the same time it is also the answer to each of these prayers. When we make request the center of our lives before God, the focus of our relationship with God, we find this request is granted IN the lives we live.
When we are open to God, when our relationship with God grows deeper and wider as we pay attention to it we find ourselves agents of God's kingdom, offering daily bread to those who lack it, asking for grace and forgiveness in our relationships where we need it, offering it when it is ours share. We find ourselves impelled to speak the truth in love, work for justice in unrighteous situations, and side with the outcast, the lonely, and the forgotten. When we dwell in the presence of God, when attention is paid to the most important relationship in our lives, we find God's presence and opportunities to exhibit God's kingdom of love and grace and mercy in our work, in our homes, in our families, and our community. We find that God's kingdom does indeed come in us.
This is what prayer is all about. It's not the words we heap on words. It's not the verses we have memorized. It's not anything more or anything less then opening our lives, our hearts, and our spirits to God's presence, so that God's kingdom, God's realm, God's will and God's purpose can be accomplished for us, and in us, and through us. This simple phrase, "your kingdom come," is the most powerful, most subversive, and most life altering prayer we will ever utter or embody. Your kingdom, we pray, not mine, not my family's, not my pastor's, not my government's, not my political party's, not my friend's, not my employer's kingdoms and will and purpose be accomplished, but God's kingdom is what we pray will come and reign and have authority in the world. When we open ourselves to God's kingdom, God's presence, then we have truly prayed. When we open ourselves to God's kingdom, God's presence, then God's prayers are answered through us. Then God's kingdom comes.
The practice of prayer is about so much more than the words we put together beside or in our bed at night. The practice of prayer is about so much more than the routine verse we recite around the dinner table alone or with others. The practice of prayer is about so much more than the words that we offer in unison when we gather to worship God each week. It's even more than the words Jesus us taught us to guide our prayers together. The practice of prayer includes all these things and more, but it is not held in only these things. The practice of prayer is, above all, the practice of being present with God, attentive to God, and open to God's movement and leading in our lives, so that ultimately God's kingdom will come - for us, in us, and through us.
Whether we pray by singing, by writing, by speaking, by chanting, by drawing, by dancing, by meditating, by building, by sculpting, by painting, by driving, by gardening, by laughing, by crying and especially when we pray by listening, may our relationship with God grow deeper this day and always.