Grace Presbyterian Church
March 8, 2020, Lent 2A
The Prayers We Make
The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed if Thou the Spirit give by which I pray;
The words of today’s anthem were penned originally by Michaelangelo Buonarrati (yes, that Michelangelo, a poet as well as a painter), and translated into English by William Wordsworth. They speak to a most basic fact about prayers and praying that we are deeply prone to forget or overlook. Prayer, when prayed with any kind of effectiveness, comes from the leading of the Holy Spirit more than from us. As Jesus’s instruction wrapped around this terribly familiar prayer shows, prayers coming from our own motivation – the “barren clay” of the “unassisted heart” of Michelangelo’s poem – can be far worse than merely shallow or meaningless. They can be exercises in vanity and self-righteousness.
Take the guy out on the street corner, probably with his own entourage of trumpets heralding his every utterance. There’s a reason that Jesus turns to that phrase “truly I tell you, they have received their award”; the gesture has no other purpose than to draw the attention of passerby to the overwhelming “righteousness” of the one doing the praying. If even one person is so moved in the crowd, the venture is a success.
One of my former hometowns had an occasional issue with street-corner preachers setting up shop on its highly popular downtown street to chastise the town for its loose morals and “unchristian ways.” As a university town it did have a lot of diversity going on in its borders, far more than other cities and towns in the state. This diversity did include religious diversity, both in terms of the number of different religious practiced (or not practiced) and in the number of different Christian traditions expressed there. At first this performance raised some hackles among the locals (the street preacher and his entourage were from a notorious church about a half hour away), but folks figured out the solution quickly: don’t pay them any attention, no matter what they say. Just walk by on your way to the restaurant. Soon enough, when the preacher and his entourage were no longer receiving their reward, they moved on.
Where, exactly, is the Holy Spirit in such a performance? Far better to go find a closet, as Jesus says, and forego the attention of adoring crowds. Attention-seeking prayers form attention-seeking pray-ers, and the guiding of the Spirit isn’t going to cut through all the noise. Quite likely, the one praying is all about showing off to others, with absolutely no concern for hearing a word from God – after all, why do you need to hear a word from God when you’ve got God all figured out enough to show it off on the street corners? It’s not prayer, when it comes down to it.
Or how about the guy with all the words? Jesus makes reference to not praying “like the Gentiles” with lots of words piling up, but such a phenomenon wasn’t completely alien to the Jewish tradition either. Check out that prayer Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple, a small portion of which we heard in the day’s first reading. Yes, it’s a celebratory occasion and all that, but is the prayer really the place to pile up the word count? As Jesus puts it, you’re not telling God anything new; your needs are already known before you open your mouth. I suppose the challenge might be that what you need (that God already knows) might not exactly coincide with what you want, but perhaps that’s another reason not to be quite so verbose.
Then comes the prayer itself.
Now notice how Jesus introduces the prayer. He doesn’t say “pray these words” or “pray this prayer”; his instructions are “pray then in this way,” or other translations might say “pray like this.” There’s really no evidence that Jesus was trying to give the disciples some exact prayer to repeat by rote, any more than Jesus meant for the words he spoke at the Last Supper to be repeated exactly by rote every time the disciples broke the bread and partook of the cup.
It isn’t necessarily that it’s wrong to use the prayer in such a way, but there are definite risks to doing so. What happens to things we say by rote? Well, we remember the words pretty well – the same holds true for repeated sung responses like the Gloria Patri and the Doxology in the service. But no matter how many times we say them, how much do we hear them? Or do they become, well, empty words, drained of meaning or even basic comprehension in the act of repetition?
At any rate, after all the years of repetition the words are at least familiar to us. We can note that it is Matthew’s version of the prayer that uses the words we use – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We should understand that the reference here really is a financial one; we are to forgive the debts of those who owe us money. It was a radical enough message in Jesus’s time, when being owed by others was a tremendous source of power in the Roman Empire. It’s an echo of the “year of Jubilee” evoked in the Torah, in which such debts were forgiven under the instruction of the Law every seven years. So here’s a pretty strong example of how the repetition of the prayer over the centuries has numbed us to the rather radical notions it espouses for us to live up to, isn’t it? Honestly, if we’re under God’s instruction to forgive the debts of others, we might as well really not engage in loaning money to others. Just give it to them with no expectation of reward. Again, pretty radical implications of this prayer.
There is one more little tag-on after the prayer, and it’s a bit chilling – if you don’t forgive (as the prayer promises that we will do), the consequences are cosmic and devastating. Again, a deeply uncomfortable thought.
Here’s the thing about this prayer, whether we take it as a literal prayer to be repeated exactly or as an instruction to “pray this way”; far from being about getting what we want from God, it is so much more about being formed into followers of Christ – forgiving those debts; forgiving even more generally; relying on God to know our needs daily and beyond; seeking after God’s guidance to stay away from evil and to conform to the good.
Again, like the poem and anthem has already taught us, “of good and pious works thou [God] art the seed…unless thou [God again] show us then thine own true way, no one can find it! Father, thou must lead.” We rely on God to be able even to offer up the words to pray, and then those words in turn form us into those followers of God, into the body of Christ even, by their unceasing call upon us and our choices and actions.
In short, it is a deeply important call to be very discerning and obedient to the Holy Spirit even in the act of praying, for whether it is this model prayer or any other, the prayers we make…make us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #465, What a Friend We Have in Jesus; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #—-, Our Father In Heaven, All Glorious Above; #543, God Be the Love to Search and Keep Me