Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lord's Prayer, Sermon 5

Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer

James 1: 2-4, 12-15; Matthew 6: 7-13

February 27, 2011

First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

Christina Berry

James 1: 2-4, 12-15

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

Matthew 6: 7-13

"When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. "Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

We have come to the last phrase of the Lord’s prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Next week is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before we enter the season of Lent, and we will, appropriately, consider the phrase that the church has added to the Lord’s Prayer: thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.

But this week, this final phrase before the summing up of the prayer, faces us: “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” If we were ungenerous, we might say this phrase suggests that we are looking for an easy way out, a way to avoid troubles and trials. And maybe we are.

Nobody I know who has gone through difficult times considered it a welcome event. Nobody in their right mind would sit around praying to experience serious illness, unemployment, poverty, marital discord, conflict, war – nobody looks for trouble in that way. But we have this prayer, in which Jesus taught us to turn to God for everything: for God’s will to be done, for the coming kingdom, for our daily bread, for forgiveness and the power to forgive, for deliverance from the power of evil – why NOT ask God to save us from the time of trial?!

In fact, even Jesus asked this, when, in the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “If it be your will, take this cup from me.” Trouble is, prayer doesn’t always get the results we desire. We can ask, but, as one person said, “It’s praying, not placing an order!” So – why pray this prayer?

What is the good of asking God for all this – making all these petitions? Is that the point – that God is some kind of vending machine, where we put in a prayer and out comes a blessing, but sometimes something gets jammed up, and we don’t get anything? Obviously not – obviously, the point of prayer is not to just hand God a list of demands, however politely they may be phrased.

This prayer, this prayer Jesus taught us, is not simply a list of requests. It is our side of a conversation, in which we speak to God of our desire to join with God in the building of the kingdom. For this we need sustenance, we need protection, we need forgiveness, we need community, we need relationship – with God and with one another.

I’ve just been reading some research on the power of prayer. There are a number of good, double-blind studies that suggest prayer works. Just as many, maybe more, studies show that it does not. Of course, science being science, there are plenty of pointed questions on both sides about all that research.

As recently as 2002, Time magazine published an editorial about the scientific parameters of research study on prayer that concluded: “Past experience suggests that under such safeguards miracles do not occur.” [1] More recently, The New York Times, in a 2006 report, said that research demonstrated that people who knew that strangers were praying for them actually fared worse.

Most of these studies are about strangers praying for people from a distance –there’s no information about the prayers of friends and family, or the faith of the person whose healing is the subject of prayers. Perhaps under the safeguards of scientific studies, miracles do not occur. But I am here to tell you that under the safeguard of God, miracles do occur!

Under the safeguard of God, our refuge and strength, all the parameters of a double-blind study mean nothing, because we ourselves have observed the power of prayer. The promise we have from God, reflected in this prayer, is not that we will be protected from anything bad happening to us or to those we love. The promise is that God will deliver us, and will see us through.

We don’t know why bad things happen. Times of trial and troubles can be the result of all sorts of things, but we cannot say that they are God’s will, for that would make God the author of evil. There’s also no reason to believe that God is lurking around checking to see who is doing the best praying, or who concentrate the hardest on their prayers, or who offers the best trade-off of Christian action in return for God’s deliverance. Prayer, praying in faith, is a conversation, among and between us and God. The promise of prayer is that God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble. (Psalm 46)

The promise of prayer is that God will be with us in every circumstance, and that, in the end, God works it all out. Someone said, “God works everything out in the end. If everything hasn’t worked out for you, that means it isn’t the end!”

I thought the most cogent comment in all these research articles came from Dr. Richard Sloan, who said, “The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion,”[2]

Faith does not rely on scientific evidence, on double-blind studies and archaeological digs. Scientists call our stories of healing and deliverance “anecdotal evidence,” as if a story of healing, when it is described as God’s work, somehow is suspect, less than reliable – merely an anecdote, like a story from Reader’s Digest. Science calls it anecdotal; people of faith call it miracles.

We have seen this in our own community, as we have observed the healing of those among us who were seriously ill. I am convinced, and they are convinced, that your prayers mattered.

Throughout this series on the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve invited you to commit to daily prayer, to praying THIS prayer every day. But there is one thing more. Next Wednesday, on March 9, Ash Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent. Starting Ash Wednesday, and continuing through Lent to Easter, I want to ask that we all commit to continuing this practice of daily prayer, plus two things.

Ask God one additional thing, at the end of your prayers: ask God to speak to you, to tell you what God’s hopes and dreams and desires are for you, and then be quiet and listen. Listen for two minutes, before you say amen. Add two minutes of silence – 120 seconds – so that you can listen for God.

Listen with all of your heart and mind and strength. Listen, “as if listening were your life.”[3]

As I close this sermon, we’ll look and listen once more to this prayer, and then, we are going to pause in silence for two minutes. It will seem like a long time.

If other thoughts, like lunch, or your plans for this afternoon, if those thoughts intrude on your prayer, don’t try to make them go away. Simply notice them, then mentally pick them up and set them to one side. I’ll ask the musicians and the ushers to wait just two minutes before we prepare for the offering. Join silently in the prayer Christ taught us, then listen for God…

[1] Investigating the Power of Prayer, by Leon Jaroff, Time magazine, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002,9565,193084,00.html#ixzz1F5Qgp8Xr

[2] Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer, by Benedict Carey, New York Times, March 31, 2006

[3] Phillips Brooks, “The Consolations of God”

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