Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-21
Lenten Theme: The Lord’s Prayer

During the season of Lent, as I told the children last Sunday, we focus on the work that Jesus did for us in order to save us from our sins: dying for us on the cross. And, we tend to get a little more somber during Lent as we remember that we are sinful, mortal human beings who deserve death ourselves: we reduce the singing that we do in worship, and gone is the “a-word” and the “h-word” that literally mean “Praise the Lord”. And in order to remember that and to repent from our sins, to turn away from them, we engage in three spiritual disciplines that Jesus talks to us about tonight in his Sermon on the Mount: giving alms, prayer, and fasting. This year, beginning tonight and continuing throughout our midweek Lenten services, we are focusing on prayer and specifically, on the Lord’s Prayer.
So, in order to start us thinking about this, I’d like to show a clip from the sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.” In this episode, Sheldon’s mother, who is very religious, comes to visit the gang in California, and they go on a tour of different churches in the Pasadena area. As you watch, I’d like us to focus on what the idea of prayer is that is being portrayed in this clip.

As funny as this is—I think it’s still okay to laugh during Lent, by the way!—I think that many times, no matter how well intentioned our prayers are, we often treat God as a genie who is there to grant our wishes. God, please do this. Oh, God, if you do this for me, then I promise I will get better about going to church—I might even volunteer for something! And then if God doesn’t do whatever it is we want him to, we get upset and pout, or we blame ourselves for not having enough faith, or we blame God for somehow having it in for us. We are totally focused in on ourselves, and what God can do for us—sometimes even when we think we’re praying for other people.
One of the directions that Jesus gives for his followers as they pray is, “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.” In pagan religions, the idea for prayer to the gods was to pester the gods with lots of words, so then the gods would take notice of the person who was praying. Then, once the gods noticed the person who was praying, the person would then inform those gods what he or she needed, because the gods didn’t know ahead of time. Therefore, prayers to these gods needed lots of words. In contrast, Jesus tells his disciples that their prayer is not to be like that, because God knows what our needs are even before we speak them.
The question that arises from this teaching is, then, why do we bother to pray if God already knows what our needs are? Prayer for Christians should not be about getting things from God, but rather is an expression of the relationship of trust between children and their father. Think of prayer like this: when your children or grandchildren are small, and they come to sit in your lap and tell you about the day that they had, the things they were excited about, the things they saw that made them sad, worries they have over their friends or pets who might be hurt, and anything else they want to talk about. Most of the time you know what they’re going to talk about, right? But you want them to come and talk to you anyway, because you enjoy that closeness, that time together. And you want to show love to your children and help them in any way you can. That’s the idea behind prayer: God knows what we’re going to talk to him about, and he knows what kind of help we truly need, but he cherishes that time together with us when we trust him enough to tell him about our lives.
So, Jesus then gives us a model for prayer, which we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. This is usually the first prayer we learn by heart as children, and it is the last one we remember as we get older. It is so familiar to us that very often, we say it by rote, not really thinking about the meaning behind these words. In the coming weeks, we will explore each of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer more in depth. For those of you who were confirmed in the Lutheran church, some of the explanations that we look at from Martin Luther will be familiar to you, as you may have had to memorize them for confirmation class. For others, these explanations will be brand new. My hope is that, by sharing our thoughts with one another, we can find new meaning in the Lord’s Prayer, and that, as we move through Lent, our prayer practices will help us to be in deeper communion with God, our Father.
For now, though, just a couple of observations about the Lord’s Prayer. The first thing we should notice is that it is communal: it starts out with “Our Father”, not “My Father.” This prayer is meant to be prayed together with a group of disciples. This is not to say that you cannot pray it when you are by yourself, however. When you do pray it by yourself, though, it is meant to put you in mind of the community of Christian disciples here in Powell and throughout the world. And not just Lutherans, but also Roman Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, the Assembly of God, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Orthodox Christians in Russia and in other Eastern countries, and so on. No matter what other differences we Christians have amongst ourselves, this prayer that Jesus taught is one of the things that unites us here in Powell and around the world. That’s pretty amazing to think about, isn’t it?
The second thing to notice about the Lord’s Prayer, and part of what we will be examining in the coming weeks, is that this prayer is a call to action in the world. James L. Bailey, in his book “Contrast Community,” writes, “Praying and practicing the Lord’s Prayer will shift our attention and energy to becoming kingdom people rather than narrowly existing as church people. It will focus our eyes on what God is up to in the midst of our community and beyond” (101). As an example of this, Bailey speaks of a seminary professor who challenged Christians to not pray the part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” until they seriously begin to address the scandal of world hunger. Part of the nature of a communal prayer like this, besides uniting us with Christians around the world, is to help us to think about the needs of the whole community in the world, and not just our own needs.
Finally, the Lord’s Prayer is a remedy for those prayers that went on and on, heaping up empty words in the hope that God would hear them because of all of those many words. In simple but profound petitions, the person who prays this prayer is expressing trust that God will indeed hear him or her no matter how many or how few words she or he uses. The person is expressing a dependence on God for all of his or her daily needs, both physical and spiritual, and a trust that God knows what those needs are before they are even expressed. And most of all, the person who prays this prayer cannot help but be focused not just on himself or herself, but also on the needs of the greater community around the world. My hope is that we will all grow spiritually this Lent through praying this prayer and meditating on what it means, and that our prayer life with God would deepen and continue even past Lent, through Easter, and for the rest of our lives. Amen.

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