Sustained by Prayer

Sunday, January 29, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Matthew 6:7-21

Jesus, teach us not only to pray as you taught us, but teach us to live your prayer so that your healing and gracious will is done on earth as in heaven. Amen.

How many times have you prayed the Lord’s Prayer? Most likely hundreds, if not thousands of times; if you’ve lived long enough. One of the first things I learned about you when I came to Augustana last year is that some of you have really strong feelings about which version of the Lord’s Prayer we pray in worship.  I heard that sometime during the pandemic, you started praying the contemporary version, which is based on the version of the Lord’s Prayer that was just read in the NRSV translation of the Bible from 1989. The “traditional” version comes from the King James version that has been around since the early 1600s. Some of you said that this shift felt a little disorienting, so the worship staff and I decided to return to the older version…at least for now.

I understand why there are often strong feelings about something like the Lord’s Prayer. The familiarity of the old version was like solid ground when everything else in the church and the world was so topsy-turvy. This prayer, regardless of version, is a powerful symbol of Christian unity. It is on the lips and written on the hearts of just about every Christian across the theological spectrum, language, and culture, and across every denomination. It is a prayer that unites Christians regardless of political, racial, and ethnic divides and has been prayed by followers of Jesus for two thousand years. The risk of such a well-known, frequently recited prayer – like any routine – is that the impact of such a prayer can get lost in the familiarity of it. I’m sure we can all think of a time or two in worship when we prayed this prayer and then thought, “what was it that I just said?” Which is why it’s good from time to time to look to different translations. It might help keep us awake to the power this prayer Jesus intends for it to have on our lives.

Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer lands right in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters of Matthew provide some of the clearest teaching on how to live as a follower of Christ. Jesus teaches about worry and wealth, God’s providence, how to relate to our neighbors and our enemies, and where we put our trust. It’s a sermon designed to show us “where faith meets life” and transform the way we see God, ourselves, and the world. As a careful preacher, Jesus puts prayer at the center of this transformation.

When Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father” he’s teaching the whole church that prayer is both personal and communal. Faith isn’t just about “me and Jesus”. Our faith is inherently relational – it connects us to God, each other, and the created world. Jesus doesn’t instruct us to pray “My Father” as if each of us individually possesses God, or that we get our own version of God when we pray. Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father” to remind us that the people you love most and those who you can barely stand to be around call on the same God to lead us in life. As the body of Christ, we’re in this together and when we pray, no one is excluded from God’s embrace.

Several years ago, I was part of an interfaith event with Christians, Muslims, and Jews. In the planning of the interfaith service someone suggested including the Lord’s Prayer in the service along with prayers from the other religious traditions. My initial reaction was that it was “too Christian” for an interfaith event. It felt like dropping the granddaddy of all Christian prayers into this interfaith event. Then one of the Muslim leaders asked how the prayer went, and after someone recited it, to my surprise the group was unanimously supportive. The petitions of the prayer spoke to what we were all seeking at that time – God’s holy will of peace and reconciliation, forgiveness, and provision in an environment where there was such deep hurt and misunderstanding across these faiths. Later that week, when hundreds from the community gathered, I felt a new expansiveness to what it meant to pray “Our Father” and was reminded that Jesus prayed this as a Jew.

Prayer puts us in direct relationship with God. We often think of praying as telling God what we need. We ask God to intercede for us. We tell God what we need, what those we love need, what we sense the world needs, and if we’re attentive over time, we may gain some sense of how God responds to those prayers. God hears those prayers because God cares for us as God’s children. Yet, there’s an even deeper well to draw from to sustain us. When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” it causes us to stop talking and listen and reflect on what that looks like, how that is happening, and what we might do to participate in it. What does it look like when God’s kingdom comes? Based on the prayer and other teachings of Jesus, it looks like healing, it looks like peacemaking, it looks like self-giving love and generosity toward those on the margins. It looks like setting tables where unexpected guests are welcomed, and God is praised. It looks like a space where life seeks balance between giving and receiving, of work and rest. It looks like what the Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

Benedictine and Franciscan spirituality is experiencing something of a renaissance recently, as the principles of once cloistered communities open up to lay people and other Christian traditions. Last week I was with a group of 18 pastors from six denominations at a Benedictine monastery One of the core principles of Benedictine communities is “ora et labora” – prayer and work. Life is rooted in prayer, to be better attuned to God’s will for how to respond to the problems of the world through daily work. Life is a balance of prayer and action. Starting with prayer gives shape and imagination for how we are to live our faith in the world.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray “your will be done on earth as in heaven”. This petition is an invitation to hold loosely the outcomes of our prayers and trust that God is at work here among us in the same way God is at work in heaven. God is at the core relational, not transactional. God works through the rhythms of our prayer and work. By communicating with God, both speaking and listening, God grants us grace to experience peace of heart and mind, regardless the outcome of our prayers.  In being in conversation with God through prayer, we also are called to ask, “How is God calling us to act so that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, and what’s my part in it?” Biblical scholar Warren Carter writes, “To pray this prayer is to seek nothing less than the total transformation of life on earth. It is to reject the status quo and pray for its complete realignment in terms of God’s will.” This is a transformation where forgiveness and reconciliation take precedence over power and one-upmanship, where we wholeheartedly seek to ensure that everyone has enough daily bread, and where we curb our own desires to hoard the world’s resources, where we are bold to shed light on our temptations and seek God’s deliverance and mercy, and where we proclaim and cling to the reality that the kingdom, the power, and the glory truly rest in God above everyone and everything else.

Friends, Jesus offers us this prayer, in whatever translation that speaks to us so that we may be sustained in faith in all circumstances. It is a prayer that opens the door to God’s vision for us and the world and calls us not only to pray it, but to live it. It is a prayer we can be sure God will answer and one that reminds us where to place our trust. Jesus does not lay this on us like a burden but offers it as a gift. We forgive because we have already been forgiven, we offer to let go of greed because we know God abundantly provides, we cling to God’s kingdom, and power, and glory because through faith, we know that God’s reign leads all to redemption, salvation, and life – now and forever. Amen.

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