Homily, July 24

A homily about prayer for All-Ages Worship, based on Luke 11:1-13. 

What does it mean to pray? 

At church it might feel like praying is when we read certain things out of our booklets. But that’s only one kind of prayer.

Or maybe it’s when we place our flowers and stones in the prayer gardens. But that’s also only one kind of prayer. 

Prayer means so many things! 

Anne Lamott says anything you say from your heart to God – out loud or inside yourself! – is a prayer.

But prayer isn’t just talking.  Listening is an important part of prayer, too. 

Prayer can look like coloring or knitting or walking… It can look like laughing, or crying. It can look like sitting very still. It can look like dancing.

In the Gospel today Jesus’ friends ask him how to pray. They want to know if there’s a right way to do it. And Jesus gives them an example: “Here’s a way to pray!” 

I think he was just trying to show them that prayer can be very simple.  Not that this is the ONE RIGHT PRAYER. But his friends wrote it down, and passed it on, and over time people started calling it the Lord’s Prayer, and using it in worship, and in their daily prayers too.

The Lord’s Prayer is an example of what’s good and what’s bad about worshiping the way our kind of church worships: with set prayers that we read off a page, or memorize. The bad is that it can get boring. Too familiar.  Sometimes we’re not really praying it at all; our mouths are just saying the words. The good is that it’s always there for us. It’s an anchor. When it’s hard to find our own words, we can use these ones. 

At our church we say the Lord’s Prayer using lots of versions! Everyone can pick which one they want to use. But we still know we’re all praying the same prayer together. I know for some people it feels like a lot for their ears – maybe too much! For other people it lets them pray from their heart, whether their words match everyone else’s or not. 

We started doing this because we were using the “contemporary version” of the Lord’s Prayer from our Prayer Book – the one that starts, “Our Father in heaven…”

But some people liked the older version better – the one that starts “Our Father who art in heaven…” So they were praying that version instead. 

When I noticed this, I remembered that at General Convention, when all the Episcopalians from the United States and the Caribbean and parts of Europe and Latin America and the indigenous churches all get together, people are invited to pray in the language of their heart. It’s amazing to be in a room with two thousand people all praying this same prayer, the prayer Jesus gave to his friends, but in so many different ways! 

So we started doing it that way too. 

Today there’s a new version in your Sunday Supplement, one I learned from a member of our parish. It’s based on the Message version of the Bible. It has some beautiful and surprising language and you might like to try it out, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer later on! 

So what’s in this prayer, the simple prayer Jesus gave his friends? Let’s take a quick look – and as we go, I’ll show you the signs from ASL, American Sign Language, that some of us like to use. 

First, we pray as God’s beloved children, calling God Father or Mother. If those are difficult words for you, you could use another name for God that brings you close in love. 

Then we say, May your Name be held holy! We pray for God’s goodness and glory to be seen and known. The sign for Holy is like wiping something clean so it can shine. 

Then we pray, Let your kingdom come! The Message version says, Set the world right! The sign for Come is just like calling someone with your hands. 

Then we pray, Give us the food we need for the day. We’re not praying for a Mercedes Benz here, or a Playstation 5. We’re praying for our most basic needs. Just enough. The ASL sign we use here is Feed or Eat. 

Then we pray for forgiveness of our sins. That the things we’ve done that we shouldn’t have done, or the things we didn’t do and should have done, will be wiped away, in God’s kindness – and that we’ll do better next time. And we pray for help forgiving other people, too.  The sign we use there is like sending someone on their way. You’re free! Go in peace! 

Then – in Luke’s version of this prayer, which is very short! – we pray that we won’t face tough situations and hard times. We use three different ASL signs here! We ask for God to strengthen us … And to spare us… look, two fists together, but then one escapes! And we ask God to save us, to set us free from the grip of evil. For the ASL sign, pretend your wrists are tied together – but then someone cuts the rope!

Then we hold up all our prayers to the God who rules the Universe in love… Amen. 

But then what happens? What happens AFTER we pray?

Praying isn’t like ordering in a restaurant, where you ask for mac and cheese, and in ten minutes, they bring you mac and cheese. 

But Jesus tells us to keep knocking, keep asking, keep seeking. And he says that God knows how to give us what we need. 

I bet some of us can think of times when we prayed for or about something, and it did happen, and we were glad and grateful.

I bet there are a lot more times when we didn’t even notice when our prayers were answered – because it’s easy not to notice when you stop being sad or anxious about something. 

We can also think of times when what we were praying for, didn’t happen the way we hoped it would.  When we prayed for an egg and feel like we got a scorpion. 

That could be another whole sermon. Let me just say that I don’t think everything that happens is God’s will. The world is not the way it is meant to be. 

Sometimes, though, the response to our prayers just doesn’t look like what we expected.

At Drama Camp this week, we worked with the story of Tobit, from the Apocrypha in the Bible. Among other things, Tobit is a story about prayer. Early in the story, Tobit, who has suffered many tragedies, prays for God to end his misery. At the same moment, a young woman named Sarah is praying to be freed from her own shame and suffering. And God decides to take care of both situations at once. 

The way the story unfolds from there involves a journey, a dog, a demon, an angel in disguise, and fish guts. I can’t possibly summarize it. Look it up, or ask a kid! But there is, eventually, a happy ending for both Tobit and Sarah. 

Sometimes the resolution of our struggles or yearnings takes the long way round. I’ve lived that. Maybe you have too. 

Now it’s almost time for us to pray together, friends!…