Our gospel reading for this morning is all about prayer. The disciples find Jesus praying, as he often does, and they say to him: “Lord, teach us how how to pray!” All the cool kids are doing it – John taught his disciples how to pray! Heh, it’s kind of fitting for us that the disciples reference John like this – because here at St. John’s, prayer is something that we have actually been focusing on all this year.
I’ve gotta say, as your pastor, it has been really fun to watch you all experimenting with different ways of praying; it’s gratifying to witness the moments in which someone really connects with some new kind of prayer. It’s been surprising at times, too, to see which forms of prayer people really kind of glom onto and choose to take with them. I had one of those moments back in March: during the five weeks of Lent, we explored a new way of praying each week – and I was very surprised that, of all the ways we prayed, one of the most popular ended up being an ancient form of prayer known as a collect. (I even mentioned to some of my clergy colleagues that the collect prayer had really caught on at St. John’s, and they didn’t believe me!)
Granted, I didn’t exactly call it a collect prayer – me being me, I made up a goofy acronym and called it “Praying with GRASE” instead. So now, for those of you who were there, it’s pop quiz time, haha. Who can help us name the five parts of the collect?
- G (thumb): Start your prayer by addressing God in some way – we express and experience relationship with God in many and specific and wonderful ways.
- R (index finger): Remember good things that God has done – we remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness and offer thanks and praise
- A (middle finger): Ask God for what you or someone else needs – Jesus urges us to “take it to the Lord in prayer”; we lift our concerns to God with trust and hope
- S (ring finger): “So that…” desired outcome – we try to enter into God’s imagination for the world and name how what we pray for will help bring that about
- E (pinky finger): End the prayer in the name of Christ – Jesus told his followers to ask for anything in his name, and by faith we take him at his word
Very good! And for those who weren’t there, if this structure of prayer seems somewhat familiar to you, there’s a good reason for that! On just about any given Sunday, you can look through our bulletin and find at least one example of a collect prayer – it shows up in our worship life a lot. I often find myself using the collect form of prayer when I pray, both in my personal prayer life and, especially, when I’m asked to pray out loud. (Lol, as I mentioned to those who were there, collects are really great for when you want to pray an impressive-sounding prayer.) I like it because it feels like a really whole, rich, meaningful way to pray.
Thinking about the loveliness and the formality of the collect form of prayer – these prayers that show up so often in our worship – it’s actually a little jarring to read how Jesus instructs his followers to pray in our gospel reading:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.Luke 11:2-4
This is one of the earliest appearances of the Lord’s Prayer, and it’s striking how different it is from the kinds of prayers we often pray together in worship! There’s no real formal address to God, no thanksgiving for what God has done; there’s no “so that” – Jesus doesn’t even bother to give his prayer an ending! (Although, to be fair, I guess it would be a little bit weird if he ended his prayer by praying in his own name, haha.) Next to the collect prayer, the Lord’s Prayer sounds surprisingly informal, even downright rude. It’s literally just, “Father. Your name is holy. Give us bread. Forgive us. Keep us out of trouble.” And that’s it! It leaves me wondering: Why? Why would this be the way that Jesus instructs his followers to pray?
As I reflected on the differences between these two ways of praying, I realized that these different ways of talking to God also kind of mirror the ways that we as humans talk to each other. For instance, I was thinking about the times that I have called or texted someone, like one of you all, to ask something, or to ask you to do something. Without even meaning to, I find I have a tendency to follow the same form or structure almost every time, like you would with a collect prayer. First, I greet you warmly by name; then I make sure that I check in about any pastoral care concerns I know you’re dealing with, or just generally see how you’re doing; then I ask whatever it is I needed to ask you, but like, “it’s totally cool if you say ‘no,’ and, like, I get it if you can’t,” etc.; then I say “Thank you!!!” with multiple exclamation points, and I end by wishing you a good week, or a happy Thursday, or whatever.
But the way I might ask for something changes dramatically, depending on who I’m talking to and how close we are. For instance, back in June, I asked my sister to pick me up at the airport in Omaha on the way back from visiting our brother in California. For context, my flight was originally scheduled to get in around midnight – but there were so many delays that it was actually after 1am by the time we touched down at Eppley. So my sister had to drag her butt out of bed, drive across town, wait for me to get my checked bag, and then haul me back to my car in the middle of the night. How would you imagine I worded the text in which I asked her to do all of that? Lol, I think it was a dozen words at most: “Hey. Can you pick me up at the airport on the 27th?”
Now, obviously, I don’t talk to my sister this way to be rude. This is just the kind of direct, immediate way we often talk with the people who are closest to us. I mean, have known my sister literally since the day she was born, and she’s one of the people I talk to most often. We rarely actually greet each other or bother to end a conversation because it feels like we’re always in the middle of the same ongoing conversation that we’ve been having our entire lives.
And with this in mind, when I go back and read the Lord’s Prayer in this light, I find it almost shocking what a level of closeness and intimacy with God that Jesus seems to be inviting us into with this prayer. Jesus invites us to speak with God in the same kind of direct, informal way that we might speak to a family member or a spouse or a beloved friend. God wants to be close to us, to be someone we talk to every day – to have with us that same kind of long, ongoing conversation that continues our whole life long. God wants to be counted among our closest loved ones.
Because, at the end of the day, as much as our family members or spouse or beloved friends might love us, Jesus reminds us here that that love still pales in comparison to the love that God has for us. We give the best we have to offer to the ones we love, but it still can’t hold a candle to all the good things that God desires to give us. So Jesus emphatically says to his disciples, and to us: ask! Without being bashful about it or standing on ceremony, ask God unreservedly for the things you need. Ask!
And even in those painful moments of prayer when we ask, but don’t receive – when the brokenness of this world gets in the way of the good that God would give us – Jesus still says to us: ask. Ask, and ask again. Jesus encourages us to be persistent in prayer, because God’s love for us is persistent. Jesus invites us to keep on praying – to pray not according to the limits of this world, but according to the limitless love of God.
So, in closing, let us pray:
Hey, God. You’re awesome. Give us food and stuff we need. Keep us safe. Protect our loved ones. Maybe let us win the lottery or something. Help us be good disciples. And keep on loving us, always.