Monday, February 27, 2017

February 26, 2017 The Power of Prayer: Paul's Prayer Advice

This morning we conclude our series of messages on prayer, and as we do, I want to remind you that next week’s message, while not specifically about prayer, is an addendum to this series, as it is about healing, which is one of the most common topics of our prayers.  That message will be a summary of some of what I have come to believe, after 35+ years in ministry, about healing.  It is a message that is not a medical or scientific approach to healing, but one that is pastoral and theological.

This morning, as we conclude our series of four messages about prayer, we come to Paul’s Prayer Advice.  We solicit advice about many things.  We turn to trusted advisors for financial advice; how we should manage our finances and for advice about investing.  We turn to others for advice about the many facets of family – for advice on marriage, advice about child-rearing, advice about relating to parents and siblings.  We turn to others for vocational advice.  Any others you can think of?

But what about advice on prayer?  How often do we solicit prayer advice?  Does it sound strange to say we should seek out advice about prayer?  Why not, though?  And if you seek advice on prayer, why not seek that advice from a spiritual giant?  For advice about prayer this morning, we will turn to such a person, and that is Paul.  Paul, by virtue of his circumstances, is obviously a person of great spiritual stature and his spiritual strength is powered by his prayer life.

At the time of writing his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul was imprisoned in Rome.  Paul had been taken to Rome because he was appealing a conviction that had been handed down first by local authorities and then wound through a series of appeals, first to Felix – who was a Roman governor – and then by Festus, the replacement for Felix, and then on to King Agrippa.  Paul then exercised his right, as a Roman citizen, to take his appeal all the way to Rome, to Caesar himself.  Agrippa agreed that Paul had not done anything that deserved either imprisonment or death, and that he would have been set free had he not appealed to Rome (Acts 26:30-32), but Paul was determined to get to Rome, one way or another, even if it meant going in chains as a prisoner.

Imagine those very dire circumstances in which Paul found himself, as we read his words from Philippians 1:3-11 –
I thank my God every time I remember you.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

In this passage, Paul offers several very specific pieces of advice about prayer, four of which we will consider this morning.

1.  Pray with Gratitude. 
Verse 3 – I thank my God every time I remember you.

I love that verse.  It is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. 

What is truly amazing in this passage is that Paul, in spite of his circumstances, could express a sense of gratitude. At some point after arriving in Rome it became clear to Paul that not only would he not be set free, but that he would be executed.  Considering such a plight, it would be easy to assume that Paul’s prayers would be full of entreaties to be released from prison and for his life to be spared.  Amazingly, that was not the case.  I would be praying for myself and would seek to have everyone I know praying for me!  How is it that Paul can be grateful when he finds himself in chains and knows his execution is looming on the horizon?

One of the reasons why Paul is able to express gratitude is because of the people God has placed in his life.  In verse 3 Paul very specifically ties his gratitude to people – I thank my God every time I remember you.  Paul is grateful in a general sense – for all the gifts in his life – but at this moment he is especially thinking about the people God has placed in his life.  All throughout the book of Philippians we find Paul expressing his gratitude for people, a few of which are 1:18-20.  2:12-18.  4:1.  4:1-11. 

When it comes to the church, we can never forget that the ministry of the church rests in large measure upon the personal, that is, the way in which we deal with people.  The church is an institution – and a very large one at that, and the institutional side of the church is important, because the structure of the institution makes so much of the work of mission and ministry possible – but it is founded upon the personal.  People will come to a church because of a program, or the music, or the preaching, but they will stay because of the personal.  People are bonded to a church because they form relationships there, they find support there, and they find care in that church.  Sometimes, though, people are disappointed, and that comes when the personal side of the church stumbles or fails.  It is important that we build a strong structure that will support our ministries but we can never forget the importance of the personal touch.  We must welcome people who come through our doors and into our building.  We must introduce ourselves to them and connect them to the fellowship of our church.

It is the people to whom we are connected that give us reason to pray with gratitude.  It was the people God had placed in the life of Paul that made it possible for him to pray with gratitude in the midst of such difficult circumstances.  Who are the people God has gifted into your life?  Thank God for them.  Express your gratitude for them and to them.

2.  Pray With Joy.
Verse 4 – In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.

In spite of his dire circumstances, Paul’s attitude was one of joy.  In fact, reading through the book of Philippians one could easily assume that Paul was writing under some of the best circumstances possible, rather than the challenging ones in which he found himself.  It would be easy to assume, because of Paul’s positive attitude, that he was writing under a palm tree, on a beach, with his feet in the sand, rather than as a prisoner under guard.  To say, in verse 4, for instance, that I always pray with joy, is an amazing statement for him to make, especially when we consider his circumstances.  But Paul would not allow his circumstances to dictate either his attitude or his response to his circumstances.  Time and again, throughout Philippians, Paul speaks of his own joy and that we ought to be joyful as well.

As with gratitude, there are many references to joy throughout the book of Philippians.  There are so many references to joy and a spirit of joy so infuses the book that it is sometimes referred to as the book of joy.  Again, isn’t that amazing, considering the circumstances?

4:4 is an example – rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!  Has anyone else sung the song from that verse?  If I sing it, you probably won’t recognize it.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!  Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!  I learned to sing that song as a young man in church and at church camp.  We would sing that song in the mornings at camp, to get us awake and enthusiastic for the day (and sometimes overly enthusiastic, much to the chagrin of our counselors).  We still teach that song at church camp, and sing it in the mornings to get the students awake and enthusiastic (and sometimes too enthusiastic, still to the chagrin of the counselors).

Jim Fegenbush came by the office the other morning and he groaned as he sat down in a chair.  He said his arthritis was bothering him, but he would be thankful for his arthritis because it meant he had a leg and a foot.  Isn’t that classic Jim?  Now there’s a joyful perspective!

It does not minimize anyone’s difficulty, struggle, or other hardship to acknowledge there is joy to be found in any circumstance.  Paul says, even in the midst of his terrible ordeal that I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength (4:11-13).  To not acknowledge joy and some good in even the most difficult of situations can just break us down.  For Paul, in his circumstances, it was a matter of emotional, psychological, and spiritual survival.

3.  Pray for Increased Love.
Verse 9 – And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more.

One certainty of Paul’s circumstance is that he was given a focus upon what matters most – whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things (3:7-8).

When you confront your mortality, as did Paul, it puts things into perspective.  Now, personally, I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of living each day as if it were our last.  It’s just not practical.  Technically speaking, you can’t live every day as if it were your last, not for any length of time, because you’d probably lose your job for starters.  Stay home from week every day this week, living each day as if it were your last, and see what kind of reaction you get from your boss.  When your boss calls, asking where you’ve been, try using the excuse that you are living each day as your last.  Yes, boss, I am at Disney World. Nest week I’ll be in Hawaii.  Work?  But I’m living each day as if it were my last. What we are called to do is to remind ourselves of the importance of adjusting our lives to those most important matters that are often pushed aside by the sometimes tyrannical urgency of the less important matters of life.  We know that love is the core of life, but we always need to be called back to that truth.

4.  Pray for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Discernment.
Verses 9-10 – in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

Paul really possessed an amazing faith, for a couple of reasons, I believe.  He was, first, an amazing individual.  Second, he really worked at his faith.  And, third, as he writes in II Corinthians 12:9, …he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," Paul understood how much he depended upon the power of God rather than his own power. 

One of my first seminary classes was called Spiritual Formation.  I didn’t know what that term, spiritual formation, meant, but it’s simply a specialized way of referring to the process of gaining spiritual growth and maturity through a concentrated effort.  We should be working at our faith and growing in faith, always.  Sometimes, people will approach me with a desire to make a public statement about a renewed commitment to their faith.  They will say something along the lines of I know so much more now than when I made my first commitment to faith when I was in the 5th grade.  Wonderful!  You should know more now than you did at an earlier stage of life.  This shows your faith formation is working well and continuing to provide you with a growing, vibrant, and healthy faith. 

I have been very blessed to have people in my life to whom I could and can turn for wisdom and discernment.  I trust their guidance and their opinions.  I have been blessed with teachers who gave me some level of knowledge that has helped to enrich my faith.  And I have learned that while it is important to search the depths of theology, we must allow God to speak to our hearts, for it is there that we find the “heart” of our faith.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors related that idea to us one morning.  Dr. Harold Songer was a New Testament professor and brilliant teacher.  He was one of the most interesting people I have ever heard speak.  I could walk into his class utterly exhausted, barely able to hold my eyes open, and yet could sit and listen to him for a 90-minute class and hardly blink.  His lectures were interesting, riveting, and no matter how tired I might be, I could listen without so much as an eyelid drooping.

One morning, Dr. Songer came into class and began his lecture.  It was apparent that something was agitating him and after only a few minutes we found out what it was.  He stopped teaching and said this to us – I went to church this weekend to hear one of my students preach.  I have to say that I wasn’t very pleased.  It was as though he was trying to show me how much he knows.  I didn’t need to know how much he knows; I already know it, and I probably taught him a lot of what he knows.  I didn’t want someone to speak to my head; I wanted someone to speak to my heart.  Do not try to impress your congregation with what you know.  Don’t speak to their heads; speak to their hearts, because that is where we build faith.

Dr. Songer was right, I believe.  We need some knowledge, obviously.  There is a time and a place to provide the background and context to a Biblical passage, even in a sermon.  Paul, obviously, was at times deeply theological – read through the book of Romans and you will quickly discover that truth.  But here in the book of Philippians we find Paul speaking to the hearts of those to whom he wrote, and that is why it is such a profound little book.  We think about and mull over certain concepts and facts with our heads – and that is necessary – but our faith is formed in our hearts.  Paul is speaking to our hearts to provide us with advice about prayer.  We can tuck away that advice in our heads but it really takes root in our hearts, and there it will grow, and there it will enrich our lives and our faith in immeasurable ways.

And we can take that as great advice, because it comes from Paul, who certainly knew a thing or two about prayer, and his advice still makes all the difference. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February 19, 2017 The Power of Prayer: The Most Difficult Prayer

As we continue our series of message on The Power of Prayer, this week we come to the third in the series – The Most Difficult Prayer.  Next week will be our final message in the series on prayer, but I am attaching a fifth message that speaks to one of the most common prayers we offer, and that is the prayer asking for healing, either for ourselves or on behalf of someone else.  Very early in my tenure here I offered a message titled The Power of Healing, and I will reprise that message two weeks from today.  Though it is not specifically about prayer, it offers what I hope is some helpful information about the way that God works in the process of healing.  As we pray so often for healing, often enlisting many others to join us in prayer, we are often left with questions about the way in which God answers those prayers.  I will add that the message is not at all based on science or medicine, but upon my experiences and observations from three-plus decades of pastoral ministry.

Think for a moment of the most difficult situation you have faced in life.  What are the feelings that come to mind?  Perhaps you experienced a sense of dread so deep that you felt it in the pit of your stomach.  Perhaps you found yourself walking very slowly towards a difficult appointment, your steps slowed the closer you came to your destination, and the weight of the situation was felt on your shoulders and evident in your demeanor. 

We do not have to travel far down the road of life before we come to a point of great distress because of a challenge we face.  Sometimes it’s a challenge that becomes a defining moment in our life.  How we face that challenge will shape and mold the remainder of our life, and we understand the great significance of the moment, a moment that can affect our life direction for many years to come.

Keep that moment in mind as we read our Scripture text for this morning, which is a well-known passage, usually associated with Holy Week, but contains one of the most important prayers ever offered.  It is interesting the way that the ministry of Jesus is bookended by the choice of following God’s will.  In Matthew chapter 4 we read of the temptations of Jesus, when he went into the wilderness after his baptism and faced three temptations, all of which shared the commonality of seeking to draw him away from the will of God.  At the end of his ministry, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again faced the same choice – his will or God’s.

Matthew 26:36-42 –
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.
41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

I have organized this morning’s message under three words – fear, mystery, and assurance.

1.  Fear.
Courage, it has been said, is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it.  I think that is partially true, but I would rephrase it to say that it is the triumph of conviction.  Conviction is a true source of courage, and it was conviction that empowered Jesus through this moment in the Garden and conviction that empowered him to greet head on those who came to arrest him.  It was conviction that empowered Jesus to endure the trials before Herod and Pilate, it was conviction that empowered Jesus to endure the crown of thorns, to endure the scourging, to endure the mocking and humiliation, and to endure the suffering of the cross.  It was a conviction that the will of God was the right way, the just way, the only way, in spite of the difficulty and in spite of the suffering it would bring.

Everyone has their Gethsemane moment – it is a moment of temptation, of trial, of doubt, of challenge, and of the question – whose will to be done?  It is not easy to say not my will, but yours be done.  It is not easy to move beyond what we think best for our lives and to accept what God knows is best for our lives, but it is the best path forward.

I think the reason we don’t always pray the way Jesus prayed is because we pray the kind of prayers that a friend of mine describes as being outcome specific.  When you pray for God’s will, it isn’t outcome specific.  You have to put your faith in God that the outcome God chooses is the best outcome (because it’s God’s outcome) even if it isn’t necessarily what you wanted or envisioned.   Doing that requires giving up control and your will over to God and having faith that God will direct the outcome, whatever that outcome might be (I very much appreciate Jeff Shimizu sharing this with me).  And giving up control is very difficult, isn’t it?

The reason we struggle with control is because of fear.  Control, and all its attendant aspects – such as the desire to control our surroundings or to control others – comes from fear.  To turn our destiny over to God touches on our fear, and then triggers our desire to maintain control, which compels us to offer prayers that are an extension of our desire to control, as we tell God the outcome we would like to have.  But praying for the will of God is not outcome specific beyond the willingness to say to God that we will follow whatever his will happens to be.

2.  Mystery.
After Mother Teresa passed away it was discovered, through her diaries, that she harbored some doubts about faith.  The late Christopher Hitchens – the well-known atheist – attacked her for this.  Hitchens claimed Mother Teresa was a fraud because of her doubts and criticized her in a most unpleasant manner.  Besides asking the question of who in the world could accuse Mother Teresa of being a fraud and who could attack one who gave of herself with such love and selflessness, we would also ask what is wrong with doubt?

There is no shame in doubt.  It is a sign of a healthy faith, not a weak faith.  If you have ever found yourself in a moment of doubt, know this – it is not a reflection of a weak faith but a strong faith, because it is a faith that is not afraid to ask questions.

Doubt comes to us all, at some point or another.  Doubt can become our Garden moment, when we become uncertain about the path forward and if we cannot acknowledge the sometimes titanic battle of wills within our hearts, minds, and souls we are not thinking very deeply about our faith.

Sometimes we wonder if we have the strength to go on, sometimes we question whether or not we can do what God has called us to do, and sometimes we find that we doubt the path that God has placed in front of us.  The answer, we find, is in the actions of Jesus.  He knew the way forward was difficult.  He knew the way forward was painful.  But he also knew the way forward was his path, and he accepted it.

As I have aged, I have arrived at the point where some questions no longer concern me.  Make no mistake, I have a lot of questions, but some of them don’t occupy my mind in the way they did when I was younger.  Like everyone else, I have spent my share of time struggling with the question of why?  I still wonder why some things happen.  Why do good people suffer?  Why does evil persist?  But I don’t dwell on those questions to the extent that I once did, and I don’t expect to have an answer to the why questions in this life.  I trust that one day, in eternity, such answers will be available, but until then I will be patient and learn to live without the answers.  It’s not that I don’t care about those questions – I do, and I care about the struggles that others have with those questions – but I am at a point in life where I am willing, and able, to live with a greater degree of mystery.

3.  Assurance.
It is difficult to read of the agony of Jesus in the Garden.  It is difficult to think of Jesus struggling.  It’s hard to see people in their moments of vulnerability, and Jesus was very vulnerable in this moment.  We prefer to think of Jesus as one who is so focused on his mission that nothing will prevent him from its completion.  But the prayer of Jesus shows a moment of vulnerability, as he asks God to take this cup from me.  If possible, Jesus is asking of God, could there be another way to accomplish his mission?

Jesus knew that crucifixion was awaiting him.  He knew what crucifixion was like.  The Romans used crucifixion freely and brutally.  I will spare the details of that horrendous method of execution, but suffice it to say the idea of crucifixion would be one of the most unsettling destinies one could ever face.  It looms so large before Jesus that Luke says he prayed with a fervency and intensity that his sweat fell to the ground as drops of blood.

That, my friends, is a struggle of intense proportions.

And that is why Jesus took his disciples with him to the Garden, and why he took Peter, James, and John with him as he went further into the Garden.  Jesus wanted the support and encouragement of his friends.  In our time of need, friends are one of the greatest of God’s gifts.  It is hard to see the way in which Jesus was disappointed in Peter, James, and John, as they were unable to stay awake.  Sometimes our friends fail us; sometimes we fail our friends.  We must give grace to one another when we fail.  We do the best we can, and sometimes our best falls short, and that is true of all of us.

And yet, in spite of what was ahead for Jesus, he makes the bold declaration not my will, but yours be done.  It is no small statement, considering what awaited Jesus.  Jesus knew what was coming and never tried to escape it.  He did not flee, but walked to those who came to arrest him.

Not my will, but yours be done, is a phrase that could be said in many different ways.  It could be said in a manner that signified a resigned acceptance of one’s fate; not wanting to accept it, but willing to do so because there is no other choice.  One could also say the phrase in anger, carrying a sense of rebellion for feeling pushed into accepting a difficult fate.  One could also say the phrase in fear, accepting the path as one that might be necessary but also feeling a terror in facing what was ahead.  One could also say the words as a way of accepting the fate of the cross, but not agreeing with such a path – it’s your will, but it’s certainly not mine.  But Jesus did not utter those words in any of those ways.  In spite of the horror of the cross, Jesus fully accepted it as the path that was ahead for him, and he did it willingly.

I find it fascinating to think about how little, in one sense, Jesus had.  If you think, in particular, about the final days of his life, much of what Jesus had was borrowed.  He borrowed a colt on which he rode into Jerusalem; he borrowed the upper room where he shared the Last Supper with his disciples; he borrowed a garden, where he could go and pray; and, after the crucifixion, he was laid in a borrowed tomb.  Jesus had little in the way of tangibles, but he had so much in the intangibles – such conviction, such faith, such grace!  Jesus possessed an incredibly clear and powerful sense of conviction of God’s will, and he maintained a tremendous commitment to that will.  We have so many tangibles.  We have so many things.  We have so much stuff.  We have so much wealth.  We have so many tangibles, but what about the intangibles?  We have so much, while at the same time, so little.

During my sabbatical, as Tanya and I traveled, one of our favorite places to visit was in Paris, where we spent time at Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel of the saints, near Notre Dame Cathedral.  The stained glass windows in the building are about 90% original, dating back to the 13th century.  The most famous of the windows is called the Rose Window.  From the outside, the windows appear drab and dirty, as they are covered in the dirt, the grit, and the grime of the city and of history.  They are so dark and dirty on the outside that they look black and opaque.  From the outside, they are not at all impressive.  Inside, however, is a different story.

From the inside, as you look through the window towards the light, it is a piece of absolute beauty.  The colors from the glass spill onto the walls, the floor, and onto your body as you stand and gaze at its beauty.  Obviously, to see the beauty, depends upon your perspective.  From the outside, it is a reminder of Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13:12, now we see through a glass, darkly.  From one perspective it is a very dark glass, impenetrable in its darkness, but from another perspective, it is a piece of amazing beauty.

In the Garden, as we peer into this most difficult of moments for Jesus, it seemed anything but moment of beauty, and the cross would never look to be anything of beauty, but from a different perspective, that of the empty tomb, we see both the Garden moment and the cross as times of deep beauty, because they demonstrate to us a love of deep and incredible beauty.

We all have our Garden moments, which are difficult to understand, but know that further down life’s road you will be able to find the beauty, and will know that God was with you, and that his will was accomplished.  May your will be done is no easy prayer to offer, but it is not only the most difficult prayer, it is also the most powerful.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

February 12, 2017 The Power of Prayer: How to Pray

This morning we come to the second message in our brief series of messages about prayer.  After today, I will offer two more messages on prayer, but there will be a total of five messages in the series.  The final message is not specifically about prayer, but it does speak to one of the most pressing questions we have about prayer, and that is the question of how God answers prayer, and specifically a prayer for healing.  The title of that message is The Power of Healing, and I presented it early in my time here but decided it was one that I should attach to the end of this series.

Last week we talked about the Parable of the Persistent Widow, and today we turn to a passage from the Sermon On the Mount.  I believe the Gospels are the heart of the Scriptures, and the Sermon On the Mount is the heart of the heart, so to speak.

The text is Matthew 6:5-15, and you can follow along in this morning’s program as I read –

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think 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.
This, then, is how you should pray:  “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

It seems to me that this passage tells us there are several underlying questions we must ask ourselves about prayer, and I want to talk about three of those questions this morning.

1.  Who is our audience?
In verse 5 Jesus says, and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.

There is something that really bothers me in some prayers, and it is generally ministers who do this, I’m sorry to report – it’s a sermon masquerading as a prayer.  It’s not a prayer as much as it is a point being made to a congregation or the leadership of a congregation.  Here is an example, for instance, of what I mean – Lord, we thank you for the gift of discernment you have provided.  We are going to vote today on our church budget, and everyone has used their gift of discernment to understand how important it is that we vote today in the affirmative, except for those two elders who never go along with anything we try to do.  You know who they are Lord, and we do too, and we trust that you will soften their hard hearts – and their hard heads as well.  Help them to see that this budget is exactly what we need to adopt.  So please open their minds, open their hearts, and open their wallets as well.
Obviously, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  I have heard prayers that weren’t far from that fictional example.  When Jesus is speaking about praying without a concern for being seen he is speaking about the audience of our prayers, and God is always the audience of our prayer. 

As in last week’s Scripture text, where Jesus told the parable of the unrighteous judge – and drew a contrast between the judge and God – in this week’s passage Jesus is again making a contrast, but this time the contrast is with some of the religious leaders and the manner in which they practiced prayer, which was to seek a public audience to impress others and to make themselves appear to be super-pious and super-spiritual.

Jesus could be very hard on those who were religious leaders, which, quite honestly, has always made me a little nervous.  Leaders are held to a high standard, and none of us, quite honestly, truly measure up to that standard.  But some, obviously, don’t really try to live up to the standard.  In the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus expresses very harsh words for the hypocrisy of some of those leaders.  Here is a sample of what he had to say25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Ouch!  Those are tough words, but they were well deserved, as there was so much hypocrisy in the lives of those leaders.  Too much of what they did was motivated by a desire to be seen.  Worship, and personal piety and faith, had become little more than a means of attracting attention, as if to say, look at me!  And look at how spiritual I am!  Imagine if there had been social media in the day of Jesus.  These are individuals who might have tweeted pictures of themselves praying on the street corner, or in the Temple.

According to Jesus, there is nothing about faith that should be done in order to attract the attention of other people.  In his words on prayer, Jesus goes so far as to say that we ought to take measure to guarantee we won’t be seen, as in verse 6, where he says when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
We don’t pray to impress others.  We don’t pray as a way of making a point to anyone.  We don’t pray in an effort to look super-pious or super-spiritual.  We pray in order to bring what is on our hearts and our minds to God.  We pray for others.  We pray for our families.  We pray for our friends.  We pray for our enemies.  We pray for our coworkers.  We pray for people like us.  We pray for people not like us.  We pray for our church.  We pray for other churches.  We pray for our leaders, political, religious, and other.  We pray for our community.  We pray for our nation.  We pray for other nations.  We pray for our world.  We pray for everything we can think of to pray for.

Now, when we read what Jesus has to say about praying in secret, we have to say a word about public prayer.  Obviously there is a place for public prayer, such as worship.  Jesus is not saying there is not a place for public prayer.  It is one thing when an individual seeks to use public prayer as a means to impress others and when a group of people gather together to offer their prayers.  There is a power unleashed when people come together as a group, as a body to pray together, whether it is a handful, such as our Wednesday evening prayer group, or a larger group such as here this morning, or an even larger group that numbers in the many hundreds or thousands.  Prayer in that manner is a powerful statement that we are part of a community of faith – a community that often functions as an alternative community to the world surrounding us. 

I am often asked to pray in public, which can be an interesting experience, depending upon the circumstances.  For several years I was asked to offer a prayer at one of the nights of the horse show here in Shelbyville.  I would make my way to the middle of the arena and when given a cue would pray.  I always wondered why I was there, because no one seemed to listen.  I could hear the noise of the conversations in the grandstands, and every time I prayed there I was tempted to say this – thank you Lord, for this offering we are about to receive for First Christian Church, and may everyone give generously.  Just to see if anyone was really listening.  

When I was younger I struggled for a long time to put together public prayer and the words of Jesus in this morning’s Scripture passage.  When I was in high school, at church camp one summer, we were told that we should go back to school in the fall and pray over our lunch so that everyone would see us praying, and that was a way of witnessing to others.  I think that was a well-intentioned idea, but it seemed to conflict with what Jesus said.  It took my young mind a while to work out what to think about it, but the conclusion to which I came was this, which now seems very simple – I always prayed over my lunch, always, even though it generally wasn’t with my eyes closed and my head bowed.  And the reason why is because that’s just how I happened to pray, and I decided that if I changed the manner in which I prayed only to be seen by others, my motivation was wrong.  If you normally pray with your head bowed and your eyes closed, by all means that is how you should prayer wherever you are because that is simply you being you.  But the point of prayer is not to call attention to yourself or to be seen.

2.  What do we expect from God?
Richard Rohr has this to say about prayer – the word “prayer” has often been trivialized by making it merely into a way of asking for what you want or making announcements to God, as if God did not know (see Matthew 6:7-8)…It is not a technique for getting things
(From the February 7, 2017 email from the Center for Action and Contemplation)

I once heard a prayer that echoed those thoughts in a very interesting way.  It has remained in my mind for many years and is a prayer I heard offered by a young man who was in, I believe, the 4th or 5th grade at the time.  We were closing out an evening of kids worship and asked for a volunteer to pray.  This young man raised his hand and came to the platform to pray.  He was filled with sincerity and wisdom as he prayed.  One of the things he said in his prayer was this – God, help us not to see you as nothing more than a vending machine, putting something in so that we can get what we want in return.  That’s some really great theology from a young man.

What do we expect from God when we pray?  This is a tough question, because if we are honest, we will admit that we expect God to answer our prayers in the way we want him to answer, when we want him to answer.  Obviously, God does not always do that.  In verses 7 and 8 Jesus says, and when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think 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.

Isn’t that interesting, what Jesus is saying?  Jesus is reminding us, once again, as we saw in the parable we studied last week, that we can expect that God is working on our behalf.  There is nothing wrong with enlisting many, many people to pray for a particular concern, but it is not necessary to do so in order to move God to action.  God does not need to be convinced to work on our behalf.  God does not have a quota of people that need to be engaged in prayer on behalf of a cause or a person before he will act.  He doesn’t say, if Dave had just enlisted one more person; he was so close.  He got 99 other people to pray but I can’t act until there are 100 people.  Jesus says God already knows what we need before asking.  Pray with the faith and the confidence that God not only hears your prayer, but he is aware of your need, your request, your fear, your thanksgiving – whatever it is that is on your heart and mind – and has already acted upon it or begun to act upon it.

But it is good to enlist many people to pray for a person or cause, because it moves us to be involved in the work of God.  We don’t have to convince God to be at work, because he is already at work.  Prayer ought to move us and mobilize us to be a part of the work that God is already doing.

3.  What does God expect from us?
I think prayer is about many things, and one of them is authenticity; authenticity about who we really, truly are.  We talk about how we ought to live authentically, but we are to be authentic to God as well.  C. S. Lewis wrote that we must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us (Prayer:  Does It Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey, p. 42).  How often do we say to others, I’m doing fine.  I’m doing so well that if I were any better I couldn’t stand it.  And yet the reality is sometimes very different from the front that we put out for others to see.  We don’t want people to know we struggle, we don’t want people to know we have problems, we don’t want others to see weakness in us, and we don’t want anyone to know the real person behind our very carefully constructed fa├žade.

Speaking as a minister, one of the real challenges to me is the level of expectation that is sometimes placed upon me.  I find that to be difficult, because I can’t live up to it.  I am a person with a lot of faults and shortcomings, and please don’t ask my family about any of them, because they may affirm that yes, he has a lot of faults and shortcomings; let us tell you about some of them.

At the heart of what Jesus is saying in this passage is that we ought to be authentic in all of our expressions of faith and spirituality.  We live in a world that craves authenticity, because it is so lacking in the world at large.  And we ought to be authentic with God when we pray.  God knows who we are.  God knows our faults and our shortcomings.  God knows our failures.  And yet he holds none of that against us.  That is the great news about God!  We do no favors to anyone when we project an aura of perfection.  Sometimes things go wrong in our worship services.  When they do, we don’t try to hide the fact that sometimes technology doesn’t work, sometimes people forget something, and sometimes we make a mistake or a miscue.  So what?  That is real life, and if we cannot reflect real life in worship then we are missing something very important, and that is being authentic, because that is what God expects of us.

There is so much power in prayer; power because we serve a powerful God!  Thanks goodness we do not have to convince to him do what is good for us, because he is already doing so!  Thank goodness we can be assured he is always working on our behalf!  May we pray not only often, but always!