Sunday, July 24, 2016

Teach us to pray

Wilderness Sunday

Here’s the story—in a certain place, Jesus was praying. Midway through Jesus’ ministry, midway through the disciples’ journey with this amazing teacher, they notice… Jesus prays, and amazing things happen. And suddenly, they’re filled with curiosity. Huh! I wonder… I wonder if we could do that?
You know, John taught his disciples to pray… why not us?

It reminds me of a story that I heard this summer about the great musician and teacher Shinichi Suzuki. He had an adult student whose 3-year-old son came to listen to his violin lesson and soon, this tiny child was begging to play the violin, so much so that his father asked Dr. Suzuki if he could teach him. At first, Dr. Suzuki was skeptical. How could a 3-year-old play the violin? It’s a very complicated instrument. But as he thought about it, he realized that 3-year-olds could speak Japanese, a very complicated language. How did they do it? They watched, they imitated, they learned bit by bit. And so he began to break down the tasks of playing violin into parts so small that with practice, even a 3-year-old could begin. This week, set your feet. Got that? Now this next week, we'll move the bow up like a rocket, down like the rain… later we’ll hold a box under the chin. My mother-in-law, a violinist an violin teacher herself, describes how she was skeptical about tiny children playing until in 1985 she met Dr. Suzuki, and heard him teach, and suddenly, she saw the Suzuki method in a whole new light, realizing how it used the gifts that children already bring to help them do amazing things.

I imagine this is what it must have felt like when Jesus taught the disciples to pray. It’s not that these ideas didn’t exist before this moment. The prayer that Jesus taught is actually a beautiful compilation and distillation of ideas that are all throughout the Jewish scriptures and would have been present in Jewish life… but Jesus gathers them together, and teaches them in a way that opens up an accessible relationship with God in a beautiful, fresh way.

From the waters of Baptism, from the moment we receive the bread, from the first moment of prayer (whether musical, spoken, or danced) God invites us into a new, fresh relationship, with God… and then with all of humanity and all creation. Lutherans are fond of saying, this is God’s call to people from birth, from baptism, this is God’s lifelong call to each of us. Whether we feel qualified and capable or not, God calls people and makes us capable. Each one of us, as we go out from worship, might be the only gospel that a neighbor or stranger hears… so the call to us all is vitally important.

God’s call, God’s love, God’s abundance can be difficult to believe when we’re in the wilderness.  Some of us have felt deeply in the wilderness this week… through the extreme heat of summer, through the words being thrown around in our political life, through personal struggles, deep grief that goes on and on, through painful recovery from injury or accident…. Through poverty and hard work for little money… through worries about lay-offs and trying to find new work… through anticipation of life-changing events that are ahead… our lists go on and on… it is easy to get in touch with the metaphorical, mental and emotional wildernesses of our days.

And… some of us can also bring to mind easily the beautiful wilderness that we also celebrate today… being outside, way outside, where all those difficulties that I just mentioned fade to the back burner because frankly, when you’re way out in the wilderness, in a canoe or hiking a mountain pass… some things are simpler, more basic. Do we have food, shelter, safety through the night? And it can be a gift, when those things are in place, and things are just… simplified.

Whether you’re moving through a difficult wilderness time or a stunningly stark and beautiful wilderness time, there will almost certainly be days and weeks and months when you will breathe deep and wonder about God in all this?

As Jesus teaches followers about prayer, Jesus promises that God is fully and actively present with you right where you are, even when it’s deep in the wilderness. Jesus says this about prayer.

Knock, and the door will be opened to you.

Seek, and you will find.

Ask, and it will be given to you.

And there will most certainly be times when you’ll think in sadness and doubt, “I just wish I could believe that!”

Jesus is making an amazing claim about God—that God is right here waiting to open, to reveal, to give not only we really need but even the desires of our hearts.

Even though we keep forgetting about God, worrying about God, imagining God shaking a finger at us, or laughing at our mistakes… Even if we say the false mantra “be careful what you pray for!” (as if God is ready to fool or punish or give us a poisonous snake or a stinging scorpion)… Jesus claims that God is not like that at all.

In sharp contrast to our experiences of betrayal in life, God gives good gifts. A fish, not a snake. An egg, not a scorpion. Bread enough for today, forgiveness of our debts, and opportunities to practice forgiveness. God persistently gives good gifts, when we’re right at home, and when we’re going off to adventures unknown.

So, what can we pray for you today? What wilderness are you in or are you facing—a hard wilderness journey? An exciting wilderness trip ahead? We practice praying Jesus’ prayer nearly every Sunday (and we will today, too) but we also need opportunities to pray for specific things together. What are your unmet needs? What door are you knocking on? What are you seeking? What are you asking today? Turn to a neighbor and tell them one short response to any of those questions where a response came to your mind…

What did you learn? Take a minute to commit to your mind the one prayer that you’ll pray for the neighbor you spoke with each day this week.

It’s a gift to have the opportunity to get together here with a beautiful variety of people and hear a different story here than the ones that dominate the rest of our week… here, we learn a counter-story and that good news centers around a giving and thoroughly loving God, a God who bows to us and teaches us to honor one another.

We give thanks to Christ who has taught us to pray so simply and so completely… so that we can grow to embody and preach and teach that good news. We give thanks to God who will provide open spaces, questions, answers, and gifts in new and fresh ways. We give thanks to the Holy Spirit who calls us to go out each day with good courage, knowing that God’s hand is leading and God’s love is supporting us through Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God.

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