Lord, Teach Us to Pray

A Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C – July 28, 2013

David H. Knight , Priest Associate

In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.’”  

 What one of us here this morning has not searched the mind of God seeking help in how to pray?  And even if we have once learned how to pray, have we not had those times when we have needed help in our prayer life?  How then, might this conversation between Jesus and his disciples be of help to us today?  Our difficulties about prayer often arise in times of doubt and despair, doubts about God’s presence, and our doubts that even if indeed God is present, God does not hear our prayers.  Jesus’ lesson to his disciples, and to us as well, is straightforward: it is that our persistence in prayer is where we must begin and where we continue.  It’s like an exercise: if we persist and keep at it, we reap the benefits.

 In seeing Jesus at prayer, the disciple knew that it was something he wanted to be able to do, for he could see that prayer had a profound effect on how Jesus was able to face the rigors and challenges of each day.  Jesus’ response to the disciple’s question was straight forward.  He simply offered a model, a template, if you will, for how to pray.  What he offered them that day became the prayer that for two thousand years since has become the prayer most often prayed by his followers throughout the world.  Five short sentences provide the content of this prayer. First of all is the confession that God has been revealed to us. God’s name is holy and in Jesus God’s reign has come near to us.  The prayer then addresses those essential needs that each of us has: the need for daily sustenance, the need for forgiveness and for our need to forgive others, and protection in those times when circumstances arise that test our faith.  He was also reassuring the disciples, as he seeks to reassure us, that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God, for in the words of the psalmist that we recited this morning, “When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.”  On that occasion Jesus  gave his disciples—and he gives us—words to address God, words of praise, followed by words to petition God to supply our basic needs.  We approach God as one to whom we relate in an intimate way.  William Sloane Coffin, the noted preacher, and pastor of Riverside Church, once said that prayer is an act of empathy with God.  It is also an act of self expression. By that he suggests that in prayer we offer our deepest needs to God. In today’s gospel Jesus follows the prayer he gives them with a story and with some advice urging persistence, for God never, ever gives up on us.

 We are blessed to have in our Book of Common Prayer, a rich collection of prayers, not only those that are used in our common worship, but also prayers for our personal devotions. These prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, provide a framework upon which we can build and sustain our own life of conversation with God.  As Bishop Stewart used to say, “There’s something there for everyone.” Beginning on page 814 are Prayers for the World in which we pray for peace and for the whole human family, followed by Prayers for the Church in which we find prayers for the mission of the Church, for our diocese, and for our parish and conditions related to the Church’s life. Then we come upon the Prayers for National Life which center around various aspects of our life as a nation. Prayers for the Social Order follow.  These prayers embrace a number of conditions among which are such as the call for justice, prayers in times of conflict, prayers for our cities and rural areas, for schools and colleges, for the oppressed and for those in prison us to be good stewards of God’s Creation, and then Prayers for Family and personal Life. Then come prayers for the Natural order which call us to be good stewards of God’s Creation. Then there are Prayers for Family and Personal Life, for guidance, confidence and for those we love. All of these prayers embrace the span of the human condition and provide a framework for our life of prayer. Many of these prayers are prayers for our use in times of our greatest need.  How well I remember, for example, how my mother kept her Prayer Book on her bedside table especially during the final years of her courageous journey living with cancer.  There were prayers in the Prayer Book that articulated what she was experiencing.  As she would read those prayers to herself, and then in her final days when others would read those prayers to her at her bedside, she found strength and she found calm and peace. Those prayers became her time of self expression as she kept in touch with God. Then, of course are the prayers we form with our own hearts and lips as we seek to keep in touch with God.  These prayers need not have the eloquence of the Prayer Book but need only to be an offering of expression from deep within as you and I try as best we can to keep in touch with God. Our prayers may even issue forth in the form of those inarticulate groans about which Paul speaks in his letter to the Church gathered inRome.  He speaks of those times when we groan inwardly. These are those times when we do not know how to pray as we ought, yet even then the Spirit intercedes for us. God is with us in all of that. And so persistence in prayer is how we keep in touch with God.

 But then, as we all know, there may come those periods from time to time, when we may find ourselves simply unable to pray. Such a time may come during a time of despair or after suffering a terrible loss.  It is at these times when our life in common prayer as a community comes to bear.  I remember many years ago reading of such an experience.  It is an experience that has remained etched in my memory forever.   A famous preacher in a large New York City church had lost his son.  If my memory serves me correctly, I believe it was William Sloane Coffin.  While initially, he could speak about the strength that surrounded him, there came a time later on during that arduous journey, a journey full of sharp turns and deep potholes, when he found he could no longer say the Creed, and he found it very hard to pray.  In fact he could not pray.  Sunday after Sunday, leading his congregation, he found the words lacking any meaning, providing him no consolation. The prayers were far removed from where he was in his emotional and spiritual desert.  Then, one Sunday, after being in a deserted place for some time, he suddenly became aware that there were hundreds of voices in the congregation saying the ancient words of the creed ending with “…and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  In the prayers that followed, he became aware that he was surrounded and lifted up by the voices of the faithful who were reciting the ancient prayers, prayers that have sustained the faithful for generations.  There he had been for some time unable to pray himself, yet his grief was now being borne by those around him. I remember when many years ago I read his account of that experience, that it made a profound impression me.  Little did I know then that only a few years later, the account of his experience would come close to home for me. After our loss of Jamie, I too entered into a very desolate place for some time.  In my anguish, I was unable to pray. Then, one Sunday at St. Stephen’s at the 11:00 service of Morning Prayer—and the memory of this moment is etched in my memory forever—I had a similar experience of being uplifted by several hundred voices surrounding me, voices that were reaffirming the faith that has sustained generations of God’s people. It was almost a physical feeling of being lifted up from the depths. The prayers of our common life said by those around me had become a source of strength and solace.  In those times when you and I are unable to pray, it is the prayers of the faithful who surround us on every side that sustain us through our darkness. The late Bill Oglesby, long time professor of pastoral theology at Union Seminary, and one of the founders of the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care, was said to have often told people who were going through a tough time and could no longer pray, “I will hold your faith for you on your behalf.”  In those times when we cannot pray ourselves, there are those around us who will hold our faith for us.   I find that helpful.  I hope it might be helpful for you as well.

 You know, even if the prayers we recite week after week may at times become rote and may seem routine, God is nevertheless present in those conversations that are formed, however imperfectly, by our prayers.  We must not underestimate the power of God’s presence in our life of common prayer.  And so Jesus says to us as he said to his disciples when he taught them to pray: “Ask… search… knock.  Be persistent.” Today’s Gospel invites you and me to reflect on the story of our own prayer life and our life of prayer here at St. Mary’s and where it has taken us.  We are grateful for those who have sustained us and we continue to ask, as did the disciples, Lord, teach us to pray.  We can draw comfort from the fact that even when we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit is there to be with us.  In the hymn we just sang are the words of Georg Neumark written in the 17 century.  They still speak to us today:


If thou but trust in God to guide thee, and hope in him through all thy ways,

he’ll give thee strength what e’er betide thee, and bear thee through all evil days.

Who trusts in God’s unchanging love builds on a rock that none can move.

Sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving; so do thine own part faithfully,

and trust his word, though undeserving; thou yet shall find it true for thee;

God never yet forsook in need the soul that trusted him indeed.   Amen.