"Teach Us to Pray"
Scripture - Luke 11:1-13
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Robin Meyers was a young seminary student in Oklahoma, he received an unusual request. He was asked to pray at a rodeo. He had no idea what to say. Should he pray for the safety of the cowboys? He knew rodeos were dangerous, but wasn't that the whole point? Should he pray for the organizers who wanted a good crowd? The fans who wanted good weather?

Robin wrestled with the words to pray. Perhaps he should pray for the wives of the cowboys or the husbands of the barrel racers. Or maybe the clowns who protect the bull riders by distracting those powerful creatures once the rider has been tossed off.

He was counting on some last minute inspiration when an older man ushered him up to the announcer's box and tapped the microphone. "Testing, one, two, three."

After the sound system made a screech, the man spoke in a southern drawl: "I just wanna welcome y'all to the annual rodeo here in Marland. We have Reverend Myers here from the seminary over in Enid and he's gonna give us a little invocation. Reverend Myers? And he handed Robin the microphone.

He had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to be bothering God about and pretty sure that he was praying for an event that Jesus would not have enjoyed. So, what did he say in his prayer? He has no idea what he said and furthermore, he does not want to remember. However, that experience did drive home the point to him that if we trifle with prayer it can turn us into fools.1

In this morning's passage from the Gospel of Luke, we read that Jesus was praying, and when he concluded, one of the disciples approached him and said, "Lord, teach us to pray." Keep in mind that the disciples were not spiritual dropouts who never prayed. So to ask Jesus for instruction must indicate that they thought their prayer life was a bit tepid. I suspect most of us can relate to the disciples' plea for help. How many of you would say prayer is not your strong suit?

The disciples could see that prayer was important and powerful to Jesus. Prayer shaped who he was, it guided his path, and it filled him with courage and wisdom and power. They yearned for the same in their lives, so they asked for help. Jesus responded with what we know as the "The Lord's Prayer."

This story of Jesus giving his followers a model prayer appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The prayer is essentially the same in both gospels, but as you heard when the passage was read, Luke's prayer is a condensed version of what we pray. Our prayer is based on Matthew's longer rendition.

Nearly every time we gather for worship, we pray this prayer, but have you ever considered how pushy it sounds? There is not a single "Please" or "Thank you" in it, but there are rather strong requests: "Give us" and "Forgive us" and "Deliver us."

I suspect that if the opening line of the prayer began with "Give us this day our daily bread" we would think of this prayer as a demanding way of approaching God. However, the first petition provides the framework that prevents the prayer from sounding as if it's all about what we want.

Remember how the prayer begins? After addressing God as an intimate parent and holy One - Our Father, hallowed be your name - what is the first petition? "Thy kingdom come." The brief prayer will quickly move to more selfish motives: "Give us, forgive us, deliver us" but these are placed in context by the first petition: "God, may Your kingdom come." It aligns with what Jesus will pray in his final hours as his captors tighten the noose and he hopes for a better outcome. Moments before he is betrayed, Jesus prays, "Not my will, but Your will be done." (Luke 22:42). And, as we know, Matthew includes these words in his version of the Lord's Prayer.

Within this framework, the "Give us, Forgive us and Deliver us" are not so much demands as a recognition of the human condition. We are needy and totally dependent on God. We would be unable to exist without God's amazing creation, in which food incredibly pops up from the ground. "Give us our daily bread" is both a recognition of our dependence on God and a plea to keep the sustenance coming from God's automatic earth.

The prayer moves to forgiveness. We ask God to forgive us for missing the mark so that we can be transformed. But that's not all. We also pledge to forgive others.

The prayer ends with a plea for help. "Do not bring us to the time of trial." Or, as we are more accustomed to saying using Matthew's version, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Then, only in Luke's Gospel, are we told that Jesus followed this prayer with further instruction. Perhaps Jesus felt that reciting these words was not a full answer to the request: "Teach us to pray." So as he often did, Jesus told a story. €˜Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him." And he answers from within, "Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything." I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. €˜So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.

Jesus was describing a situation that was common in that region. Due to the intense desert heat during the day, people often traveled after sunset. If they needed to travel a significant distance, it meant they would not reach their destination until late at night. Inns were not plentiful and most were poor, so travelers relied on the hospitality of others for a place to stay and for something to eat.

In our story, the host has someone show up late at night and his cupboards are bare. Since gracious hospitality was expected, the host slipped out to a neighbor's house to borrow some bread to give to his weary traveler who has shown up unexpectedly. However, the neighbor and all of his family are tucked in for the night. So when the man knocks on his door, the neighbor says, "Don't bother me. My children are down for the night. I can't get up to give you anything."

It is helpful to know that in first century Palestine, most people were poor and lived in one-room homes. There was one door, little or no furniture and pegs on the wall on which to hang belongings. People usually cooked outside. The main use of the home was for sleeping. At night, the members of the family would roll out their mats and everyone would snuggle in side-by-side. With everyone in such close proximity, it's easy to see why the neighbor was unresponsive. For him to get up, grab three loaves of bread and go to the door, meant stepping over everyone who was already asleep. The chances of doing that without waking up half the family were virtually nil.

Any parent can sympathize with this man. Once you have gone through the bed time ordeal of getting the children to sleep, you are ready to invoke the 11th Commandment: Never wake a sleeping child!

But in the story Jesus tells, the man who has come looking for bread is tenacious and will not be denied. He keeps pounding on the door. And Jesus says, "Even though the neighbor will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs."

The main point is sound. Prayer is not easy. You may pray and pray, and be greeted with nothing more than silence. Jesus says, "Don't give up." Prayer requires persistence.

But the analogy is also awkward, isn't it? At first glance, it seems to suggest that God will not wake up and answer the door until our knuckles are bleeding. Is that the God in whom we believe? A God who is like a sleeping neighbor who would rather not be bothered, but will finally respond, not because God is loving and generous, but just to get rid of us because we are being so pesky. That would contradict everything Jesus teaches about God.

Actually, the analogy is intended to work by contrast. This becomes clear when we look at the following verses. Jesus says, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!'

The point in both instances is that even if we flawed human beings will do the right thing, how much more will God meet our needs.

The disciples go to Jesus and say, "Teach us to pray," because they have found that while prayer is essential, it is also frustrating. Jesus teaches them a model prayer, and then underscores what they already know. He says, "You bet it's challenging. But don't give up; prayer demands persistence.

There have been times when I have prayed and God gave me the added strength I needed to survive a painful situation. There have been times when I prayed and God guided me to where I needed to be and to the people I needed to meet. There have been times when I prayed and God helped me to be forgiving when I was plotting revenge. There have times when I prayed and God brought healing to people who were suffering and relationships that had been nearly destroyed.

But there are also many times when I have prayed and I have been met with a stony silence. And I have not known how to interpret it. Was God not listening or busy with greater issues? That does not fit our understanding of God. Did God answer but I did not catch the response because I was too distracted? Did God answer but I did not like the answer and turned a deaf ear? Did God answer but I was not patient enough for an answer that would take time?

In the scientific age, we have a love affair with reason and hard facts, but prayer is more about intuition and feelings and visions. That's why prayer is probably more difficult in our day than in ancient times. Yet, it may also be more important than ever, because the stakes are so high.

Many people think of prayer as something we can do to change God. Like saying the right incantation or rubbing a lantern and being given wishes, we want to encourage God to fix a problem, to right a wrong, to give us what we what we think we need. But prayer is not primarily a way of changing God; it's a way of changing us. Prayer can help us to see the world as God sees it. And prayer can create a new spirit within us.

Prayer can change our inner selves. And it's vital to remember that whatever happens inside of us, shapes our actions. The eyes through which we see our world not only color what we see, but determine what we do. If we approach the world as a cynic, not only will we be highly skeptical of other people's intentions - suspecting selfish motives in everyone we meet - but we will contribute to and encourage more skepticism and selfishness.

The opposite is also true. If we believe that God is constantly urging the world to a kinder, fairer place, and we pray to be more in harmony with God, we will spread hope and generosity.

This is why prayer is vitally important to us personally and indispensable for the future of our planet. Prayer deepens our connection with God and thereby deepens our joy, our inner peace and our hope. Prayer shapes our character and thereby determines the gifts we bring to the world.

Jesus says that if we are persistent in prayer, God will answer us by giving us God's Spirit. When you feel like giving up on prayer, please do not. It's more important than you imagine. So keep knocking.


  1. Robin Meyers, "Prayer: It's Not Magic," October 19, 1997.

Prayers of the People
By the Reverend Thomas R. Stout

Ever-present God, you are both present and rich in mercy with all your people. With trust we offer our prayers this day to you. Bless and shepherd your people, God.

Lord, we pray that you would make us, your church, a strong witness to your love and compassion for all your world, but especially for the human family. Turn your Church toward all that is right, and just, and true.

We ask that you, O God, would heed the cries of those who are troubled or discouraged; those who suffer from deceit or ridicule, or simple misunderstanding; those who face illness both complex or simple; and especially on this weekend - when our world remembers the 60th anniversary of the truce on the Korean peninsula - we pray for all who face the horrors and terrors of war. Bring hope, healing and peace to such ones as these.

And then, our Savior, we bring you prayers for our own lives. Help us to keep a balance between busyness and rest, between care for others and care for ourselves, and especially during the days of high summer help us to both enjoy and to work in the fullness of your world - both around us and within us.

We now make bold to pray as Jesus taught his followers to pray whenever they gather in his name: Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.