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Category Archives: Worship

And When You Pray: The Trouble with Prayer

(a sermon for June 18, 2017, the Second Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 6:5-15)

The Lord’s Prayer – or, as it’s named in our Sunday bulletin, the Prayer of Our Savior – it’s almost certainly the most well-known prayer found in scripture; it’s at least arguably the prayer that we as Christians pray the most often; and for a whole lot of us, it might well be one of the first prayers we ever learned, or at least that we learned in church or at Sunday School.  In fact, over the years as a pastor, I’ve discovered that whether we make an effort to do so or not, our children tend to learn the Lord’s Prayer simply by virtue of their being present in worship and hearing that prayer spoken week after week by all the adults around them!

The only trouble with this, however, is that as kids are wont to do, they sometimes get the words a bit mangled: for instance, the little girl who began her prayer like this:  “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hello!  What be thy name?”  Or, as if to answer that question, the boy who prayed: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name!”  Or how about the child who asked God to “give us this day our jelly bread,” which stands in stark contrast to the kid who prayed that God should “give us this day our daily double” (which I’m not sure means that someone in the family was going to the race track, or was watching Jeopardy!). And, of course, there was the child who prayed, “Deliver us from weevils,” which is a misinterpretation I can get behind (!); and my absolute favorite (though it is a little dated… but then again, so am I!), “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen… and F.M.!”

Eventually, however, we all learn those all-important words, don’t we?  I mean, as I said before, as Christians this is the prayer we pray at just about every gathering we have for worship.  It is a central facet of our church liturgy; it is an essential piece of our celebration of the sacraments, in particular the Lord’s Supper; and I can tell you from experience that it has served as a powerful word of comfort and assurance during countless graveside services that I’ve been a part of over the years.  And yet, I can also attest to the fact that its power exists not merely to regular church goers and devout believers; I could tell you about a great many bedside vigils spent with people who are sick or dying, and who have had little understanding of God and faith, and at best a nodding relationship with the church, and yet the one prayer they always seem to know, the one prayer that inevitably will give them a sense of calm and peace in the midst of impossible situations is… the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” as they’ll sometimes refer to it. Indeed, I’ve found in so many situations that this prayer has had the power to bring forth reverence where there was little or none before!

And so for these reasons and so many others I could name it’s important and essential that we know and that we pray our Lord’s Prayer, and do so often.  All this said, however, there is a risk – a trouble with prayer, if you will – that comes in our praying this prayer so often that it either, on the one hand, becomes so familiar to our ears and our lips that it becomes rote and little more than an inspirational recitation, without anything at all that would render it vital or compelling to our lives and our faith; or else, on the other hand,  ends up being spoken in such a way that is, well… arrogant, as though this prayer were merely some incantation of self-proclamation; the kind of exercise preferred by “the hypocrites,” (or, as the New Testament Greek can also be translated, “the actors”) “[who] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

Friends, I’m here to tell you this morning that it happens, and more often than we might realize!  But understand that neither of these scenarios – the ritualistic empty repetition of phrases, nor the blatant use of religion as self-aggrandizement – represents the purpose or the proper practice of prayer; and that is what lay at the heart of both our text for this morning, and quite honestly, the impetus for this particular sermon series.  For the thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is the prayer of our Savior; it is, as I so often say here in our worship, the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples, and us, to pray!  And as such, Jesus gave these words not so that they could be used merely as another “official” prayer of the faith, and certainly not as a means of proclaiming to the world just how faithful we are!  Just the opposite; this prayer that Jesus provides us is meant to to be the model on which our every other prayer – in fact, I dare say every expression of our faith as well – is built.  In other words, to quote Philip McLarty here, “Put the elements of the Lord’s Prayer together in your own words and your prayers are sure to be complete.”

Of course, it’s important to note that as Matthew’s gospel tells the story Jesus offers up this prayer in the context of some thinly veiled contempt for the scribes and Pharisees, the “mainstream” religious establishment of his time; they were indeed those to whom Jesus was referring when he spoke of the “hypocrites,” the religious actors who loved to be seen and heard and thus “have already received their reward.”  Likewise, Jesus had little patience for those who “heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for,” Jesus says, “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

I’ll be honest; whenever I read this passage, I’m reminded of a very fundamentalist pastor I knew in my younger days as a pastor who was notorious for loud, spontaneous and very emotional prayers in the most interesting (and often inappropriate!) places:  like at the supermarket, or in the middle of a busy hospital aisle, or at somebody else’s church!   Now, I’ll give the man his due: he was truly a man of faith who for many years an effective pastor to his own congregation; but for some reason, there were times he was compelled to drop to his knees, start waving his hands and begin to pray in a very loud voice, literally weeping and wailing every word so that we all stop what we were doing and pay attention!  Who knows why exactly he would do this, but it used to happen a whole lot; and unfortunately, rather than bringing all those within the sound of his voice into the circle of love and salvation, his style of prayer did little more than drive people away (in fact, no joke; the hospital was so upset by this that our entire ministerium in that town was nearly banned from making unsupervised pastoral visits!).

Not to make any unfair comparisons here (!) but quite frankly, this was the kind of behavior that Jesus had witnessed in the scribes, the Pharisees and others of his time as well: prayer filled with “vain repetitions” and “showy” presentations all for the sake of drawing attention to oneself.  This was not the kind of prayer that Jesus had in mind; no, says Jesus, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Likewise, don’t pile on the words, for ultimately “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Do you see the connective tissue here?  Prayer, you see, is first and foremost to be about God, not about us.  In the words of 19th century Methodist pastor and writer E.M. Bounds, “Prayer puts God in the matter with commanding force… prayer honors God; it dishonors self.  It is [our] plea of weakness, ignorance, want; a plea which heaven cannot disregard.  God delights to have us pray.”  Or, to quote Phillips Brooks, “the purpose of prayer is not to get [our] will  done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth.”

Simply put, prayer is meant to be relational; since the very essence of prayer is speaking with God, then it is indicative of the depth of our relationship with God!  And that’s what is wonderful and so very powerful about the Lord’s Prayer, because every phrase that Jesus has given us to prayer – from “Our Father, who art in heaven,” to “deliver us from evil” and beyond – represents the many parts of a rich and deep relationship with God.  It’s all there:  adoration, confession, petition, the willingness to let submit to God’s will and purpose for our lives; and throughout there’s this spirit of thanksgiving and praise and perhaps above all, hopefulness born of the sure and certain promises that God has given and is personified in Jesus himself. Beloved, nothing stands more squarely at the heart of faith than prayer, for prayer is born of a close, personal relationship with the Almighty God; and nowhere is this illustrated any more fully than in the Lord’s Prayer.  And so that’s why over the next few weeks this summer, we’re going to take the time to “unpack,” verse by verse, phrase by phrase all the many and varied blessings that are found in these words of Jesus; so that “when we pray,” we might be wholly and fully inspired to understand and embrace what our doing so offers.

Some years ago, I was asked to offer a prayer – a table grace this time – at a Women’s Fellowship banquet being held at a local restaurant.  We actually had a sizeable group that night, and so had been gathered in a room off the main dining area; but the place was still very busy, and as I stood up to pray, it happened that there was still music wafting through the room from the speakers above me.  And as I began to give the Lord thanks for our food and the fellowship in which it was being shared, I could not help but notice that what was playing above me was Frank Sinatra singing, “I’ve got youuuuu under my skinnnnn, I’ve got youuuuu deep in the heart of me; so deep in the heart that you’re really a part of me; I’ve got youuuu under my skin!” (Hey, at least it wasn’t “I get no kick from champagne…!”)

As I recall, we all had a good laugh as the minister and “Ol’ Blue Eyes” competed for attention!  But it occurred to me later that in some small way, that particular song was a fitting response to prayer, mine or anybody else’s, for that matter; for truly, as we prayerfully seek reach out well beyond ourselves to seek and to embrace the Lord our God and the unending hope, love peace and joy he offers in all of its fullness, we discover that  God has already proclaimed that we’re his; that we’re already so far under God’s skin, so deeply held in the heart of God that we’ve become a part of God’s purpose and plan for us and the world!

May it be said that our prayers, today and every day, reflect that incredibly graceful promise.  “And may thine be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2017 in Church, Ministry, Prayer, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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The Pages In-Between

And so now it’s Holy Week, the last few days of the Lenten season that brings us to the celebration of Easter.  This is the time in which the Christian church remembers the central event of its faith: the sacrifice that one Jesus of Nazareth – who was Son of God and Son of Man – made on a wooden cross at a place called Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem; and it is, to say the very least, a time of heavy reckoning.

The old and familiar story that we’re telling over these next few days remains both powerful and disturbing: it begins with joyous hosanna shouting but leads inevitably to betrayal and desertion, abject humiliation, horrific violence and an agonizing death. This is the gospel story, it’s the Passion story, and it’s our Lord’s story; but in a larger sense it’s our story as well: a sad and stark reminder of the reality of human sin and the fact that it was us, you and me, that Jesus came to save. Yes, it’s a hard, short season of the Christian year; if Lent is indeed a journey as we so often describe it, then the steps taken during Holy Week are certainly the most difficult.

It’s no real surprise, then, that as Christians we’re very good at Palm Sunday and even better at Easter, but not so great at dealing with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  Simply put, we prefer the joy and triumph over the sacrifice and pain; we love waving palms and shouting alleluias at the empty tomb far more than we care to hear about Peter’s denials and the crown of thorns cutting into Jesus’ head.  It’s as though since we already know and love the story’s end, we decide to “fast-forward” through the hard details in order to get there – we seek to move from triumph to victory without ever having to deal with the passion in-between.

This is a sad truth reflected by the relatively low numbers of people who come to church on Holy Week for special services of worship and other events.   It’s very interesting to me, and true of every congregation of which I’ve been a part over the years; that even though our pews are typically filled on Sunday mornings as Easter approaches, it’s a considerably smaller group that comes for communion and the service of Tenebrae on Maundy Thursday, and often a downright tiny fellowship that gathers for prayer and meditation on Good Friday!

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the number of people that matters, but rather the presence of God among those who worship together. But what does concern me is what those people who stay home during Holy Week are missing: a greater understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and what that continues to mean to you and me today.  It’s the experience that helps us to better and more joyfully appreciate what all the Easter morning alleluias are all about!

Once when I was in what used to be called junior high school – seventh grade, if I remember correctly – I was assigned to read a short story and then write a report on it. I forget now exactly what the story was supposed to be about, but I do remember reading it and not understanding any of it!  In fact, I was so confused that I couldn’t even manage to write a report that made any kind of sense; and what made things worse is that many of my classmates were raving about what a great story it was!  It turned out that someone who’d had the book before me had torn out a couple of key pages in the middle that set the stage for everything else that was to come; only when I was able to read the whole story from beginning to end could I understand  or appreciate how wonderful it really was.

Likewise, when we don’t confront the whole Passion story – prayerfully and deliberately encountering all the pages in-between Palm Sunday and Easter Morning – we are apt to miss all the wonder, beauty and power of it; not to mention missing the divine opportunity to fully embrace what Christ did for us on that cross so many years ago.

I’ve long been fond of saying that you can’t get to Easter without first going through Good Friday; but more and more these days I’m realizing that the truth is that while you might get to Easter alright, without stopping at the foot of the cross on Friday you are likely to miss the Savior, and that, friends, would be tragic.  What we do together as a people of faith on this truly holy week is to walk with Jesus where he leads: from life to death to life. It’s a true spiritual pilgrimage that happens amidst the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup just as those closest to him first did so long ago; as well as in our prayerful retelling of the old, old story as lights are extinguished and the reality of our place in that story is revealed.  It’s a journey made in song and speech, with silence and in tears, and in remembrance that “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) 

A hard road for any of us to travel, to be sure; but it’s only on this pilgrimage that come Sunday morning we’ll truly be able to greet the sunrise and shout joyfully from our whole hearts that “He is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!”

So let the pilgrimage begin.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in Church, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Reflections, Worship

 

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One Lord, One Faith, One Birth

img_9581One of the great things I get to do as pastor of East Church is to lead a monthly service of communion at Havenwood-Heritage Heights, a local (and United Church of Christ sponsored) retirement community.  It’s generally a small and informal gathering, mostly members and friends of our congregation who are part of that community (with a few retired clergy as part of the mix!), but it’s a time that is unfailingly sacred as we’ve shared and prayed together; in fact, I must confess that I’ve always come away from this experience feeling as though I’ve been ministered unto at least as much as whatever has been imparted by the pastoral care I’ve sought to offer!

It’s also been a wonderful reminder of who we are as the church and of our shared ministry; a point that was brought home to me recently in, of all places, the express check-out lane of one of our supermarkets.  I was actually there purchasing the “elements” for our service at Havenwood later that morning – a small loaf of bread for breaking and a small bottle of grape juice to be poured into a makeshift chalice – and the young man behind the counter immediately took notice, saying, “Now, if I were to guess I’d say you’re getting ready for communion!”

I know my eyes popped open wide as I told him he’d called it correctly, and went on to explain about our upcoming time of worship at Havenwood.  And the thing was, this young man was not only complimentary of what we were doing, but also genuinely interested; turns out he himself was a part-time youth pastor serving at a nearby church of the evangelical tradition who was currently seeking to help the children in his congregation understand what the Lord’s Supper is all about.  “It’s just so important,” he said, “and it’s not so easy to explain.  But I would never want our kids receiving the bread and cup without having at least some sense of the Lord’s presence in it.”

Truly, it was an unlikely discussion in a place where “10 Items or Less” is the rule; but we actually had a nice chat.  I shared with him my contention that children often have a deeper sense of the spiritual than we adults give them credit for; he commended me for doing “the good work” of ministry day in and day out, a word I very much appreciated.  And at the end, as the line of shoppers behind us began to grow (!), he asked for my card and if we might talk again, a request I was happy to accept.

Just a random encounter on another ordinary day; but one that served to remind me that though we in the wider church may well have our differences in tradition and customs, polity, process and, occasionally, the finer points of theology, the fact remains that we are all in this ministry together.  For instance, we might not approach matters of baptism in quite the same way – do we baptize children as infants, or wait until they are older and can make a believer’s confession of faith – and we may debate who can properly receive (or serve) the Eucharist, but there is no denying that the same Lord is present whether that baptism happens by sprinkling or immersion, or if the bread and wine is shared in the proper liturgical context of Sunday worship or rather passed hand to hand amongst youth gathered at outdoor ministries such as New Hampshire’s Horton Center or Pilgrim Lodge in Maine.  And certainly, while it’s true these days that so many of our churches have been forced to deal with all the swift changes in our culture and our changing (some would say shrinking) place in the world – and perhaps have chosen different approaches in doing so – we still have, as Paul said to the church in Ephesus, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  (Ephesians 4:5-6) 

It seems to me that now, more than ever, our strength as the church – locally, denominationally, and ecumenically – is to be found in that unity and in our shared ministry of God’s extravagant and radical love shared with the world, personified in Jesus Christ.   We do indeed have “the good work” to do, each and every one of us in this particular time and place. This was the thought I shared with our own gathering of saints at the Havenwood Chapel as I told the story of my supermarket encounter earlier in the day; adding, incidentally, that given all the rancor and division of that week’s upcoming inaugural activities and protests, this exhortation to unity, service and, above all, love also might be a good lesson for our divided nation to learn as well.

And so might it be.

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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