If it were not for the fact that Jesus often goes away to pray quietly—in the only quiet moments he can find, early morning—I would say that the pace at which things happen according to Mark, Jesus would be a candidate for burn-out. “Immediately,” we are told, Jesus went to Simon Peter’s home to heal his mother-in-law. And then he spent the rest of the day healing the people who came to him. It is a story-telling device that Mark used, this sense of everything happening quickly. “At once” appears often and the busyness of Jesus’ ministry brings a sense of urgency to the gospel story.
For worship today, we decided to focus on the prayer that Jesus taught as a way of support, encouragement, and hope in this time of isolation and struggle—there is something urgent about that these days. We read the prayer often and use many translations and paraphrases, but it really does go to the heart of who we are and how we find hope, new directions, and feel supported in the belief that we are not alone. And it’s good to focus on this prayer that we say every Sunday because it can become rote and overly familiar.
There is no question that a key component of Jesus’ life was prayer. Reading some of the Jewish scholars who’ve written about Jesus’ life, they point to the fact that Jesus likely came from a religious family. They were quite poor and wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to Jerusalem very often for the Temple festivals, but they also likely had a local synagogue, which they attended. These same Jewish scholars, as well as Christian scholars, say that the prayer that Jesus taught was very much in line with Jewish religious practice around prayer.
It’s also true to say that the Jewish forms of prayer in which Jesus was steeped were communal; but Jesus, perhaps influenced by the Essenes, which were more of a Jewish monastic group, also stressed quiet, even meditative, prayer. Jesus would have been very familiar with the story of Elijah in the cave in which God is not in the mighty wind, nor in an earthquake, nor in a fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-13) This story may have informed Jesus’ own mystical bent and the need for silence and solitude.
What we have in the prayer that Jesus taught are the ethical teachings that were important for Jesus’ ministry and Jewish life. Matthew’s version is longer than Luke’s and, interestingly, there is no record of the prayer Jesus taught in Mark. Still, for Mark, prayer was vital.
In the prayer we say each week, we acknowledge God as the source of all life and that God’s sacred nature is experienced widely; latterly, we have come to use more inclusive language for many of the alternative versions rather than always saying “Our Father.” We pray that God’s Kin-Dom be made real today in our living as we seek wholeness, justice, and peace for all creation. God’s will is that justice and the earth’s resources be distributed equally for all life to thrive so that earth and heaven, not places at all, merge as one. We seek to be grounded in God and the fact that there is enough daily sustenance for all, symbolized in bread. Our debts? We seek forgiveness and we forgive others’ debts. This had both a spiritual and a real component—actual debts as well as sins as is recorded in Luke’s gospel—were to be forgiven—personal debts, government debts, corporate debts all to be forgiven. We pray for resistance to temptation, for the power to resist that which disrupts our lives, and to be assured that we are not alone as we face the evils of this world—racism, homophobia, fear, white supremacy, poverty, greed, and exclusion based on sexuality, race, economic status, to name some of the forces of disruption in our world.
The end of the prayer is actually a doxology and likely also came from the Jewish tradition; this was added in the early church as a formal ending to the prayer as it was recited in worship. It’s why in the Roman Catholic Church, we don’t hear this last part of the prayer—the doxology, “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.”
As in all prayer, the prayer Jesus taught is about how we live; all of life—our lives and the life of the world—are brought to God. The issues that we all struggle with are offered to God in the form of our intention and desire for the Kin-Dom of God, the abundance of life to be known to all.
I remember a quote from Walter Brueggemann about prayer, and I can’t remember where I heard it. He said something like, “we are called to pray because our life is from God—the dust of the earth and the Holy Spirit—and we give our lives back to God in prayer. Prayer reminds us that we are NOT self-made.” So, we take a humble approach to prayer and seek to ground our lives in God’s compassion and presence.
And this is a radical thing, this focus on life and abundance. Debts, sins, broken relationships, challenges, are brought to God in prayer so that we might release these burdens and discover a new hope. Unlike what goes on in Las Vegas, what goes on in churches—corporate prayer—or in our own individual prayer lives doesn’t stay there; prayer seeps into all we do and are. Prayer helps us meet today’s challenges and live with purpose.
In today’s world, there is much to learn as we cross-pollinate our spiritual practices. While we need to be careful about cultural appropriation, yoga, tai chi, chi qong, meditation, contemplation, body prayer, practicing oneness with the earth, walking the labyrinth, sacred dance and movement, singing and chanting or making music to name a few are ways in which we celebrate God’s gift of life and the fact that our lives are held in God’s being.
I know that we didn’t read the Hebrew Scripture reading for today, but it is from 2nd Isaiah, the end of chapter 40—one of my favourite passages:
Did you not know? Have you not heard?… God stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent for mortals to live under. God reduced the privileged to nothing… Did you not know? Have you not heard? God is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. This God does not faint or grow weary… God gives strength to the exhausted, and empowers the powerless. Young people may grow tired and weary, may stumble and fall, but those who wait for God find a renewed power: they soar on eagles’ wings, run and don’t fatigue, they walk and never tire.” (From Isaiah 40:21-31.)
I think that this was what Jesus was about in prayer, in healing, in challenging the religious and political authorities of his day. This is what’s implied in the prayer that he taught us to say. When we turn to God in prayer, we find renewed energy to face the world’s challenges and renewed hope that we do so knowing we are not alone.
Or as we will sing in a minute in the Servant Song (VU #595):
When we sing to God in heaven,
We shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together,
Of Christ’s love and agony.
Singing to God is prayer. So, as Paul said, “Pray often.” We pray and find new courage to live whole lives.
Peace be with you all! Amen.