Prayer was an integral part of Jesus’ life and ministry. God has a ‘holy longing’ to know us, and we are wired with a longing to know God as well. One way that we can draw closer to God is through contemplative prayer.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 11:1-13
Recently the Supreme Court made a decision about a religious liberty case that had been filed by a man named Joseph Kennedy, a high school assistant football coach in Bremerton, Washington.
Back in 2015, Kennedy had been placed on administrative leave by the school district after refusing to stop kneeling to pray audibly at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.
Kennedy and other advocates for religious freedom argued that the coach was exercising his First Amendment right to pray. But the school district told the justices that Kennedy’s actions were coercive, and player’s parents complained that their children on the team felt compelled to participate.
After much deliberation, the Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy’s favor, stating that both the free exercise of religion and the free speech clauses protect expressions of prayer like Mr. Kennedy’s.
Regardless of what we think about the decision, one thing we can say is that by his words and actions, Joseph Kennedy was teaching people about prayer—
He was modeling to the student football players, the parents and everyone in the stands what he believed prayer could look like, at least in the public sphere.
And those who chose to join him at the 50-yard line for prayer were incorporating a way of praying into their own lives.
This raises a question: Who are the people who have modeled what prayer looks like to you and me, and what impact has that had on our own life of prayer and ultimately, on our relationship with God?
This will be a question that you can share about in the sermon response time.
As I think about my own upbringing, here are some things I learned about prayer:
First, in my Catholic family growing up, we always prayed before our evening meal. We called it “grace” and it was always the same prayer- Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Then, in Saturday Catechism classes–which was our equivalent of Sunday School—we learned the Lord’s Prayer (we called it the “Our Father”), and also the “Hail Mary” and the “Glory Be” prayers.
(The “Hail Mary” was a prayer before it became a pass from a football quarterback thrown in desperation!)
We learned these three prayers mainly to recite as “penance” or a type of repentance after we went to Confession with a priest.
Depending on how many sins we confessed, and the severity of those sins, the priest would hand out a certain number of “Our Fathers”, “Hail Marys” and “Glory Bes” for us to pray at the altar after we left that little room called the confessional.
It wasn’t until I was in college and got involved with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship that I experienced more of the spontaneous, made-up prayers.
A group of guys on my dorm floor met in somebody’s room once a week for a prayer meeting. Every week they kept inviting me, and finally after about 8 or 9 weeks, I finally gave in and joined them.
It took a while for me to become comfortable praying out loud, spontaneously in a group, but over time, I got more used to it.
Soon after college, while I was in Mennonite Voluntary Service, I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, and from them I started learning about prayer that is more contemplative, that involves silence and listening to God, not just talk to God with a shopping list of requests.
So these are some ways I learned to pray in my earlier years. And I appreciate the role that each of them have played in my faith journey with God, and I’m grateful for the people who taught and modeled these prayers for me.
Our scripture passage today begins with Jesus praying at a certain place, probably not on a football field!, and he is surrounded not by a big crowd but by his 12 disciples.
And after Jesus finishes his time of prayer, one of the disciples says to him “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” He’s referring to John the Baptist here, who likely had a band of followers who he taught many things to, like Jesus did with his disciples.
Now this isn’t the first time that Jesus’ disciples had seen him pray. In fact, Luke’s gospel mentions no less than 9 times where Jesus is praying.
Luke presents Jesus as someone who modeled a life of prayer to those around him. Prayer was central to Jesus’ life, in all different kind of circumstances and situations, and his disciples couldn’t help but see it.
Let’s look at these 9 snapshots of Jesus praying that Luke gives us:
First, Jesus prayed at his baptism in the Jordan river. (3:21)
Then he prayed after a long day of performing miracles (5:15-16); when the crowds kept pressing all around Jesus, he withdrew to a quiet place.
Then before he chose the 12 disciples, Jesus went up on a mountain and prayed all night. (6:12)
And then before Jesus told his disciples that he was going to suffer and die on the cross, he took some time alone to pray. (9:18)
Jesus prayed when he took Peter, James, and John up to the Mount of Transfiguration, and after Jesus prayed he appeared in radiant glory together with Moses and Elijah. (9:28)
Then Jesus prayed after 72 of his followers returned from a mission that he had sent them out on. Here Jesus prays with joy and gratitude to God. (10:21)
Shortly thereafter, there’s our story today from Luke 11 where Jesus is praying in a a certain place. (11:1)
Jesus prays during his time of agony on the Mount of Olives (22:39-46), and finally while Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who crucified him, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”.
Jesus’ disciples observed firsthand the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life, how prayer impacted his life. And they wanted it for themselves, so they asked Jesus, “Lord, Teach us how to pray.”
If you were with us back in January and February, you might remember that we read this book on prayer by Skye Jethani: What if Jesus Was Serious About Prayer. This is how Jethani describes Jesus’ life of prayer:
Unlike other rabbis who employed prayer to control God or to display their piety, Jesus prayed to relate to his Father. For him, prayer was intimate, unending, and the root from which his life found strength and power. (p. 11)
I remember lots of good insights about prayer from that book being shared by many of you at our worship services.
Another one of my favorite books on prayer is this one by a Canadian priest named Ronald Rolheiser: Prayer: Our Deepest Longing
I love what Rolheiser says about what attracted Jesus’ disciples to the way that he prayed. He says:
“The disciples recognized that this power did not come from within Jesus, but from a source outside of himself. They saw that he connected to a deep source through prayer, through constantly lifting to God what was on his mind and in his heart. They saw it and they wanted that depth-connection for themselves.
But let’s not misunderstand what they were attracted to and why they were asking for…they sensed that what Jesus drew from the depth of his prayer was not, first of all, his power to do miracles..
What they wanted for themselves was the depth and graciousness of his soul…
They wanted Jesus’ power to love and forgive his enemies, rather than embarrass and crush them.
They longed for Jesus’ power to renounce life in self-sacrifice, while retaining the capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life without guilt.
The disciples were attracted to Jesus’ power to be big-hearted, to love beyond his own tribe, to love rich and poor alike.”
Rolheiser’s description of how prayer shaped Jesus’ heart and soul remind us that the power of prayer lies in its ability to change us, maybe more than it changes circumstances, or changes other people that we pray for.
It was Mother Teresa of Calcutta who said: “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I believe that prayer changes us, and we change things.”
And what causes prayer to change us is the close relationship we form with God when we pray, the God who has the power to change our hearts, to change us from the inside out.
But there are roadblocks that get in the way of living in deep communion with God, to abiding in Jesus as he tells his disciples in John’s gospel.
One of the major roadblocks that I see is seeing prayer as more transactional than relational. By transactional I mean seeing God as sort of a cosmic vending machine, that we deposit requests into in order to get something dispensed out to us.
We pray to God for certain situations, for people, for health, our relationships, for our jobs, and everything else, which is fine. But prayer is not meant to be simply a shopping list of requests or demands for God to meet.
A purely transactional relationship with God is not personal or close, and maintains a certain distance, a barrier between us and God. Maybe one reason we keep that distance is because we often feel that God is disappointed or even angry with us, so we feel safer keeping God at arm’s length.
It’s kind of like a situation that one of my brothers was telling us at a recent family Zoom chat. He told us that a new family moved in next door, and they had two pit bulls as guard dogs.
The dogs spent a lot of time in the backyard, across the chain link fence from my brother’s back yard. When my brother goes out into his back yard, the dogs go crazy, barking and growling at him, baring their teeth.
My brother needed to do something to get these dogs to stop barking and growling at him, so he got an idea.
One day he brought two hot dogs out to the yard with him, and he gave each of those pit bulls a hot dog. Well that quieted them down fast and their mood changed fast.
So my brother keeps a stockpile of hot dogs in his refrigerator, and every time he goes into the backyard, he takes two hot dogs with him to give to the dogs, and it works like a charm to get them to calm down and leave him alone.
Friends, God is not like those pit bulls. God isn’t angry with us until we give God what we think he wants from us. God doesn’t bite, and God doesn’t even bark at us very often.
Our God is a good God, like a parent who wants to give us good things that will help us grow and bring us true joy, like we saw in the children’s time.
And most of all, God wants to have a personal, honest, and intimate relationship with us. God has a holy longing to know us, and we are wired with that holy longing to know God as well.
This is what Jesus modeled in his prayer life with his Father God, and he is our model for prayer and for all of life.
Henri Nouwen said “To pray like Jesus is to be filled with the presence of God. It means to “think and live in the presence of God.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’m incorporating contemplative prayer more into my life with God. I’m embracing more the idea that prayer is more about presence than it is about petitions.
Prayer is more about sitting at a table drinking coffee or tea with a friend than it is about giving your order to the barista.
Rich Villodas says in his new book, Good and Beautiful and Kind, In contemplative prayer, our aim is not to do something for God, or even gain something from God; our aim is simply to be with God.
And he goes on to say this:
Prayer is not about throwing holy words at God; it is about embracing a new way of seeing…it is opening ourselves up to the reality of God’s presence, an act that forms us in love. Prayer is meant to be where love in nurtured. It’s in the true praying moment that God heightens our awareness that we are already enveloped in his loving union, which enables us to extend that love to others. (P. 75)
A simple way to pray contemplatively is to find a comfortable and quiet place to sit, then read a short passage of scripture or a short devotional reading. Then sit in silence, imagining yourself in the presence of God.
If you’d like, you can repeat a short phrase like “Lord, have mercy”, “Be still and know that I am God”, or imagine God saying to you, “You are my beloved child.”
I encourage you to take 5-10 minutes to pray this way later today, and maybe try to make it a part of your daily routine. It might take some time getting comfortable with silence and stillness, but I believe that over time it will become more meaningful.
May we allow ourselves to be keep opening our eyes, ears, and hearts to be formed more deeply in love by a God who loves us more than we can imagine. AMEN.