Teach Us How to Pray
Well as I just read for you in the Gospel reading today, for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, teach us how to pray.” Now, do you remember who taught you to pray? I'm assuming for most of you, it was your parents who taught you how to pray when you were a little child. Most of us as kids were taught to kneel at the side of our bed before we went to sleep at night, to press our hands together, and to talk to an old man who lived up in the clouds, and to ask him for things and to ask him for help.
And maybe you were taught that rote prayer that many of us learned as children, which is ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die, before I wake, I pray, Oh, Lord, my soul to take.’
Now, I always thought that was really weird. And really creepy! To have kids thinking about their death, before they went to sleep at night! But I know that our parents had good intentions. They wanted to instill the practice of prayer in us from an early age. And that is really important. But although we've all grown up now, many of us are still praying like children.
We only pray when we need something. And we're praying, as Charles Fillmore said in the Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, like little beggars, down on our knees, our hands pressed together. And we're asking some supernatural being up in the sky to come fix things for us or to make something happen in our world.
Now, whenever we have some tragedy in our country, mass shooting after mass shooting, we hear political leaders and religious leaders, calling us all to thoughts and prayers. And that phrase has become so cliche and so meaningless. You would think, after all of these thoughts and prayers, God would fix things by now.
Prayer doesn't work that way.
But I promise you this, my friends, and and this is something I know for sure. Prayer does work. But you have to know how to work it. Now, I shared with you in our E-Pistlel church newsletter this week, a quote from Mother Teresa. It was written in one of her journals that was published after her death. And the quote says “I used to think that prayer changed things. But now I know, prayer doesn't change things. Prayer changes us, and we change things.”
That's the purpose of prayer. We're not trying to convince an old man up in the sky to change his mind and heart about some situation. Prayer is to transform us.
We've grown up now, we know there is no old man up in the sky. God is not a person. God is love. God is the presence and the power, the light and life of love that created everything. The purpose of prayer is for us to align ourselves with that presence, that power, that light and that life of love.
Now, when I was preparing my sermon this week, I just happened to come across a quote by brother David, Stendhal Rast, who's 96 years old. He's a Benedictine monk, and this is what he said about prayer. He said, “Prayer is not sending in an order and expecting it to be fulfilled. Prayer is tuning yourself to the life of the world, to love, to the force that moves the universe, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
I love that. That's what prayer is. We're attuning ourselves to that life force. That's how Jesus prayed. And so when the disciples say, “Lord teach us how to pray,” they're not asking for words to say. They knew prayers. The disciples, most of them were Jewish. They were taught prayers, they knew prayers. They're asking Jesus something different here. They noticed that when Jesus prays, he goes off by himself, not into the temple by himself, he goes out into the wilderness, out into the desert, up to a mountaintop alone.
And there he is connecting with that presence and power. And they noticed that when he returns, he's so full of light. He's so full of peace and joy, so much so that he can work miracles and heal people.
And so what they're really asking is, teach us how to do that.
And if you notice, they said, teach us how John the Baptist taught. You see, John the Baptist was Jesus's rabbi, Jesus's teacher, his guru. But he wasn't a traditional Rabbi. We know that John the Baptist was kind of this wild man out in the desert. And for him, prayer wasn't so much about communicating with God, as communing with God. To commune means to live as one, to be as one. That's, that's what it was about.
So Jesus, later on in the Scripture, would give the disciples instructions for how to pray this way. And he said, When you pray, pray in secret. And your father who hears you in secret, will reward you. Jesus is saying prayer is not a public thing for others to see. This is private, it's secret. And he says, When you pray, shut the door. What does that mean? While he's saying close your eyes, go off by yourself, stop seeing things the way the world sees them. And he would later say in the gospels, if thine eye be single, thy entire body will be filled with light. That's what he said. It's very similar to our eastern brothers and sisters, who talk about the third eye. When we pray, when we shut the door, and we put our focus there, our entire bodies become filled with light, with peace, with joy, with love.
That's the reward that your father gives you in secret. Now we hear in today's Gospel, reading the words that have become known as the Lord's Prayer. And most of us grew up memorizing those words, so that maybe by now they've kind of lost their significance for you.
And so from time to time, here at Douglas UCC, we say the Lord's Prayer in the Aramaic translation, which we're going to say later on in today's service, Aramaic scholars have taken this prayer, and translated it back to its original meaning, because we know Jesus didn't speak English, Jesus spoke Aramaic. So when Jesus said, what we have translated into ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ most of us think that means our old man who lives up in the sky. And that's not what it means. In Aramaic, it means birther of the cosmos, whose light dwells within us. Very different meaning.
I'm not praying up there. I'm entering into the Kingdom. Jesus said, The Kingdom of God is within you. That's what we're doing in prayer. We're being still, we're entering into the Kingdom of God. So we can hear that still small voice within us. That's the purpose of prayer.
Now I hear from many people, Pastor Sal, I try to meditate. I really do. I sit there in the silence, but I can't stop thinking. And I want to assure you, you will have thoughts in meditation. It's natural. The purpose of prayer and meditation isn't to stop or control your thoughts. It's to let them stop controlling you. Now I have been meditating every day, for more than 20 years, I haven't always been very good with taking care of my physical health. But I have been very dedicated to my spiritual health. And I know that prayer has transformed my life. I still have, after 20 years, thoughts when I sit in the silence, but I don't have them as often as I used to. And I'm able to let go of them much more quickly.
That's why we call it a spiritual practice. It takes practice, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. It's a discipline. And we know that the root word of the word discipline is disciple. If you want to be a disciple, you've got to discipline.
Now Jesus gives an example here, after he teaches the Lord's Prayer, of a guy asking his neighbor for bread at midnight. And he says, if the guy keeps knocking, the neighbor's going to eventually give him the bread. Bread symbolizes God's sustenance, God's presence. If we want to experience that presence in prayer, Jesus is saying, Be persistent. Discipline yourself, keep knocking on the door of the Kingdom. And eventually it will open. Be persistent.
And so my friends, that's what I would like to invite you to do this week. I'd like to invite you to find time each and every day to sit in the silence, even if it's just for five minutes, to sit in the silence, to be still and know. seek and you shall find. Knock, and the door shall be open for you.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
By Charles Fillmore
When Jesus' disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, Jesus warned them against making a display of their praying in order to be seen by others. They should retire to their "inner chamber" and pray to God who sees in secret and rewards openly. Then Jesus said, "After this manner therefore pray." The Lord's Prayer was then given to them as an example. As in all matters where we seek divine help, we are free to use any words we choose or no words at all. Prayer is a conscious expression of the upward trend of nature found everywhere. So every impulse or desire of the soul for life, love, light, is a prayer. All growth and unfoldment from atom to sun is based upon this law of soul urge. We have been so persistently taught that prayer consists in asking God for some human need that we have lost sight of our spiritual identity and have become a race of praying beggars. God is Spirit in whom we "live, and move, and have our being." We are the offspring of this Spirit and can make conscious contact with it by turning our attention away from material things and toward things of the Spirit. As we practice this kind of prayer, our innate Spirit showers its life energies into our conscious mind and a great soul expansion follows. This "inner chamber" of the soul is "the kingdom of God within you." What we need to know above all is that there is a place within our soul where we can consciously meet God and receive a flood of new life into not only our mind but also our body. This understanding shows us that prayer is more than asking God for help in this physical world; it is in its highest sense the opening up in our soul of an innate spiritual umbilical cord that connects us with the Holy Mother, from whom we can receive a perpetual flow of life. This is the beginning of eternal life for both soul and body, the essential teaching of Jesus, which he demonstrated in overcoming death. The body can be so charged with spiritual life through prayer that it will even overcome death.
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