“Prayer will change you!”
Matthew: 6:5-15, October 28th, 2018
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now these words taken from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter six, verse five thru fifteen.”
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But 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. 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
“Having heard these ancient words attributed to Jesus, let us now open our hearts to their intended meaning.”
“Prayer will change you!”
Prayer is an art form which many have cultivated and practice well. At the church in Vero Beach, where Lois and I went during my short eleven-month retirement six years ago, the senior pastor was and is one whom I look to for guidance. When he prays in front of a group, one feel uplifted as he connects the words and sentences. He seems to remember to bring together all the necessary points which one would expect from a pastor. Over the course of my years in ministry, I have heard a lot of pastors offer up a prayer. Some are good at it, truly effective, first-class, and then there are the rest of us. Some create a space for prayer, before they begin: “hold hands, take a deep breath, shake off the tension in your shoulders, close your eyes, lift-up your arms to heaven.” There are so many ways, various and different ways to set the mood. The rest of us just say “let us now pray!”
Perhaps, we all need a role model or two. Our Regional Conference Minister, the Reverend Raymond Hargrove, does an excellent job when he leads a group in prayer. He gets a lot of practice as his ministry keeps him moving around from Jacksonville to Key West. Now my Dad, he had no formal training in the art of prayer, but he practiced a lot! I know, because I was there with my brothers and sisters to listen to those prayers. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, he prayed. At restaurants… he prayed. Visiting at your house… he prayed! Yup, he liked to pray. Long prayers too! My wife sometimes thinks I pray too long. My Dad, he held the record in this department and I am not trying to catch up with him!
Our scripture reading is meant to remind us that Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. Jesus uses what we know as “The lord’s Prayer” as he instructs the early disciples on how to pray. Therefore, we must open our hearts to embrace the fullness of this prayer and what prayer is meant to offer us, as we speak with God in community and in private. In our scripture, Jesus was with his early disciples and he was teaching them the correct way to pray. Which translates into “there are wrong methods of praying! Most of us have learned that prayer is a conversation with God. With the aim of having and being in conversation with God, there needs to be at least two involved in the prayer! Prayer needs God and you, or God and me, or God and us, involved in the conversation! Prayer is not about impressing others who are part of this conversation, whether it is around the kitchen table or at a large banquet or even in front of a wedding party of five hundred people! Nope! Pray is not for the purpose of impressing others. It does however, need to be directed toward our Deity, our God, by whatever name or reference one might use.
There are a couple of other things that many are confused about regarding prayer. Prayer is not a time when you ask God to ‘fix’ a lottery so that you are the winner! No, that’s a selfish prayer and it just isn’t practical either. If God answered all of our selfish prayers… well consider this… there could be roughly three hundred million winners every time there is a lottery. This would make the winnings of say a one point six-billion-dollar jackpot, equal less than five dollars and thirty-four cents per person. No, praying for things like lotteries and winning at the casino, are not selfless prayers. God is just going to answer you, “No child I shall not grant that prayer!” Prayers are meant to be more constructive than this. So, what does make a good prayer? Let me give you a few examples of prayers that have become well known as timeless and meaningful prayers.
The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, a protestant theologian, is a great example of a prayer that asks for several things. Yet, none of which pertains to selfish monetary or material things.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.
A prayer of this caliber clearly draws us into the realm of a heart felt prayer that is asking of God, noble and honorable things: grace, acceptance, serenity, courage, wisdom. And as it continues we hear the writer speak of how these will enhance his life: living and enjoying life on life’s terms. Doing so with trust in God, celebrating the belief that all shall be well as the writer anticipates being with his Creator after mortal life ends. A prayer such as this can change how we view the realities of life itself, giving those that embrace its meaning renewed and inspiring hope and peace.
There are prayers of petition, asking from God for something on behalf of another. There are so many ways to organize and structure a prayer, yet the most important aspect is its sincerity and its relevance to the life of the one praying and or those whom are being prayed for. It is not important if your prayer is eloquent and someday gets published and displayed in the biggest cathedral or Temple in all of Christendom. A child that sees her mom in distress and breaks down crying pleading to God that her mommy will feel better and smile again is far more vital than a prayer written by a team of Cardinals in the Vatican.
Consider this example. A small group of older members, of a small and struggling church, get together every week to pray for their church. While together they share about their lives within the church, bringing up memories of special occasions and of loved ones long past. Their time of prayer together gives them new hope, new inspiration and renewed vitality. Pray is a vital link to the Holy One and the energy, the very power of the universe. When one prays with faith their hearts are opened to new possibilities. When two or more pray together the influence of the prayer, in their lives and the lives they interact with, is exponentially increased.
Bowing one’s head while praying is a sign of humility. The closing of our eyes helps us to focus on the ensuing conversation. Folding our hands together or holding someone else’s, helps eliminate distraction and aids us as we center on the moment at hand. Being able to relax and allow the presence of the unseen God to permeate throughout our essence… is a goal any faithful believer would like to achieve. Few ever gain this level of intimacy with the Almighty Spirit of the Universe. This is perhaps why most theologians never speak of prayer in these terms. Yet, when one studies the documented archives of historic prayers, it would be hard to believe that many have not felt uplifted by the Spirit of the Holy One on numerous occasions.
Turning yet to another example, let us look to the Psalms. They are a great source of poetic prayer. Psalm 91 is an example of how the Psalmist structured prayer. From it there is a great deal for all of us ‘beginners’ and ‘new comers’, to the art of prayer, to grasp. Yes, we can learn quite a bit from reading and studying the Psalms. “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” /Psalm 91:2/ The Psalmist goes on to speak ‘of’ and to ‘how’ this simple prayer can change our understanding of life… all around us. Taking just these two phrases, we can allow them to point us in the right direction, as we form our words of prayer to ‘acknowledge’ our faith and our ‘belief’ in God as our refuge, our shelter and our protection from the often-times harsh realities of life! Yes, it is good to speak of our trust and faith when talking with God! Just as we would acknowledge a confidence and dependence on a friend or a loved one, whom we turn to for feedback, in our conversations throughout the journeys of life.
Jesus was well educated in the words of the Old Testament and most certainly the Psalms. It is not surprising that he would lift-up a prayer like this prayer, which we now call the Lord’s Prayer. He was giving instruction on private prayer, yet this prayer is often used in community prayer time. When done in public, prayer needs to be said with humility not with a desire to be praised for one’s piety! Private prayer needs these same virtues and needs to draw on sincerity and be spoken with a bit of modesty. Yet, it needs to be open and honest and said with a willingness to allow God to be a part of the dialog. Remembering that Jesus will indeed forgive your debts, your trespasses and your sins, if you rise from prayer ready to change your behavior and seek to follow God’s will; in all areas of your life!
So where do we, where do you go from here? Well if you are still undecided and are not sure if personal prayer is for you… let me explain it this way. If you were looking to connect to the internet or post a picture on Facebook or communicate with people via social media around the world, you would welcome the gift of a computer. If you are already doing this, then you probably cannot imagine life without a cell phone and the power of a computer, which will ultimately connect you to a vast communications network! This is how folks, whom have learned how to use personal prayer to enhance their relationship with the ultimate power and Spirit of God, feel about those who have not tapped into this ultimate communications network! And the cost is only your time and your willingness to believe that God is listening and responding to your prayers! So, go ahead and give it a try! God has already given you the gift which allows you to connect with the ‘essence’ of the Living Spirit and the very ‘heart’ of God, directly! Don’t lose the connection.
If your prayers seem to be falling on deaf ears, consider ‘altering your prayer’ as you continue to pray; and don’t forget to listen for God’s response. Listen with your heart as-well-as your mind; do not rely only on hearing with your ears. God is listening, and God will change you and alter your understanding of the world around you. Hang on to the phrase: “thy will, not mine be done.”