A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I retired from the parish in Hilltown earlier this year, I had to consolidate my office at the church and my office at home; and that meant bringing home all my books and trying to find room for them.

It actually was a good thing. The church is in Hilltown, I live in New Hope, and whatever book I needed, it was always in the other place. So, in some ways I was glad to bring those books together. But I was a little bit surprised at how many of them there actually were. And not only that, but how many books I had about prayer—books of prayers, books about how to pray. Some were from seminary, some I had acquired in my time in parish ministry, some I’d owned as far back as my own school days.

I’ve spent a lifetime learning to pray, and I’m still learning how to pray. And the titles of the books, as I looked at them, putting them on the shelves, they reflect a hunger for God and a sense of incompleteness. Those are the things that I think have always drawn me to prayer, and the sheer number of books I have on the subject reflects my fear that I’m still not very good at it.

So, one of the books I came across as I was going through my library was a book about prayer by a woman named Roberta Bondi, and I looked at it again this past week as I was preparing to preach. She says that feeling of something missing is what draws many of us to prayer in the first place; and also to worship, which is our communal prayer.

In her book, which is titled To Pray and To Love, she says, “ prayer is the fundamental reality of our lives as Christians.” It’s our grounding as people of faith.”And we’re formed by our prayer, which is certainly true in the Anglican tradition. The Book of Common Prayer is really the thing that forms us to be believing people, prayerful people. “We are formed in our prayer as we find our center in God,” she says, and she quotes St Augustine, who back in the fourth century said, “ Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you, oh God.” [i] And yet, Bondi says, for some reason, many of us, maybe most of us, don’t really feel comfortable talking about prayer. And I suspect that probably there aren’t that many of us here today who would say that they’re really good at prayer, including me.

So, I felt reassured when Bondi said , “Prayer, like love, as a way of life is not something that comes to us ready-made simply by deciding we want it. We learn it with the help of the Holy Spirit over a lifetime of practicing it.” [ii]

So, I’ve been learning, and practicing, and gathering all of these books on prayer, and spending a lifetime trying to get better at it. And the simple truth is, it’s really not as complicated as we often make it. The definition of prayer in the little catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, it says it’s simple responding to God: “Prayer is responding to God by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” Responding to God. We really don’t need a lot of words.

One of the books on my shelf is a book by the writer Anne Lamott, and the title sort of sums it up. She says the three essential prayers are—this is the title: “Help, Thanks, Wow.” That’s all you need.

Or another thing I came across once was a guy who said all we really need to say, in the words of Elvis Presley, is “I want you, I need you, I love you with all my heart.” That sort of covers it. And yet we go on looking for different words for prayer.

So, in addition to my collection of books about prayer, I at some point started collecting actual prayer books. Prayer books that have been owned by other people. I picked them up at book sales, some have come down in my family, and I brought just two of them here today.

So, this one belonged to my great-grandfather. His name was Patrick Henry Burnes. I found this when we closed down my mother’s house a few years ago. It says P.H. Burnes on the flyleaf, and it’s in pretty good shape considering. But I know he did use it. There’s a little leaflet in here from a service in 1916, and couple of holy cards. I know he used it.

And then I brought another one, which is the Book of Common Prayer from 1835. So obviously this is a personal edition. It’s leather bound, and it’s got this little clasp. So, if you actually do put it in your pocket, the book stays together. There is some writing on the flyleaf, but I really can’t read it. I can’t make it out. So, I don’t know whose this was by name, but someone used this book to pray, and I have it, and there’s a connection there for me in that. I’m connected. I feel connected by having the books in my hand, but really just by the fact that we all prayed and we’ve prayed many of the same prayers.

Prayer does connect us to God. It connects us to the people we pray for. Pray for somebody long enough, and it’s really hard to be angry at them. And it connects us to people we pray with. We’re connected here in church this morning by the prayers we’ve prayed together. We’re connected to people in church, other churches across the world, and it connects us across time. Prayer connects us to my great-grandfather and the unnamed owner of this Book of Common Prayer, which actually, it’s awesome to think it’s almost 200 years old.

And prayer connects us to that unnamed disciple in today’s Gospel who says to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” And I wonder, did he feel the same sense of incompleteness or emptiness that I’ve known at times in prayer? Did he worry that no matter how hard he prayed, he wasn’t really doing it right? That he wasn’t good at it. At least, he wasn’t as good as Jesus, who gives us a model of prayer in the Gospels. Jesus prays often. He goes off by himself. We don’t know the words he uses, but he goes off by himself to pray, especially before he’s about to do something particularly important. He’s an example of an active and intimate prayer life. And in this story, for example, the beginning of it, it says that he’s just come back to the disciples from a time of going off to pray by himself.

It’s very clear in the response he gives to that disciple who says, “Teach us to pray”—It’s clear that prayer for Jesus is about connection. It’s about a very intimate connection with God. He tells his disciples, as we well know, to begin by addressing God as Abba, Father; and the words he gives them after that are really not much more complicated or detailed, I should say, than “Help, Thanks, Wow.” He says:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Luke’s version, the one we heard today, it’s a lot more sort of straight to the point than the one that we’re more accustomed to. In our own prayers and in our worship, we usually use the version that’s in Matthew, which is a little bit more detailed. But this very simple prayer in our Gospel today, along with the stories Jesus tell afterwards, they really tell us a lot more, I think, about the nature of God than the nature of prayer. The prayer and the stories tell us that God loves us in a way that a parent loves a child. That is the deepest, most intense kind of love I’ve ever experienced myself as a parent. They tell us that God hears our prayers, that God provides, that God forgives and protects, and that our generous God expects us to be generous to one another. [iii]

And this Gospel tells us, not in so many words, but it tells us we’re a family. If God is our Father, all of us, then surely we’re brothers and sisters. We’re bound together in prayer even more than by the details of what we believe in faith. It’s a family that’s much bigger than any one parish or even any one denomination.

So, he gave the first disciples that prayer. And we don’t have a lot of evidence about how they used it. It doesn’t turn up again in the Gospel. We don’t see them praying it anymore in those stories. But one of the sources we have is sort of a manual of how to be a Christian, which dates to either the end of the first or the beginning of the second centuries, the experts say, which means sometime in that period, a hundred years or less, after Jesus died. Sooner than this Book of Common Prayer, for example.

And it tells people to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, which is a pattern actually that we still follow in our Book of Common Prayer. If you look at the prayers for morning prayer, noon prayer, and evening prayer, each time, three times a day, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Both of my 19th-century prayer books, both of them begin with morning prayer, including the Lord’s Prayer.

So, Christians around the world, of all denominations, we pray it as a mark of identity because it says something powerful about who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, who gave us these words. And we say it because it joins us together in a sort of a cross-shaped connection with our brothers and sisters across the world and down through time. We say it because it’s a place to begin our conversation with the Father, a place to begin to fill that God-shaped hole.

So, when we get to the Lord’s Prayer in today’s liturgy, let’s, if we can remember, slow down a little bit more than usual and really think about what it is we’re saying. Amen.

[i] Roberta Bondi, To Pray and To Love, 2.

[ii] Bondi, 4.

[iii] Matt Skinner, “Who Taught You How to Pray?” Working Preacher, July 21, 2019. Accessed July 26, 2019.