Title: "The Greatest Sermon Ever (Part 5)"
Associated Readings: Matthew 6:5-15
Date: 9 October 2016
Place: Clinton Presbyterian Church (Clinton, NJ)
Theme: My first sermon at Clinton Presbyterian Church, my pastoral internship site. This is the fifth part of a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This particular sermon focuses on Christ's teachings on prayer.
Click "Read More" to read the sermon. A recording of the sermon can be found by clicking here.
My mother always used to tell me “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”
And so while I’ve been here for a few joyous weeks already, my first sermon certainly feels like something of a first impression.
The first time preaching in a church is always a unique and challenging experience. A lot of questions run through a preacher’s mind –
And then on top of all that, Tracey tells me that the sermon should be called, “The Greatest Sermon Ever”! Talk about setting high goals for your intern!
Thankfully, the title of the sermon refers to Christ’s sermon - the Sermon on the Mount – and not my own, but I do hope that my words can help you to navigate this text in a new way.
Well, we’ve gotten to the point in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus has begun to teach his followers about prayer. It’s important that he does this.
You see, up until now Jesus has largely been speaking about the way in which we should behave in the world: about the need to treat others well, to live an honest life, and to love all – even those who would seek to do us harm.
In switching gears to prayer, Jesus shifts from our interactions with others to our interaction with God. He reminds us that our faith isn’t simply a social philosophy but is a response to the Word and Will of God.
We love others and live a responsible, ethical life because this is what God desires of us. And we are in a covenantal relationship with God.
Prayer is part and parcel of the religious life. Take a look at your bulletin, it contains a number of moments of prayer. In my Bible Study, we open with a word of prayer. Many of us say a prayer before meals. When people are ill, we pray for them. Prayer isn’t a foreign concept to us.
But, at the same time, in spite of its importance and prevalence we often don’t think about prayer. We often do it out of a sort of habit or expectation, rarely thinking about what it is that we’re doing.
But there’s a lot of important questions to ask:
Let me begin with a little story about prayer. I’ll set the scene: I was probably 5 years old. At that age I was extremely shy and introverted. Extremely. I hated to be away from my parents and I was really uncomfortable in group settings.
So, for me, going to church was the epitome of everything that I didn’t like. I had to go to Sunday School, where I’d be separated from my family and placed into a classroom with a bunch of other kids. To add insult to injury, for whatever reason the church that I grew up in was loaded with the popular kids – and I was decidedly not a popular kid. So there was an enormous sense of social pressure. I really didn’t like it.
And so one day I remember declaring to my parents, “I don’t want to go to church today!”
As you might expect, my parents responded with a firm, “you’re going.”
But I resisted. I pouted, and threw a temper tantrum. I refused to move. I tried everything I could think of to make the process of getting me to church as difficult as it possibly could be, with the hope that they’d just give up and stay home.
Finally the car pulled up to the church. I tried to pull back, but my father dragged me towards the front door.
Then I tried one last thing – my hail Mary toss – I decided to say a prayer. “Dear God, if you don’t make me go to church I promise that I’ll be really good. Amen.”
When we got up to the front door there was music playing. It might as well have been the angels singing! Why? Because what we were hearing was a closing hymn! We were late, my parents had forgotten about Daylight Savings Time.
And since then, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve known that God does indeed love me and listen to my prayers!
Now, whether or not that moment was an act of divine providence is probably up for some debate, but it does underscore one reality: from the time we’re little, we’re taught to pray.
And lets be honest, when we pray we often pray for things that we want.
I was praying that I wouldn’t have to go to church, but I also remember praying to receive certain toys or for particular girls to like me…that one usually didn’t work. And later, we pray for our loved ones, that they might recover from illnesses. We pray for peace in our communities and world. Maybe we pray for employment, or health, for forgiveness or education.
All of these are good things to pray for, and in today’s text Christ does push us to bring our needs and desires before God. We are to pray, as we know, for “our daily bread”. I take that line to mean not only our nourishment, but also our wants and needs. And simultaneously, Christ teaches us to pray for a “forgiveness of our debts” – which is not meant to be monetary, but our debt of sin – we are taught to pray for forgiveness so that we may be made spiritually clean.
I think that these notions of prayer are probably pretty familiar to us, largely because they relate to us and the things that we want and need in life.
But it’s also important to remember that that is not the whole of Christ’s teaching on prayer. You see, for Jesus, prayer is not simply an act of bringing to God our worries and desires as we often think it is – its something much more than that.
It is in this body of text that what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” is found – we recite it every Sunday. It’s not possible to do a full assessment of this prayer now, however, there are some important themes that we should be aware of.
Firstly, let’s begin by saying this: the whole Sermon on the Mount is something of a teaching moment. Christ is distilling his teachings to his followers in a way that is simple, concise, and clear. Unlike elsewhere in the Gospels where Christ teaches predominantly through difficult parables, in the Sermon on the Mount Christ is often speaking plainly and clearly.
So, when he offers us the Lord’s Prayer what he is offering is a simple and clear expression of how we should conduct our prayer life. The prayer is a prayer, but it is also more than a prayer: it is a lesson. It is Christ telling us, his disciples, how we should engage with God in prayer.
When we look at the Lord’s Prayer as instruction in prayer, I wonder if we come to see it differently? At its most basic, the prayer contains a few elements:
It can feel unsettling to suggest that there is a right and wrong way to pray, because prayer feels to intimate and so personal. But Christ’s instructions to us are designed to correct errors and keep us from falling into sin.
Last week, in Tracey’s sermon, we heard about the command to love our enemies. While such an act is difficult, Christ is being literal about what he is asking. We are literally to choose love over hate when confronted when people who persecute us. That same logic applies here to prayer. We are called to live a life of prayer, but our prayer life should be carried out correctly. And according to Christ, that right method of prayer involves:
This idea that prayer should include these elements is not meant to be mean, it is meant to instruct us in how we can grow closer to God.
This is because, if we read the prayer closely, we see that authentic prayer is not a one-way conversation. It involves listening to God as much as it involves talking to God. How can we know God’s will if we don’t open our souls to God’s voice? How can we be absolved of our sin if we do not take the time to sense the working of the Spirit in our prayer?
How can we expect to grow in our relationship with God if we don’t make space in prayer for God’s voice?
A good example of all of this comes later in the Gospel, when Christ himself engages in prayer.
In Matthew 26:39 we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before he is betrayed by Judas, leading to what will be his torture death on the cross.
There he offers a short prayer to the Father, saying “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Addressing the Father, Christ opens his heart and reveals his fears and worries in a very human way. Yet, he acknowledges that what is essential is not his own will, but the will of God the Father. He is a vehicle for the will of God, even if that happens in the context of the deeply uncomfortable.
And so, too, it goes with us. We must remember to pray, but also to pray as Christ taught us to pray – just as we must seek to live as Christ taught us to live.
Just as living and loving as Christ did brings us closer to the mercy and grace of God, so too does communing with God in prayer in the manner that Christ has taught us in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.