Sermon on the Mount: God Talk
Of all of the challenges of being faithful Christians – and I think you and I could come up with quite a list – of all of those things, why is prayer – talking to God – so very hard? Even more than that, why is talking to God in front of other people – in other words, praying aloud, so very hard? Of all the spiritual sort of hang-ups we have, the one I seem to encounter most often is this fear or anxiety related to prayer. From the youth I work with, to the most seasoned Christians I encounter. Nothing quite helps me bring a room fully of chatty people to complete and utter silence like asking if someone offer prayer. Ask someone to lead a committee, start a new project, teach a course, go on a mission trip, give their money, and people will do it, if with a little encouragement. But ask someone to pray – especially out loud, in public, without a pre-written prayer? We’ve got some hang-ups.
Maybe our issues with God talk start because we give our conversations with God this special name: prayer. The word prayer means to entreat, to ask earnestly for something, to obtain something by entreating, asking for it. So, the word we use to describe talking to God has implicit in its meaning that when we talk to God we’re asking for something. We’re not just talking to God to make conversation, but we’re talking to God because there’s something from God that we desire. Maybe we’re uncomfortable with always being on the receiving end of conversations with God – God can give to us, but what can we give to God? Or maybe we just find it intimidating to talk to God because God is – God! God created us, created all that we know, and we usually think of God as all powerful and all knowing. Are we just scared to talk to God? Afraid of God? Afraid of what God will think of us? Say to us? How God will judge us?
Why is talking to God so very hard? My prayer life has certainly changed throughout the years. When I was in elementary school, and I was having a hard time with questions about God, my mother told me that I should pray by telling God about my day. I took her at her word, and did exactly that. “Dear God” – always ‘Dear God’ as if I was writing God a letter – “Dear God, today I got up and had cereal and went to school and at lunch and had recess and came home and did my homework and played outside and . . .” If I made it through this recitation, I would then do my “God blesses” – “God bless my mom and dad and Jim and TJ and Todd, God bless Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill and Aunt Shari and cousin Becky and Ben” – and then if I made it through all of that, I would end with the Lord’s Prayer, because, well, we always say the Lord’s Prayer! Usually, though, I fell asleep somewhere between telling God about my day at school and telling God about my evening. But it was a daily routine that I stuck to faithfully for a long time.
As I grew older, though, I found it harder to maintain this prayer ritual. I’m not sure why. For one, I guess, I started to expect more of my prayer time – I didn’t just want to tell God what I did with my day. I wanted some answers from God too. I didn’t just want blessings for my family, but I had specific areas of concern for my family members. And I found it harder to concentrate on a quiet prayer time, harder to set aside that time to talk to God. My thoughts before falling asleep tend to be about what I have to do the next day. And my thoughts about God have changed. I wonder more about what prayers do, what God wants to hear from us, how I should talk to God. I try to incorporate talking to God into my whole life – to let it be something I just do as naturally as I breathe in and out. But I also wonder if thinking of prayer in this way makes it easy for me to never really spend time talking to God. Special, set-aside talking to God time.
Why is talking to God so very hard? What terrible thing do we think will happen to us if we say to God the wrong words in the wrong way? We act as though prayer is really some magic spell, some secret combination of words that we have to get right, or else God won’t listen and certainly won’t answer. Is that what we really think? Why is talking to God so hard?
We’re continuing looking at the Sermon on the Mount, and today we hear Jesus talking about prayer. He says, when you pray, don’t be like hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in public places to make sure everyone hears and sees them. If being seen and heard by everyone and having everyone be impressed with your prayer is your reason for praying, that’s all you are going to get out of it. But if you want to talk to God, find a quiet, private place, and talk to God. And God will see and hear you. Jesus says, when you are praying, don’t “heap up empty phrases” and think that God is going to hear you because your prayer is fancier or you used big and special words. Don’t be like that – God already knows what you need before you even ask.
Pray like this, Jesus says: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. That’s it. Jesus closes by saying that when we forgive others, God forgives us, and then he moves on to the next topic. So Jesus tells us not to worry about saying fancy words or showing off for others when we pray. We’re to hallow God’s name – to make it holy. We’re to remember, in prayer, in life, that God’s kingdom is near, here, in our midst. We can and should ask God for what we need. But just what we need – the bread for the day, not piles to store up. We can ask and trust in God’s forgiveness, and we are to forgive all those indebted to us. And we can pray for safety, for peace – whatever it means to us to not be put into times of trial. That’s it.
Jesus makes it all sound so simple, doesn’t he? Why, then, do we get so stressed out by prayer? I think the reason we have so much trouble knowing what to pray for and how to pray, even when Jesus speaks so clearly about it, comes down to what we believe about God. What do we believe God is like? What is God’s nature? All of our hang-ups and insecurities about praying suggest that even if we say out loud things like “We believe God loves us unconditionally” and “we believe God shares grace with us freely,” in actuality, we believe God’s love is conditional. We act like we believe God has mood swings, that we have to catch God at a good time if we want something from God, or like God needs to be flattered by us in order to give in to our requests. We act like we must bargain with God, make promises to God in order for God to give a little to us in return. We act very much like God’s answers to our prayers are just like the Magic-8 Ball, as likely to be yes as no, as like to say ‘try again later’ as ‘outlook good.’
And we feel that way because, I think, the problem with this passage, as poetic and beautiful as it is, as inspiring and wise as Jesus’ words are, is that we know better, don’t we? How many times have we asked for something, pleaded with God, and simply not had God answer our prayers? Or at least, not answer them in a way that seems very helpful to us. For every story we hear of someone having a seeming miracle in their life – unexpected recovery from cancer or disease, a windfall of much needed money – for every story like that, we know of someone who wasn’t healed, who did lose their loved one, or their home, or their job; we know of some prayers that seem unanswered. And so, to reconcile what God seems to promise with what seems to actually happen, we usually end up doing one of two things: 1) We blame the person whose prayers aren’t answered, making judgments about their lives and why they might not have deserved to have their prayers answered – in the scriptures, we see that this was a pretty common view, and we’re not always too different today. Or, 2) We blame God, for not answering prayers, and end up faltering or failing in our faith altogether. Of course, since we don’t really want either of those options, what do we do?
I’ve noticed that sometimes we turn of our God-given brains when it comes to matters of faith. Now, faith isn’t always logical, and we can’t always solve faith questions like math problems. But God gives us some tools in our minds that sometimes we seem to refuse to use when it comes to matters of faith. For example, if we can read, and understand what we read, we have tools of interpreting what we read to use. Think of all those “reading comprehension” exercises you have to do in school. You read a passage, and then you have to answer questions about what you just read. Probably most of you learned to do that quite well. But then, as Christians, we get to the Bible, and we for some reason turn off all those tools we’ve learned, and act like we have no way of figuring out and understanding what we’re reading. I wonder if we do the same thing when we’re trying to figure out prayer.
One of the things I love about scripture is how many images of God we find to help us connect with God. God is as ambiguous as I am who I am, and God is a Rock. God is a Creator. God is a healer. So many ways to connect. But when it comes to prayer, it is easiest for me to understand when I think of God as a parent. We’re not all parents, but we all know either from being parents or having parents or functioning that way in someone’s life or having people dear to us in our lives who are parents to know a good bit about the relationship between parents and children. Knowing about parent child relationships is a tool we have to help us know about talking to God. If your 16 year-old wanted a brand new car for their birthday, would you give it to them? Why, or why not? What if you had two 16 year-olds, but only one car to give? Which one would you give it to? Why? No matter how much you love your children, are you able to prevent them from experiencing bad things, hard things, painful things in their lives? No matter how much you love them, will you give them everything they ask for, no matter what? Do you wish they would be open and honest with you? Do they need to butter you up and say things just right for you to want to love them? Would you want your child to tell you all about their day even if you already knew about it from another source? Wouldn’t you want to hear it in their own words? Maybe, just maybe, we know a lot more about how we might start talking to God than we think. There’s a lot we don’t know, certainly, because we’re the children, not the parent in this relationship. But we know enough, I hope, to have some good conversation with God.
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one. Amen.