Sermon Text: Prayer Stories
Start with a story...that’s a good plan for a summertime sermon.
I said that last week, and I’ll say it again. So here’s a story.
Two members of the United States Congress were arguing about religion. Each was convinced HE knew more about religion than the other guy. So finally, one says, “Bet you twenty bucks you don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer!” Other one says, “I do, too! I’ll take your money!” First congressman says, “Prove it.” Second one says, “The Lord’s Prayer goes like this: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep...’”
First congressman says, “Son of a gun! Here’s your twenty bucks — you DO know it!”
I know the St. Mark’s kids are all smarter than those two guys. I can sometimes hear our youngest voices saying the Lord’s Prayer during the service, and it warms my heart.
Jesus must have taught this prayer a lot. He seems to have taught it several times, in more than one version. The Gospel of Matthew has a longer version, and that’s the one we know by heart. Luke’s Gospel has a shorter version that we just heard.
Here’s another story about the Lord’s Prayer. It comes from the Russian Orthodox Christian tradition.
A bishop was traveling by ship. As they passed an island, a sailor told the bishop that the island was the home of three holy hermits. The bishop decided that this island was in his jurisdiction. So it was his duty to stop and inspect these three holy men. He convinced the ship’s captain to stop for a short visit.
He found the hermits and asked them if they were Christians. Enthusiastically, they said, “Oh, yes!” The bishop asked them how they prayed. They said, “When we pray, we say this: ‘We are three. You are three. Have mercy upon us.’”
The bishop was horrified by this unusual and unauthorized prayer. So he taught them the Lord’s Prayer. He had them repeat it after him, line by line. It was hard work — they were very simple men. The bishop thought them unintelligent. Finally, the bishop decided they had the prayer straight. The bishop blessed them and returned to his ship, pleased that he had done his duty in teaching them.
The ship sailed away from the island. The bishop watched it shrink in the distance. But then the bishop saw a ball of light. It left the island and came across the water toward the ship. The ball of light grew larger and larger as it got closer and closer. The ball of light came right up to the side of the ship. One of the sailors shouted, “It’s the three holy hermits! They are running after us over the sea as if they were on land!” And it was so.
The three hermits shouted up to the bishop. “O servant of God, we have forgotten the prayer already. We had it at first, but then one of us forgot a word. Before we knew it, the whole prayer fell apart. Please, teach it to us again!”
The bishop fell to his knees in the presence of such holiness. He bowed his head and said, “It is you who should teach me. Go home, and continue your prayer of the heart.”
And the three holy ones turned around, walking on the water. A radiant light shone around them. And that bishop became a different kind of person.
I have heard some good advice about praying. “Pray as you can. Don’t pray as you
can’t.” Makes sense, right?
It’s not the words that are important. It’s your heart. It must be from the heart.
I remember once baptizing an adult woman with autism, the kind of disability my daughter has. I felt so honored to baptize her. You see, she’d been refused baptism by other clergy. This happened up in Syracuse. After I baptized her, I said the next words out of the Prayer Book: “Let us welcome the newly baptized.” Then comes a line the congregation is supposed to say together.
But they didn’t do it. Instead, everybody in the place just started clapping. They welcomed her into the church family with their applause. I have a picture in my office of that very moment, and it is a treasure.
Later that day, I was talking about it to my wife with delight. She said, “They were not doing it from the book. They were doing it from the heart.”
The Lord’s Prayer is a real icon of the church. Jesus taught his followers to say it. But the words don’t matter as much as the heart.
Pray as you can. Don’t pray as you can’t.
It’s not the words that are important. It’s your heart.