Worship | July 24




The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859. Copyrights for songs given after the sermon text


Sermon | “Teach us to pray” 
Texts: Genesis 18:22-33; Luke 11:1-4
Speaker: Joel Miller

One day Jesus was praying.  Afterwards, one of his disciples, apparently speaking for the group, asks: “Lord teach us to pray.”

It’s a curious question.  The disciples would have been around prayer their whole lives and no doubt had given it a try a few times themselves.  They had been surrounded by liturgies, and blessings, and intercessions, and benedictions from birth to the present moment and yet they come to Jesus with this simple, loaded request: “Teach us to pray.”  

And Jesus, for once, gives a pretty direct answer to an inquiry. 

He said to them, “When you pray, say:
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 11:2-4)

This is Luke’s version of what we call the Lord’s prayer.  The longer version we’re more familiar with appears in Matthew.

When asked by his companions to teach them to pray, Jesus offers them – words.  These words.  Word that the church in all its diversity of cultures and languages, has been praying ever since. 

Words that express an intimate familiarity – Abba, Father – yet reverence for the Divine – you are holy.

Words that speak of a kingdom, or a kin-dom, that becomes better known and realized in lived reality.

Words that speak to our most basic human needs and longings.  Daily bread.  Forgiveness and grace given toward us, which we also give to others.  Being spared the harshest trials life can throw our way.

Sometimes when you don’t know how or what to pray, it’s a great gift to have words already given, a shared language of prayer.  Like an ancient muscle memory others have remembered for you, held within the collective body. 

Like stepping into a stream already flowing toward God and all you have to do is float rather than struggle to get there.

The words of this prayer continue to serve us in these ways.   

And yet. 

And yet I’m going to make an educated guess – informed by conversations with you all over the years – that a cluster of questions around prayer – How do I do it? What is it anyway? And does it even matter? – these are still live questions despite the many beautiful prayers we have available to us.  If the disciples had one inquiry about prayer, we have many.      

Which, frankly, is why I love being a pastor in this congregation.  I would find it much harder to respond if all of those questions were settled and certain around here.        

For many of us, prayer is an open question.  Which, I’d like to suggest, is a form of prayer.  To live with the open request of the disciples, teach me to pray, is itself a prayer.  It’s an acknowledgement that we don’t have this all figured out.  A recognition that we, like the disciples, are students and learners.  It’s an open posture toward the eternal mystery.

We pray not because we know what we’re doing.  Mostly, we pray because we don’t know.

To add to the mix, we can consider the Genesis passage paired with this gospel reading.  It’s another story about prayer, one that opens a whole other set of questions. 

It’s the story of Abraham, petitioning YHWH, Adonai, translated the Lord, regarding the city of Sodom.  The passage is sandwiched between two stories of hospitality.  Or, shall we say, one story of lavish hospitality followed by one story of horrendous inhospitality. 

Sarah and Abraham are visited by three guests, who appear in the heat of the day.  We’ve had a few heats of the day recently.  Abraham sees them first, runs to greet them, and insists they stay for water, shade, rest, an appetizer of bread, and a full meal of meat and milk.  As Sarah prepares the bread and Abraham slaughters the calf, the visitors offer their own gift – a promise that this aging couple will have a child, a son, their first together.  Isaac. 

In a twist some other ancient stories about offering hospitality to strangers also make, it turns out these guests are angels, or even the Lord himself, a Divine Trinity.  After receiving the lavish hospitality of Sarah and Abraham, the guests – two of them at least –  go on to the city of Sodom, already notorious for its lack of hospitality. 

In Sodom they are welcomed in by Abraham’s nephew Lot.  But this is the extent of the hospitality they receive.  In a terrifying scene, the men of the city surround Lot’s house and threaten to break down the door, demanding he release these visitors to them so they can rape them.  As an aside, this is not a story about the evils of sexual activity between men, but the evils of sexual violence of any kind and the egregious violations of hospitality extended to travelers who are dependent on the graces of others.   The prophet Ezekiel will later write: “Now this was the guilt of your sister Sodom.  She had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”         

Sodom will famously pay for these sins with sulfur and fire from the skies raining down on the city.  Genesis says it was the Lord who brought this about.  Lot and his daughters escape, but Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction and becomes a pillar of salt. 

So much to unpack in this story, but let’s stay focused.   

Sandwiched in between the lavish hospitality of Abraham and Sarah and the terrorizing inhospitality of Sodom is a prayer, if that’s what you want to call it.  It’s set up as two of those three visitors, their bodies rested and bellies full, leave the tents of Sarah and Abraham for the city of Sodom.  Leaving behind the third, who turns out to be the Lord.  Who is exactly who Abraham wants to have a word with. 

Because Abraham, apparently, knows what’s coming.  Knows there’s a mighty judgement hanging in the air over the city, about to be unleashed.  And despite the violence of Sodom, Abraham wishes to challenge Adonai on his plan for collective punishment – that a whole city should be destroyed for the sins of some, even if those some are the majority. 

Genesis reads: “So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom (that’s those other two), while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? (And I’m just reading here straight from Genesis)  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!  Far be that from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 

Dang Abraham.  That’s bold.  That’s quite the prayer you’ve got going.

As bold as this is, a more ancient version of the text was even bolder.  That beginning line about Abraham standing before the Lord matches with how status was arranged in the ancient world, with the inferior standing before the superior, like a subject standing before a king.  But reliable older sources worded it like this: the Lord was standing before Abraham.  As if it is Abraham who holds the high ground, sitting in judgment on the very judge of all the earth.  “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abraham demands.  The scribes were very meticulous about copying every detail from manuscript to manuscript, but this is one of the few times there was an intentional scribal decision to alter the older text.  It being too bold a thing, even sacrilegious a thought that it would be the Lord standing before Abraham.  So it got changed to Abraham standing before the Lord, but the essence of the story remains. 

Abraham is calling God out, pushing for a more just form of justice.  This is in keeping with a rabbinical teaching that one of the purposes of prayer is to remind God to be God.  And notice Abraham’s prayer.  He’s not asking that 50 righteous people be saved while all the others are destroyed.  He’s asking if it might be possible, if it might even be just, for the whole city to be saved because of those 50 righteous within in.  Is the righteousness of the few enough to preserve the whole?  That’s the question at hand. 

Well….Sure, says Adonai.  “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Wow, that’s kind of amazing.  A small group of people can not only hold back the forces of destruction, but be cause for forgiveness.  I’d call that a win, Abraham, for a new kind of justice.

But Abraham is just getting started.  How small a group? he wants to know.  How small can the sweet core of the apple be and the fruit still considered not rotten.  How low can the white blood cell count be and the body still kept from debilitating disease? 

What if there are only 45 righteous in the city?  40?  30?  20?  What if there are only 10?

Each time Abraham is slightly more apologetic about pushing the envelope this far, perhaps a sign of humility or maybe just a good haggling technique honed in the marketplace.  Each time the Lord concedes.  Yes, for the sake of 45, 30, even 10, I will not destroy it. 

That’s as low as the number gets.  Abraham never asks if his prayer, counting for a mere one, would be enough. 

This story, this prayer stirs up all kinds of questions. 

Are we allowed to talk to God like that?  Is that how prayer works? 

Why do the innocent keep suffering for the sins of the many?  Like the lower 9th ward during Hurricane Katrina.  Like the manatees and honeybees and monarchs amidst environmental destruction. 

Are there a small group of people who can act like the immune system of our collective body and keep us from destroying ourselves?  

If we no longer believe that every destructive event comes from the hand of God, then what is the place of prayer?  Can we petition God for wildfires and hurricanes to cease or should we use all our energy to petition congress to pass better legislation? 

Can we petition God for anything?  Even our daily bread?

For many of us, prayer is an open question.  To live with the open request of the disciples, teach me to pray, is itself a prayer.  It’s an open posture toward the eternal mystery.

But when asked about prayer, Jesus did have something substantive to offer.

Prayer is something.  Something as vital as breathing.  Prayer gives shape to longing.  And longing, at its core, is the very life of the Divine within us seeking to flower and grow in this world.  It is that small part of us that preserves all other parts, leading to greater wholeness, even forgiveness. 

We pray because we are human.  We pray because the Spirit is within us, and the Spirit prays through us.  As if Adonai is praying to Adonai through Abraham and it is Abraham’s willingness to let such a prayer be prayed through him that makes him among the righteous. 

Prayer can be both a yieldedness and nonattachment to outcomes – Thy will be done.  And a guttural cry for justice, even to the point to challenging the justice of God as it has been taught us. 

Our prayers are as complex as the tangle of longings and hopes within us.  And as simple as receiving one breath, and offering it back to the world.    

Prayers give shape to longing.  Even when that longing has no realistic chance of finding its fulfillment in this lifetime.  Healing and justice and right relationship with creation are prayers we inherit from our spiritual ancestors and prayers we pass down to our descendants despite their lack of full realization.  Your kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Lord, teach us to pray.


Woza nomthwalo wakho (Come, Bring Your Burdens to God)Voices Together #679.  Text: Xhosa; from the singing of the Mooiplaas congregation (South Africa); transcr. Barbara Clark (Scotland), Mairi Munro (Scotland), Martine Stemerick (Scotland).  Music: from the singing of the Mooiplaas congregation; transcr. Welile Sigabi (South Africa). © 2008 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.) All rights reserved.   Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.  

Abana in Heaven (Abana alathi)Voices Together #675. Text: Arabic; based on Matthew 6:9–13; Laila Constantine (Lebanon); trans. and adapt. Anne Emile Zaki (Egypt), Emily Brink (USA), and Greg Scheer (USA), trans. and adapt. © 2008 Faith Alive Christian Resources; Music: Laila Constantine, 1990 © 2002 Songs of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt (admin. Faith Alive Christian Resources).  All rights reserved.   Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859.  All rights reserved.  

Herr, füll mich neu (Fill Me Anew) – Voices Together #739. Text: German; Jesus-Bruderschaft, Gnadenthal (Germany); trans. Jean Janzen (USA), Kenneth Nafziger (USA), and Randall Spaulding (USA), 2006, rev. 2019, © 1978 Jesus-Bruderschaft e.V., Gnadenthal, Germany; trans. © 2006 Jean Janzen, Kenneth Nafziger, and Randall Spaulding. Music: Jesus-Bruderschaft, Gnadenthal (Germany); harm. Klaus Heizmann (Germany), 2004, © 1978 Jesus-Bruderschaft e.V., Gnadenthal, Germany; harm. © Haus der Musik, Wiesbaden, Germany. Text & music © Präsenz, Kunst & Buch. All rights reserved.  Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved. 

Through Our Fragmentary PrayersVoices Together #677. Text: Thomas H. Troeger (USA), 1985, New Hymns for the Life of the Church, 1991. Music: Carol Doran (USA), 1985, New Hymns for the Life of the Church, 1991. © 1989 Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved.  Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.