Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer
A Message on Matthew 6:5-8
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Feb. 28, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 6:5-8 (NRSV)

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

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Today we continue our Lenten sermon series on the spiritual disciplines by exploring the topic of prayer.

As United Methodists we believe a spiritual discipline is “any habit or activity done with intention that helps us be more ‘in touch’ with our spirituality and with God.” [Source: https://www.umc.org/en/content/spiritual-disciplines-and-giving-thanks]

Prayer is one of those spiritual disciplines.

At its simplest, prayer is simply having a conversation with God. And that is an awesome thing. It’s always on, doesn’t need batteries or electricity, isn’t affected by the weather, and is free. Really free. We can pray to God anytime, anywhere, and short of rendering one unconscious, nobody can stop us.

But prayer is also so much more than that. Prayer is holy. It is an expression of God’s grace, given to us by God. And it is one of the spiritual disciplines that we should practice not only during Lent, but at all times.

Prayer is ancient. We read about it in the Old Testament scriptures.

Psalm 34:17 reads, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.”

2 Chronicles 7:14 reads, “…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Proverbs 15:29 reads, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”

Prayer is also a very important topic in the New Testament writings as well. Here are some examples:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” James 5:13-16

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

One of the challenges of prayer is that people will say, “I don’t know how to pray.” I remember as a kid thinking that prayers had to be in “church language,” and since I didn’t know how to use all those “thees” and “thous” and “supplications” and “firmaments” that I couldn’t pray. I didn’t speak God’s language, so I couldn’t pray.

If I could go back and talk to my young self I would explain that kind of thinking was wrong. God, after all, knows all languages, and even understands East Texas dialects. It’s not the fancy or religious words that God cares about, it’s about the heart. The heart is the heart of the matter, so to speak.

Not only can we pray to God anytime and anywhere, but we have help even during those times when we are so exasperated or overwhelmed that we really don’t know what to pray. Yep. It’s called the Holy Spirit.

Listen to these words that the Apostle Paul writes in the letter we know as Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

So prayer can be very powerful even when we lack the words to know what to say.

In the scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew we find Jesus talking about prayer. Not only does he talk about it, but he points out important distinctions on how we should and should not pray.

I have heard someone say before (and I have to admit that it may well have been me) that there’s no wrong way to pray. I don’t think that is true. And the scripture we read today is one of the reasons I don’t think it is true.

Here’s the situation. Jesus comes onto the religious scene and sees that people have distorted religion to serve their own purposes, not God’s. The Jewish priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes have taken prayer and twisted it so that it served their purposes.

These religious leaders were using prayer to make themselves look good. They were doing it to impress other people with just how religious they were and to satisfy their own egos.

A long-standing Jewish tradition was for the religious leaders to pray formal, liturgical prayers. These were either written out or memorized, or both. At some point these leaders started adding at certain spots spontaneous self-created prayers. And at these spots the leaders would “ad lib,” to take a term from the musical world, and the “ad lib” parts started becoming longer and longer and longer.

The leaders started using these “ad lib” parts as an opportunity to show those hearing the prayers just how religious the person praying was. It became a performance, a spectacle, a “look-at-me-and-how-holy-I-am” opportunity that was too good to pass up.

A good example of this is found in the Gospel of Luke where he tells this parable. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:10-14

In this parable we see that prayer is about the heart. The Pharisee had his nose stuck up in the air and looked down on all those he considered to be the dregs of society, thinking that because he was so religious, he was much better, much holier, than those lowly people.

And his prayer, ironically, reflected that “better-than-thou” attitude. “Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like these scalawags and sinful folks.”

While he was thinking of himself as high and mighty, the tax collector in the parable knew he was a sinner. He didn’t shirk from the fact, or try to gloss it over, or rationalize it away, but admitted he had made some bad choices and had sinned.

This is particularly insightful because of the role tax collectors played in the society of that time. Tax collectors were considered to be the lowest of the low. They were considered by most of the Jewish people to be traitors to their fellow Jews because they worked for the taxing authority, the Roman Empire, which was the occupying force in the land at that time.

So not only were the tax collectors considered traitors to their own people, but they were considered unethical thieves as well. Tax collectors were paid a percentage of the taxes they collected. However, it had become commonplace at the time for them to collect more than was owed, thereby keeping some for themselves. They were profiting by cheating their own people. It was no wonder the Jewish people didn’t like them and considered them lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.

Knowing that, Jesus’ parable had to have a severe sting to the religious leaders of the day. And it reemphasizes the point that prayer is a matter of the heart.

Jesus’ words about prayer in the scripture from Matthew that we read today talks about how those religious leaders would pray in public to be seen by others. Their praying was self-serving, not God-serving. It was something they did for their ego, not as a spiritual discipline to God.

And Jesus says that because these “hypocrites,” which he calls the religious leaders frequently, are doing it for the wrong reasons, they have “have received their reward.” (vs. 5) They got a boost to their ego. They reinforced their unholy thinking that they are better than others. But that’s all they were getting.

To emphasize that prayer is about the heart, Jesus gives instructions on how to pray. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So does that mean we shouldn’t ever pray out loud in public or with others? No. I think Jesus is emphasizing the point that we should pray with proper intent. We shouldn’t pray to impress others, or even to impress God (after all, how can we even do that?). No. It’s about having the proper heart to communicate with God.

Prayer is a gift, a grace, given to us so that we can communicate with God directly. We don’t have to go through a high priest or a religious intermediary. Prayer goes directly from our lips (or thoughts, as it doesn’t have to be spoken out loud) to God’s ears.

And as Jesus points out, God “knows what you need before you ask him.”

Eugene Peterson correctly points out that “Prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word.”

So what should we pray? Unfortunately we get in the habit of praying for things. We kind of view God as Amazon Prime and prayer as a way to order online and then just wait for the delivery. Years ago Janice Joplin sang about the hypocrisy of this kind of prayer with her song, “Lord, Won’t You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz.”

We should pray for things such as wisdom, discernment, patience, and understanding. We should pray for others, for our community, our state, our country, our world. We should NOT pray to gain attention or to impress others.

So my challenge to you today is to consciously practice the spiritual discipline of prayer during this season of Lent. Turn prayer into a habit–a good habit–as you communicate with God. Focus on improving your prayer life as we travel through Lent toward Easter. As the song says, “Have A Little Talk with Jesus.”

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
Let us tell Him all about our troubles
He will hear our faintest cry and we will answer by and by

Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning
You’ll know a little fire is burning
You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right

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

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