Proper 12C: thoughts and exegesis

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Gospels / Lectionary / New Testament

How many books have been written, and how many sermons preached on the Lord’s Prayer?

As they say in the south, “a couple few.”

There’s been some really good work of late examining the Lord’s Prayer as central to understanding the theology of Jesus. Scot McKnight’s book “Jesus Creed,” goes a long way toward this goal, and pits the Lord’s Prayer against contemporary prayer approaches which make prayer more like a drive-up window where you get what you want, and even get it super sized if you’re lucky.

I’m not really up for walking down that well-worn path one more time. It may be what my sermon shapes up to be on Sunday… but here, I’d like to talk about prayer.

At the beginning of the lesson Jesus is praying. His disciples see him, and they ask him to teach him to pray. Apparently even John the Baptist had a prayer that he taught his disciples.

This lesson is about prayer.

I’ve just returned from a nearly two-week trip to sacred sites in England and Scotland. We saw lots of ancient abbeys, cathedrals, and castles. We visited islands and mountaintops, lochs and moors. It was a spectacular fortnight.

As we walked around, and saw lots of ‘old stuff,’ there was an intangible difference that set some sites apart from others. It’s hard to nail down exactly what it was that made these places different – but if I had to put words to it, they were placed that were prayed in.

Really prayed in. Like, you could feel the prayers.

For me, there’s something that sets Durham Cathedral apart from other ancient and storied churches: the stones are soaked in prayer. Fresh prayer. Old prayer.

Towards the end of my trip I traveled alone to Westminster Abbey. I had pleasantly forgotten how commercialized the place is. A friend of mine calls it a monument to man, instead of to God. While I have fond feelings for the abbey – and it figures prominently in my past – the place is cluttered by statues and plaques to people. Famous people. Smart people. Talented people. But, just people.

But, then I was taken by a very kind priest off, away from the crowds, and given a few moments alone at the shrine of Edward the Confessor. King and saint.

The din of the crowds still reverberated through the stone halls, but for a few minutes I was transported far and above all that was earthly.

Here was a place that was prayed in.

And it was sweeter than honey, and worth the trip.

After my stay in the abbey I walked a mile or so east to Temple Church. Despite all the DaVinci Code hype, I had never been there before. I walked around the odd circular nave for a while. I sat in the choir under the candles. I prayed the evening office.

As I was getting ready to leave, and head back to my friend’s home, the young man who was working the front desk stopped me. He thanked me for spending time there. He said that so many people come in, look around, and then just leave. He was thanking me for soaking the place in.

He was thanking me for praying in the church.

Because, apparently, that’s an odd thing to do.

Cuthbert Not to relive my entire trip in this blog post… but, what the heck, why not… when I was on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne I picked up a wonderful book called “Celtic Daily Prayer.” It’s basically a version of a Book of Common Prayer written for the Northumbria Community. I’ve been using the version of the Daily Offices found there for the past two weeks. (You can also find them online)

I’ve been encouraged by the lives of the ancient Celtic Saints who the book constantly references, and I’ve even learned about some holy men and women who I’ve never even heard of before.

But, the thing that has struck me about the prayers – besides their beauty – is the brevity and simplicity. They are short, and beautiful.

Ah. Just like the Lord’s Prayer.

Yes, this has been a rambling post, written by one who is still a little off-kilter from international travel, and who pines after the verdant hills of the Mother Country. But, here’s what I want to say about prayer: it’s important. It effects not only people, but places. It soaks into stone and wood, and grafts itself into the landscape. It’s becoming rarer and rarer, apparently even in churches. And, it needs to be neither long nor impressive to be a holy experience.

Forget about all the stuff about prayer efficacy. How you can get everything you want. How you have to use the right words, over and over again. How if you’re prayer uses the word ‘just’ enough (“Lord, we just thank you, and just praise you…”) that it’s somehow less formal and more heartfelt.

Prayer is our soul talking to God, and listening with our soul for God. It’s stepping into a stream that’s a little deeper and fresher than we’re used to. And it is found at the tomb of a saint, an island accessible only by tidal causeway, a shoreline dotted by puffins, and the plastic chair outside the Burger King.

And you’re invited. Invited to sit with Love, Grace, and Truth Incarnate. You.

Pray like Jesus. Pray like the Baptist, John. Pray like Edward, king and saint. Pray with simplicity and brevity. And drench a place in that prayer.Someday someone may sit down in that exact same place and stay a while, thankful for the stone and wood you and God sanctified by your simple attentiveness to what Really Matters.

(The picture above is of Cuthbert’s Island – a small island just 25 yards or so from the much larger Isle of Lindisfarne. It is said to be the place that St. Cuthbert lived and prayed in solitude. The TTV filter is by borealnz on Flickr.)