Lord, Teach Us to Pray – Br. James Koester

Matthew 6: 7-15

Several years ago, I found myself in a small, subterranean chapel within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. It had once been a cave. At some point, a modern church was built over it. The floor was littered with scraps of paper. On them people had written prayers, and then dropped them through a grille in the floor of the upper church, onto the floor of this cave chapel, where I stood with Sr Elspeth. Elspeth was an American. She had begun her religious life as a sister of the Order of Saint Anne, here in Arlington. The deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized it was to the contemplative life she was called. So, there she was, a Carmelite nun of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing me the cave, where tradition says, Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

Like many of the holy sites in Jerusalem, it is impossible to know if this is the place where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. None the less, this place has been hallowed by the memory of that occasion, as well as by the prayers of countless believers. Like this monastery chapel, the walls of that cave are soaked in prayer. You feel it the moment you enter.

Of all the prayers we pray, none is so universal, so loved, as the Lord’s Prayer. Wherever we go as Christians, we find others who love, and pray this prayer. We may be divided by language, culture, race, gender, economics, education, ecclesiology, or theology, but we are united by this prayer, and by praying it.

For all its familiarity, the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most radical acts a Christian can do. It is radical, because in the first two words, we say something profound about ourselves, and about God. Those two simple words speak volumes.

The prayer begins, not with Almighty and Everlasting God, or Holy God. It does not begin with Merciful God, or Blessed Lord. It begins quite simply. Our Father. With those two words, we enter a relationship with all the people throughout time and space, who have ever said them, and we enter a relationship with the One whom we call Father.

At its heart, the Lord’s Prayer is about belonging. That is what we proclaim when we say: Our Father. In those words, we proclaim that we belong to God, and to one another. It is through our relationship as the beloved daughters and sons of God, that we are sisters and brothers to one another. Thus, we have the audacity to say our, in union with those near and far, those like us, and those different. In this prayer of belonging, we affirm our common identity as God’s children, and we place ourselves in relationship, with God, and one another. In this age of individualism, being in relationship, especially with people who are not like us, is a radical act.

And we do more.

As we proclaim our belongingness to God, and to one another, we affirm our common need and responsibility, for one another. We pray, give us, forgive us, save us, deliver us. Nowhere do we say, me, or I. Instead, we pray, us, us, us, us.

In this prayer, we come to God, not as individuals, demanding our share, but as members of a community who know our common need for sustenance, forgiveness, salvation, and liberation. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from the evil one.[1] In those words, we pray for ourselves, and all in need, and we take responsibility, not just for our own wellbeing, but the wellbeing of others.

The Lord’s Prayer unites us, makes us, and shapes us into a communion, a community, a commonwealth, where none are left out, left behind, or left alone. In an age of self-interest, taking responsibility for the wellbeing of another, especially if they are not like us, is a radical act.

That is what I felt standing in that cave chapel. What was important was the union I felt with thousands, if not billions of Christians, who have said those same words, no matter the language, the place, or the time.

What was important was knowing, no matter how different, they are my sisters and brothers, related not by blood, but the waters of Baptism, and that we all have the same Father.

What was important was knowing in that prayer, they prayed for, cared for, and were concerned for me, just as I prayed, cared, and was concerned for them.

What was important was the echo of other voices, in other places, and other times, that joined our voices, making Elspeth’s and my two rather feeble voices the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out:[2] Our Father in heaven!

It’s easy to pray the Lord’s Prayer. It trips lightly off our tongues. In fact, we should pray it with fear and trembling, not as individuals cataloguing our personal needs, but as part of a great chorus of believers, stretching across time and space, united as sisters and brothers of one Father, who are asking, not for our own needs, but for the needs of those we love, and those we don’t, those we know, and those we may never know.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most radical thing a Christian can do. It reminds us who we are, and to whom we belong. It reminds us that we are not a collection of individuals, but the community of the redeemed who, in Father Benson’s words, live like the saints not as separate individuals… but… as members of one living body….[3]

What Jesus taught his disciples was so much more than a set of words. He taught that we all belong to God, and to one another. Because we belong, we live, not for ourselves, but for all those to whom we belong: God, our neighbour, and everyone who has ever said: Our Father in heaven….

[1] BCP 1979, page 364

[2] Revelation 19: 6

[3] Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation, page 282

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  1. Margo on February 27, 2021 at 19:10

    Dear Br. James For your sermon I thank you. You hit one of the most important aspects of this prayer very well it is radically ‘relational’ in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus who also states :”God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and TRUTH.” Jesus was a human man and men can be wrong. The ‘Lord’s prayer also suggests that there is a place up above the sky where this God lives in kingly splendor. We have been there now. He is not there. There is the mysterious ‘deep space’ instead. which is very difficult to conceive of as ruled by a single ‘person’. There are a growing group of people who are very much put off by this nomenclature, its irrelevance and its very definitive ‘maleness’. Is it not time for some words that maintain the relatedness of all people to their origin and destiny which skip human specifics of how. I have prayed and tried to find them and failed but perhaps you can. Margo

  2. William F. Brown - Bill on February 25, 2021 at 15:51

    The emphasis on belonging to a community with responsibilities to others and they to us is surely spot on and a challenge worthy of ‘Our God”.

  3. Sharon Stanfill on February 25, 2021 at 14:24

    This was exactly what I needed to see today. I struggle with worship and prayer being so far removed from any physical church. But the Lord’s Prayer comes always to mind. I often pray it before getting out of bed, and in the middle of the night, and when worried. Your thoughts are what I have known for a long time , but never put into words.

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