Monday, October 1, 2012

Prayers of the People

September 20th, 2012       “Prayers of the People”        Rev. Heather Jepsen

Sermon Series: The Theology of Worship
(Based on A More Profound Alleluia  ed. Van Dyk)
Matthew 6:9-13 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4

          This is the fifth Sunday in our sermon series on how and why we worship the way that we do.  Over the past month we have been studying our worship practices.  We have wound our way through the service; from being gathered in God’s name to the sermon, from confessing our sins to the importance of creeds.  Today we will talk about the Prayers of the People.

          In the Presbyterian Directory for Worship we read, “Prayer is at the heart of worship.  In prayer, through the Holy Spirit, people seek after and are found by the one true God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ.  They listen and wait upon God, call God by name, remember God’s gracious acts, and offer themselves to God.  Prayer is shaped by the Word of God in Scripture and by the life of the community of faith.  Prayer issues a commitment to join God’s work in the world.” (W – 2.1001)

          Of course we have several times of prayer throughout our worship service.  I think of our choral introit as a prayer in song that calls us to worship.  We have the prayer of confession, in which we come before God, naming ourselves as sinners and asking for redemption.  We have the prayer of illumination, in which we ask God to open our minds and hearts to the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the word.  And we have the prayer of offering, as we give our gifts to God.

          This morning we will talk about the Prayers of the People.  This is the time when we come before the Lord in thanksgiving and supplication.  What comes to mind of course is the sharing of our joys and concerns.  This is an important chance for us to share our lives with each other as a community.  As a church family we are committed to pray for each other’s needs.  We do that here in worship every Sunday; and I am sure that many of you go home and lift up the joys and concerns mentioned in worship in your private prayers.  This praying for each other’s needs is an important way that we worship together as the body of Christ.

          But our Prayers of the People go beyond simply praying for those in our church community.  In the first letter to Timothy, the Christian community is told to offer prayers for everyone, including the authorities, who were not members of the church.  Theology professor Ronald Byars reminds us that “In its worship, the church continually rehearses its role as intercessor.  The church intercedes on behalf of the whole broken world and all its families, those who pray for themselves, and those who don’t, those who can’t pray for themselves, and those who won’t.  As we pray for those who are religiously, politically, and economically different from us – event at odds with us – we engage in a kind of reprogramming to exorcise our prejudices.  In effect, we petition God to reshape our minds and hearts so that those whom we might easily regard as enemies may become visible to us as precious in God’s sight.”

          Our Book of Common Worship instructs us to “pray for worldwide and local concerns, offering intercessions for: the church universal, its ministry and those who minister, including ecumenical councils, churches in other places, and this congregation; for nations and those in authority; peace and justice in the world; the earth and a right use of its resources; the community and those who govern; the poor and the oppressed; the sick, the bereaved, the lonely, all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; and those with special needs.”  Though we may not make it through the whole list every Sunday, we do touch on these needs throughout our collective worship services. 

          “Karl Barth’s suggestion that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other applies with at least equal force to the church’s prayers.  The sermon may or may not address some pressing issue in society, but the Prayers of the People will always hold up before God whatever brokenness in the world has come to our attention.  We pray for victims of natural disasters, disease, warfare, and conflict, for the homeless, and for ourselves.”  (Byars)

          After our time of vocal prayer, we take a moment for silent prayer.  Our practice of coming before God in silence is an important part of our worship.  “Modern people are not very patient with silence, often perceiving it as nothing more than empty time.  However, silence need not be simply the absence of sound.  Silence is an opportunity in worship for God to speak a word of comfort or challenge, a word of instruction or insight or warning, a word of gracious consolation or tender mercy.”  (Byars) 

          Of course, every Sunday we join together in the Lord’s Prayer.  From the time of Christ, Christians have recited the Lord’s Prayer within their daily lives and within the community of worship.  By reciting the prayer every week, we remind ourselves that we are part of a deep tradition and a great number of believers, going back in time to Christ himself.

          The elements of the Lord’s Prayer tell us a lot about who we are and who we believe God to be.  We open with the words, “Our Father”.  This language implies a level of personal intimacy between us and our creator.  The words “in heaven” immediately following reminding us that God is fundamentally otherness and holy.  These two ideas of familiarity and holiness are held in tension throughout the prayer and throughout our very relationship with God.  God is both profoundly familiar and profoundly other at the same time.

          Following the opening are three “yours” directed to God.  We praise God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will.  We must focus first on the nature and person of God, before we can begin to ask for our own needs including our need for forgiveness.  In saying these words we are reminded of God’s role in our world, and in praying for God’s will to be done we are asking for the full accomplishments of God’s purposes in and among us.

          Only after we have focused on the person of God, do we ask for our own needs.  Give us bread for today, we ask.  Jesus instructs us to ask God for only one day’s rations.  How often do we worry about tomorrow, and ask God for things far off in the future?  The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that God promises to provide for us one day at a time.

          In asking for forgiveness we are told to forgive others.  This is a tough one for all of us.  We must remember that to forgive is not to forget, but it is to let go of the hateful feelings we carry toward the other person.  We know that those negative feelings only serve to hurt ourselves as they eat us up from the inside.  The Lord’s Prayer makes clear that God’s forgiveness is tied to our forgiveness of each other.

          The final prayer is to avoid temptation.  God will never lead us to temptation.  Rather, in saying these words we recognize that we are all spiritually frail and we ask for God’s presence to come among us in our time of need and lead us through our time of temptation. 

          When we say the prayer on Sunday mornings, we add more than what is written in Matthew.  “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” is a doxology added to the prayer during the times of early church.  These words serve to remind us again that all belongs to God and just as we open the prayer focused on God’s person and will, we close the prayer in praise of God.

           Again the Directory for Worship reminds us of the importance of prayer in our worship service.  “In prayer we respond to God in many ways.  In adoration we praise God for who God is.  In thanksgiving we express gratitude for what God has done.  In confession we acknowledge repentance for what we as individuals and as a people have done or left undone.  In supplication we plead for others, on behalf of others, and for the whole world.  In self-dedication we offer ourselves to the purpose and glory of God.”

          Prayer is central to our worship service and the Prayers of the People is our central prayer.  We come before God with thanksgiving and intercession for our church community and the world; we listen for a word of God in silence; and we recite the Lord’s Prayer as Christians have done for generations.  We cannot come before God in worship without coming before God in prayer.

          I want to close with a special version of the Lord’s Prayer.  This rephrasing of the Lord’s Prayer is from the New Zealand prayer book and I love the way it allows the message of the Lord’s prayer to fall fresh upon our ears and hearts.  Let us pray . . .

The Lord's Prayer from A New Zealand Prayer Book:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
  sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
  now and forever. Amen.



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