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Sunday, July 28, 2019

Here I am

St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

When I was working full time as a Hospice chaplain, I must have prayed the Lord’s Prayer at least six or seven times a day. Every day.

No matter if I’m working that day or not, I say it every morning when I say Morning Prayer and every night when I say the ‘little office’ of Compline.

I confess that I am not always ‘fully present’ to the prayer when I say it. Sometimes, I repeat the words by rote, the way I say The Pledge of Allegiance or The Confession of sin or The Nicene Creed on Sunday.

Some folks like to say that The Lord’s Prayer is the most ancient of prayers, but there are scholars much smarter than you and I who say that, if prayer is a direct response to a call from God, then the first prayer in Scripture can be found a lot sooner than when Jesus prayed.

They note that, in the 22nd Chapter of the Book of Genesis, an angel of the Lord called out to Abraham and said, “Abraham!” And, Abraham said, “Here I am!”

In the 3rd Chapter of the Book of Exodus, God called to Moses out of the burning bush and Moses said, “Here I am!”

That was also the response of Samuel and Saul , Jacob and Isaiah. “Here I am.”

Those three words, some scholars say, are the most ancient words of prayer. Here I am.

In Hebrew the word is 'Hineni' which some scholars say can also be translated as "At your service."

Hineni is being fully present to God, ready to serve God, even though you know you have sinned.

It is very telling that when God called out to Adam after he had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, Adam did NOT respond "Hineni," "Here I am." Instead he hid himself and made some weak pathetic excuse for hiding.

Those three words, some scholars say, are the first words of prayer as a direct response to a call from  God:   Here I am. 

It is being fully present to God, even though you know you have sinned. Even though you don't know what you will be asked. Even though you don't know how you will respond. Even when you don't know what comes next.

It’s a powerful thought, one I’ll come back to in a bit.

I do love the exchange between God and Abraham from Genesis which we listened in on this morning. God wants to know what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah (as if God can’t already see what’s going on) so God sends a few men to check it out. 

Meanwhile, Abraham enters into a plea bargain prayer with God.

Abraham knows that the cities are in big trouble so he begins to ask, well, if there are 50 righteous men left in the city, will you forgive the whole place for 50 good men? And God says, sure, if there are 50 righteous men, I’ll spare the whole place.

People of ancient cultures are known and admired for their bartering, so we should not be surprised that Abraham says, “Well, what if five of those fifty are lacking?” And God says, “Okay, I won’t destroy the whole city for forty-five righteous men.”

Abraham decides to push his luck – okay, how about 40? 30? 20? How about 10?

In my imagination, I see God smiling at Abraham with great love and affection. I hear God thinking to Godself, “This dear man doesn’t understand that if there’s just one person worth saving, I’ll save the whole entire world for the hope I can see in one righteous person.”

Now, be honest – if not with me, than with yourself – haven’t you prayed a prayer like Abraham? I know I have. “Oh, please, God,” I pray, “If I promise to do ‘x’ will you please do ‘y’? Okay, how about if I do ‘w and x’? Will you do ‘y’?  Okay, okay. How about ‘v and w and x’? THEN, will you do ‘y’, and maybe you could squeeze in a ‘z’?”

I hear some of you chuckling because you have prayed that same prayer, haven’t you?

I’ve certainly heard that sort of plea bargain prayer from my Hospice patients. Sometimes, I hear that prayer from my Hospice families on behalf of the Hospice patient. “If God lest him or her live until after my daughter has her baby, I promise to name the baby after him.” Or, “I promise to do something I know I should have done a long time ago but I’ll do it now.”

I think God must smile the same loving smile on us as God did when Abraham prayed like that.

But, the Lord’s Prayer is different. Very different.

I've said The Lord's Prayer holding the ancient hand of a person who, just minutes before, couldn't put four words together to make a coherent thought and yet, there s/he is, reciting every word. Eyes closed. Head bowed reverently. Really. Praying. And, I’m astonished.

I've said The Lord's Prayer at the bedside of a dying person, surrounded by family and friends of all ages who gulp out the words between sobs and dabs of tears. And, I’m humbled.

I've said The Lord's Prayer with people – young and old – who have told me that have no faith, or have lost their faith, or confess that they haven't been to church in years and don't know what they believe anymore. And yet, there they are, praying earnestly, with their whole heart and soul and mind, believing every word they are saying. And, I am inspired.

Now, don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me but you have probably heard that some scholars say that Jesus never really said this prayer. I remember looking at a Jesus Seminar version of The Lord's Prayer, with the words that Jesus almost certainly said or did highlighted in red; and in pink, words that he "probably" said.

The words in red were: "Our Father......". Everything else? Hmmm.. maybe, maybe not. Does that matter, really? Do the words of a few scholars really make any difference to your faith? 

I don't have to cross my fingers behind my back when saying this prayer. Some of my Jewish friends
tell me that The Lord's Prayer is all the evidence they need to know that Jesus was a good Rabbi. It's a solid Jewish prayer, they tell me, reflecting all of the values that Jews cherish.

Indeed, you don’t have to be Christian or Jewish or any particular faith to pray  the words of this prayer.

To me, this prayer contains everything I need to know. It has everything I need to get me through the day – to get me through the worst parts of any day or week or month of the year.

I don't know that my prayer - this prayer - is always answered. 

I only know that the answer to the problem of poverty and hunger and injustice and forgiveness come in being cognizant and aware of the existence of these wages of sin by being mindful enough of them to pray about them. 

And, in trying to live out the words of this prayer, so that they’re not just words to be said by rote but with feeling and intention.

Author Ann Lamott says that you only need to know two prayers. The first is to be said every morning. 

That prayer is: “Please, please, please.” 

The second is to be said every evening before you go to bed. 

That prayer is “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

She maintains that all God every wants to hear is for us to ask for what we need and to be grateful for what we’ve got. I don’t know about you, but I think she may well be right.

I want to come back to that ancient  prayer, "Here I am" because I think it’s important to pray that prayer before we pray The Lord’s Prayer – or, before we say any prayer, formulated or one that arises spontaneously from our heart in response to God.

Before you pray, take a moment to stop and center yourself. Pay attention to your body, and allow yourself to feel a sense of gratitude for being alive. 

Notice the way your breath flows in and out of your nose and mouth and allow yourself to be thankful for each breath. Feel yourself sitting in your seat or standing wherever you are and consider your estate the same as Abraham who said to God, “Who am I but dust and ashes?”

And then, before you say another word, say, “Here I am.”  

You know what? Let’s try that right now. Let's pray the way Abraham and Moses, Samuel and Saul, Jacob and Isaiah prayed before we pray the way Jesus reportedly taught his disciples to pray.  

Bring your whole self to this prayer. It doesn't matter who you are or who you think you are. It doesn't matter where yo've been or haven't been; what you've done or haven't done. 

Bring your whole self, just as you are, withut one plea

First, get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes. 

Now, inhale and say to yourself, “Here”

Now exhale and say to yourself, “I am.” 

Do that again. 

Inhale: "Here." Exhale: "I am.” 

Now that we are all more fully present to God, I ask you to open your hearts and pray with me, church – if you like, hold the hand of the person next to you – and say with me some of the words Jesus taught his disciples saying,
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
One final thought: I think this prayer, whether or not Jesus explicitly taught it to his disciples as a prayer, may not have been so much our prayer to God, but God’s prayer for us.

To which I respond saying, “Here I am.” 


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