Who taught you to pray? When was it? Did you learn to pray only in memorized rote prayers? Did you learn a formula, like, 1) greet God; 2) praise God; 3) thank God; 4) ask God for what others need; 5) ask God for what you need; 6) close in the name of Jesus, Amen. Do you remember the first time you prayed, or was it something that you began doing so young that it has faded from memory, like learning to walk and talk and eat and breathe. Last week, Arlys Hopkins read the Scriptures for us during worship, and she mentioned that she had read an article that referred to the 23rd psalm as the other Lord’s prayer, and I remembered something that I wrote while I was serving as a chaplain at a hospital in Minneapolis many years ago, about the prayers that we learn so well that they serve us from cradle to grave. I don’t actually remember when I learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer, which is strange, since I wasn’t raised as a Christian, and didn’t attend any church at all as a kid. I suppose it must have been my mother who taught it to me, but I don’t remember when. But I know that it has been what I have turned to when I needed the words, when words failed me, and I needed to reach for God, even before I was a Christian, even before I would have acknowledged that I was reaching for God.
Today’s passage from Ephesians is an open prayer. Quick refresher from last week: this probably wasn’t written by Paul, and the author probably wasn’t writing to Christians in Ephesus, and it was probably written in the late 1st century, about 20 years or so after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman armies. You may also remember from last week that, when this letter talks about the peace that Christ brings, it is a direct affront to the Roman authorities, to Caesar himself, because in the Roman world, peace comes only from Caesar, and only by the use of war, and anyone who challenges that winds up crucified; and these Christians are claiming that peace could be brought to the world by a crucified peasant from an unimportant backwater of the empire, one who was in fact crucified for being a disturber of the emperor’s peace. And now here is this prayer, in which the author says, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name,” and again we see the subversive nature of this letter, and again you can imagine that the listeners in this tiny house church somewhere in Asia Minor were looking furtively over their shoulders, wondering if the soldiers would be bursting in. Because Caesar is the father of nations, and it is Caesar who gives families the right to exist and gives them their names, but Caesar’s power ends at the edges of the empire, while, as this prayer states, God’s power extends to every family on heaven and on earth.
This passage in Ephesians is a turning point in the letter. For the first two chapters, the writer has been laying out his theological concerns. If you have been following along at home, we have picked up on at least three major themes so far: 1) God is a God who gives blessings; 2) All that we do, we do for God because we live in Christ; and 3) for our sakes, God is busy breaking down the walls that hold us apart from one another, such as the walls between Jew and Gentile, the walls between heaven and earth, the walls between human and divine. Now starting in the next chapter, our author is going to take these theological issues to more practical concerns of what it looks like to be a Christian living in community. But first, a prayer.
A prayer for the community, the Body of Christ that has gathered to hear this letter read. It is, in fact, a prayer for you, who are gathered here today to hear this letter read. And it is a prayer about God’s abundance.
- according to the riches of his glory
- you are being rooted and grounded in love
- the breadth and length and height and depth
- love of Christ that surpasses knowledge
- filled with all the fullness of God
- able to accomplish abundantly far more
- to all generations, forever and ever
This is a prayer about abundance. God’s overflowing gifts that are poured out on each and every one of us, from the moment that we are conceived to the moment that we die, and beyond. And because I spent this last week at a conference that was all about faith and finances, all about stewardship, I am going to talk to you now about the one thing guaranteed to make you squirm, even if you are game to talk about sex and politics. I’m going to talk about money. And I will borrow some of the words of Margaret Waters, one of the presenters this week, to introduce this topic, adding a few of my own: I am going to talk about money. I am not going to ask for your money. When we are asking for your money we will be totally transparent about it. Right now I am talking about money because Jesus talked about money more than anything else, except the Kingdom of God. I am talking about it because I don’t want to, and you don’t want me to, and it’s not polite to. I am talking about it because if we don’t talk about it here in the church, we won’t talk about it at all, and because if we don’t talk about it, we cannot be intentional about it, and it will begin to rule us, just as surely as Caesar ruled the empire. Because, while we may not raise our political leaders up as divine, and we may not believe that every household and nation takes its name from our rulers, as the Romans did, I am not so sure we know where to draw the line with money. I think that we do believe that every nation and every family on earth derives its being from its money. And if we do not talk about that here in the church, if we do not call foul on that notion here, we are allowing that illusion to continue, and we are ourselves complicit in perpetuating that belief, the belief that my money defines me more than my God, that my wealth saves me and loves me and gives me meaning, more than my God does. And, as Margaret Waters said in her talk, if you would rather talk about sex, then we will talk about sex when we’re done talking about money, but we will probably never be done talking about money.
The author of Ephesians prays that we might be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. But I think we in our culture tend to be more rooted and grounded in money than in love. If you doubt that, I will point you to Penn State, where faith and finances were certainly connected, and the faith that was chosen was faith in money and power, and the decisions that were made there were rooted and grounded in something very different from love. Because where your money is, there your heart will be also, and it’s not the other way around – we don’t throw our money after our hearts nearly so often as our hearts follow our money, that’s just the way we are wired. And I wonder, how hard is it for Christ to dwell in hearts that are rooted and grounded in money. Jesus told us that we could not serve two masters, that we could not serve both God and wealth, and so here this writer is, praying fervently, down on his knees before God, that Christ might dwell in our hearts, and that our hearts might find new and fertile ground for rooting and grounding, that we might be grounded in love, in order to make room for Christ to dwell.
And so I have to ask. How do you pray? And have you ever thought that the way that you use your money might be a prayer? Did anyone ever teach you that when they were teaching you how to pray? Because I don’t think I ever heard that. But I think that now I will teach this to others, to my own children. How you spend your money is a prayer. And we ought to be careful what we pray for. Thomas Aquinas said that money only has meaning when it’s used. When it is sitting in a bank account, or in a piggy bank, or under a mattress, money doesn’t mean anything. It only begins to have meaning when we begin to apply our imagination to it. It only begins to have meaning when we begin to dream about what we can do with it – then it takes on value, it takes on the weight of our hopes and our dreams. And our prayers.
It may seem like money is mundane, and spending it not particularly inspiring as a spiritual practice. But it is precisely because it is mundane that it is important. God comes to us in the mundane. God meets us in bread and wine, and turns a simple meal on a hillside into a feast for the ages. It may seem like money is precious, it is scarce, and spending it is frightening, and it will never be enough to satisfy the needs and wants of everyone. But it is precisely because it is precious, because it is scarce, and because we are frightened, that it is important. Because God meets us in our fears, and turns scarcity into abundance, so that five barley loaves and two fish are blessed and distributed and feed 5000 and there are twelve baskets left over and prayer is answered.
What kind of prayer is it when you spend your money? Is it a rote and memorized prayer, the one that you pull out when you don’t know how else to pray? Is it a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, as you remember the abundance of that hillside, and the freely given gift of God on the cross, freely given, but not free, as Martin Luther says in the small catechism, because he knew that we would understand money better than theology. So Luther explains that I have been redeemed, purchased and delivered from sin, death, and the power of evil, not with gold or silver, but with Christ’s holy and precious blood, so that I am free to be rooted and grounded in love, and not in sin or death or money or any other thing, but in love. So that when I spend my money, I am free to spend it as a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, grateful for God’s abundant grace. Or as a prayer of petition, of hope and expectation, putting my money as a prayer toward God’s promised and preferred future. That may mean that I am praying for my own future – maybe I’m saving for an education, or a retirement, or a new home, or an unexpected need. It could be a prayer for the environment, when I choose to buy reused or recycled or energy-efficient. It may mean a prayer for the future of God’s mission, here or elsewhere – maybe I’m giving my money to my church or to a charity that I believe in. It may mean a prayer for a friend or a loved one – maybe I give a gift to someone I love. It may combine these – maybe I give a gift to my daughter on her birthday, and that is a prayer of gratitude for all God has given me in her, and a prayer of hope for all that is to come for her.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I have this all figured out. I don’t. I stand fully convicted by my own words, and I am busy remembering all the obnoxious little plastic toys that I have bought at the $1 bins at the front of Target, that broke before they got home; and I’m pondering the credit card bills that I have left over from our recent vacation, and wondering just what all I spent; and I know that none of that spending was a prayer, at least not intentionally, and I’m asking myself what gods I have been praying to in my fiscal prayers. But I also know that I hate talking about money, but Jesus clearly did not hate talking about it, and thought it was important enough that he spent a good bit of his ministry talking about it, and so maybe I need to pay it better attention. So I am inviting you to join me in this conversation, because I want to become a better steward of the abundance that God has given me. I am inviting you to join me, because I suspect that you want to respond to God’s gifts faithfully and joyfully, and I suspect that many of you have as hard a time doing so as I do. I am inviting you to join me, because someone in Asia Minor 1900 years ago began praying for us, that we might truly be the Body of Christ in the world, that we might experience the power at work within us to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. I am inviting you to join me because I know that it will be hard to be a better steward of my money, and that I will fail, and that I will need you to remind me of the truth that I will also tell you: that even if we fall short of our goal, even if we don’t get it right, even if our prayers slip into old habits, those failures do not own us any more than money does, and we do not have to live them out day after day. Instead, we live in Christ, and in Christ, we have the freedom to begin each day anew. In Christ, we have been given the freedom to break the boundaries, both within us and between us, to have the difficult conversations and make the difficult moves. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.