Short. Sweet. Simple.

I am a writer and a preacher, so I know a simple truth: words have power. Words can lift us up and tear us down. Words can impart wisdom and spread ignorance. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

A few months ago, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives swore in its very first Muslim woman legislator. Her name is Movita Johnson-Harrell.

Right before she was sworn in—as in, minutes before she was sworn in—another legislator delivered the session’s opening prayer. It was two minutes long. And I know that doesn’t sound like a long time, but it’s a long time.

She thanked God for letting her be the ambassador of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who came and died and rose again, and who will return to judge the living and the dead.

She thanked God for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and all the founding fathers who sought to create a country based on Jesus’s words and truth. She thanked God for Pennsylvania’s speaker of the house, and Pennsylvania’s senate leader, and Pennsylvania’s governor. And she thanked God for the president, and, especially, for his unequivocal support of Israel.

She acknowledged that we as a country have turned away from God and she prayed for forgiveness. And she made it clear that forgiveness only comes through Jesus, who is our only hope.

And she claimed all of these things “in the powerful mighty name of Jesus, the one who, at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord, in Jesus‘ name.”

She called on Jesus’s name thirteen times during her two minute prayer. And she did this all right before the first Muslim woman to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives was sworn in.

Words have power. And maybe she was sincere in her prayer. And maybe she prays that way all the time. But in that moment, I think her prayer was less about honoring God and asking for God’s guidance and support, and more about making an Islamophobic point to her Muslim colleague.

Words have power. Prayer has power. Prayer is dangerous. Prayer is risky.

When we pray, we are appealing to the one who created the whole of reality. When we pray, we are appealing to the one who came and died and rose again, and who will return to judge the living and the dead. When we pray, we are messing with power beyond our comprehension.

When we pray, we are like children with a nuclear play-set. And there is good reason to be careful.

Today is our fourth and final Sunday in our summer sermon series on prayer.

We heard Hannah pray for a son. And after God gave her a son, we heard her pray her thanksgiving to the one who makes poor and makes rich, who brings low and who exalts.

We heard Jonah pray for salvation from the belly of a great fish. And we saw that fish spit Jonah out on dry land. And we saw Jonah change, and turn towards God, and do the work that God had set before him.

We heard a psalmist pray his rage. And I told you that God could handle his rage and that God can handle ours.

And today, we hear from Jesus—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who came and died and rose again and who will return one day, to whom every knee will bow and every tongue will confess—as he teaches us how to pray. As he teaches us how to handle these words. As he teaches us how to handle this dangerous and risky thing called prayer.

And the first thing that he says is this: don’t pray so that people can see you pray, don’t pray so that people can hear you pray, don’t pray to put on a show for other people. There are folks who do that. Their words are hollow and their thoughts are misdirected.

Instead, go into your room and close the door and pray in secret. No one but God needs to know.

And, I’ll be honest, I recoil at that a little. Praying together has always been an important part of Judaism. Praying together has always been an important part of Christianity. We pray alone and we pray together. We pray in private and we pray in public. And I think there’s a place for praying where people might see us.

But there’s a difference between praying where people might see us and praying so that people can see us. When we pray so that other people can hear us, we turn prayer into theater, and we strip our words of their power.

The second thing that Jesus says is this: don’t heap up words like God will only listen to you if you’re fancy. Keep it simple. Pray like this:

God, may you be honored. And may your reign come to this world. Give us what we need for today and don’t let us worry too much about tomorrow. As we forgive each other for the ways we’ve failed each other, forgive us for the ways we’ve failed you. Keep us from temptation and deliver us from evil. All glory belongs to you. Amen.

Short. Sweet. Simple. Powerful enough to change the world: God, may I love you; God, may this world love you; God, may your love flow throughout this world and through all of us; amen.

Prayer is risky. Prayer is dangerous. Prayer is powerful. The words of prayer are like a nuclear play-set. And there’s good reason to be careful. There’s good reason to keep is contained. There’s good reason to keep it simple.

Because when we take our words and hand them over to the one who created the whole of reality—when we take our words and hand them over to the one who came and died and rose again, and who will return to judge the living and the dead—our words might change the world.

Our words might change us.

We might pray for thanksgiving, and dwell in thanksgiving, and become more thankful.

We might pray for deliverance, and dwell in our dependence on God, and become for faithful.

We might pray for justice, and dwell in justice, and become more just.

We might pray for mercy, and dwell in mercy, and become more merciful.

We might pray for love, and dwell in love, and become more loving. 

And then we might look at our neighbor of a different religion, and love them. And we might look at our neighbor who came here from another country, and love them. And we might look at our neighbors across this whole wide world, in all of the amazing diversity that God created, and love them.

Prayer is risky. It might open us up the redeeming and transformative grace of the one who created the whole of reality—the one who came and died and rose again, and who will return to judge the living and the dead—and he might make us into who we were meant to be.

The beauty of the prayer that Jesus taught us is that it is a model for how we can open ourselves to God’s love. Through its simple words, we honor God, we ask for what we need, and we plead for God to heal us and make us whole: God, may I love you; God, may this world love you; God, may your love flow throughout this world and through all of us; amen.

Words have power. Words can lift us up and tear us down. Words can impart wisdom and spread ignorance. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And when we pray… well…

We don’t need to pray so that other people can hear us. We don’t need to heap words on words on words. We only need to turn to God and speak the truth. We only need to turn to God and honor God… and ask for what we need and no more… and ask for forgiveness… and ask for the strength and wisdom to forgive others… and ask for deliverance. May it always be so.

That’s a prayer that works in private. That’s a prayer that works with our fellow believers. That’s a prayer that works in public. And it just might make us more whole. And it just might heal the world.

Let us pray:

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. Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

God, may you be honored. And may your reign come to this world. Give us what we need for today and don’t let us worry too much about tomorrow. As we forgive each other for the ways we’ve failed each other, forgive us for the ways we’ve failed you. Keep us from temptation and deliver us from evil. All glory belongs to you.

God, may I love you; God, may this world love you; God, may your love flow throughout this world and through all of us. Amen.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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