The Proper Way to Pray

February 2, 2018 Length: 24:50

St. Luke both begins and ends his Gospel with the people God praying in the Temple. This suggests a priority for the Gospel writer. So too, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is story about the proper way to pray.





In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This year is the first time I can remember that the Triodion begins before the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple. The Presentation of the Lord to the Temple is the end of the Christmas season, and that’s not until this coming Friday, but today we’re already starting our progression to Pascha. I don’t remember that—it may have happened some other time, but I sure didn’t notice it. It kind of sneaked up on us, didn’t it? [Laughter]

The Triodion started this morning as we knelt down at matins during the chant, “Open unto me the gates of repentance, O Life-giver.” We’ll be chanting that now during the rest of this preparatory season, then into Lent. On the first Sunday of the Triodion, the Church always reads the parable of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray, because the Temple of the Lord, says the Prophet Isaiah, is the house of prayer for all the nations. The consecrated season now lies before us as preeminently a time of prayer. We begin with the Gospel of Luke. Luke will not dominate the season; we’ll have Luke the first couple of Sundays, but the season will ultimately be dominated by Mark, the gospel for the season of Lent.

But we begin with Luke, and we begin with the Lukan story about prayer. We’ll make that our first point: Prayer and the Temple in the theology of St. Luke. How does the Gospel of Luke begin, the narrative part, not the first four verses which he’s telling you what he’s going to do, but the narrative part: how does it begin? It begins with the priest incensing in the Temple. So he begins his story in the Temple. That’s how the Gospel of Luke begins: in the Temple. And the priest, son of Aaron, he’s incensing in the Temple. That’s a very rich text. We rather take things like incense for granted, not realizing that the production, the design and production of incense, marks a very high level of culture. It marks a level of culture in which men are obviously able to feed themselves and can now be concerned with how things smell, and they bring that preoccupation into the Temple itself.

It’s very likely that the incense was first introduced into the worship because otherwise the worship in the Temple would smell a great deal like a slaughter-house, with all the animals being sacrificed. I know at least one person here who was raised in Butchertown and knows all about the smell of the slaughter-house. It’s very likely that’s how it started, very likely, but gradually the rising of the smoke from the incense, the aroma, took on the quality of prayer, and particularly in the evening sacrifice, the sacrifice of incense, which we still do to this day. The Orthodox Church still continues this custom of the Temple, when the sacrifice of incense is offered, and we begin our service, we begin that part of the service with “Let my prayer arise as the incense in thy sight, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” The evening sacrifice is the one that Jacob offers in Beth-el. The evening sacrifice, continued in the Temple; it continued to this day in the Church. We did it last night; we began the evening sacrifice, the offering of the incense in prayer, by way of preparing ourselves to receive the body and blood of the Lord here this morning.

It begins with the censer. What are the people doing? Well, Zachary is inside, beyond a veil. He’s incensing back there. It took about a half-hour, by the way, according to ancient sources; it took about a half an hour. And remember when the heavenly sanctuary is incensed in the book of Revelation? Remember that? The angel comes out and incenses the heavenly sanctuary? There was silence for half an hour. It specifically says that. What are the people doing? They’re standing outside the veil while the priest is inside; what are they doing? The people outside the veil, says Luke, pan to plythos yn tou laou prosevchomenon, out of a full multitude, the plythos, of the people, were praying. Now this is the opening scene of Luke’s gospel: the people of God, standing in prayer, praying in the Temple, while their priest is offering the incense that symbolizes their prayer.

Prayer, beloved, is the activity that most defines the people of God. It is not one of those things that Christians happen to do. Christians are not, as we seem to think now, social workers who occasionally pray, but they must justify their existence by doing social work or trying to improve the world or something like that, as though that’s why God sent his Son to the world, to make things better. God did not send his Son into the world to make things better; he sent his Son into the world to make dead people live. There’s your first scene in Luke.

What is the last scene in Luke, the very last verses of Luke? The last verse of Luke’s gospel finds Jesus, who has just ascended to heaven, in the very act of blessing his people, who were assembled on the Mount of Olives. And they, adoring him, proskynysantes avton, adoring him, returned. Where did they return? To Jerusalem, the same place where the story started. It says they returned with great joy, and they were ever in the Temple: diapantos, ever in the Temple, the habitual state of being in the Temple. The life in Christ is life in the Temple. Says Luke: praising and blessing God. The last words of the gospel: praising and blessing God.

Now these two polar verses of Luke’s gospel form the setting of today’s parable which begins: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray.” It is a story about the proper way to pray, how to behave in the Temple. When you came in this morning, you realized that this is a temple. You didn’t sit down and spread out and cross your legs and act like this was a lounge. You didn’t do that. You recognized this space is sacred space. You didn’t walk in while the gospel was being read and put your hands in your pockets. You realized this is a holy thing. You didn’t do that. But, you see, this is a symbol of what the Christian life is about; it’s a life of devotion to the presence of God. It’s a story about the proper way to pray, how to behave in the Temple, because the life in Christ, beloved, is a life of reverence. This means especially the reverence of the mind. Cicero talks about the templum mentis, the temple of the mind. It has to do with a reverent mind.

The Christian life largely consists in the cultivation of a devout mind and a devout person, not just in here in this place. If we are to remain in the temple, if this is the believer’s permanent state, then the cultivation of a devout mind must become the believer’s sustained preoccupation. Anything that militates against the reverence of the mind is the enemy of God. Now the difference this morning between these two men is that one of them cultivated a devout mind, and the other was entirely taken up with keeping “the rules.” I don’t want to get too pointed, but sometimes that’s the impression I have in the Church. It’s just a congregation of rule-keepers, just rule-keepers. When do you fast? How serious are you to fast? About tithing—we do all these things, but if we’re preoccupied with those, we do not have a devout mind.

Feeling satisfied with himself, because he is meeting the standards, today’s Pharisee went on to thank God that he wasn’t like everybody else. Oh my goodness, don’t we see a lot of that! “O Lord, I thank thee that I belong to the true Church. I’m not like some of those Methodists.” I just picked those at random, by the way. “I do it the way it’s supposed to be done.” This man was bragging that he tithes. He was bragging that he kept the Monday and Thursday fasts. That’s when the Jews fasted, by the way, Monday and Thursday. We switched it to Wednesday and Friday for other reasons, but that’s another sermon. He kept the rules, and he was satisfied with himself.

Beloved, his prayer was a mockery! “Ho Theos evcharisto,” he says: “O God, I thank thee, evcharisto; God, I thank thee.” What did he thank God for, because of all his benefits for having saved him, for having brought his people out of Egypt, for having given the Torah, for having sent the prophets, for giving his only-beloved Son? What is he thanking him for? He’s thanking him that he’s not like everybody else. He thanks God, not for what God does, but for what he did. He is the center of his prayer, and this so-called prayer is not acceptable to God.

Very early in the Scriptures themselves, this question is dealt with. The first references to the worship of God in the Bible are where, what chapter, anybody? What chapter? Very good. Cain and Abel. First time devotion to God is spoken of: Cain and Abel. Both of them offer sacrifice. It’s a contrast, just as this morning’s contrast of two men offering sacrifice in the Temple, two men praying. It’s a contrast of two men who also went up to the Temple to pray. Cain and Abel each offered sacrifice. But, see, God sees the heart. What was wrong with the prayer of Cain? The rabbis and the Fathers of the Church are all of one mind on that point. What was wrong with the sacrifice of Cain? There was already murder in his heart; that’s what was wrong with it. The God who reads the heart saw what was in his heart, and so his offering to God was not acceptable, the reason he was not justified.

Second, beloved, let us talk about Jesus as a teacher of prayer, because that is very much in the Gospel of Luke as well. Jesus as a teacher of prayer: this is a Lukan emphasis. Notice how often in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is portrayed as praying. The apostles, the disciples see Jesus praying, and they come to him, and they say, “Kyrie, didaxon hemas. Lord, teach us, didaxon hemas; teach us to pray.” He’s the teacher of prayer. In response, Jesus gives them the prayer that begins, in Luke, “Abba, Father.” Matthew gives the more rabbinic reading, “Abbinu, our Father. Abbinu shebashemayim yitkadesh shimkha. Our Father who art shebashemayim, art in heaven, sanctified, holified be thy name.”

The source of our prayer, as Jesus teaches the prayer, is our relationship to Abba, the Father. The Matthian version, Abbinu, perhaps better portrays the condition of a family, not just ‘father,” but “our.” But this relationship to the Father is given to each of us, whom the Father sees in secret. Check out the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It talks about the believer’s relationship to the Abba, the Abba shebashemayim, the Father in heaven, who sees when we fast, who sees when we give alms, who sees when we pray. And how does he see? Matthew repeats it three times: en krypto, in secrecy, en krypto. You have the idea of idea of cryptic there. You hear the word “cryptic” in there? En krypto.

The setting of prayer is one of cryptography, the discernment of the writing in the heart. Prayer takes place where the Father reads our hearts. He is the God unto whom our hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, the famous prayer of St. Leo the Great: “...cui omne cor patet omnis voluntas loquitur: et quem nullum latet secretum; to whom all hearts are opened, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Pope Leo I wrote that prayer, the same one who wrote the Tome that became the document that became the document for the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The prayer, Abba, is given to us by the Holy Spirit. Chapter four of the epistle to the Galatians: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ ” That’s also in the eighth chapter of Romans, isn’t it? We cry, “Abba, Father,” because of the Holy Spirit. That’s how we begin the Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” This prayer expresses who we are by reason of our baptism, in which we become the children of God.

And thirdly let’s talk about the practical matter of the prayer. Now look at the prayer of the publican. He’s beating his breast. In fact, the Gospel of Luke has it in continued action: he’s continued to beat his breast, over and over again. And what does he say, over and over again? “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Notice there that’s really the Kyrie, eleison, isn’t it? Just two words, an invocation and a petition. Kyrie, eleison. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. There’s the most basic structure of our prayer. O God, help me. Probably none of you have ever had to feel like that, have you? “O God…” May I have a show of hands on that? “O God, help me!” O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Notice that he’s repeating it constantly. There’s a real bias against repetitive prayer, and it is a bias. In fact, I think it’s a heresy. I’ve told you the story, but new people have joined the parish since then, of these fellows who came to a vespers service shortly after I came here. This was their first time in an Orthodox church. I was talking to them afterwards. The fellow said, “Well, you know your service is a bit of a downer.” I said, “Really? I thought they were quite good tonight. In what way was a downer?” He says, “All this ‘Lord, have mercy.’ It’s so bleak. It’s so negative. It encourages feelings of self-loathing.” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” [Laughter] The perfection of love—well, if not the perfection of love, at least point three of love—is to love God unto the contempt of oneself. I’m taking that from St. Augustine. Love of God and contempt of oneself.

He says, “ ‘Lord, have mercy,’ that would work once or twice, but you said it about a million times.” I said, “Well, it was a short service.” [Laughter] “Come back tomorrow. We’re going to do it a lot more than that.” And I said, “I want you to think about this.” And I told him today’s story: the one man went up to the Temple, and his entire time of praying was standing there, beating his breast, and saying, “God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” The gospels don’t say he went down home more discouraged than the other man. He went back down more justified than the other man.

Repetitive prayer has only been a sin since 1610. [Laughter] That’s when repetitive prayer became a sin, because of a terrible mistranslation in the King James Bible. In the King James Bible, Jesus says, “Avoid vain repetitions.” There’s not a bit about that in the original Greek. All it says is, “Don’t be too wordy.” That’s all it says. “Don’t be too wordy”: that’s all it says. It doesn’t talk about “vain repetitions.” In fact, repetition is the absolute path to constant prayer. Repetition. Here in the same 18th chapter of Luke, we have two other stories in which there is repetitive prayer. Before the story of the Pharisee and the publican comes the story of the persistent widow. Remember that? In fact, Luke uses the imperfect tense over and over and over again: she continued to pray, over and over again. And in the chapter later on, the same chapter, you have the persistent blind man, the blind man of Jericho. Over and over again, he keeps shouting out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He was getting on people’s nerves; they tried to stop him. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

You see, beloved, Jesus encourages repetition in prayer. This is not wordy prayer. It’s easier this way at least to pray without distraction. Someone told me recently, “I can’t pray through the entire Our Father without distraction.” I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t pray through the Kyrie, eleison without distraction.” [Laughter] But at least there’s a better chance of it! The goal is to pray without distraction. That’s the goal; we don’t begin there. It takes years and years and years of working at prayer in order to pray without distraction. In fact, if one is worried about being distracted, that itself is a distraction, isn’t it? It’s self-defeating.

The only way to do that is to make sure, to borrow a metaphor from I think it was last Sunday or the Sunday before, make sure that the point of the compass, the needle of the compass, is pointing in the right direction. Don’t point it toward yourself; point it toward God. Just ask him what you need. What do you need? Well, we all need mercy, don’t we? We all need the divine hesed, the eternal mercy of God, in which everything is rooted. God created the world in his mercy. We sang about that this morning, didn’t we? We sang about that this morning in matins. God created the world in his mercy.

Holy Church sends us today to the Gospel of Luke to learn about how to pray, to encourage us to pray, and as Luke begins his 18th chapter, the first line is: “Jesus taught them this parable so they would pray without ceasing and never grow weary.” The constant, life-long cultivation of a devout, God-filled mind: that’s the promise God holds out to us today. Amen.