A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont
February 18, 2018
Text: Matthew 6: 7-13
My Pentecostal-leaning grandmother knew a good preacher when she saw one. Modeled after the televangelists with whom she spent much of her time, her standard for a good preacher was one who just “preached the Word,” spontaneously and extemporaneously, not with a sermon crafted in the week before but in a heartfelt connection with the Bible that lived from the moment. Good preachers, she would say, prayed the same way. A good prayer isn’t written out; it comes from the heart—spontaneously, with words that come directly from the Spirit in that moment.
When I was in college, the campus chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship was my main community of friends, and there too the evangelical model of prayer was consistently lifted up and practiced. Good prayer was heartfelt, personal, spoken in the moment, with a generous use of the word “just” that I never quite understood—as in “Jesus, we just thank you for your love.” Good prayer finds its expression in the moment and from the heart.
Then I went to seminary and discovered a number of things, including that on the topic of prayer and worship, I was a closet Catholic. Or so it seemed, because I fell in love with another kind of liturgy and prayer. In seminary I discovered prayers that are old, standardized, and passed down from one generation to another. I discovered the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, chock-full of prepared prayers that were used in common in many different places and many different times. I learned the art of crafting prayers carefully, ahead of time, with attention to language more like poetry than conversation. Prepared, shared, standardized prayer became authentic and good to me.