“The Lo-Cal Church”

MATTHEW 6:5-15; 14:23; 26:36

MARCH 11, 2012




           Listen to this poem written by the American poet, Sam Walter Foss.  At one time Foss wrote a new poem each day for newspapers around the country.  After his death in 1911, his poems were collected in a five-volume set.  He married a minister’s daughter, and that marriage, and his subsequent experience in the church, may have lead to the poem I want to read to you now.  He titled it, “Cyrus Brown’s Prayer.” 


"The proper way for man to pray,"

Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,

"And the only proper attitude,

Is down upon his knees."

"No, I should say the way to pray,"

Said Reverend Dr. Wise,

"Is standing straight with outstretched arms,

And rapt and upturned eyes."

"Oh, no, no, no!" said Elder Slow,

"Such posture is too proud;

A man should pray with eyes fast closed,

And head contritely bowed."

"It seems to me his hands should be

Austerely clasped in front.

With both thumbs pointing toward the ground,"

Said Reverend Dr. Blunt.

"Las' year I fell in Hodgkin's well

Head first," said Cyrus Brown.

"With both my heels a-stickin' up,

My head a-pointin' down;

"An' I made a prayer right then an' there

Best prayer I ever said,

The Prayin'est prayer I ever prayed,

A-standin' on my head."[1]


            In the Gospels, as evidenced in Matthew’s gospel, we often find Jesus praying or Jesus teaching about prayer.  That makes sense given his ethnic background.  No nation had a higher ideal of prayer than the Jews and no religion in the first century ranked prayer higher in their scale of priorities.  The Jews prayed often and they believed in prayer.  A rabbinic saying went as follows:  “He who prays within his house surrounds it with a wall that is stronger than iron.” 

            So, for Jesus, as a Jewish rabbi to include prayer in his Sermon on the Mount would not be that out of the ordinary.  Furthermore, to find him praying after feeding the five thousand would have been par for the course for Jesus during his ministry.  He had to get away, in secret as he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, to thank God for what had just happened with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and to receive his marching orders for the next day. 

            Then there is Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane.  What do we do when we get anxious or find ourselves troubled?  Do we run to our room and cry it out?  Do we run away at the mouth and yell it out?  Do we run to the neighbors and spill it out?  Do we run to the therapist and lay it out?  Well, on the eve of the cross Jesus ran to the Lord and prayed it out. 

            Over the remaining Sundays of Lent I want to focus our attention on prayer.  We’ll take a break in our Judges series and get back to it after Easter.  As we do, let’s take a look at what Jesus had to say about prayer in the sixth chapter of Matthew.  Note three things in his words.

            First, note he assumes we will be people of prayer.  Verse five ...


            And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites ...


            Note how he uses the word “whenever” and not the word “if.”  He assumes we will be people of prayer.  The Jews, of course, prayed three times a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening.  He didn’t prescribe how many times a day we are to pray, he just assumed we would be people of prayer. “ Whenever you pray,” not if you pray, but “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.”  He assumes that we will establish a regular rhythm of prayer in our lives.  For most of us, that hopefully is daily.  It doesn’t matter if its early morning, midday, late at night, or late afternoon.  Those things have a way of changing over time.  It’s just important that we have a daily rhythm of prayer.

            Second, note what he had to say about choosing a place to pray.   Verse six ...


            Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


            Jesus encourages us to establish a private place to pray.  He encourages us to choose a spot that can become our refuge or a sanctuary, a place that affords sufficient comfort and privacy, a place that over time we begin to think of a holy place of our own.

            In this regard I heard of a guy who prays on the commuter train five days a week.  He prays from the time he gets on the train until he arrives downtown.  He doesn’t draw attention to himself.  He simply and quietly closes his eyes and prays.  He’s not parading his piety in public.  No, the people on the commuter train thinks he’s catching up on his sleep on the way to work.  No one suspects he’s praying.  He says that seat on the commuter train has become a holy place for him.

            And, given what Jesus says about carefully choosing our place of prayer, let me say something about Tim Tebow.  People don’t come any better than Tim Tebow.  I would have loved my daughter to date him, but she’s married now and that would not be appropriate, but I wonder if Jesus has any difficulty with Tim’s assuming a prayerful posture on the sideline of a football game.  Is it any different than what Jesus says about the hypocrites parading their piety in public?   Maybe it is.  I’m sure Tim doing it to honor God and draw attention to God and not to himself, but they call the practice “Tebowing” and not “Jesusing.” 

            Third, note how Jesus tells us to avoid vain repetitions.  Look with me at verse seven,


            When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them ...


            In other words, don’t just go through the motions.  Don’t go into auto-pilot.  Make your prayers heartfelt.  If we are struggling with something, we are to tell God.  If we are being tempted, we are to tell God.  If we are feeling defeated, or distracted or lonely or discouraged, we are to tell God.  Heartfelt prayer puts a smile on God’s face, not empty repetitions, not mindless formulas. 

            By the way, in Jesus day, a good Jew would daily pray something called “The Eighteen.”  It consisted of eighteen prayers, and in time it became nineteen prayers, but it was still called “The Eighteen,” just as the Big Ten is still called the Big Ten even though it has twelve teams.  They prayed these eighteen prayers three times a day.  The devout Jew prayed “The Eighteen” with loving devotion, but for many Jews this became rote, a formula, where people went into auto-pilot to get through the prayers, not unlike some of may do from time to time with the Lord’s prayer.  So, avoid vain repetitions.  Make your prayers heartfelt. 

            So, given what Jesus has to say about prayer, how are we doing?  Are we praying regularly?  Do we have a holy place to go and pray?  Do we pour out our hearts when we pray?  And how do you think we are doing as a church when it comes to prayer?  In this regard I think of the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley.  Wesley’s mother, Susannah, told John not to have a good opinion of anyone who did not spend at least four hours a day in prayer.  If John Wesley visited us as a church, would he have a good opinion of us?  Do we know how to pray, and do you recall what Jesus said when he cleared the money changers out of the Temple?   In case you have forgotten he said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”  Is this house a house of prayer? 

            You may have wondered where I got the sermon title for today.  I got it from a headline in a national publication.  The headline contained the phrase, “local church” but it was hyphenated to fit on two lines.  The resulting headline read “The Lo-Cal Church.”  What’s a “lo-cal church?”  It is a church that has forgotten how to pray.  It’s a church that has lost the power of prayer. 

            Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Church, located in a suburb of Chicago, tells about the time he took five guys on a sailing trip for a week.  Bill loves to sail, it’s his passion, and he often takes off for a week with friends.  Anyway, near the end of the trip, they had dinner ashore.  At the restaurant, at a table nearby, there was a woman and a man holding hands across the table, talking quietly, gazing into each other’s eyes.  The couple was obviously in love.  One by one the guys with Bill noticed what was going on at that table and one by one the guys with Bill said, “Excuse me.  I have to go call my wife.” 

            Hybels had this to say about that dinner ashore,


            I’ll never forget thinking about what was motivating those phone calls home.  It was a picture of a deep, satisfying, love-filled relating pattern.  It made the guys think, ‘That’s what I want to participate in with my wife.  I want to talk to her.  I want to call home.’”


            Prayer is simply calling home.  In his wonderful study called Crucified Love: The Practice of Christian Perfection, Robin Maas points out how, "Just as it makes no sense to tell someone, 'I love you more than anything in the world, but I just can't manage to find the time to be with you,' it makes no sense to claim that we have no time for prayer. When we love someone we naturally want to spend time together; and when we are 'in love' with someone, we make the time to be with our beloved."

            I invite us all this week to do three things.  One, find a special place to pray.  Two,  pray in that special place.  Three, pour your heart out to God. 

            Let’s make sure no one ever accuses of being a lo-cal church.  May people come worship with us, and notice how much we love each other and love God, and may that love motivate them to call home to their Heavenly Father. 

[1] Sam Walter Foss, "Cyrus Brown's Prayer," Sourcebook of Poetry, Al Bryant, editor, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1968), p. 524.