NRSV LUKE 11:1-13
11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
We’re down to two weeks now – two weeks before we have a special gathering, with each other, with people we haven’t seen in a while, and celebrate this church’s anniversary. It is more or less our official anniversary, the one that celebrates when we got our certificate as an official denomination of the Presbyterian Church, USA, or whatever it was called back in 1844.
We’ve talked a little about this church’s history, and you can read more about it in the wonderful little book that Charlaine Coetzee wrote in 1996, copies of which are on a table in the foyer. For this morning, and with this Gospel reading, I want us to consider something else besides dates and facts and figures. I want you to think about that central church activity – prayer – and who taught you to pray.
I know a question like that is bound to have a multi-faceted answer; there were a lot of people who have taught us to pray. But who provided the earliest lesson? And how did you receive it? Was prayer something that felt like a soothing experience, or was it something frightening, or maybe boring? Were the words and phrases dynamic or did they sound like the same old thing? I know from my experience with folks around here that someone did a very good job of teaching you all to pray. There are a lot of good prayers here, words that really mean something, and not just casual phrases thrown together.
Maybe you were called on to pray at an early age, as I was. I don’t remember how old I was – probably late elementary school – but I do remember the first time I was asked to pray, by my beloved Sunday School teacher. The prospect of the whole thing, leading people in an address before Almighty God, scared me to death, and I took a pass real quick. Felt too much like a hand grenade with the pin pulled. I didn’t want any part of it. Too dangerous.
As I grew older I got over my initial stage fright, or prayer fright. These days I know because of my position rather than my ability that I am going to be the go-to guy for a prayer, and that’s fine, I’ve done it enough times. But I wonder if my initial experience with prayer wasn’t more on target than I would like to admit. Maybe we get a little too comfortable with prayer. Maybe we offer up the same old lines or we try a little too hard to come up with something new that we miss something – a conversation with a wildly unpredictable and unfathomable, yet loving, Presence.
Then there is the issue of the usefulness of prayer. I have heard it all the time, and you have, too, and most of us have said it at one time or another: someone makes it through a surgery, a disaster is averted, a job is gained, and we say, “Well, I guess prayer worked.” I don’t say it at the time, because I don’t want to diminish or make light of someone’s feeling of relief, or thanksgiving from being preserved by what they perceive as the hand of God. But I wonder: What does it mean for prayer to ‘work’? That things turned out the way we want them to; wonderful things, no doubt, but does that mean that we somehow by the greatness of our prayers or the depth of our piety have convinced God to give us something that maybe God didn’t want to give? What would have happened if that operation had not been a success, if a miscarriage had occurred, or a job was given to someone else? Does that mean that God is not powerful, not loving, because death came, dreams were shattered and life was revealed as the broken and incomplete mess it often is?
Maybe there was something to my earlier trepidation about giving a prayer. Prayers can be dangerous. They can lead us into thinking that if I just phrase it right God will be convinced to give me my heart’s desires or someone’s life will be saved. And if I don’t get what I pray for, then either God is a heartless tyrant in the sky (Why is God always a ‘guy in the sky?’), or I am an utter fool for believing, or a complete failure as a Christian. All these are dangerous phrases that can lead us to despair and faithlessness. And they lead us there because we have put too much of prayer on us, and have lost sight of the loving and caring God to whom we pray.
When the unnamed disciple asks Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he was not asking for a template. He was not interested in technique, or a fool-proof formula to get what he wanted. These guys were all steeped richly in their Jewish tradition. They knew about John the Baptist’s prayer, one lost to history. But he wants more than words to memorize. He wants prayer to become as much a part of his life as he sees it in Jesus. Jesus has just been praying, as he does so often. His disciples learned so much from him, mostly by the way he conducted himself, and he was often in prayer. So they are asking him to make this holy connection possible for them. Help us to communicate with God the way you communicate with God. Help us to feel that intimate, loving presence the way you do. Lord, teach us to pray, not only with words but with feelings, with the peace that passes understanding, with an effort to keep flowing the love you have given us to those we pray for. To accept whatever happens as being in your hands, and trusting that in all things you are working for good. Not just some things, not just the things that turn out the way I want them to. But all things; even in bad things, even in brokenness, even in dumb mistakes, teach us to feel that loving Presence which can take our messed up world and messed up lives and make them wonderful and whole again.
It’s interesting to note that when our Lord teaches them – and us – to pray, he does not say ‘If you pray.’ He says, “When you pray…” Prayer is part and parcel of being human. People will pray, no matter who they are. Especially if they are followers of Jesus the Christ. Prayer is what we do. But more importantly, prayer is who we are. It is hard wired into our very existence. There is a loving Being way beyond our ability to comprehend, but because this Being is loving and caring we always have an open door to lift up our prayers. St. Augustine said, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Every time I hear that or utter it in a poor prayer of my own, it really strikes me. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God knows our wants and needs better than we do. God is not that being in the sky but an ever-present Presence, blowing here and there like the wind, the Spirit of God, showing up literally God knows when and where. When we pray, that Presence is there. When we breathe, that Presence is there. When we blink, that Presence is there. Not if; when.
This is shown by the prayer that Jesus teaches them, as given by Luke. Compared with the Lord’s Prayer in the other Gospels, it seems very sparse. It doesn’t have any of the adoration, confession and thanksgiving that we were taught to be in all prayers. Just petition; just a listing of what we need. What we really need. Not this and that, not the latest gizmo for the computer, not the hottest thing on Netflix. But what is most necessary, remembering through all of this the One to whom we lift up these petitions, the One we need the most.
To flesh this out, Jesus gives them a parable that might seem a little silly to us. If someone asks us to help them to welcome somebody, we either blow them off – go away, that’s none of my business – or we make a quick trip to Walmart. It’s hard to hear this in the context of the Middle Eastern culture, where being a neighbor and a friend meant that you got up in the middle of the night and gave them what they needed. But here this person is reluctant, because everybody is asleep. There is a word here that might need a little tweaking; it says in verse nine that if the sleeping guy doesn’t help because the other is his friend, he will do it because of persistence. The Greek word is more akin to “shameless.” The asker is without shame, without regarding how it looks; he is so in need he doesn’t care how it appears.
So, Jesus says: ask, seek, knock. Not just persistently, not just being a pain in the neck with God. But be shameless – be one of those who give up everything to talk with God, who throws themselves on God’s mercy and love and grace. I don’t know about you but the times when my prayer life is the richest is when I am the most desperate; the times when I have really blown it, or I am up against something totally out of my control. That’s when I throw myself completely and totally – and unashamedly – on the mercy and grace of God. It’s time to get real; time to get gut-wrenchingly honest with God. And that’s when God becomes as close as your next breath.
Which is what Jesus promises. Not that you will get what you want, not that you will get what you need. But you will get the Spirit. You will get God’s very being, dumped right into your lap. A Presence so overwhelming it may blow you away. A Presence so real you may wonder how you could ever have missed it.
When my Father was diagnosed with cancer and there was no way for him to get better, I fell into a pit so deep I never thought I would get out. But then I received a peace beyond myself. I didn’t get him back healthy. What I got was the Spirit.
When someone’s marriage breaks up, and they don’t think they will ever trust anyone again, and they feel all their friends have left them, they emerge on the other side with a wholeness they never had before. They didn’t get their marriage back. But they do get the Spirit.
When an older couple is cut off from grandchildren because of ugly words spoken, they may think they will never have that happiness again. Then they find a peace that allows them to start the hard work of reconciliation. They may or may not get that reconciliation, but they have received God’s Spirit and the peace that will come, whatever the result.
As Debi Thomas writes, “What Jesus promises us in answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit. That’s it. That’s all. There is no other promise or guarantee. How the Church devolved from this to prosperity theology is beyond me, but here we are, here’s the actual promise: when we pray, when we persist in prayer, when we name our longings in prayer without fear or compromise, God will never fail to give God’s own, abundant, indwelling and overflowing self as the Answer we actually need. When we contend in prayer, God will not withhold God’s loving, consoling, healing, transforming, and empowering Spirit from us. When it comes to no-holds-barred, absolutely self-giving generosity, God’s answer to all of our prayers will always be Yes.”
Trust in that Holy Yes, and keep the prayers going – unashamedly. Amen.