Monday, July 30, 2007

Sermon -- 29 July 2007

Proper 12 / 9 Pentecost — 29 July 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
Hosea 1:2-10 Psalm 85 Colossians 2:6-19 Luke 11:1-13

(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

I remember when I was a boy of, oh, about nine, I prayed, “O God, please let me get a new bicycle!” (Yes, bicycles had been invented when I was nine.) Some of you may have prayed that prayer yourselves at the age of nine or thereabouts. I suspect that nearly every child prays that prayer or one like it at one time or another. Such a prayer may seem inconsequential to us grownups, but it is serious business to children. And if the bicycle does not materialize, what then? Is it that prayer really doesn’t work? Does God not care that we get a bicycle? Is there a God at all?

Or a very much more adultly, much more serious instance: an elderly person, sick, feeble, in constant pain, alone, disabled, prays, “O God, let me die!” And yet that person lives on. And on. Why? Does not God hear our prayers? Does God not care? Is God there at all?

Prayer is right at the heart of our faith, of our relationship with God. Most of us take that for granted, most of the time, or at least some of the time. It’s a dimension of our daily lives, or we mean it to be, or we know we ought to mean it to be. And for many people, maybe for us, prayer comes very naturally. And for many people, maybe also for us, prayer is sometimes, maybe even very often, very problematic. We aren’t always sure how to pray; we aren’t always sure what to pray; we’re not always sure just what prayer is really all about. We often hear in the Gospels, or from the Church, or in sermons, things like what Jesus says today, “Ask, and it will be given you.” “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.” But what about when we ask, and we don’t receive? Is the promise empty? What about that? Some folks may tell us, “You don’t have enough faith,” and sometimes we may believe it, and often enough it may even be true. But as a response to the question of unanswered prayer, that’s a little too slick for me, too pat, maybe even a little too smug.

I’m wandering off into some pretty deep waters here. I don’t have a nice tidy little answer that will resolve the apparent discrepancy between what we read in the Bible, or think we are reading, and what we sometimes experience in our lives. Prayer — how it works, when it works, why sometimes it seems not to work, whether it even makes any sense to talk about prayer “working” in this sense at all (I suspect that may often be a category mistake) — prayer is a great mystery, that is to say, a reality which we experience but which we cannot fully comprehend of explain.

In the Gospel today the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray. Apparently John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray. I think this is the only reference in the Gospels to John teaching his followers how to pray, but it’s certainly reasonable enough to think that he did so — whether in the sense of “what words to say when you pray” or in a deeper sense of “what prayer is all about.” And it’s certainly reasonable that Jesus’ disciples should ask him the same question. Jesus’ first response is the words we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” You’ll note that this teaching from St. Luke is a bit more succinct than the slightly longer version in St. Matthew, which is the version which most Christians have used, both in corporate worship and in private devotion, ever since the first century. (My own suspicion is that this is a teaching that Jesus repeated on numerous occasions, with some variations, and it was initially remembered and passed on in slightly different forms until eventually it was more or less standardized.)

In Luke’s Gospel today Jesus goes on to talk a bit more about prayer. (In Matthew’s Gospel his teaching of the “Lord’s Prayer” is in the context of the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6, in the section about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.) And Jesus tells this rather strange little story about the man who goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night to borrow some bread. I think it’s fairly common to interpret this as meaning that if we just nag God enough, God will eventually give in and grant our request. In fact, I think I’ve preached that sermon myself. But I’m not so sure that’s right. Other commentators have pointed out that “persistence” is probably not the right translation; the word in Greek basically means “shamelessness.” What’s not clear is who is portrayed as shameless: the man knocking on the door at midnight, or the man who is being awakened. What would be more immediately obvious in a first-century Galilean village context is the strong sense of hospitality and honor: even though it is inconvenient, it would be shameful for a neighbor not to help his friend meet the unexpected obligations of hospitality. If that is how we are with each other, how much more is God willing to provide our needs.

God gives us good gifts. God will settle for nothing less than the best for us. God gives us God’s very self, God’s own presence, God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us and filling us with the divine life. And in the end, that’s the gift that really matters. Our days on this earth are not the ultimate reality of our lives, and the circumstances of our days on this earth are not God’s ultimate gift. But in any circumstances and in all, to have life — real life, authentic life, a blaze of life in our hearts and souls, eternal life now and forever: that’s the gift God always gives to those who ask — but we have to accept it. It can always be found by those who search — but we have to claim it. It is always opened to those who knock — but we have to enter through the door.

That doesn’t answer all the questions about prayer and about Jesus’ promises. But maybe it’s a place to begin.

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