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Sun, Jul 28, 2019

Teach Us to Pray

Duration:16 mins 37 secs

“Teach Us to Pray”

Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

          When I was a seminary intern at the Clifton Presbyterian Church, the senior pastor asked me to visit a congregation member who had suffered a fall, had some cognitive issues, and was in a nursing home. It was not likely that I would be able to have much conversation with the man, but presumably I could pray with him. I had never made such a visit before, so I was a bit nervous, and prayed that God would go with me on my visit (something I still do). When I got to the man’s room, his door was closed, so I found a nurse, introduced myself, explained why I was there, and asked if I could go in. “Sure,” she said. “Knock yourself out.”

        “Knock yourself out” pretty much summed up what I assumed was secular society’s attitude toward prayer: “It’s useless, but go ahead if it makes you feel better.”

        This attitude is not universal, though, it turns out. In fact, there have been a number of scientific studies in which a test group of hospital patients is prayed for, though they do not know it, while a control group receives the same medical treatment as the test group, but no prayer. Many research dollars have been spent trying to determine, in a way that can be shown on a graph or bar chart, whether or not prayer “works.” People read the results of these studies hoping to be assured that prayer is not a waste of time. Because why do it if you don’t get something out of it?

        Both of these anecdotes point to a similar assumption about why people pray: that they expect it to provide measurable, observable, positive results. Both the scornful nurse and the serious scientists assume a rather instrumental view of a spiritual practice that is foundational for people of faith.

        Such an instrumental view of prayer was probably not behind the disciples’ request to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” They would have known something about prayer already. They weren’t expecting Jesus to show them some new technique that would get them what they wanted. But they had seen something of Jesus’s relationship with God, and they wanted something like that for themselves.

        We who pray know very well that prayer doesn’t always “work” in the conventional sense. We may often feel that we don’t get anything out of it at all, and very often we don’t get anything close to the results we want. In our lives we may have prayed, at one time or another, for a team victory, a diamond engagement ring, an important prize or promotion, or grandchildren, and had those prayers go unanswered. We may also have prayed for our parents to get back together, for a clean bill of health, an end to a loved one’s addiction, or a job, any job that would pay the bills on time. Some of these prayers may have gone

unanswered, too.

        When prayer doesn’t “work,” we often assume the problem is with us. Some people will tell us, unhelpfully, that we just need “more faith.” Leaving aside the offensiveness of making a judgment about someone else’s faith, I can direct your attention to two people we know of for whom prayer apparently did not “work.” The Apostle Paul prayed frequently for a certain thorn to be removed from his flesh, and was told, No, you are going to have to put up with it. Rely on my grace and you will be OK nevertheless. And Jesus, praying in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, said, “Let this cup pass from me,” even as he aligned his will with God’s. In the end, he trusted that God’s grace would be sufficient after all.

        The prayer Jesus gave his disciples was one they could use to ask for the essentials: what we need to live day by day; forgiveness and the ability to forgive; protection from temptation and evil – all this, while remembering to glorify God in deeds as well as words and to keep alive the yearning for God’s promised reign of peace and justice to come on earth.

        He could have left things there – that is a fully sufficient prayer – but Jesus then launches into a humorous parable about prayer. “Imagine you have a friend,” he says, “a neighbor, and that neighbor comes to bother you in the middle of the night, when the lights are out and everyone has gone to bed. He comes knocking at your door to ask you for a loaf of bread.” We have to imagine ourselves as first-century Palestinians to understand how inconvenient this request would be. In those days most people didn’t have separate bedrooms – the house would have been one or two rooms at most, and everybody in the house – parents, children, and domestic animals – would have slept in or around the same bed. One person getting up to answer the door would have put the whole household in disarray, and by the time the door was unbolted, the children would be bouncing on the bed, the animals would be making a ruckus, and there wouldn’t be any sleep again for the rest of the night. However, the neighbor’s need is desperate. Another friend of his has journeyed through the night to come to his house, and it would be unthinkable not to give him a satisfying meal. So the neighbor puts aside his feelings of embarrassment to go knock at his sleeping friend’s door, and his request is answered – because of the neighbor’s “persistence” – the word could be translated shamelessness – “he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

        I think Jesus intended this story to be funny. As evidence, look at the ridiculous images he presents to the disciples in the following verses: a child asking for fish or an egg to satisfy her hunger and being handed snakes and scorpions instead. There’s a kind of humor and lightness to the whole presentation.

        The point is not that we have to wear God down until God gives us what we want out of exasperation; the point is that if even a sleepy friend will wake his family up getting out of bed to meet the needs of a desperate friend, how much more will God attend to the prayers of God’s faithful people. If earthly parents, in spite of all their sins and shortcomings, wouldn’t dream of denying their children’s requests for something to eat, how much more will God seek to give us what we really need.

        Something else to note about these parables: they are about friends and neighbors, parents and children. In other words, they are about trust and relationship. Would the friend have dared to knock on his neighbor’s door if he didn’t trust his neighbor to respond compassionately? Would a child dream of not asking his father or mother for something to eat when he’s hungry? God invites us to pray, as a loving parent. Jesus himself intercedes for us, as friend and brother. Prayer is mostly about being with someone you love and trust and want to know better.

        Ask, then, Jesus said, “and it will be given to you” – but what is “it”? “It” may well not be the victory, the ring, the promotion; more distressingly, “it” may not be the negative biopsy, the rescued marriage, or the job. So what is “it”?

        According to Luke’s Gospel, “it” is the Holy Spirit: the Spirit who intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words,” teaching us to pray when we don’t know how, when we are tired, discouraged or convinced that God doesn’t listen or care. The Spirit assures us that God willingly listens, because that is what friends and family do with each other. The Spirit binds us more closely to God so that, like Jesus and Paul, even if the specific prayer doesn’t get answered in the way we had hoped, we are able to know that somehow we will be OK, that God’s grace will be sufficient for us.

        Most of all, prayer is about re-orienting ourselves toward God and what God wants for the world, not what we want out of it. As my systematic theology professor used to say, “When you pray, you should do it with one important caveat: “Thy will be done.’”

Persistent prayer has the effect of broadening our attention to the wider world of God’s attention. Saying “Thy kingdom come” is about longing for the gap between heaven and earth to be made smaller, to see God’s purposes fulfilled here on earth, for all people.

And when we pray “thy kingdom come” together as a community, the Spirit shapes us into people who can see a world that’s an alternative to the consumerist, market-driven, celebrity-focused world we inhabit daily. A habit of prayer helps us to see how God impinges on this world, and where God shows up in it.

        Listen again to what Jesus says to us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”   

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

July 28, 2019

         

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