10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 28, 2013
Did you ever stop to think that prayer is about who God is? We have two stories before us this morning that talk about prayer, but mostly they tell us about the person of the God to whom we pray.
The story from Genesis is one of my favorites because it is so nervy. I just have to giggle at Abraham’s persistence and cleverness. But the basis for all his bargaining is his fundamental claim that God is merciful and not willing to arbitrarily destroy good people in his anger at bad people. In these earliest stories of God’s people, the character of Adam’s and Abraham’s God is differentiated continually from the other gods who were bloodthirsty, capricious, and constantly at war. Our God is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. That means forgiving, close enough to walk in the garden and meet people face to face, and faithful to the promises made to people. So Abraham’s response to the declaration that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed is to demand that God live up to God’s own merciful and forgiving character “far be it from you to sweep away 50 innocent people with the bad guys.” And God is trustworthy as Abraham calls him to be.
It’s the same picture that Jesus paints of a God who is a person who longs to bless and give good gifts. The story of the man asking for help from his neighbor plays again on the hospitality theme so prominent in Luke’s Gospel. This is something expected in this culture, that no matter how inconvenient the request, neighbors should ask for help when help is needed, and expect to receive it. Jesus describes the demand as ‘shameless,’ the word the NRSV translates as persistent.
We have been trained, I believe, to think about prayer as being about us. First of all, we tend to think that we must master some proper formula for prayer to be effective, like having exact change for the vending machine. So if prayer fails to have it’s desired effect, it must be our fault because we didn’t say the right things, or believe strongly enough, or because we asked for the wrong thing. Jesus, instead, wants us to think of prayer as personal, like a conversation with a beloved parent or grandparent – we know who the real softies are. He teaches us to call God, “Abba,” his own name for a father – like Daddy. There is no right or wrong way to have this conversation, it’s part of the delicious freedom of being beloved. The request and the conversation exist in the understanding of the character of the parent, devoted, caring for your growth and happiness, able and willing to give what is necessary, simply for the joy of it.
Secondly, there is a pervasive idea that whatever comes to be, even as a result of prayer, is God’s will for us. All sorts of tragic events are imagined as God’s will, because, after all, God is powerful enough to make everything we ask for happen for us. We have been told that sometimes God says no to our prayer, or that God lets us learn a lesson by failing to give us what we ask for. I don’t believe it. I think God always says yes, and that God is always at work to shape our requests into something beautiful for us and for the world. That’s what Jesus asserts; everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. But that is not always our experience, is it? Evil is powerful and evil is still at work in our world. Evil is the cause of tragic loss to accidents and cancer and other ills that rob us of the things and people we love most. And at the same time, God is always working to bring new life out of the death we experience. Jesus’ death tells us that sometimes evil claims the day and his resurrection is the proof that in the end, God brings new life, always, always, always. We can trust God’s character to hear us, to welcome our requests, and to bless us with good gifts.
The prayer Jesus offers recognizes that we live in two worlds. We live in the world redeemed by Jesus’ death and resurrection; the Reign of God that Jesus says has come near in his presence. In this kingdom, there is no more crying or pain, no more devastating loss. But at the same time we still live in the world in which evil can wound us and rob us of hope. So when Jesus prays for God’s kingdom to come, the evidence will be that all are fed and have all they need for fullness of life. Forgiveness is spread to all, who are forgiving in turn, and evil has no more power. In the meantime, we ask for God’s kingdom to come among us, that we may be fed and feed the world, that we may be forgiven and then forgive, that we may protected from the time of trial and stand with those who are experiencing evil days. You might recognize this prayer as Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer. It sounds a bit different than the prayer from Matthew’s Gospel that we use in our liturgy.
So my question to you is what is the character of the God to whom you pray? What is it that you want God to do? If there was one thing you really wanted to ask for from this God Jesus gives us today, this God who wants us to ask for what we really want and wants to bless us by giving us our heart’s desire, what would that be? I want to give you a few minutes to reflect on what this is. Then take that slip of colored paper and write it down in as many of few words as you need. Then as you leave the sanctuary this morning take a moment to put it up on the white board in the back so we can pray with you and you can pray with the rest of us.
I’ll give you a few minutes to reflect and begin your prayers as you write them down to share with us. (Three minute pause)
Remember this: we are all beginners, no matter how long we have been at this prayer thing, we are always learning how to trust, how to speak, how to listen for God’s word and work among us. Let the disciples be our guide in this. After all the time they have spent with Jesus, watching him touch and heal and encourage, hearing him pray, and watching him in his own prayer, they ask him to teach them how to pray. And his answer is a simple collection of sentences. They are deeply personal, addressing God in the most tender terms, and at the same time deeply communal, using ‘us’ in every petition. And in the end, what he offers is the ultimate gift the Father has to give – God’s own Spirit walking with us, carrying us, shaping our prayers and hopes, and assuring us of God’s steadfast love.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.