Grace Presbyterian Church
July 28, 2019, Pentecost 7C
Prayer is one of those things in the church that everybody knows you’re supposed to do. It is also, however, one of those things that it’s easy to feel confused or uncertain about. As a result, prayer is also the generating concern of more books on the Christian book market than you can shake a stick at.
Here are just a few titles that come up in a simple amazon.com search, from the first sixteen of over fifty thousand books, simply using the word “prayer”:
- Three of the titles simply start with the word “Prayer,” followed by a colon and a descriptive subtitle (and this list doesn’t include the example of such title I’m most familiar with);
- Three other titles offer up a plan for prayer over a forty-day period, though none of those titles evoke the most popular of forty-day periods, the fasting and temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that became the pattern for the forty-day season of Lent;
- Many variants on the “how to pray” theme, including two that directly use that phrase and others that offer a “path to Christ” with prayer or a “battle plan” for prayer or “keys to praying with power”;
- Diaries, maps, cards, and journals for prayer;
- A couple of rather provocative prayers, including one title I’m not sure I should repeat and another with the attention-getting title Gangster Prayer: Relentlessly Pursuing God with Passion and Great Expectation;
- And finally, one that, though it does include the word “prayers” is, in fact, a crime thriller.
In short, there are an awful lot of people out there wondering about prayer in some way, and an awful lot of people grinding out books and saying “here, lemme tell ya…”.
This does not bear much resemblance to what happens in today’s gospel reading, when Jesus’s disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. Jesus’s instruction to his disciples, found in these thirteen verses, doesn’t even constitute a good preface, much less a full book.
Jesus’s opening is pretty familiar. It should be, since the church has in one translation or another been saying it for close to two thousand years now. You can get into differences in wording of various translations, for sure. You can go ‘round and ‘round over whether we Presbyterians, who tend to say “forgive us our debts,” are obsessed with money, or whether, say, Methodists, who tend to use “forgive us our trespasses,” are obsessed with property. (Personally I think we should just do what is done here and call those things what they are: sins.) You can also notice that Luke’s phrasing here, as translated in the NRSV, is a bit different than we know; rather than God’s forgiveness being conditional (“aswe forgive, implying that if we don’t forgive, God shouldn’t forgive), it presumes that we forgive (which is itself challenging). You can note all these things and they would be true, and they would not make a dent in churches everywhere praying the prayer the exact same way they have prayed it for eons, as if it were more magic formula or incantation than life-changing practice.
What is harder to get around is the supporting material Jesus adds, beginning with what is sometimes known as the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. It can seem pretty odd and hard to grasp at times, but it is in fact a continuation of a theme found in both of the last two readings we’ve studied; it is a story of hospitality, that basic care of human for human so much at the heart of Hebrew teaching and Mediterranean culture, gone completely out of whack, and the desperate measures that are taken as a result. First the Samaritan, moved to compassion by the sight of the beaten man passed over by priest and Levite, engages in extravagant measures to preserve the man’s life. Then Martha, “distracted by her many tasks,” gets out of line in seeking to use Jesus as an enforcer on her sister Mary, and has to be brought back into focus.
In this story, the inhospitable behavior doesn’t necessarily start where you might think. The extreme reaction of the man at the door is, in this culture, provoked by shameful behavior by the man in the house. To fail to come to the aid of a neighbor in such need, as strange as it might seem to us, would have been unthinkable in first-century Palestine, and the sleepy man would have awoken the next day to find his standing in the community seriously jeopardized.
Still, though, the man at the door’s behavior also comes under scrutiny. The word translated as “persistence” in the NRSV Bible in your pew is another of those troublesome Greek words that can mean different things in different circumstances; here, a likely better translation would be “shamelessness.”
But whose “shamelessness” are we talking about? We know the sleepy man is shameless; his behavior demonstrates that. But the man at the door also demonstrates “shamelessness” in (as Jesus implies without saying directly) persisting at the door until the reluctant (and apparently bad) neighbor finally gives in and gives up.
On its face this is a parable we have to work a little harder to get. In the age of twenty-four-hour convenience stores and even Wal-Marts, it’s hard to conceive of one of our neighbors being desperate to find anything to offer an unexpected guest at midnight. But our door-knocker is in a terrible bind. First, he is unprepared for the unexpected guest; then, his near neighbor and friend (or so he thought?) has failed to step up and come to his aid. In desperation, he shamelessly keeps banging at the door and calling out until that presumed friend finally answers and helps out with the needed bread for the unexpected guest, no matter what the presumed friend (or anybody else in the neighborhood, for that matter) has to say about it.
Now when we move on from the parable and into Jesus’s instructions, we need to take both the model prayer and the parable in mind. It isn’t just “ask, and it shall be given you” for any old thing you want; you really can’t invoke “search, and you will find” and expect to dig up a million dollars in your yard, or “knock, and the door will be opened for you” and think you’ll waltz into that seven-figure-salary job for which you are utterly unqualified. We are to pray earnestly, persistently, shamelessly even, but what we are to pray for is pretty well circumscribed in that model Jesus gave the disciples. What are the things we are taught to ask for? God’s will (“your kingdom come”); what we need (“give us each day our daily bread”), not what we want; forgiveness (“forgive us our sins”), and deliverance (“save us from the time of trial”). Nothing in there about a million dollars or a new car, no matter what certain preachers might tell you. And it doesn’t even mean you’ll be delivered from difficult medical procedures, as some of us in here (or even some of us up here) well know.
But still, pray shamelessly. You might end up getting an education in the difference between wants and needs, but pray shamelessly anyway.
It’s hard to avoid the idea that the story from Genesis fits into this pattern somehow, even if you can’t exactly say that Abraham is “praying” in that account. It’s a conversation, following that story from last week in which Abraham and Sarah host the three unknown men (one of whom turns out to be the Lord). After that surprise future-baby announcement, the Lord has told Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have sinned gravely and will be wiped out. (As an aside, before you get too excited by that reference, go check out Ezekiel 16:49-50 to see exactly what Sodom’s sin was.) Abraham’s response was, on the surface, something we tell our kids not to do; Abraham challenged God.
But notice exactly why Abraham challenged God.
See there in verse 23: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” It is God’s own justice – God’s will, so to speak – to which Abraham appeals, rather than any particular self-interest. Abraham is not even asking on behalf of his nephew Lot who lives over there, but strictly because of who God is. It’s not quite the same thing, but it is a pretty shameless display of petition before God.
Still, we’re not through with the shocking parts of the gospel reading yet. This is another one that can be hard to relate to from a modern point of view, if for no other reason because, frankly, in our time and place it’s actually not too hard to imagine a parent giving such awful things to their children. Honestly, I was a little afraid that I’d wake up this morning and there would be a headline in the Sun that read “Florida man arrested for feeding children stone, scorpion instead of bread, egg.” Fortunately, though, the point still holds: even beyond our own best giving to our children, God gives good things to God’s children.
In short: pray for what we need. Pray for the coming of the kingdom of God. Pray for deliverance from evil. Pray for forgiveness.
Pray shamelessly, with no concern for what anyone but God thinks. Pray according to God’s justice – although in that case you best beware. An old comic strip posits one character wondering why God allows such injustice in the world. When the second characters asks why he doesn’t ask God, the first responds “I’m afraid God will ask me the same question.”
But whatever you do, pray.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #728, Somebody’s Knocking At Your Door; #175, Seek Ye First; #—-, Our Father In Heaven, All Glorious Above; #465, What a Friend We Have in Jesus