Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – July 28, 2013
Prayer is the foundation of the Christian life, yet it remains a source of discomfort for many Christians. Luke often refers to Jesus praying and it is clear that it was prayer that enabled Jesus to speak the truth in the most hostile environments, gave him the strength to break the law to heal on the Sabbath, and walk toward his own execution. Grounding his life in prayer gave him great courage. Prayer enabled him to do the impossible over and over again. In the gospel lesson today, Jesus is praying, and when he finishes, he is asked to teach his disciples to pray… and he does. Perhaps that doesn’t strike you as remarkable. It seems so basic that he takes the time to teach them to pray. But it is something we often don’t do today. The church takes for granted that everyone just knows how to pray and that is simply not true. I think many people come to church hoping that we will teach them to pray and we let them down when we assume they already know how.
Jesus doesn’t expect his followers to know what to do. He invests in them and shows them how to pray. He isn’t so much giving them a script as he is teaching them what is important to pray for and showing them that real prayer is a deepening relationship with God.
You are probably waiting for me to talk about Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, how often does that show up in the lectionary? I am actually struck by the parallels between Genesis and Luke today. In Genesis, God is not pleased with Sodom and Gomorrah and in the reading today, Abraham stands before God and pushes back as if to say, “Is this what you really want to do, God? I know that you are a God of justice and I’m wondering if you really want to destroy them. What if there are fifty righteous? Forty-five? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?” And God says, “You are right. I don’t want to destroy them. I just need ten righteous people and I’ll forgive the whole thing.”
What strikes me about this funny exchange is that the conversation grows out of a relationship. Abraham didn’t go knocking and saying, “You don’t know me, but I have a suggestion to make.” There was a deep sense of trust between God and Abraham that enabled the conversation to happen at all. That kind of trust doesn’t happen overnight. It is cultivated over years. It takes time and a deep investment of oneself. When have you asked something great of someone? Did that grow out of a trusting relationship or was it a cold call? The other piece that is striking is that Abraham was persistent. It seems that he was really pushing it, but he couldn’t give up because he was so convicted of his understanding that God is a God of mercy. That sounds a lot like Jesus telling his disciples to ask, search, and knock. This prayer thing isn’t a one shot deal. It is something we do over and over. When you are praying for something that is of great importance to you, you will find yourself knocking and knocking. Just recently, a couple I love very much experienced the death of their son. I cannot stop praying for them and for their healing. I will knock over and over not because I believe God isn’t listening or needs reminding, but because I find them in my heart and I know that I have to offer that grief to the one who loves us through our most desolate days.
Douglas John Hall says, “Prayer is not a meek, contrived, and ‘merely’ religious act – it is the act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human. Real prayer cannot be faked. Its only prerequisites are sufficient self-knowledge to recognize the depths of our need, and enough humility to ask for help.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 290)
I have a friend who has been given the impossible task of turning an organization around. The organization is in big trouble and my friend doesn’t have all the skills or expertise she needs to lead them to a healthy place. Taking this step is a huge act of faith and will stretch her in many ways. We were talking about the depth of the issues involved and some of the solutions she is working on and some really insightful ideas she has. I asked who was helping her strategize. She is clearly way out in the deep end right now and there isn’t a particular person who is throwing her a life raft. Yet the raft is there and within weeks of accepting this leadership role, there is hope. She told me about what she prays each day. She is full of humility as she asks for help. She is clear that she cannot do this without God’s help and she is open and receiving the gifts that are coming her way. This approach is changing not only her, but also the organization she leads. I am in awe of the way God is moving there.
I am seeing it here as well. Many of us are praying in this time of transition. At a recent Vestry meeting, we were preparing for the next steps in calling an interim. It was a meeting steeped in prayer… not the sometimes perfunctory prayers we do when we gather, but a profound listening and humble asking for guidance as we made decisions that evening. It was palpable. We could feel the Spirit moving among us. I could feel the Vestry trusting the Spirit and one another. We are not doing business as usual. We are listening, waiting, and trusting. We are seeking, asking, and knocking. We are confident that God is guiding us and that gives us patience even when we don’t know who will walk with us through this time as priest in charge. We are certain that God is walking with us and that has been powerful. This time of uncertainty is teaching us. We are listening and waiting and discovering that God is with us in ways that we take for granted at times.
Prayer is the foundation for all that we do. It changes us to pray. My seminary professor Don Saliers said, “In prayer we hold the hand of the one who holds the destiny of the universe.”
We don’t have to know what is next. We only have to offer ourselves to the One who walks with us. It is through prayer that we participate in bringing about the kingdom of God. It is through prayer that we change the world.
I am not saying this with the assumption that we know how to pray nor that we are comfortable praying. I am assuming that we are here because we have a desire to pray. I believe that church is where we come to learn to pray. We don’t show up on Sunday because we have mastered prayer. We come open to learning. The disciples needed to be taught. Jesus wasn’t offering them a script as much as he was offering them a form. He begins by teaching them what to call God and by doing so; he defined their relationship with God in a new way. In any relationship, we have a name that we call one another. If knowing God’s name is helpful for theological discussion, it is vital for prayer. We recognize that God has a dream for the world that is greater than anything we can imagine, and Jesus invites us through prayer to see the world as God sees it. We pray for what we need each day; more than shiny new cars or winning the lottery. God’s first priority must be meeting basic human needs. We pray for forgiveness because we fall down every day. Receiving God’s forgiveness enables us to forgive others. We pray for strength to face the tests before us. An Abba said, “Everyone is tempted: the only reason you wouldn’t be suffering from it is that you have already given in to it.”
There are some who complain about praying something so repetitive. I heard a great suggestion: to cultivate a deeper prayer life, pray the Lord’s Prayer, but take an hour to say it.
I think that many struggle with the belief that there is one way to pray and they just aren’t good at it. All that does is leave us feeling guilty and disappointed. The reality is that there are many ways to pray and part of our task is discovering what form of prayer brings us into deeper relationship with God – is it contemplative prayer? Is it intercessory prayer? Is it walking prayer? Is it lectio divina? Is it praying with art? I am just getting started here…there are so many forms of prayer. John Chapman said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” It is also true that some forms of prayer work for a season and then begin to feel stale sometimes. Then we move to another form.
If you haven’t found a form of prayer that works for you, it is easy to be overwhelmed and do nothing. We aren’t concerned with achieving perfection on the first try (it won’t happen anyway). We take it a step at a time, beginning where we are.
Our task is to show up…day after day after day…ask when we are enthusiastic, seek when our heart isn’t in it, knock when we are too tired and sleep through, show up no matter what, no matter where. We show up and begin where we are. God meets us there and does the rest.