A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost are here.
Have you been praying for rain? Are you also carrying an umbrella?
Almost 2 months ago I preached another sermon about prayer. It was the Sunday after the shooting in Uvalde and in the context of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples and all of us as told by the Gospel writer John. And we could look at the situation and say God isn’t listening because things haven’t gotten any better. There have been numerous shootings since then and as more and more information comes to light about that horrible day we don’t seem to be getting any good answers. If we think that prayer was our way of convincing God how to run this world, a means for telling God how to be God, then it would seem that our prayers aren’t doing any good so why bother. And yet, here we find ourselves with another reading about prayer. What are we to make of it?
Do you remember Mother Teresa’s words about prayer? “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.” The purpose of prayer is to deepen our communion with God and yes, prayer and action go hand in hand – we pray and we act as we are able. And it’s more than that: we are to pray AS we live, following Jesus in the Way of Love, trusting God and walking humbly with God.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we have a disciple coming to Jesus asking him to provide instruction on praying. Jesus had been teaching them, showing them in flesh and blood how to live in God’s Kingdom, how to live in a continuous attitude of prayer. Perhaps, like us, this disciple didn’t see things getting any better – there was still suffering and pain in this world; following Jesus hadn’t made life all hunky dory and peachy keen. Maybe this disciple though he’d misunderstood what Jesus had shown them. What Jesus gives in response to the request for instruction is a short, simple prayer followed by a parable and a commentary that set the context of praying within our every day lives.
Jesus tells a story of a man who has guests and is unprepared to host so he asks a friend for help and then talks about a door and feeding our children. Jesus doesn’t offer these up as some magic prayer formula that will ensure we get what we want. He isn’t telling us we need to nag God to get our way. Jesus is giving us insight into who God is, putting God at the center, not our requests.
So, let’s look at the story Jesus tells. It helps to read these in the context of the culture in which they are told – a culture that is honor based and communal. What brings one honor – or shame – brings it to the whole community. Not being able to provide for a guest would have impacted the reputation of the whole neighborhood. If the unprepared host is us and we go asking for God’s help, being ‘persistent’ as the English translation puts it, until we get what we need, it would mean that God is reluctant to give us what we need. And in light of the whole story of God, we know that isn’t the case.
Another way to translate the word anaideia is ‘without shame’. Translating it this way puts it more in the communal context. The honor, the good reputation of all of us is dependent on each of us. Each of us needs to be the ‘good neighbor’ to each other because we want the best for all of us. Remembering that our lives are infinitely connected because we are all God’s beloved children is how we live the prayer “Your Kingdom come.”
So, what about Jesus’ commentary on his own story? The door that we knock on doesn’t lead to the path that gives us our every want or whim. The door is the entrance to God’s presence, the entrance to the Kingdom. And when we seek God’s presence we will find it. God’s greatest desire is to provide our needs, for us to thrive and flourish in this life God has given us, the same as we desire for our children.
Prayer as Jesus teaches us to pray is not simply communicating to God but seeking to be in communion with God. It is more than the words we say but engages the whole of our being – heart, soul, mind, and body.
Prayer isn’t access to some holy vending machine in which we tell God about all of our good works so God will dispense what we want. It isn’t a way to earn God’s favor or to get God to change or punish others. Prayer isn’t a way to disguise our gossip, nor is it a way to show off how sound our theology is or a way to try and impress others with our fancy sounding words.
Prayer is entering into honest and authentic communion with God.
Prayer is the first step in our partnering with God to make it on earth as it is in heaven here and now. Prayer is about aligning our will to God’s will, shaping our hearts so that what we ask for is in line with God’s will for all.
I think it is significant that this story of the disciples asking Jesus how to pray follows right after Jesus telling Martha that she is distracted by many things and that Mary has chosen to cultivate that which can’t be taken away, as Father David preached on last week.
How often do we sit down to pray and our minds are running full speed ahead and so we just give up and give in to our own distractions. Henri Nouwen describes it as a “banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down.” But what if instead of letting the monkeys direct us, we learned, with God’s help, to direct the monkeys.
Even if we try to deny that we are distracted by our to-do list or what we forgot on the grocery list or that conversation we need to have with someone or the dinner party we are looking forward to, God knows about it and wants us to be authentic and real. So, speak it. Say to God, “I need to make this note so I don’t forget; I can’t believe I forgot to put butter on my shopping list; I’m nervous about speaking with Ruth; I’m so excited about this party!” Speak to God what it is that is distracting you from however it is you think you need to be praying. God is interested, I promise.
And then, listen. Listen for God’s voice. Prayer is communion, prayer is relationship, prayer is the framework of our life with God. When we get up from our intentional prayers the door doesn’t close. Be aware of God’s presence with us every moment of every day. Walk with God. This is the eternal life we are given. Don’t be so distracted by what you are doing that you forget that God is with you always. Or as the prayer we prayed at the beginning of the service says, “we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.”
Jesus’ prayer is simple and yet holds the whole of God’s story within it. God is God, the creator of all that is and the One who wants to be in relationship with us, working through us to fulfill his purpose for all of his creation. Prayer isn’t a task or an event, it is our relationship with God.
How we see God informs how we pray. If we see God as some distant object, our prayers are mechanical duty. If we see God as some sort of Santa Claus figure who’s supposed to give us what we want, our prayers are self-centered. If we see God as a cosmic chess master whom we have to appease, our prayers are an attempt to prove our own worthiness. If we see God as a loving parent who wants us to thrive, our prayers are how we step deeper and deeper into communion with our Creator as we partner together to make it on earth as it is in heaven. And so we keep praying, knowing that through prayer we will be enabled to love our neighbors better and that is how God works in this world to heal and redeem even the most tragic of circumstances. We pray for peace and we act peacefully, we pray for kindness and we act kindly, we pray for rain and we carry an umbrella. Amen.