The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9c): July 28, 2013
Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church, New York, NY
“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1) What a good question. Don’t you wish you could have been there to hear the answer yourself? I have always found prayer to be mysterious. And I guess that you, like me, have asked more than once, “am I doing this right?”
Certainly prayer is important to we who call ourselves Anglicans. After all, the instrument that ties us together is called “The Book of Common Prayer.” We understand ourselves as praying people. But, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you have doubted your own effectiveness as a pray-er. I think all of us who profess to be Christians desire to understand prayer—to better understand what it means to pray, or at least confirm that we’re on the right track.
Of course, through the centuries countless books have been written on prayer. An Amazon book search on the word “prayer” yields 87,099 entries. But I’m not so sure that all that writing has helped matters any. Theologian Douglas John Hall says, “We are burdened by centuries of exhortation and technique concerning ‘right’ prayer. As a result, one darkly suspects, only a small percentage of avowed Christians actually pray very often, or, if we do sometimes pray, we tend to judge our efforts deeply flawed.”[i] Can I get an Amen?
Fortunately, Jesus provides a basic lesson in prayer in today’s gospel lesson. When the disciples asked him to help teach them to pray, Jesus provided an example: The Lord’s Prayer.
The model is simple. It begins with direct address of God, with the word “Father.” In the Greek of the original text, this is the word Abba, which is a familiar and warm address—sort of like “Daddy.”
Next follow words of praise: “hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” As one writer has said, these two phrases, “call on God to be God…they implore God to truly take charge of…our lives, to bring justice and peace to our world.[ii]
Finally there are petitions to God: “Give us our daily bread,” “forgive us our sins,” “do not bring us to the time of trial.” These are insistent pleas for basic things from God—sustenance, forgiveness, and fidelity. Notice that it doesn’t take very long in this prayer to get to the direct requests: “Give us…Forgive us…Lead us…Deliver us.” And there’s not much softening, ingratiating language, either—no “please,” no “if it be your will,” no extravagant promises in return. Just these insistent pleas.
Jesus then goes on to relate a parable about persistence, or as one writer comments, shamelessness. The man who intrusively knocks at the door at an inconvenient hour is rewarded because of his pushiness.
It is all rather brazen, don’t you think? Jesus tells us to address God in a cozy, familiar way, and after the barest acknowledgement of the power of God, we’re to ask for God to give us what we need—what we have decided is right for us. It seems to contradict Jesus’ own admonition in the sixth chapter of Matthew—the other place that this prayer appears, in the form with which we are more familiar. Here Jesus says, “whenever you pray, don’t be like those who think they will be heard because of their many words…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8, paraphrase) So why do we need to come to God in prayer at all? If God already knows what we need, why is all this noise necessary?
Perhaps the point is not to tell God what we need, but rather for us to acknowledge and understand our own needs. One theologian says, “In prayer we say who in fact we are—not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are. All prayer begins with this confession.”[iii] Integral to prayer is a real understanding of our own state; exactly who and what we are.
Any of you who are familiar with twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous know that the first steps are about understanding and acknowledging exactly who one is—warts and all. Step four is to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Make no mistake: it can be daunting and frightening to really own up to all we are (or aren’t)—but perhaps it is easier to dare to take this step with one who in fact already knows us: God, to whom, as we acknowledged at the beginning of this service, “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid.”
And as we acknowledge just who we are—and also what we feel, what we fear, what we treasure—we open the avenue for true relationship with God. I believe that relationship is the true aim of prayer. Never forget that our God is one who longs to be connected to us.
Perhaps you’ve heard The Creation by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson. It opens with these words:
AND God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
I’ll make me a world.”[iv]
Johnson’s beautiful paraphrase of the creation story focuses on the concept that God created us, and everything in our world as God’s companions. God wanted, and still wants, to be in relationship with us.
Our own Rick Hamlin has written a new book about prayer titled, 10 Prayers you Can’t Live Without: How to Talk to God About Anything. (I am sure this is a helpful book!) On his website he talks about our relationship with God. He says, “[Once a friend said to me] to get to know God you should spend some time in prayer every day… [Through prayer] you get to know God and God gets to know you.”[v] Rick will speak to us in a forum this fall about his book and his own discoveries about prayer. I look forward to it.
Of course, if we pick up most any self-help book, we will read that good relationships are built on honest communication. And that honesty requires acknowledging our feelings and emotions both to ourselves and to the ones we are in relationship with. Prayer is that avenue of revelation in our relationship to God.
Several years ago now, as I was in the process to become a priest, I was asked by my bishop and others in authority over me to extend my time in discernment. What became a year-long delay in that process was painful and difficult. I couldn’t understand why I was having that experience; why was this happening to me? I found it easy to ask God those questions. “Why are you making me wait?” I asked. But then a wise priest I know asked me if I could get mad at God for allowing this delay to happen, I was stunned. How could I be mad at God?
But as I thought more about it, I realized that’s exactly where I was. I was mad that God had brought me so far down the path to priesthood, only to put up what seemed such an insurmountable roadblock. And so, on the advice of that priest, I dared to express that anger to God in prayer. And I discovered that God could handle it! Not only that, I found that God was able to help me understand how I could use the pain I was experiencing to grow, and to be able to get around that block. You see, once I truly experienced my anger, and told God about it, it all seemed to get a little easier. I found meaning in my emotions, and I was confident that God—and I—knew all about what was happening inside me. And I found a new depth of relationship with God.
In today’s gospel Jesus urges us to be in relationship with God and to acknowledge our needs and our fears. To dare to tell God what we need—and to admit our need for God’s help. Jesus invites us to enter into an intimate and dependent relationship with God; to honestly and persistently tell God how we feel and what we need, and then to open ourselves to hear the voice of God in return.
Let us pray.
Jesus, you have told us, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” Give us the boldness to follow your example, confident that God, who knows our needs even before we ask, will answer in love and abundance. Amen.
[i] Hall, Douglas John, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 286-88.
[ii] Wallace, James A., Feasting on the Word, p. 289.
[iii] Ulanov, Ann and Barry, from Primary Speech: a Psychology of Prayer, (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982, p. 1), quoted in The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1998. p. 44.