The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: The Rev. David Rider

The Rev. David Rider

Now well into a summer of Gospel stories from Jesus’ earthly ministry, today we encounter a rich trove of teaching on the art and practice of prayer.

In a mere 13 verses, Luke splices together three separate vignettes that includes the Lord’s Prayer itself, a parable about a demanding friend at midnight, and a pitch for persistence by which we Ask, Seek, and Knock for the important things in life.

Our passage invites two questions for you and me today:

Who believes in the power of prayer?

Who has figured it out?

Today’s passage brings rich nuance to any discussion of prayer

On one hand, Christian prayer forms the very core of our identity

If we were to go out onto 99th Street and ask a random sample of passersby about the virtue of prayer, we would get some slam-dunk easy affirmations, with our major risk being a Mom-and-apple-pie sentiment

If we persisted in our street questions or perhaps brought it back into more trusting community, however, I suspect we would hear more ambiguity and even ambivalence: 

“I want to pray, but I’m not very good at it”

“It’s too intimate and personal for me to discuss”

“I should pray more, like I should exercise more, eat better food, and be kinder to my neighbor”

Our recent surge in Ignatian Exercise groups speaks to a real hunger for formation and practice right here at St. Michael’s

Let’s revisit today’s text to find clues about how Jesus would have us pray

Our first section tees up an embryonic version of the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer found both in Luke and Matthew (but not Mark and John), yet in different contexts

Matthew’s audience (6:1-15) seemingly already knows the fundamentals of prayer, as Jesus starts with “When you are praying…”

This audience knows how to prayer but wants to take it up a notch

Luke’s version has the crowd at an earlier phase, saying, “Teach us to pray”

Which speaks more to your soul: take me further on this journey, or teach me the fundamentals?

Both Matthew and Luke use plural forms—“US”—suggesting that prayer takes place in a communal setting like our worship this morning

Of course, in other contexts, Jesus goes off alone to pray, so we have biblical evidence for both solitary and communal prayer

In both the first section of our text—the Lord’s Prayer—and the second section—the Friend at Midnight—get to the issue of petitioning and articulating our needs vs. a simple presence and receptive approach to prayer

You English majors must love the bold imperative verbs contained in the Lord’s Prayer

Thy Kingdom Come

Give us this day our daily bread

Forgive our trespasses

Lead us not into temptation

Is it good to articulate our needs/desires, or do we risk pushing God around like the yard boy?

The middle section, the parable about the friend at midnight—found only in Luke’s Gospel—creates a fascinating dilemma

At a surface level, the parable presents a funny story about a crotchety friend who demands to receive bread from his neighbor at midnight to feed unexpected guests

Embraced more deeply, however, it addresses an important ethical dilemma about how far we go to respond to the needs of others

In biblical parlance, we engage hospitality codes that require ethical responses to those in need, risking shame to the one who falls short, who fails to get out of bed for a neighbor in need

Is this entire section a convoluted analogy about prayer, or have we simply moved into the world of ethics and faithful hospitality?

While we applaud persistence—like the widow who pleads before the unjust judge, found only in Luke 18—when does persistence lapse into badgering and coercion, like a 2-year-old demanding candy at the grocery store?

Who refines the petition regarding its worthiness—should I demand to God that I win the lottery this week?

Four times in today’s passage, Luke mentions ‘friends’—do friends negotiate and lovingly push back, or do they become pushovers for our good or bad demands?

How does my friend serve as a source of discernment to help clarify my needs and requests, giving me added perspective in the process?

Our third section continues this theme of persistence by which we Ask, Seek and Knock for the things we need in life

We find nearly identical language in Matthew 7, though not connected to the Lord’s Prayer

Our version suggests high confidence that “…everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and everyone who knocks, the door shall be opened.”

Very cool.  Has this worked for you?

Note that Luke uses no presumptions of being a believer or unbeliever, simply an encouragement to persist

He bespeaks confidence in our human nature, that no parent would hear a child’s request for a fish and substitute a snake, or change out an egg for a scorpion

So what do we make of these three vignettes in our world today as a community of prayer called St Michael’s?

Let’s rejoice that prayer—liturgical prayer, communal prayer and solitary prayer—continues to serve as our core spiritual DNA

Increasingly at St Michael’s—such as our God’s Call conversations and our Ignatian Exercise classes—we have gained confidence to talk with one another about how God works through us and how we apprehend God

We have moved beyond a subjective privacy—it’s too personal to discuss—to a communal desire to focus on prayer as a means of clarifying our needs and allowing us to listen more receptively to a God beyond the God of our own projections and worry lists

Jesus was born into a full tradition of prayer—the psalms, the scriptures, and the prayers in synagogue—and so are we some 2000 years later

Together, we view prayer as a lifelong journey, not something we figure out and put on a shelf like a child’s novel

We embrace many ‘schools’ of prayer—Ignatian, liturgical, mystical, Benedictine, Quaker—all as a means of focusing our attention on the God who loves us with abandon

At our best, we bring our solitary prayers offered up during the week to our communal prayers on Sunday, all grounded in a biblical and sacramental framework of God’s salvation history

In prayer language, we balance a kataphatic spirituality that embraces icons or images to better know God with an apophatic spirituality that strips away symbols for the mystical presence of the God beyond all words and images

I invite you to ponder a few questions inspired by our text today:

Who taught you to pray, and did these earlier prayers help or hinder your understanding of how you connect with God today?

In your intentional practice of prayer, what deepens your focus on God, and what causes your eyes to glaze over?

How do music, icons, repetitive prayer, incense and other aids facilitate prayer or distract you?

What do you want from fellow parishioners as you discern God’s presence and deepen your journey?

What do you have to say to your children, grandchildren, young parishioners and others about how they might pray as toddlers, children, adolescents and young adults?

How does prayer move beyond mere buffing of the soul to human transformation and self-giving love to others?

What distinguishes humanistic prayer—getting in touch with ourselves—from Christian prayer to a divine source beyond us?

What do I have to say to loved ones and strangers alike about how God touches my soul and transforms my experience into discipleship, service and acts of justice in the world?

As we transition into August this week and begin preparation for life after Labor Day, I pray that our common reflection will feed our parish priorities, reflect our core values, deepen our moral compass and permeate our parish life in the months to come