The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
The hard thing about summer is that it’s really hot in church, people are on vacation, and yet it’s right when the lectionary schedule serves up the top 40 of the gospel stories, the passages that lend themselves best of all to preaching and teaching the core truths of the faith. So much to take in and live by, and yet y’all can’t possibly be really listening that well, all 6 of you here today. So we preachers start feeling like we need to put on a bigger better show, maybe get some live animals or dry ice or something, but ugh, it’s just too hot. I’ll do my best – and I’ll try to keep it short.
So the core truth of today’s gospel is that we need to pray. Show of hands: How many of you are praying? How many of you are praying daily in a time set aside just for that? How many of you might secretly be wondering what exactly you’re supposed to be doing when you pray? Not so secretly now, of course.
Some of you all are prayer warriors, for sure, people who sit for hours in silence, people who pray over the list of names on our parish prayer list each and every day, people who offer to pray with others of us right here in church every Sunday, people who when they say ‘I’m praying for you,’ they really mean it. I suppose those of you in that category can now take these next few minutes to sit silently in prayer, because I want to talk to those of you who have trouble with prayer, who struggle to find the time or inclination to pray, who don’t really know just what prayer really is. Because when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, they’re really asking. And I get it. When I was a young adult trying to figure out what to do with my life, my priest asked me, What do your prayers tell you? I dunno, I said. How do you pray? He looked at me in some amazement, and, I suppose, made a mental note to review the youth group curriculum I’d been raised with.
When his disciples ask him about prayer, Jesus teaches them simply, with images from the ordinary life of friendship, hospitality, parenting. It might escape us how startling that could have been to them. Jesus starts off by telling them to call God Father – using an intimate term for father, ‘abba,’ as in their father, claiming that they are God’s children and have a direct relationship with God like a child does with her parent. And then he tells them to ask God for what they need, the basic stuff like the food they need that day. And they should remember God’s mercy and love, and ask for help in living that out in their lives. All of this in language that is straightforward and to the point, without buttering God up or acting fearful or awestruck. No intermediaries, no sacrifices or rituals, no long process of preparation. And then, to bring the point home, Jesus goes on to tell the story about the nagging, shameless, irritating guy who gets his friend up at midnight to help him host a traveler – the friend will get up and go to the trouble because this guy is so bold in asking it. Talk to God like that, Jesus says. Or remember that even you know enough to feed your child when she asks for it – so go ahead and ask for what you need from God, who will give you what you need. Be intimate with God, bug God, irritate God with your requests, feel as comfortable with God as with your best friend and your parents. Get it?
We’ve probably heard this before. But somehow, we still struggle with it. We took the words of the prayer Jesus taught the disciples and made them into a formal church prayer, bickering amongst the different denominations over which exact wording we’re using, like God won’t listen unless we get the language right. And even though Jesus teaches we should ask for what we need, many people still carry around the idea that we’re not supposed to ask God for anything, or if we do, it won’t make any difference. Better not to ask; better to keep things polite, formal, and distant with God. Better just to go out and get things done than sit around in fruitless prayer.
But Jesus’s message is different. He doesn’t say that prayer always produces the answer we’re looking for. He’s not telling us that some of us should pray while others of us act. And he’s certainly not saying we should pray in only very particular ways, lest God not bother to pay attention. Jesus’ whole teaching and purpose is to lead us into intimacy with God, real, loving, two-way relationship. It’s what he teaches in his sermons and parables, it is what he models in his own relationship with God, it is his very nature as God incarnate, God with us, God come to be one of us. Jesus shares with us a God who is totally in the midst of the messiness of everything. There to love and be loved just like our family and friends. To love and be loved in the real way of real relationship, in all the riskiness and transformation that involves.
Over this past spring I took a course where we talked about how teaching and practicing spiritual disciplines in our congregations can lead to transformative leadership in the world. I realized that often when we’ve talked about things like prayer, or Sabbath, or scripture reading, we’ve talked about them almost exclusively in individual terms, things that each of us should do to grow our relationship with God, go further in our spiritual lives. But we haven’t always acknowledged the change that happens in people when we become more regular in our practice, more advanced in our spiritual selves – as if people can mature in the faith without it really showing up in how they act in the world. And on the flip side, we talk about people who are change agents in the world sometimes without understanding the spiritual growth and maturing they went through to become that way. But duh, I thought to myself, of course these things are connected. That’s why I brought up Dr. King’s Ten Commandments for activists a while back – an example of how when we want to make a difference in the world, we have to be scrupulous about our own discipline and growth. Spiritual disciplines change us for the better. That’s why we try to teach them and talk about them so much. But they’re for the better not just for us and our lives – they’re better for the world.
Does that mean that every person who prays and reads scripture daily becomes a saint? Alas, no. And yes, there are plenty of non-religious people who make a positive difference in this world. There are a whole set of other sermons that can go into all of that. But as people of faith dedicated enough to show up in a hot church in a heat wave, and as people who want this world to be a better place, we need to do our best to link the two in our own lives. To get serious about prayer and scripture and spiritual practice, and to expect to be changed as we do it, into people who care about and act for others in this world. And you know what? That’s just what’s been happening here at St Michael’s. This place has been transforming, and it’s making a difference. There are a whole lot of you who know a lot about prayer; and there are a whole lot of you exploring questions like reparations, welcome and outreach, how we can be a force for good in our neighborhood and the world. It’s not an accident that we’re talking like this now.
Jesus teaches us to pray, and to do it regularly; to be bold in our asking, to be as shameless as the guy who wakes up his friend at midnight and drags him out of bed, to be as gutsy as a child who makes demands of her parents. Not because it guarantees that we get things exactly as we want or wish. But because to ask boldly is to presume upon a relationship with God that demands everything of God and everything of us. If we ask, God is with us – God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, God present with us. And that does change us, every day. And through us, it changes others too.
What God says to us is this: be in relationship with me. Ask and you will receive, more than you thought possible; search and you will find, what you truly need, what you never expected; knock and doors you did not see will open. Love me, risk trusting me, and see how deeply I love you all. That is life, for all of us. And there is more to come.