Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

Sermon on Luke 11:1–13 for Pentecost + 10, 17th Ordinary, Proper 12 C,  July 28, 2013

Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

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Luke 11:1–13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

When I first went overseas as a missionary, I learned that the Hungarians like to say “Ó, Istenem” a lot.  It means “Oh, my God!”  The Romanians say “O, Dumnezeul meu.”  The Croatians say “Bože moj.”  It seems that everybody likes to say “O my God.”  Would that be the same as a Hindu believer saying, “Holy Cow”?  God only knows.

These are all prayers.  They are automatic for many people, almost involuntary.  I don’t pretend they are sincere prayers from the heart of believers; “O my God” is  just an expression meaning not much more than “wow!”  Nevertheless, it seems that most people are hard-wired to call out to God when something happens.

So what happens when people call out to God?  Usually, not much.  The people who call out “Oh, my God!” on Saturday night don’t necessarily show up for worship on Sunday morning with testimonial reports of miraculous divine interventions.

And that’s how it has to be.  If every desperate prayer were automatically answered, who would work hard for anything?  Who would go to school if a prayer got you an A on the test?  Who would bother to go grocery shopping if you could pray the ingredients into your kitchen?  Who would ever go to work?  Who would try to eat and live in a healthy way, if sickness could just be prayed away, and who would ever die?

Real life would come to a grand screeching halt if that were the way it worked.  No action would have predictable consequences – or any consequences at all.

If you let your mind wander down this imaginary trail, you quickly realize that a world of always-answered-prayers would be an absurd and literally impossible world to live in.

So what happens?

And that brings us to the problem of prayer.  We all seem to do it, instinctively, at least in emergencies, but what happens when we pray?  Anything?

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There are lots of really absurd ideas out there about prayer.  I watched a film called “The Great Santini” long ago about an Air Force pilot (played by Robert Duvall).  He was a severe father and had a love-hate relationship with his son.  After he crashed his plane and died, his son was pouring out his grief to his mother.  He said that sometimes in anger he had prayed that his father would crash.  He asked his mother if perhaps one of those prayers were floating around in the sky like a cloud?  Maybe his father flew into it and that was why he crashed?

Where he got that crazy idea about prayers, I have no idea.  But people think all kinds of things about prayer.  Some think it has to be said in a special sacred place, like a church.  Some think prayer needs to be accompanied by some ritual act – lighting a candle perhaps or a gesture of some sort.   I think candles and gestures are fine, but not that they are required to make prayer work.

Some people think the words of a prayer have to be formulated well for God to respond well to it.  Some think only prayers that have been written by someone official will work with God.

Some people believe that they have to be good enough for God to hear them.  I guess they picture God like a parent who will not give you your allowance if you broke one of the house rules recently.

The God we Pray To

In fact, the ideas that we have about God are the key to the mystery of prayer.  Who is the God we cry out to?  The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world.  This is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.

They observed Jesus at prayer, Luke tells us, and wanted to learn to pray as he did.  I’m sure they saw that his connection to God was profound.  Jesus was, as some call him, a “spirit-man,” in touch with the presence of God;  a person from whom God’s power flowed out to others.  Surely he must know the inside story about prayer.  So they asked him.  What he gave them as a model is what we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father.

Starting with the Kaddish

Jesus did not start from scratch.  He was Jewish, as were all of his early disciples. To teach them to pray, Jesus started with the typical Jewish daily prayer they called the “Kaddish.”  Kaddish means “sanctification” – the Jewish prayer begins with a request that God’s name be sanctified, or made holy (see Scott McKnight’s book  Jesus Creed.”)  That sounds similar to the way the Lord’s Prayer begins “Hallowed (holy) is your name.”

The Kaddish says,

“Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world he created according to his will.  May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, an during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future.  Amen.”

So, Jesus started with this standard daily Jewish prayer.  He made some changes to it.  The first was that “Abba” father came before the request to sanctify God’s name.

“Father (Abba), hallowed be your name.”

Notice also that the Kaddish says “his name” while Jesus changes it to “your name” as if talking, not about God, but directly to God.

Both of these changes, calling God “Abba-Father” or even “daddy” and speaking directly to him show how intimately Jesus conceived of his relationship to God.

How do we pray?  We think of ourselves speaking directly to someone who is as personal and as caring as the perfect father would be; attentive, concerned, one who is a stake-holder in our concerns.

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Yes, but, Really?

But is that God?  Isn’t the God of the universe beyond all human categories of being?  Doesn’t God, as the bible says, dwell

“in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”? (1 Tim 6:16).

Yes, and this is part of the mystery of faith: that God is utterly unknowable, “wholly other” than we finite mortal creatures, beyond all thought or imagination.  The Being who is the source of all being.  We must never lose sight of this great truth.   God is good, but not tame; God has not been domesticated and cannot be.

This is exactly what it means to say “hallowed (or made holy) is your name”.  Holiness means god-ish-ness.  God’s name, God’s essence is divine, infinite, eternal, or, “holy.”  God is not a mortal to be messed with.

Neither is God a big masculine person in the sky.  God is not a man.  Nor is God a woman.  God is beyond gender; both Adam and Eve, as the creation story goes, are made equally “in the image of God.”

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Infinite only?

How would it be be for us, if this was all that we knew about God?  We would be overwhelmed with awe, probably fearful of what God might do to us, probably worried that we had not appeased him in some way.

But this is the beauty of our mysterious Trinitarian faith: that the infinite God can be experienced in the analogy of a loving “father” who loves his children as the perfect father would, and looks after them, to raise them well.

So, he is aware that they need daily bread, and he provides the conditions for them to have it.  God is aware that they will mess up, get it wrong, do the wrong thing, and God stands ready to mercifully forgive.  Only he requires that his children do the same as he does when they are wronged by another.

“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”

God’s Kingdom, Come

Just like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come.  But instead

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of thinking of it as a future event when God would come crashing down out of the clouds to crush the bad guys, Jesus helped us to pray that God’s kingdom, God’s realm would simply “come.”

In Matthew’s version of the prayer which we are more familiar with, this simple request is explained as “on earth as it is in heaven.”   This simply means “here and now.”  “Your kingdom come” simply means “May God be in charge here and now.”  Or, in other words, may we live as those who want what God wants, here and now, for ourselves, for others, and for our precious planet.

May justice be done.  May the hungry be fed.  May the homeless find shelter.  May the victims of discrimination and abuse find security and healing.  May the sick have access to health care.  May our water, air and soil be clean for us and for our children.  May love and harmony, forgiveness and reconciliation define our relationships.  May we be peacemakers; “instruments of peace,” as St. Francis prayed.

May we be able to come to God, trusting him to be our perfect father, with all of our concerns; with all of our hurts, our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings, our grief and our worry about the uncertain future.  May we be able to pour out our hearts to God with the confidence that he cares and that he has the capacity to redeem all the evil that has happened.

Trust in God as Father

May we have the trusting confidence in God as father to keep asking, even when we don’t see anything happening.  Even when it feels as fruitless as banging on a neighbor’s door at midnight.   The mysterious, infinite God of the universe can be appealed to as a loving father.  There is no way he would give his children a snake when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg!  Even a human father with all of his failings knows better than to do that!  How much more does God love and care for us?

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Praying (not understanding) 

I do not pretend to understand how prayer works, or why.  I don’t believe God needs to be informed, as if he didn’t know, or reminded as if he forgot.  I don’t believe he needs to be assuaged by groveling, and I don’t think he is holding out for the best deal I can offer him.  I don’t think he is waiting until prayers accumulate like sugar on a kitchen scale before agreeing to respond.

All I know is that I have this need to say “Oh my God” and know that there is someone there to hear, who cares, and who wants what is best for me more than I do for myself.  This is the God Jesus taught us to pray to: an utterly, infinitely holy divine being, whom we can trust and know as “Abba, father.”

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