— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Whenever we see someone doing something exceptionally well, a natural impulse is to ask them, “How did you do that?” It happens all the time when a dinner guest requests a recipe for a dish she or he is enjoying or for the technique that made it slightly sweet or gave it a nice crust. Asking for inside expertise happens all the time. “What is your secret?” “How do you do that?” “Where do you get your extra energy and inspiration?” “Can you teach me how to do that?”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ disciples ask him a question unlike all the other questions they have asked him. It was a “What is the secret to your wisdom and energy?” rather than a “What did you mean by that statement?” or “What was the meaning of the parable?”
It wasn’t as though the disciples didn’t know how to pray. They did—all of them…prayers they had learned as children and youth. Devout Jews practiced praying every three hours…wherever they were. That’s what part of Jesus’ teaching about inner devotion and piety implied. “Don’t be on the street corner when it is time for you to stop and pray on the third hours. Pray from your closet.” (Matthew 6:5)
I think the question that sprang forth in Luke’s story, “Lord, teach us to pray…” was more of a question as to the secret to Jesus’ energy, aliveness, strength, and wisdom than for a rote prayer. “Lord, teach us what you do when you pull off by yourself in quietness. Are you offering memorized prayers? Are you thinking? Are you talking to yourself? Your inner character is obviously so contagious to most others. Are you talking to God or being quiet? We want to learn that discipline too so that we can have your inner strength?”
Jesus’ response to their question (as Luke describes the issue) is what we know as the short version of the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. The longer version that is almost always used in public worship comes from Matthew.
I envision Jesus saying, “Okay, here are the things I try to remember and talk to God about when I am meditating:
…that God is holy, over and above all of life;
…that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is ever-present to us—I have to tell myself: “Open your eyes, open your mind, open your heart, and respond;”
…that I must remember to rely on God for “daily bread,” daily strength, the daily basics of life (a lesson from Israel’s past about God providing manna from heaven which could not be stored);
…that I need a forgiving attitude, that I need to be forgiven and that I need to forgive or else I’ll be constantly burdened by guilt and anger;
…that I must rely on God’s goodness, grace, and love to get me through the most tempting of times in life;
Perhaps it was Jesus’ way of saying, “Here are the tenants of faith by which I live—here’s the way I understand life, God, and inner strength.”
I want to offer an answer to several questions I think this section of Luke raises. You don’t have to agree with me. Faith, after all, is about a search for truth and here is the truth that I have discovered so far in my life.
The first question encouraged by Luke’s text is this: “Is prayer simply about changing God’s mind—getting God to do something God isn’t inclined to do otherwise?”
No. Certainly, this has been the classic Jewish tradition of understanding God and relating to God. While taking his shoes off in the presence of the holiness at the burning bush this was part of Moses mental, emotional, and spiritual response. Moses pleaded for God not to destroy the lives of the anxious Hebrews who made a golden calf to worship when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. Jacob wrestled with God (the stranger in the night) to receive God’s blessing. Job, an honorable person, debated justice with God in light of his many misfortunes. When I asked her one morning in a lectionary group about the hard to understand Abraham stories, my friend, Rabbi Gilah Dror at Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginia, she said that Abraham should have debated or argued with God to change God’s mind when Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be driven from their nomadic household and God said, “Just do it”…and that he should have wrestled with God when told to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice on the mountain.
The character Tevye in the play, Fiddler on the Roof, displays this Jewish trait of struggling with God, debating God, trying to come to a sensible understanding of rightness about life. “Oh dear God, why didn’t you make me a rich man?!” Even Jesus pleaded with God to spare him of the obvious outcome of his final visit to Jerusalem. “Remove this cup from me, if possible.” But everything else we know about the life and teachings of Jesus would lead us to conclude that prayer is not about trying to change the mind of God.
A second question our text promotes is this: “Is prayer primarily about motivating an indifferent God?”
A question I’ve heard asked many times in various ways has been, “Does God really care about me?” Does it matter to God when a person suffers, when a person is lonely and needs a friend, when a person is in great doubt and could use some answers, when all the doors to opportunities and happiness seem shut? Does it? Does it matter to God?
For years, I’ve felt that Jesus has been one of the best windows through which I can see and understand God. So, when I read that he healed the blind and lame, I get the sense without question that God cares about those afflicted in such ways. Jesus’ standing for justice by protecting a woman accused of adultery before her executioners tells me that he understood the way of grace, avoided prejudging people, grasped that everyone makes mistakes and that receiving and extending forgiveness had something to do with holiness.
Jesus consciously touched the diseased person which made him “unclean” in the eyes of human religion, but pure in the eyes of God. Children were important to Jesus. Diversity of races and gender were so important that he chose such to be heroes and heroines of his teaching. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus told his followers that God knows the number of hairs on a person’s head and that a sparrow can’t fall to the ground without catching the attention of God. So, prayer for Jesus must have been something other than about motivating an indifferent God or waking a sleeping God.
A third question that our fuller text presents is this: “Is prayer about being relentless in our requests in order to get God to give us what we want?”
Ann Lamont in her book Traveling Mercies said she felt at one point in her life that her prayers were no more than, “help me, help me, help me, give me, give me, give me.”
The example that follows this abbreviated “Lord’s Prayer” in Luke’s gospel could lend itself to such a conclusion. “If you have a guest that arrives unexpectedly late in the evening and have no bread, you go to your neighbor and ask to borrow such.” That was a pattern for first century peasants who lived in small one-room houses. (Because of the heat and traveling by foot, travel usually occurred late in the afternoons and early in the evenings.) “If the neighbor tells you it’s too late, his family is already bedded down together and getting food would disturb them, even if this neighbor won’t get the bread for you because you are neighbors, he will because of your persistence.
This example could be interpreted that God will finally give in to your relentless prayers, so don’t give up on asking. If that’s all there is to this example, then is seems likely that Jesus would have followed his owned advice in the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe there’s more to persistence than trying to get what you want.
If prayer is not about changing God’s mind, not about motivating an indifferent God, or not about being obnoxiously relentless with your requests until God gives in, then what is prayer about?
For me, prayer is about connecting to the ultimate source of energy, love, and wisdom in this world. It is about being conscious of the holiness all around and within you. “Abba, holy is your name.”
Prayer is submission to this warm presence and a desire to participate with God’s kingdom, which is right on our doorstep. “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus said. “Not my will but your will be done.” “Your kingdom come,” he taught his disciples to pray. “I will be a part of all that your kingdom stands for.”
Prayer is remembering that we are to rely on God’s help and guidance every day. The Hebrews discovered on their flight from Egypt through the desert that nourishment and food was present in the form of a white, flakey substance they called “manna from heaven.” It was to be found each morning with the dew and enough could be saved only for that day and that day only. It would sour. The Hebrews learned to trust God each day for food. “Give us each day our daily bread.”
Prayer is remembering in the stillness of time just how valuable being forgiven for our mistakes, conscious and unconscious sins really are—the inappropriate things we have said, and thought, and done. However, if we don’t acknowledge our mistakes with regret, the feelings remain. And, closely tied to being forgiven is forgiving others of what they have wrongly done or left undone in relation to us. Jesus, in one of his teachings on piety told his disciples, “If you are about to make your offering to God and remember something you’ve done against your neighbor, leave your place at the alter and make things right with your neighbor, then come back to make your offering before God.” Praying and singing loudly and putting on a pious face never takes the place of asking to be forgiven or forgiving others. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” he taught them to pray.
Prayer is remembering that only God’s strength can protect us against circumstances that would otherwise cause us to give up and lose faith in life, ourselves, and God.
And, prayer may even include the giving-over of our own inner strength and peace to another, mysteriously…invisibly.
More than anything else—more than anything else—prayer is listening, being still and listening. There’s an old saying: “You can’t hear with your mouth open.” Larry King, who retired from CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 2010, is an American icon of television and radio hosting. A prominent broadcasting host for 32 years, he conducted some 40,000 interviews with politicians, athletes, entertainers, and others in the news. He once said, “I remind myself every morning: ‘Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.’”
Margaret Wheatley, a writer and management consultant who studies organizational behavior writes, “Listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, more healthy, and more holy. Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation is the root of all suffering.” So, listen more than talking when you pray.
Listen to the trickle of the creek and the pounding of a Piliated Woodpecker on a decaying tree…
Listen to the songs of birds and to the sound of laughter…
Listen to the cooing of a young child and to the wailing of the distraught…
Listen to the rustle of the leaves and to the sound of your own heart beating.
Through it all, listen to God.
O God, increase in us an awareness of your presence, your wisdom, and your goodness, please. AMEN.
1He 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.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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.
9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”
Colossians 2:6-15 (NRSV)
6As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
8See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.