July 28, 2019

Pentecost 7 July 28, 2019 Ps 85, Genesis 18:20-32, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-25

Luke 11:1-13        Lord, teach us to pray

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Disciples ask Jesus – Lord, teach us to pray….

We’ve heard the saying – “be careful what you pray for.’

You may get more than you expect….

So if we’re cynical we might say: Be careful when you ask Jesus: Lord, teach us to pray.

Because yes, for sure – we will always get more than we expect.

No matter how much we expect… Jesus will give more…

I have been learning over the years – to keep asking Jesus – to keep teaching me and all of us to pray. Because there’s always more to learn about prayer. And I’ve learned – ready or not, whether I understand, appreciate or not – whatever Jesus teaches – is always good – very good – and good beyond words…

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But before we get deeper into the specifics of what Jesus teaches today about prayer – let’s consider what may be the first prayer in the bible.

Born of devout Jewish parents, Jesus undoubtedly grew up hearing biblical stories like the story we’ve read today from Genesis of Abraham talking with God – asking God to spare the city of Sodom from the destruction it deserves if God can find even a few righteous people there.

Many bible commentaries note the parallels between Abraham’s questions to God and ancient Near Eastern traditions of bartering and bargaining. Professor Bill Arnold says when Abraham asks God to spare the city if 50 righteous persons can be found in it – he expects God to counter with something like “well, Abe, if I could find 100 righteous people, maybe I might spare the city. But you can’t really expect me to pardon a city that wicked for only 50 righteous people.”

But here’s God, blowing Abraham’s expectations out of the water – by immediately accepting Abraham’s request. Abe now has to re-figure his strategy. He first over-cautiously asks ‘what if there’s only 45?’ God again immediately says ‘Fine. If there’s 45 I’ll spare the city.’ Now Abe begins to realize he isn’t asking enough. He starts asking in increments of ten, going lower and lower with each ask… Stopping finally at ten. And at each increment, God says ‘Alright. I will spare the city if even ten are found righteous.’ (Abraham could have gone all the way down to one righteous person – it wouldn’t change the outcome. The lesson is in the conversation with God. Not the specifics of the outcome. But that’s another teaching… for another day…)

Today, the main take-away from Abraham’s prayer for me is Abraham’s holy chutzpah (sanctified boldness) – as he reminds God of God’s job description – ignoring all the conventional expectations of what’s acceptable to say to God. Abraham prays humbly and reverentially… But he boldly asks God for far more than he can reasonably expect. Yet God says ‘yes’ – again and again.

First Testament bible scholar John Goldingay points out this story is also about God choosing to communicate on our human level – as God appears here as one of three angels in the story – speaking face-to-face with God’s people. Abraham’s deeply prayerful conversation with God is a model example of God inviting God’s people to join with God in saving and transforming the world. Asking for whatever we need in faith.

Which reminds me of a story told by a Jewish friend I used to run into, just about any morning I visited the River Run Café in Plainfield Vermont for morning coffee and conversation. One morning we got talking about comparative ways of prayer – Christian and Jewish. Tony, a back-to-the-land-part-time-farmer told me a story he had been told by his mother that she said illustrates Jewish prayer–

A Jewish woman and her son are aboard a ship, when a huge wave comes out of nowhere and washes her son overboard. She looks up to heaven and shouts and hollers to God – “How could you do this? Give back my son! Give him back right now!” Other passengers look on, expecting a bolt of lightning to come down and strike this woman for speaking like this…But instead – another wave comes over the boat… and the boy is washed back into his mother’s arms, safe and sound…

The woman looks around… Checks the boy to be sure he’s ok… Looks up to heaven again, and says – “He had a hat!”

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Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you…”

And by now we know – not every prayer is answered the way we hope – quickly, positively… Not every lost child is returned to us on the next wave, with their hat back on their head… Not everything we ask is given to us – we don’t find everything we seek… At least not right away, like in the story… But Jesus still teaches us to pray – like Abraham reminding God of God’s job description – like that Jewish mother on the ship – shamelessly – audaciously – persistently…

So we keep praying, asking, seeking, knocking on God’s door. We sing the song in our Methodist hymnal – Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall findKnock and door shall be opened unto you, allelu, alleluia

We sing the song, we pray our prayers… Especially The Lord’s Prayer – Jesus’s shorter-version of which we hear today. We pray (I hope) this prayer more than once a day, every day… We understand (at least kind-of-sort-of) what Jesus says – about keep asking – keep knocking – like that man in the parable Jesus tells – who knocks as long and as hard as it takes to get what he needs – in this case, bread for a friend who has come by surprise in the middle of the night. Travelers in those days traveled by night to avoid the burning heat of the day. Like we travel by night to avoid Cape traffic in summer.

In those days the community code of hospitality was very  strong. It would be unthinkable in a village in Jesus’ day to refuse to get up and provide for a neighbor in need – no matter the time of night. Life depended on mutual support. People knew it. Those listening to Jesus would all agree – of course that neighbor will get up and give what is asked.

Life still depends on mutual love and support today – every bit as much as in the past. Though not as many people seem to know this today. We live in a time and place where many have forgotten their need for God… and for human face-to-face community… Often its only when we find ourselves in dire need that we remember God and prayer and community… Thank God for the twelve-step groups that help many with recovery… of sobriety and even more basically, recovery of right relationship with God and neighbor…Thanks God for all small parish churches. Frail and fallible…but… still serving as havens of hope… Thanks God for people who pray from the heart anywhere on earth.

Author and Benedictine monastic Joan Chittister, in her book on prayer The Breath of the Soul, retells a story told by rabbis of old, in which a student asks his rabbi to teach him how to pray. The rabbi takes him by the head – dunks his head in a bowl of water – holds the student’s head down…. When the student is finally allowed to bring his head back out of water, shaking and sputtering, he asks, ‘why did you do that?’ The rabbi replies: “To teach you prayer. When you know you cannot live without prayer any more than you can live without breathing – then you will know how to pray…”

That’s pretty much how I began learning to pray. I say began because I’m still learning… Over the past nearly-fifty-years, I’ve been learning… that the more I learn how much I need God – the more God keeps teaching me to pray… Till, a little like Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection says in his short book The Practice of the Presence of God…. Eventually prayer becomes a continuous ongoing conversation with God… that includes everything in life… And as the desert fathers and mothers long ago said – it’s never necessary to speak many words or to be eloquent or formal. All we have to remember when we pray is Lord, as you know and as you will, have mercy… And if the battle gets too strong just say Lord, help… And anytime we feel peace or happiness say thank you God… All that’s required is to thank God and pray for one another always as Jesus teaches…

In Thessalonians we hear “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.” Someone asked Thomas Merton ‘what does it mean – to pray without ceasing?’ Merton said “start praying!” We learn to pray by praying. Starting with the words Jesus gives us.

Pray for God’s holy name to be named holy always.

Pray God’s kingdom come.

Pray for daily bread. Not just my daily bread but our daily bread. Enough for everyone to be fed and nourished.

Pray forgiveness – not just for me and mine, but for all.

Pray every day. Every hour. Pray to forgive everyone. We’re in this life together. Our forgiveness may be on hold unless we’re praying forgiveness for others…

Pray deliverance from every trial and testing…

Pray always with perseverance… Because…

When we pray this prayer Jesus teaches us the way Jesus says to pray it – we’re asking for nothing less than complete over-throw of the present world order of sin,  death and darkness…

The Lord’s Prayer Jesus give us today is all about asking God to bring about God’s new order of love and justice – joy and peace – patience, kindness, generosity – faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…

Last I checked we’re not all the way there yet… So keep praying. Jesus doesn’t promise any of this will come easy…

What Jesus does promise – is that God our heavenly Father gives only the very best to those who ask. Best of all, the Holy Spirit…

Best of all – The very presence of God with us…

For which we can surely say –

Thanks be to God. Amen.