Colossians 2:6-15; Psalm 85; Luke 11:1-13
I wonder if you’ve noticed, that recently there has been a bit of a backlash against prayer. Well maybe not just against prayer, but certainly against “thoughts and prayers.” That’s the phrase that often gets used and a publicly notable event—politicians and celebrities offer their thoughts and prayers. It’s happened so much that we have become cynical about it. I think we have come to believe that an offer of thoughts and prayers is a substitute for doing anything—for becoming actively involved in whatever issue has activated the sentiment.
I think that’s because we believe that thoughts and prayers just aren’t enough. In 2013 Pope Francis said, “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer…Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”[i] And in 2018 the Dalai Lama said he was, “skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.”[ii]
And yet in today’s gospel, Jesus offers prayer as concrete action. The disciples ask him to teach them to pray, and he does. And then he goes on to talk about the importance of prayer, and particularly about insistence—maybe even suggesting it is our job to nag God into fulfilling our prayers. What are we supposed to think about that?
Now, certainly prayer is important to we who call ourselves Anglicans. After all, the instrument that ties us together is called “The Book of Common Prayer.” We understand ourselves as praying people. But, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you have doubted your own effectiveness as a pray-er. I think all of us who profess to be Christians desire to understand prayer—to better understand what it means to pray, or at least confirm that we’re on the right track.
There are plenty of resources out there to teach us how to pray. So many in fact, that it is daunting just to decide where to turn for advice. Theologian Douglas John Hall says, “We are burdened by centuries of exhortation and technique concerning ‘right’ prayer. As a result, one darkly suspects, only a small percentage of avowed Christians actually pray very often, or, if we do sometimes pray, we tend to judge our efforts deeply flawed.”[iii] I think that’s right.
Fortunately, Jesus provides a basic lesson in prayer in today’s gospel lesson. When the disciples asked him to help teach them to pray, Jesus provided an example: The Lord’s Prayer.
The model is simple. It begins with direct address of God, with the word “Father.” In the Greek of the original text, this is the word Abba, which is a familiar and warm address—sort of like “Daddy.”
Next follow words of praise: “hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” As one writer has said, these two phrases, “call on God to be God…they implore God to truly take charge of…our lives, to bring justice and peace to our world.[iv]
Finally there are petitions to God: “Give us our daily bread,” “forgive us our sins,” “do not bring us to the time of trial.” These are insistent pleas for basic things from God—sustenance, forgiveness, and fidelity.
Notice that it doesn’t take very long in this prayer to get to the direct requests: “Give us…Forgive us…Lead us…Deliver us.” And there’s not much softening, ingratiating language, either—no “please,” no “if it be your will,” no extravagant promises in return. Just these insistent pleas.
Jesus then goes on to relate a parable about persistence, or as one writer comments, shamelessness. The man who intrusively knocks at the door at an inconvenient hour is rewarded because of his pushiness. And that is followed by those iconic words: “Ask, and it will be give you; search and you will find; know and the door will be opened for you.”
Those words confound me. As one writer has said, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if supplicants do not receive that for which they ask, they may not be praying hard enough. How many have expected that he failure to receive the ‘good gifts’ they request from God is because they have not asked in the right way, or with the proper urgency and frequency?” I certainly don’t believe that. but Luke’s Jesus certainly seems to suggest here that, if we pray hard enough, we can trust that our prayers will be answered. We all know of far too many instances that illustrate how misguided that idea is.
And it is all rather brazen, don’t you think? Jesus tells us to address God in a cozy, familiar way, and after the barest acknowledgement of the power of God, we’re to ask God, repeatedly and shamelessly, to give us what we need—what we have decided is right for us. It seems to contradict Jesus’ own admonition in the sixth chapter of Matthew—the other place that this prayer appears, in the form with which we are more familiar. Here Jesus says, “whenever you pray, don’t be like those who think they will be heard because of their many words…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
So why do we need to come to God in prayer at all? If God already knows what we need, why is all this noise necessary?
Perhaps the point is not to tell God what we need, but rather for us to acknowledge and understand our own needs. One theologian says, “In prayer we say who in fact we are—not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are. All prayer begins with this confession.”[v] Integral to prayer is a real understanding of our own state; exactly who and what we are.
Any of you who are familiar with twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous know that the first steps are about understanding and acknowledging exactly who one is—warts and all. Step four is to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Make no mistake: it can be daunting and frightening to really own up to all we are (or aren’t)—but perhaps it is easier to dare to take this step with one who in fact already knows us: God, to whom, as we acknowledged at the beginning of this service, “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid.”
And as we acknowledge just who we are—and also what we feel, what we fear, what we treasure—we open the avenue for true relationship with God. I believe that relationship is the true aim of prayer. Never forget that our God is one who longs to be connected to us.
And that bring me to an interesting twist in the interpretation of the parable Jesus offers this morning: What if we were to understand that the one banging at the door was not us, but God? What if we were to understand that, in our communication with God, the Almighty is persistently and eagerly trying to connect with us? That the one who needs to worn down, in fact is us?
You see, most of the time we think we can do it all on our own. God is a comfort and a totem; but do we really need God? Prayer is a time for us to hear God knocking on the metaphorical doors of our hearts, and to begin to turn our minds toward opening that door, to allow God in.
Perhaps the takeaway from this parable is that God longs to be in partnership with us; that God wants, more than anything else, for us to see ourselves clearly, to acknowledge our shortcomings, to dare to tell God what we need—and to admit our need for God’s help.
Jesus invites us to enter into an intimate and dependent relationship with God; to honestly and persistently tell God how we feel and what we need, and then, in return to open ourselves to God.
Let us pray.
Jesus, you have told us, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” Give us the boldness to follow your example, confident that God, who knows our needs even before we ask, will answer in love and abundance. Amen.
[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoughts_and_prayers, accessed 7/26/2019.
[iii] Hall, Douglas John, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 286-88.
[iv] Wallace, James A., Feasting on the Word, p. 289.
[v] Ulanov, Ann and Barry, from Primary Speech: a Psychology of Prayer, (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982, p. 1), quoted in The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1998. p. 44.