Persistent Prayer – July 28, 2019

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Track 2)

In the name of the God who loves us totally, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

In the 5th century St. Augustine remarked “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”  In other words, we were made for relationship with God.  We have been created out of love to be in intimacy with God. And when Jesus offers his disciples what we have come to know as the “Lord’s Prayer”, it is to help deepen that relationship, to bring us closer to God.

The disciples were devout Jews, rooted in a praying tradition. And yet they were infected with the age-old doubts about prayer and how we should pray and whether prayer was effective.  Hence, Jesus gives them a simple prayer. And then follows with a funny story of a person knocking on his neighbor’s door at midnight to borrow some bread.

Lest we think this text is about how and when we pray, and whether we get the right words, know that it is not.  It is a text about the character of God, how God cares for us, listens to us, and responds to us.

The bottom line of Scripture is that God loves and cares for us, each and every one of us, and wants to be in relationship with us. Individual relationship. Prayer, conversation with God, is an important way of living into relationship. And the prayer Jesus gives his friends is to assure us that God loves us to supply our needs, forgive us, protect us.  Note that the prayer Jesus gives us in the plural. Our needs, our sins, our protection.  We’re in this together. He gives us a number of phrases that work together to sum up Christian life and mission.

Beginning with the instruction to call upon the almighty Creator as “Father,” the next petition actually commits us to do all in our power to bring God’s kingdom to fruition in our time and place. We ask God to provide all we need, the bread of each day and the sustenance of a world in which forgiveness reigns over selfishness and revenge. Finally, like Jesus himself, we ask that we not be put to the final test, but that the cup of suffering pass us by — if that be God’s will.

Prayer is not a laundry list of things we want presented to genie. Prayer is a conversation in the context of a living relationship. We make our requests because God invites us to, the same way a human parent wants her children to ask for the unicorn even if there’s no way to grant that wish – you want the conversation to reflect her heart. And you’re unlikely to give her a viper instead.

There is this mysterious thread running through Scripture, where God, it seems, loves us to be persistent, to desire something with all our heart and soul and to not give up asking.  Of course most famously there is that marvelous story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the angel – really with God.  He wrestled with him all night, but even through his hip was put out of joint as he wrestled, he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  And the angel blessed him because of his persistence – fighting with God, and not letting God go until he blesses you.  How could you dare to do that, yet God seems to honor that.[1]

In the Gospels, in Mark chapter 7, a Gentile woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter.  No, Jesus says, it‘s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.  But she won’t let him go.  “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus is so moved by her persistence that he cures her daughter.

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 2, four men carrying their paralyzed friend tried to bring him to Jesus.  They tried and tried, but there was such a crowd they couldn’t get near him.  So they removed the roof of the house and let down the mat on which the man lay.  They actually removed the roof!  That’s persistence!  And Jesus healed their friend and he walked again.

Persistent prayer is not about knocking on the door of God’s heart so much that in the end he gets fed up and answers our prayer.  Persistent prayer, and why it seems to be so honored throughout Scripture, is because it reflects a deep desire and passion – it so often comes from a place of great love.

St. Paul was passionately devoted to his beloved children in Christ and he would pray for them persistently.  “I remember you constantly in my prayers day and night,” he writes to Timothy.  To the Philippians, “I thank God every time I remember you.”  To the Colossians,  “We have not ceased praying for you.”  This is what persistent prayer is, and it underpinned Paul’s entire ministry.

Pray as you can, not as you can’t, someone once said to me. There are no report cards for prayer, teaches Barbara Crafton. Mother Crafton continues, “Nothing in the spiritual life needs to be measured.  You don’t need to worry about whether you’re praying as well as somebody else, even somebody whose spiritual life you admire.  We are not called to grow into someone else’s spiritual clothing, only into our own… Just ask God for the gift of prayer that God wants you to have.”[2]

Prayer can be formal, like reading/reciting prayers, or can be informal, like conversation.  Both are fine.  And prayer does not have to be confined limited to certain times or places.  It can take place while driving, walking, singing (the one who sings prays twice, said St. Augustine), fixing a meal, being awed by God’s creation.

I realized recently that I pray when I make pies. I’ve been making pies for years, and giving them away, and praying for those to whom I’m giving them. Particularly when I roll out the crust and make the lattice, I remember my friend Julie who taught me how to weave a lattice top shortly before she died.  I always remember Julie when I make pie.  It’s prayer.  Then there are amazing parishioners among us who knit and crochet blankets and shawls and it is prayer for them.  Prayer takes many forms.

Jesus tells us to ask and seek and knock, and that we’ll receive.  I don’t understand why when we seek and knock, some prayers are answered in the ways we want and others not.  For those of us who’ve prayed for healing for a loved one that hasn’t happened, I don’t know.  I have no answers for how prayer works.  What I do believe is that God always listens to our prayers, and that in our darkest times God suffers with us and holds us in love and care.

I think what Jesus’ bottom line saying is that prayer is about relationship.  About our recognizing God’s faithfulness, God’s persistence toward us, and our trying to be faithful ourselves.  About keeping on when it’s hard to do so.

Even when we give up on God, God never gives up on us.

[1] Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, “Ask, Search, Knock”, July 28, 2013.

[2] Let Us Bless the Lord, Year Two, p. 248.

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