Sermon preached by Jules Jodko, Pastoral Associate
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 25, 2010
Listen to the following from an anonymous source about unanswered prayer, and place it against the background of today’s Gospel according to Luke:
“I asked for strength and God gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for wisdom and God gave me problems to learn to solve.
I asked for prosperity and God gave me a brain and brawn to work.
I asked for courage and God gave me dangers to overcome.
I asked for love and God gave me people to help.
I asked for favors and God gave me opportunities.
I received nothing I wanted.
I received everything I needed.”
Prayer is an odd thing. We pray to praise God. We ask God to intercede on behalf of the needy. We pray for favors that will benefit us, perhaps at other’s expense. Then, there are those who even use prayer to curse their enemies. We pray for certain weather, or at least for today, some cooler temperatures. Moreover, we thank God for our earthly blessings.
However, on the other hand, maybe it is not that prayer is so odd; perhaps its how we choose to pray that is so unusual. During his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln noted the paradox of Union and Confederate supporters praying to their one and only God for victory in battle. In World War I, German and Allied soldiers celebrated Christmas along the Western front, together, in between their trenches and fortifications, where they sang carols and prayed as one. For those of you who recall George C. Scott portrayal of General George S. Patton, you might recall his prayer for proper weather prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
It is obvious that not all our prayers can be answered since so many may be mutually exclusive. Equally, many probably should not be prayed at all.
Jesus told his disciples to praise God, pray for God’s Kingdom, pray for immediate needs, pray for forgiveness, and pray for protection from times of trial.
I perceive that an issue with prayer today is that we focus more on what we want that we forget to ask God about what we need – the objects of necessity. Do we even consider that if God grants our petition, the greater purpose might be disrupted? If I am granted what I WANT, will someone else who has a greater need suffer an injustice? If we pray for the want of a victorious end to war, what is the longer-term effect or need on the stability, justice, peace, or socio-economics of a particular region? It is difficult not to pray for the things we want, and I do not think it is necessarily amiss to do so. However, our focus should be clearly on what we need, and even more importantly, on what the world, as a whole needs, that is, the Kingdom of God. Author, Kathleen Norris, writes in Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith, “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.”
In my limited experience, I have seen only one place in the scriptures where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them something, and this is it, right here in Luke’s Gospel – Chapter 11. In every other example of teaching, Jesus initiates the disciples’ actions.
It is not surprising when you think about it. Prayer is something about which our culture seems to feel perpetually inadequate. There are many New Year’s resolutions I am sure that include the promise to spend more time in prayer.
Now I am thinking that the disciples as devout Jews, were raised in a setting where they had certainly been taught to pray. Have you ever thought that you adequately knew how to do something; until you saw someone else do it better? Alternatively, as you became aware of the remarkable affects of another particular method, you wanted to use it yourself.
So, where did you learn how to pray?
Was it from your parents who may have handed down their manner of bedtime prayers, or grace before meals? We have been taught about prayer in Sunday school and in sermons. We pray during worship. We may have even taken a class on prayer (PS., there were no specific prayer classes offered in my seminary). For the most part, our knowledge of prayer has been obtained in bits and pieces, piecemeal and in small chunks.
Our casual education on prayer may often leave us with the question, “Am I praying correctly?” “Is this too small a thing to pray about?” “My prayers never seem to be answered, does prayer really work, and is it worthwhile?” We also might end up with a chronic sense of guilt—prayer is one more activity that we are not doing correctly or enough.
Our Gospel today has the disciples continuing on the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus will face an ultimate death. The lessons of discipleship have come one after another, a steady curriculum of faith. They have learned about the importance of traveling light – “don’t even carry bread,” Jesus says, suggesting it will be provided along the way. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, they have learned about the centrality of love for God and neighbor – including those we’d rather not call “neighbor;” and in the story of Mary and Martha provided last week, they learned about the importance of listening to, and doing the Word of God. Today’s story is the next act.
There are many references in the Gospel of Luke with Jesus at prayer. I suspect that he listened just as much as he spoke. Jesus tells His disciples – which includes us – that we should talk with God as we would to a loving Father, a loving parent, who listens to us, nurtures us, forgives us, and provides for us. Jesus does not talk about obscure or scholarly theology. He brings the reality of God’s love home to us in real terms that we can understand. His language is one of everyday relationships. Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with God.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us a parallel message indicating that God will give “good things” to those who ask. Take note that Luke adds that God will give “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask. At first, you may be disappointed. We want the good things. Right? We want health, happiness, safety, and maybe, if we are honest with ourselves, we want some success, some prestige…after all, we are only human.
The more I think about it, this promise of the Holy Spirit is the key to understanding this passage as a whole. The prayer Jesus gives us is not a comforting, simple private prayer to get us through the tough times and personal crises. It is the prayer of the community, a community that was promised the Holy Spirit. In fact, we did not become “the church” until the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostle’s, as promised by Jesus. This community, the church, is called, called to be the Body of Christ. We are called to live and breathe in radical dependence on the God who made us, listens to our prayers, and calls us by name, the God who forms us into a community that prays together.
Listen to the words given by Jesus, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not just me, or you, but all of us. Not for the long-term, but every day. God gives us the Holy Spirit to depend on and from where we draw strength.
Luke states that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. How does that affect the way you hear his message, and the way you think about God as the One who hears our prayers? Imagine receiving the Holy Spirit as an answer to prayer. What would that look like in our own personal walk of faith, or in the life of this whole community?
It seems to me, that spending time with God in regular prayer, through intimate conversation opening ourselves to the Spirit will lead us on a way of compassion. It will lead us to transformation. It will transform us not just as individuals but also as a community. The prayer calls us to join in the building up of God’s Kingdom not up in heaven – somewhere unknown or unseen, but here, here on earth – the place we know, for a reign of justice, healing, love, and radical hospitality.
I believe that the church is not something theoretical. The church is something concrete that we constantly experience in community. It comforts me to know that when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, in my apartment early in the morning, there are other Christians, in other places, praying the same prayer, forming the same words both in their hearts and on their lips in a community of believers. We are the work of the Creator, and we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us therefore be, in our life as a community the daily bread for one another.