Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – July 28, 2013
May the light of Christ shine on our doubt, the creativity of God break open new possibilities, and the Holy Spirit spread wings of peace over us. Amen.
Comedian Myron Cohen told the story of the Jewish grandmother watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave takes him out to sea. “Please God, “she pleads I beg of you to save my only grandson.” And immediately another wave washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to heaven and says, “He had a hat!”
Both a lot of wisdom and humor has been written about prayer. Like the story of the grandma, our Gospel today brings us a parable about persistence in prayer. The story tells of the man who knocks on his neighbor’s door at midnight asking for some bread to feed his unexpected guests. Really? At midnight? Can you imagine that happening in today? If someone bangs relentlessly on our door later than 10 pm, we’re on high alert and it had better be important. But Jesus is telling the parable in a very different time when hospitality was an important cultural norm—yet another instance when Jesus references the radical hospitality of God—a God who will get up from a sound sleep to answer the door and give us bread when we ask.
So is the message here that God only answers us if we keep banging on the door, if we ask and ask and ask? And what if I’m asking for something and someone else is asking for the opposite thing? What if you pray for the Mets and your best friend prays for the Yankees? Or I pray for sunshine and you pray for rain? To whom does God listen first or most?
President Jimmy Carter once said that “God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
My guess is that most people, even the biggest skeptics, find the words to say when they face a crisis. When we have hit a brick wall, the heart has little place to go than to the Creator. The words may be simple, desperate, angry, even coarse but we manage to find them even if we’re not sure to whom we are praying or if anyone is listening.
I don’t think that was the premise behind the disciples’ asking Jesus how to pray. I don’t think most of us have questions about urgent, crisis-driven negotiation, begging for someone’s life or biopsy result or saving our home from foreclosure. The words usually come then, often intermittent with deep sobs. In Take this Bread, author Sarah Miles asks a friend “How do you pray?” “Well,” her friend said, “I usually start off with, ‘Okay, what the hell is going on here, God?’”
The disciples, it seems to me, were talking about more basic everyday stuff like how to include prayer in our mundane, routine lives? What Jesus offers them is probably a disappointment to those who are systematic in their approach to spirituality. The gospels do not report that Jesus had a Rule of Life that each day included intercession, petition, adoration, confession, and a time for contemplation, silent meditation, and recitation of the Daily Office. There is nothing wrong with all that as a spiritual discipline, and some people are well suited for it, but it does not seem like Jesus was one of them.
In no way am I suggesting that Jesus neglected his prayer life—his life was immersed in it—but he was a man of few words on this subject. He seemed to be more concerned about how we live out what we believe than how we pray about it.
The answer Jesus gave his disciples inquiry was in a formula that is simple, unsophisticated, and a natural part of living. It is even childlike and spontaneous and it contains everything we need to say: Addressing God with reverence for God’s name, expressing hope for God’s reign to come on earth, petitioning for our basic needs, asking and promising forgiveness, and seeking the grace to face difficult times. Brief, simple, direct.
While we can hear and read the words Jesus gave us to use in a model for praying, what we don’t see is the posture he likely used when he did that. The position of extending both hands out and upward while praying was common to almost all ancient religions as an outward sign of supplicating God. Consider what we do when we plead with someone. We might put our arms out in front of us as if reaching for the person and say “I beg you, please help me.” Now, turn that reach heavenwards and you have the Orans or “praying” position used by Jesus. It a natural human gesture like kneeling coming from deep within us. You observe this in those of us who serve at the Altar and I invite you, if you are comfortable doing so, to join us in that tradition in our worship. If it feels natural, please know that you are welcome to pray in that way when we sing the Lord’s Prayer together.
For the past two Sundays we have heard stories that teach us lessons about balance. It is less obvious but still continues in today’s episode.
How do we pray for peace without attempting to be peacemakers? Or pray for justice and patronize businesses that discriminate against certain people? How do we pray for good health, while we make a steady diet of junk food, and generally neglect our bodies? Or for the protection of the environment and then waste the resources God has given us? How do we pray for the poor and homeless and vote for elected officials who refuse to help alleviate their predicament?
Prayer gifts us with God’s Spirit and that Spirit living in us prompts us to work to build God’s kingdom in the world.
I think sometimes theologians and spiritual directors make prayer much more complicated and mystifying than it needs to be. Consequently, we may feel completely inept when it comes to what, where and how to pray. Today we get the real scoop right from Jesus. Keep it real: brief, simple, direct.
Joy Strome, pastor of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, captures the essence of prayer in these words: “Prayer is for those who, empowered by the Spirit and supported in community, are willing to stake their lives on the belief that God will open the door when they knock.” All I can add to that is a hearty “Amen!”