Sunday, July 29, 2007

Proper 12C

Genesis 18:20-33; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

No one believes this to be true more than my six-year-old son, Charlie, who asks and searches and knocks all the time. His skill with asking the question “why?” is unparalleled, except perhaps by his ability to search every square inch of the house for his shoes and finally find them in the middle of the living room floor. And if you open the door for him just an inch, he’ll gleefully hook you with his favorite joke in the world:

Knock knock…who’s there…banana…banana who…knock knock…

Orange you hoping I’m not going to do the whole thing? Charlie, like most six-year-olds, I think, can ask and search and knock knock with all the persistence of Abraham bargaining with God. Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city…Suppose five of the fifty are lacking…Suppose forty are found there…How about twenty…What about ten…

To his credit, Abraham has turned his life inside-out for God without so much as a “why?”. He and wife, Sarah, have left their home and begun their journey to a place known only as “the land that I will show you”. They have been promised descendents as numerous as the stars, but have yet to hear the pitter patter of tiny feet searching for tiny shoes. In this morning’s reading from Genesis, it is as though all of Abraham’s unasked questions come tumbling out at once in his bold challenge of God’s decision to destroy sinful Sodom.

His persistence pays off. God answers every question, giving Abraham exactly what he was looking for, although, in the end, not even ten righteous would be found in the condemned city. Paired with our gospel reading on the subject of prayer, we hear of Abraham’s accomplishment and are perhaps surprised the disciples (like us, so full of questions)…we are perhaps surprised the disciples don’t say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to bargain, teach us to get what we want”. Brother John Kavanaugh writes, “I ask God for everything I want but am nowhere near as successful as Abraham. I ask for health, miracles, x-ray vision to find lost articles, and, interminably, to be a better person. Why not? Jesus said we should pray for our daily bread. That covers a lot. How many times, late at night, have I pounded on the door of heaven, remembering his words from Luke’s gospel: ‘Ask…search…knock, and the door will be opened for you.’”

For once, though, the disciples may have asked Jesus the right question when they said, Lord, teach us to pray. Luke tells us they spoke to Jesus just after he had finished praying – perhaps they had been watching, listening, wondering just what transpired between Jesus and the God he so dearly called Abba, Father. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that they observed their Teacher at prayer – Luke’s gospel is filled with accounts of Jesus praying and teaching others about prayer. He prays right after his baptism, when the Holy Spirit comes upon him and a voice from heaven says, You are my son, my Beloved. Jesus prays all day and night before he names the twelve apostles. He often withdraws to pray, alone or in the company of just a few. Over and again, persistently, Luke sets his stories of Jesus’ daily life and work in the context of prayer. Once when Jesus was praying…while he was praying…he prayed more earnestly…when he got up from prayer…

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray…” In this morning’s reading, it is as though all the disciples’ unanswered (but not, bless them, unasked!) questions about how to follow Jesus come tumbling out at once in this earnest request. Lord, teach us to pray.

How they must have delighted, as we still delight today, in the answer, in the words that Jesus gave them. When you pray, say, Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. The Lord’s Prayer, as it has been in every generation, will be spoken by millions of women and men in hundreds of languages this morning, in worship, at bedsides, at summer camp, in battle, in prison cells, at work sites, at home and on the streets, alone and in community. All these, and many millions more who may not say or even know the beloved prayer, will ask and search and knock this morning, pounding on heaven’s door in the darkness of their lives, hoping that God will lend them an answer, an opening to what they want but cannot find.

To some, Jesus’ teaching about prayer sounds like a blank check – ask for anything you want, knock all night long if you have to, pray long enough and hard enough, and God will answer your prayer. To others, it sounds like a bad joke, because if it were true – everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened – if it were true, one preacher wrote, every little girl would be braiding pink ribbons in her own pony’s tail, and every little boy would be Michael Jordan, and all children everywhere would be living in peace. Lord, it’s not working. Lord, teach us to pray.

But there is, I believe, truth in Jesus’ words to his disciples that day, there is an answer to a question they might not have intended to ask. Lord, teach us to pray. In the simple prayer Jesus offered, and in his parable of the late night guest, and in his invitation to ask and search and knock, Jesus teaches his disciples – and so he teaches us – something of what prayer is and something of the One to whom and in whom and of whom we pray. Jesus teaches us not how to fit prayer into our lives but, rather, how to fit our lives into prayer that is, like the One to whom and in whom and of whom we pray, persistent, ongoing, never-ending.

Listen again to Abraham’s conversation with God, so like a child speaking with Abba, Father, wondering just how far he can go before he reaches the limit of God’s mercy and patience, but Abraham gives up before God does. Long before the words will be spoken to his descendents in the desert, Abraham begins to understand that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…

Listen again to the Lord’s Prayer, so familiar to us that we might not have heard it in a long time. Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come… In all these words, Jesus is teaching us about God, who cares for us as a loving parent, who alone is hallowed, holy, whose reign of justice and mercy is over all things. Like a parent God tends to our daily needs for sustenance, forgiveness, and deliverance.

Prayer is not about ourselves. It is not about the people we love or the world we live in. It is not making things happen. It is not about striking a bargain. Prayer is about God who is always already present in us and in the people we love and in the world. It is about opening up before God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. In prayer, we open ourselves to God, who gives us the Holy Spirit – the gift of God’s very self as the breath and life and prayer within us, a gift far more wonderful than anything we could think to ask for. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “Speak to him, for he heareth, and spirit and Spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing. Nearer than hands and feet.”

Speak to God, for God hears, and spirit and Spirit can meet. As Episcopalians we are fortunate to have not just the Lord’s Prayer but a whole book full of prayers to help us speak, to help us make that space in which we are open before God, in which spirit and Spirit can meet. That book defines prayer, though, as responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Prayer is more than what we do here, more than what we say at the dinner table or lying in bed at night or in the minutes before the big presentation or the big test. How can we, instead of just saying our prayers, be persistent in prayer? How can we pattern our lives after the One who teaches us to pray? How can we make prayer the context of our lives?

One of the great saints of our faith made his life a prayer in this way. In the morning when he woke up, he would clasp his hands together and begin, “Dear God…” and then go about his day. In the evening, just before bed, he would clasp his hands together again and say, “Amen.”

Thank goodness that for six-year-olds learning to tell jokes, and for all of us learning to pray, persistence, not perfection, is all we need. Charlie’s knock-knocking sometimes falls flat, but his smile as he delivers his punchline never fails to make me laugh anyway. Perhaps in the same way, when my prayers seem to fall flat, when I don’t use the perfect words, when I don’t get what I thought would be the perfect outcome, God smiles at my effort.

We can be sure that when we pray, what we will get each and every time is God, who is nearer than hands and feet, who surpasses any answer we could hope for, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. We can be sure that the Holy Spirit will rise in us like breath, renewing and refreshing us to face what challenges or threatens or frightens us. When this is what we ask for, what we search for, what makes us pound the door of heaven, we can be sure that it will indeed be what is given to us, what we find, what is opened to us each and every day.

And so, let us pray. Dear God…

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Ah, to have the wisdom to know when to be "why-less" and when to be "will-you-ful!" I had the opportunity to share some of this sermon with a co-worker at the library. Sometimes it is comforting to know that even the good guys question God's actions and God still reckons them as faithful!