Readings: Psalm 138, Luke 11:1-13
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen.
I want to begin today with a memory of young adulthood – away from home but still seeing my parent’s prime role in life as being there for me. And so when I rang home, usually for something, and there was no reply, it was remarkably unsettling – where were they, why had they moved away from the phone (landline of course in those days) when I needed them. Why had they turned their focus away from me? Silly now but an honest recollection for then.
Rachel Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom tells a somewhat similar story from her childhood – this time about the focus of God. She says that when she was small God was still discussed in the public schools. She remembers one assembly in which the principle, a fervent fundamentalist, delivered a fire and brimstone kind of sermon to the entire school. She read a passage from the bible and told them it was important that they all kneeled and prayed three times a day because they needed to remind God that they were there. Thinking back she may not have said it in so many words, but this is what Rachel took away. You prayed because you had to make God look at you. If God’s face was turned away from you, she told the hushed assembly of children, you would wither up and die, like an autumn leaf. And at this time, Rachel recalls, she was sure she actually held up a large dry and withered leaf. Even as a five year old it seem that God had a lot of other things to think about besides her. And then she thought – what would happen if, when she was praying, God blinked, what would become of her? And she spent several sleepless nights until she was able to ask her Rabbi grandfather ‘what happens if God blinks?’ He was able to assure her that God just knows she is there all of the time, in the same way she knows that her parents are there even when she can’t see them. You know how a child’s mind works here – literal truth.
How many other unhelpful, or downright dangerous perceptions of the role that prayer plays are out there?
There are the ‘gimme’ prayers that are encouraged by our ‘gimme’ culture. God I pray for a lotto win or the designer clothing that will make me look cool or the rain to go away because I had a sunshine event planned. I even know of someone who prayed that a parking spot would appear for them because they didn’t want to walk too far. And when we add in the nagging prayer for things we want– if I ask often enough, God will give it to me. If I ask on my knees even better and if I ask in as many creatively different ways as I can think of, then how can God resist. Prayer for me, by me, might as well be to me as well.
Then there are the fix-it prayers discerned from a distance, framed by our own solutions and guaranteed by our saying of them. God do this and do that, heal them, hush them up, sort them out, make them better people – maybe too thinking that by the praying we need do no more. Distance prayers you might call them.
There are what you might call the last ditch prayers – you know ‘there’s not much else to do now but pray’ – we’ve all done that I am sure. “I’ve done everything I can now it’s up to God” says a health professional when she had no more answers. And whilst prayer in dire situations is absolutely what we are to do, if that is the first and only time one might pray, then there is a problem with understanding the meaning of prayer.
If this is what you think prayer is, says Luke, then it’s time to think again. And one of the ways we are reminded to think again is through the words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. It’s time to think again about what we mean when we say ‘hallowed by your name, your kingdom come....” When we set our praying, our conversations with God within the context of that phrase, the coming of the kingdom, instead of ourselves and our culture, our needs, our actions or inactions, we end up with a very different focus for requests, our expectations and our actions. We suddenly realise that, in seeking God’s kingdom rather than our own, our prayers become part of bringing wholeness and oneness to all. Remen says “at its deepest, prayer is a statement about causality. Turning toward prayer is a release from the arrogance and vulnerability of an isolated and individual causality. When we pray, we stop trying to control life and remember that we belong to life. It is an opportunity to experience humility and recognize grace. Prayer is a powerful way of embracing life, all life..... End of quote.
It is in this way of prayer – praying for the coming of the kingdom and not for our own ends, says Jesus, that we can have all confidence in God’s response.
It’s worth taking a moment to revisit the words of the prayer that Jesus taught or the shortened version found here in Luke. It has been suggested that we have lost some of the punch of this prayer in translation, that in the original Aramaic the words used were seen as stronger than just the wishes they are often interpreted as today – after acknowledging the sanctity of God, then they actually seem to tell God what to do – make your kingdom come! And the rest of the prayer follows on from this - if we are to be part of bringing this kingdom about then this is what you need to do to support us: we need forgiveness, sustenance, guidance and rescue from the things that overwhelm.
This prayer is from a community living in the closeness of strong relationship with God, totally convicted of the need of the kingdom they glimpse to be known to the world and recognising the power of praying for and into and on behalf of the whole world.
That is why we can have confidence in our approaching God in prayer, why we are told to have an attitude of perseverance, even cheekiness in our prayers – for the coming of the kingdom, not for our own ‘gimmes’ and fix-ups and life insurances. And then Jesus gives us this example of that attitude. We have the story of the man embarrassed by the lack of hospitality he is able to offer an unexpected guest and his shameless persistence in getting his next door neighbour out of bed to help. Prayer on behalf of those who are in need should indeed be persistent and outrageous – defying conventions of comfort, stretching our neighour’s reluctance so that they can, despite their misgivings, be truly neighbours. The needs of the world are met in the persistence and pushiness of prayer for the world.
And why are we so confident that prayer is heard, let alone changes things.
Because, says Jesus, we are loved. God loves the world, and if as a loving parent you will give only that which is good and caring for your child, how much more so will God be wanting to give only that which is good to us. If you knock the door will be open, if you search you will find what you look for – because we are seeking the good of the kingdom.
There is much more we could say about prayer, so many more truths and misunderstandings but for today can we hold this thought – that prayer, undertaken in the care for the world invites us into an place of power and presence, holds us in a focus of care for ourselves and others and encourages us to act outrageously and persistently so that God’s kingdom will come. Amen