Sunday, July 25, 2010

"When you pray, say, 'Father'"...

Sheepscott Community Church July 25, 2010

Genesis 18: 20-32

Luke 11: 1-13

“When you pray, say ‘Father’”...

There is no such thing as unanswered prayer, if that prayer is made sincerely from the heart. We may not get what we ask for, exactly when we want it, but when we do get an answer, even if that answer is a refusal, we can be sure it is the answer that comes out of the wisdom and love of God. So often our requests in prayer are self-servingly shortsighted. We can only rejoice that God has the longer view. That’s clear in Jesus’s instruction to his disciples and so to us in how to pray to the Father in the first part of this morning’s gospel.

“When you pray,” said Jesus, “say, ‘Father.’” That very first word tells us that we are not coming to someone whose hand and heart have to be pried open with fancy words or even perseverance. It reminds us that we are coming to One who delights in filling his children's needs.

“Hallowed be your name.” Another translation, “let your name be held in reverence.” Focus on the word name here. In Hebrew the word name means way more than just the name by which a person is called. It means the character of a person. Those who know––as far as our human limitations will allow––the character, mind and heart of God will easily put their trust in that One, whose name––Yahweh––I Am Who Am––stands for that One.

One of our kids was driving her Ford Ranger truck on Rte 27 out of Augusta on a January night some years ago on her way back to Farmington. For any of you who are familiar with that road, in New Sharon, the angle of ascent becomes sharper, and rain in Augusta that has turned to sleet and snow and rain in Belgrade is usually straight sleet by the time the driver is ascending through New Sharon. By the time you reach Farmington, it’s snow. That’s the way it was the night our daughter was driving.

In a moment of skid, her pickup crossed the road and did a 360 roll in the air before coming down hard on its four wheels in a ditch. She told me that in those frightful moments, without thinking about it, she cried out, “Jesus Christ!” not as an imprecation, a curse, but as an invocation, a prayer. A non-churchgoer, she nevertheless had been baptized into Christ as an infant and raised up in a church family. When she knew that she was about to die, she cried out the name that is salvation. In God’s mercy, she survived with a cut pinky finger.

Why I am telling this story is to illustrate the power of a name. What our minds and bodies cannot necessarily construe and register, our spirits know by heart. Our spirits know the character of the One on whom we can depend because that One is trustworthy. I am also telling parents, grandparents, and concerned others, to, yes, continue to pray with love and not fear for your kids and grandkids, who may not be where you think they should be or would like them to be, but who are on their individual journeys toward God––as we are. They will find their way because the One they are seeking, whether consciously or unconsciously, knows them and loves them completely right now. Let them continue on their way without judgment on them or God about the way they have chosen. Pray for them and love them. That’s the most and best we can do.

“Give us each day”––or this day––”our daily bread.” We aren’t talking about tomorrow. One day at a time. We have the wonderful precedent of the manna in the desert when the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land and needed sustenance. God provided a dewy-like substance on the ground each morning that would dry out in the sun to something like a sweet, edible flat wafer, and the people were exhorted not to gather any more than they needed for one day . They were not to hoard. Anything stored or hoarded would rot and be inedible anyway. There are a number of Biblical exhortations against hoarding, aren’t there? Interesting. That’s all I’m saying. Well, maybe I’m also saying trust in the Lord, a day at a time, for all things.

Address God as one who wants to provide for his children; reverence or hallow the name of God––give the praise due that One; and ask for what you need in the daily round. If that is all vertical, between us and the Father, now we have the horizontal part of the The Lord’s Prayer, between us and our neighbors, and it comes in that tough and familiar dress of forgiveness.

The New International Version, which I read as part of the gospel this morning, has “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Another translation, “for we too forgive all who do us wrong.” Both of those translations have a kind of quid pro quo setup. You forgive us because we forgive others. It’s a statement of fact and something of mutual respect. The other popular and familiar translation is, “forgive us our sins or trespasses or debts, as we forgive those who sin or trespass against us or who are indebted to us. The “as” in this translation is ominous. We are asking God to forgive us in the same way that we forgive others, not because we too forgive others, but as we forgive others. The power of a translated word. Even if we pray one of the other translations, I think it’s a good idea to keep this one in the back of our minds to keep us aware and perhaps more careful than we might be otherwise, when we’re thinking about that grudge we’ve been bearing for how many years? Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins in just the same way we forgive others. Think about that. If you remember nothing else from this sermon today, remember that.

Besides addressing the rightness and necessity of praising God, asking for what we need in the daily round, and addressing the always thorny issue of sin and forgiveness, the prayer Jesus taught to his followers also deals with future trials. That entails asking God’s help as we face any of the testing situations of life, any of the challenges, not just matters of sin, commission or omission.

Notice that there isn’t one “please” in the Lord’s Prayer. To return to an earlier theme, God does not have to be cajoled or convinced to hear and answer prayer. God is wanting and waiting to be asked, to be spoken to, because that is one aspect of our relationship with God, one way of being in touch, and he covets our being in touch. Really. In the prayer there is respect and submission––your kingdom come––but there is no shuffling. No obsequiousness. No please and thank you. God is straightforward, and it’s a really good idea not to try to cloak our intentions in pretty language to make it appealing to God.

It’s important to note again vis-à-vis the second half of the gospel this morning that we do not have to wring gifts from the tightened grip of an unwilling God. Not at all. The parable of the householder, who tells his friend to go away and not to bother him with his late night request for bread, would seem on first blush to be teaching us that we have to persist boldly in prayer until God answers us. A wider understanding of what the function of a parable is can help us to see the story differently.

A parable means literally something laid alongside something else. If we lay something beside another thing to teach a lesson, that lesson may be drawn from the fact that the things are like each other, or from the fact that the things are a contrast to each other. The point of the story of the householder with the shut door is one not of likeness but of contrast.

The lesson is not that we must persist in prayer, banging at the door to compel the occupant to open it to us. The lesson of the parable is that if this surly, ungracious and grudging householder finally opens the door to his neighbor’s need because of the neighbor’s bold perseverance, how much more will God, who is like a loving Father, supply all his children’s needs? God does not have to be badgered: God needs only to be asked. And sometimes––I don’t know if you have found this, but I have––that “ask” doesn’t even have to be put into words. The unspoken ask, the unarticulated prayer that is written on the heart and in the heart, also ascends to the One who knows the language of the human heart and needs no translator. It is perhaps the epitome of encouragement to have such an unarticulated prayer answered. God knows my heart.

Let’s talk about the other main character of the parable, the original householder whose door is knocked upon by the late-night traveler. First question: What is the man doing traveling near midnight? And isn’t that unreasonable to expect a response at that hour? It was a fact of life in the East of that time that people did often travel during the night––they may still, even as some of us do now in the summer––to avoid the heat of the day. Maybe they were avoiding caravans as well,even as we would avoid the heaviest traffic by traveling late at night. So, it isn’t really as unreasonable as it would first seem that someone would be traveling so late. And there wasn’t a Motel 8 to stop at, no light left on. That traveler was dependent on his friend for hospitality, which is the second element, another fact of life in the East of the time, and still in force today, viz., hospitality as a sacred duty.

If this traveler turned up on his friend’s front porch at midnight, it wasn’t enough to set before him a bare sufficiency of food. Abundance was what was called for from the perspective of fulfilling the sacred duty of hospitality. Now here is a complication. Bread was baked fresh daily because it quickly went stale and no one would want to eat it the next day, so here we have our first householder in the embarrassing situation of having an empty cupboard and a hungry guest. His solution was to go to his neighbor––why he had bread available isn’t addressed by the reading, and I confess I did wonder about that. Then I had to remember, This is only a story. Don’t for heaven’s sake take it literally, and I caution you the same way. What we are always remembering to be open to is what the story is teaching, not necessarily the picky details.––Anyway, he goes to the cranky neighbor’s and bangs on the door until he gets what he asks for.

One other note is that the man whom the traveler-friend approached for hospitality was asking for something for someone else. Yes, he was seeking to fulfill his sacred duty, but that duty involved loving his neighbor. In truth he involved the cranky neighbor in an involuntary act of kindness toward the traveling friend. He was fulfilling the Law in a most complete way.

It won’t hurt to say one more time what the lesson of the parable is: If you with all your faults know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to his children?

Straightforwardness in simple language can focus the need in prayer. We can gauge the reality and sincerity of our desire by the passion of our prayer. I remind you as I did at the beginning that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. The answer given may not be the answer we desire or expect, but even when the answer is no––and yes, that does happen sometimes––we can be sure that it is the right answer out of the love and wisdom of God. Amen.

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