Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
He said to 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.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“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. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Well, it happened again, just this week.
I’ve had something frustrating in my life lately, not a huge thing, not a harmful thing, but something I haven’t been able to solve, probably won’t be able to solve. I’ve looked at it from every angle, complained about it, come up with a dozen crazy impossible solutions. For weeks now, I’ve been harping on it in my mind.
And it never once occurred to me to pray.
That sounds bad, I know. Especially coming from a pastor. Praying’s my job.But still. In all that time, it never occurred to me to pray.
Then this week I was driving down Collins, going over this problem once again with the same results as always, when it just happened. Hey God,I thought.You want to take this one for a while?
My personal prayers are not very fancy.
The problem didn’t get solved. It hasn’t gone away. But I’m breathing easier now. I know I can wait it out. I know I’m not facing this thing down alone. God’s with me. God will get me through it.
I can’t tell you often this happens. That I forget to pray. Really, openly, honestly pray.
I pray a lot, for my job, for others. More than I would have imagined as a kid. Far more than I would if people didn’t expect me to. But in all those prayers, I don’t always feel like I’m really talking to God. Sometimes I feel like I’m just… talking.
I do believe that every prayer reaches God. But not every prayer reaches me.
Scripture often talks about persisting in prayer, like the friend who knocks and knocks on his neighbor’s door. Jesus reminds us that God is eager to answer prayers, not like that human neighbor who was reluctant and stubborn. I usually assume that I am the neighbor in need, knocking and knocking at God’s door. But I am coming to realize that I am just as much that man comfortably ensconced in bed, slow to answer the door. I need to persist in prayer so that the prayer wakes meup, wakes up my own faith and courage and generosity, not so that I wake God up.
When I pray, it’s not to wear God down. It’s to wear me down, my pride and stubbornness and independence and cynicism, until the walls I have built up come crumbling down and God’s peace and power can come rushing through.
I was moved this week by a confession by Debbie Thomas, a Christian educator and deeply faith-filled writer. She was reflecting on our tendency to use prayer like a vending machine by which we get what we want out of God. Prayer in, result out. And the heartbreaking, faith-crushing despair that happens when the vending machine breaks down, and we don’t get what we were asking for. She knows that’s not how prayer works. But still she struggles to let go of the idea of a gumball God.
She wrote, “My love for God, I realize, is thinner than I thought it was — often I want stuff from God much more than I want God. I want God to sweep in and fix everything much more than I want God’s Spirit to fill and accompany me so that I can do my part to heal the world.” (Debbie Thomas, When You Pray)
That paragraph took my breath away, because yes, that is how I have experienced prayer in my life when I really feel it working on me. As the inrushing of the spirit, when I get my own stuff out of the way enough to let it in.
Perhaps you all are not like that. Perhaps you all feel close to God each time you pray, each time you fold your hands or close your eyes. I can only yearn for a relationship like that.
And I think the disciples did too. Because they saw Jesus praying, and it was compelling. They saw his closeness with his father, the way when he talked to God, he seemed filled with the knowledge of what to do next, with strength and calm, calm even in the face of the cross. And I think they wanted that too.
Jesus, teach us to pray,they said.
It’s not that the disciples didn’t know how to pray. The Jewish faith is full of prayers, for every event, said daily or on Sabbath or in times of mourning or on feasts. The disciples knew howto pray, knew the words and phrases. But they wanted to pray to connect with God the way Jesus did.
I know I’m still asking that question. Teach me how to pray so that I feel God with me in the praying.
At its heart, the gift of prayer is the gift of knowing we are not alone. It is the thin gold thread connecting us to God, always, always. But it is also the web of golden cords that connect us to each other, when we pray for each other.
I don’t believe that increasing the number of people praying for a thing is more likely to get God’s attention. God is not hard of hearing like that. But I do believe that there is power in knowing that we are not alone, that we are known and loved and heard by God and by the whole community of faithful.
Like I said, I don’t always feel the presence of God when I pray. Maybe not even usually.
But when someone prays for me, then I know, in that basic human way, that I’m not alone. And so that person who is praying becomes for me the presence of God, the sign and symbol of God’s love, even when I’m too stubborn and cynical and human to feel it.
That’s what makes it such a gift to be prayed for. We have the chance to be God’s physical, audible, tangible presence for each other. Nothing beats that moment when God’s spirit truly breaks through. And so we channel it for each other.
In a minute—not now—I’m going to ask you to pray for each other. For some of you, this will be no problem. Some of you are feeling anxious and wondering if you can slip out the back.
You do not have to sound good. You do not have to be eloquent. God does not keep a red pen to mark up prayers God finds inadequate. In fact, if you are an eloquent prayer, I ask you to tone it down for this exercise. Speak simply. As simply as Jesus did when he said, may your kingdom come. May your will be done.
In pairs, I want you to name one thing you need prayer for. It can be a big thing. It can be a little thing. But I want it to be for you. We so often pray for others, but in this moment, I am asking you to be vulnerable, and to ask your neighbor to pray for you. What is one thing your heart yearns for?
If you can find someone you did not drive to church with, the entire better, but I will not force it.
Take five minutes. I’ll let you know when to swap prayer partners.
May you know God’s presence in each other?
Thank you for engaging in that. For some, that was easy peasy, and for others it was very hard. But I pray—I pray—that you were bold enough to ask, to seek, and to knock, and that when you did, you received some measure of the spirit that makes us brave enough to face each day, knowing we are never alone.
In the name of the one who taught us to pray.