Sermon: “Don’t Stop Praying”

July 24, 2016: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 10:38-42

I wonder how the disciples asked the question, “Teach us how to pray.” Did they ask it with curiosity?

“What were you doing, Jesus, while you prayed?”

Did they ask it with jealousy?

“John the Baptist taught his followers how to pray, but not you, Jesus, right?”

Did they want to have a stronger devotional life?

“Jesus, can you teach us to be as close to God as you are?”

Or did they just need something to say to cover an awkward silence?

“Say, Jesus, since we’re not doing anything else, could you teach us how to pray?”

I think the question had a lot to do with Jesus himself. I’ve been a religious professional for 27 years – which is about 24 years longer than Jesus’ ministry in Israel (his ministry since then, of course, is quite a bit longer) – and I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to pray as a direct question.

Demonstrating once again, I suppose, that I am not Jesus.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how the disciples asked, because Jesus responded with a prayer that has lived in the memories and in the hearts of Christians ever since.

Theologian Douglas John Hall notes that so much that is taught about prayer becomes about self-denial, or ways to concentrate on God as an unknowable other. He writes, “That is why the prayer Jesus taught his disciples is so wonderfully refreshing, and perhaps why over the centuries it has remained the one prayer that even lapsed Christians remember. It does not require of us that we become anything we are not already. It is a deeply human kind of prayer. It is a prayer for human beings, that is, for creatures in need.”

Jesus’ prayer doesn’t fly to heaven with lengthy expressions of flowery devotion. Its opening phrase, “Blessed is your name,” is all the praise that it offers – well, except that in some manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel, which also contains the prayer, there’s the familiar words “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever” at the end. That phrase probably wasn’t in Jesus’ original prayer, and was added as an echo of a prayer in 1st Chronicles 29.

Even with that addition, however, Jesus’ prayer focuses on very human needs. We need a society ordered by the will of God – which is not the same as the will of the Church, I hasten to point out. But God’s realm, God’s kin-dom as some like to name it, is one I’d like to live in.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” I need to eat every day. If I don’t, people notice. I get cranky, just to start. And I need to find forgiveness for the wrong things I’ve done and the good things I’ve failed to do. Likewise, I need to forgive others, and I need to be challenged to do it.

I sometimes think that the prayer’s request to be forgiven as we forgive others is the greatest challenge ever presented to us by Jesus. It’s a great big theological bear trap sitting in the middle of the prayer. On the one hand: what power that is, to have the freedom to govern God’s forgiveness by my own will and actions!

On the other: What a colossal responsibility it is. God’s grace is now in my hands. All I have to do to accept it is… Act like God. And forgive.

That’s not easy, is it.

No wonder the prayer asks God not to bring us to a time of trial. We’ve got trials enough in the previous sentence!

How should we pray? Asked the disciples. Pray for your needs, said Jesus. Keep it simple. Keep it honest. Keep it challenging. Keep it rooted in who you are and what you need. Keep it rooted in your relationship with God.

Presbyterian pastor the Rev. Cynthia A. Jarvis writes, “Each instruction Jesus gives the disciples invites them into a relationship. That relationship involves a conversation and the conversation begins with a word.”

That is the real key to Jesus’ teaching on prayer. It’s about furthering a relationship, not about satisfying a ritual requirement or passing a test.

Every day people ask me how I’m doing. That’s the ritual, right? “How are you?” just flows across our lips in any casual meeting.

And most of the time, I reply, “I’m fine.” That’s true, at least most of the time, and for most people, that question is a polite ritual that doesn’t expect a complete answer. “I’m fine,” is fine.

With people I’m close to, however, I take the question seriously. How am I, really? Am I happy? Sad? Joyful? Stressed? Busy? Bored? Up? Down? Left? Right? And so on.

I’m prepared to give those I’m close to a more complete and honest answer. And they’re prepared to listen.

What Jesus is saying in this story about the person awakened late by his neighbor, is that God is prepared to listen. Even if you repeat the same thing over and over and over again, God is prepared to listen.

If sounds for all the world as if Jesus said that God is like this neighbor that doesn’t want to wake, a person who won’t meet his obligations under the hospitality code of the day. He was, in fact, supposed to rise and help his neighbor find what he needed. It sounds as if Jesus is saying that God has to be pestered and nudged and cajoled into doing what’s good.

But that’s not Jesus’ point. In the story, pestering works. And in the next story, parents given their children fish and eggs, not snakes or scorpions.

And God, says Jesus, is better than we are, more responsive, more generous, more loving – so just imagine the blessings we might receive.

During our Wednesday morning Bible Study, though, the question came up: What about prayers, and pray-ers, who don’t receive what they need? Those who pray for healing in illness, for justice in oppression, for food in hunger, for life when threatened by death. What’s going on when there’s no healing, no justice, no food, no deliverance? Is God silent? Or unloving? Or unable?

At some point, every religion faces the question, “Why pray if it doesn’t always work?”

Well, prayer is not magic – or chemistry. It is not a formula that changes the world in a predictable way. It’s part of a relationship, and relationships are far more fluid. Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”

I think I’ve found that to be so. I can’t think of a time when I completed a prayer in the same mental or emotional place where I began it.

Prayer is about relationship, and the saddest relationships in my life are the ones where the participants have stopped talking to each other. Even angry words are better than angry silence. Even angry words with God.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

I believe there a power in that relationship that is worth the effort in the face of calamity, sickness, injustice, deprivation, and death, even if it doesn’t preserve me from them. Yes, there is.

I’ve walked through sorrow and loss in my life. That’s the human condition. I’ve met times of real soul-searching, uncertainty, heartache, and fear. And I admit it: I haven’t prayed through them all.

When I did pray, I had an additional inner resource. It didn’t fix things – that I could see and say for certain, anyway – but it helped me get through.

When I haven’t prayed through those hard times – and I note here again that that was entirely my fault – those hard times were harder. They took more out of me, and it took more time for my spirit to heal.

There are still things I won’t talk to God about. I suspect Jesus is twiddling his thumbs over me. Perhaps getting impatient with waiting.

So don’t stop praying – not because it’s magic and will fix the world, but because it can sustain you.

Don’t stop praying: not because God needs endless praise, but because God cares about your deep needs.

Don’t stop praying – not because God needs another reminder, but because God wants to love you, and wants you to know you are loved.

Don’t stop praying: because you may find yourself filled with the Holy Spirit.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on July 24, 2016

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