Sermon: Questions of Prayer

July 28, 2019
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 11:1-13

by Eric Anderson

Lord, teach us to pray.

That’s a prayer right there.

It’s occurred to me before that this is one of the single most obvious things that Jesus’ disciples could have asked Jesus to do. He was, after all, a spiritual guide. He was a preacher. He taught the faith. He was clearly granted additional power and authority demonstrated in healings and signs. Of course Jesus would teach them to pray.

It seems peculiar that Jesus hadn’t done so before.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prays more often than in the others. Luke intended for us to understand Jesus as a praying person, as one continually in touch with God. The other gospel writers assumed that we’d figure this out, but Luke pounded the message home – and thus this section of Jesus’ sayings about prayer.

As is not unusual, they leave more questions than answers.

Jesus’ prayer – the Lord’s Prayer, but we use the version recorded by Matthew – seems straightforward enough.

We acknowledge your holiness, O God.

We ask for your reign of peace and love to emerge on earth.

We ask for our most basic present needs to be fulfilled.

We ask to be forgiven our sins.

We ask that we not face greater challenges than the ordinary work of living.

And… that’s it.

It’s a little more complicated, but not much, and most of the complication comes around forgiveness. It’s kind of a conditional forgiveness, and the condition is our own. Because we forgive everybody around us, O God, please forgive us.

In other words, we’ve made ourselves, not God, responsible for our forgiveness.

Most of the time, that would seem normal. If I want you to forgive me, there are things I can and should do. I should apologize. I should attempt to restore what I’ve damaged, whether it’s a physical thing or a relationship. I should take the initiative to begin building a new relationship that can grow, rather than rely on the old relationship that, perhaps because of my actions, may not be able to grow.

You may have noticed that that is difficult for some people. Let’s face it. As attentively as we teach our children to apologize, it’s difficult for most people.

But here, I haven’t made my forgiveness contingent on my repentance. I’ve made it contingent on my forgiveness of others, who have nothing to do with my relationship with God. Or so it seems.

But doesn’t anger with another stand between me and God? Doesn’t resentment or jealousy of another stand between me and God? Don’t those feelings demand my time and attention, leading it away from my devotion to God?

Perhaps it doesn’t for you. It does for me.

More questions emerge when we get to the story about waking the neighbor. As it happens, this sort of thing could happen in the first century. The expectations of a host were such that if a guest arrived at an odd time, they were supposed to obtain what was needed. If that meant knocking on your neighbor’s door at midnight, that couldn’t be helped. And the neighbor was also caught up in the expectations of the host. They were supposed to get up and bring the bread if they had it.

The problem for us is that the word “persistence” – “at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs” – sounds like God has to be repeatedly poked in order to do a good thing. My guest needs bread. My guest needs bread. My guest needs bread.

Who wants a prayer life like that? And who wants a God like that?

As it happens, this passage has a translation problem. David Lose writes, “The Greek anaideia, however, is better translated ‘shamelessness’ than ‘persistence,’ and so implies a boldness that comes from familiarity. Note that the parable’s breadless host asks only once, making bold to count on his neighbor’s conformity to the duties of hospitality. He is in this sense ‘shameless,’ counting on his friend’s desire not fail communal expectations. So also, Jesus intimates, should we make bold to offer our petitions to God, shamelessly calling on God to keep God’s promises.”

That means we don’t have to hide those prayers we’re not sure about. We don’t have to be concerned that we weren’t prepared, or weren’t diligent, or weren’t faithful enough to bring this “God, I need you,” kind of prayer. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

Which leads to the last question: Is prayer worth while?

Jesus tells us that people know how to give good gifts, so God does, too. And that would be reassuring if, in fact, people were as reliable as Jesus suggests. Sometimes we give our children our anxieties rather than our confidence – we don’t mean to, but we do. Sometimes we give our children structures of injustice that they will have to face – we don’t mean to, but we do. Sometimes we ignore the childhood of children and commit monstrous evils against them. Sometimes we ignore the humanity of children and commit monstrous evils against them, because those things would be horrific against adults, too.

We have given scorpions to children who asked for eggs. On Wednesday, I listened to Goldie Lefkowitz, who escaped Nazi Germany with her family just weeks before Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and its violence, destruction, and death. Mrs. Lefkowitz described that her Jewish family was limited to a single egg per week. Imagine baking with a single egg a week.

That’s pretty much giving a scorpion to a child asking for an egg.

So is it worth while?

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “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.”

Much as I hate to argue with Gandhi, prayer can be asking – but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t need words or even content. He was absolutely right about this: It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

We live in a time when words fail me: words of sermons, words of writings, words of poetry, words of songs, words of prayer. I suppose it’s not so different from all those other times that words didn’t do what I hoped they’d do, or what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kings, Jr., wanted them to, or what the first missionaries to Hawai’i wanted them to, or… well, what Jesus wanted them to.

That wordless prayer of the heart, though, inspires the response of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Not words. Sighs. Sighs too deep for words.

Teach us to pray, they asked. And he did. Pray aware of God’s greatness. Pray for better days. Pray for the deep needs. Pray for forgiveness, and pray in offering forgiveness. Pray to be protected from the greater evils of the time.

Pray without shame. And if you must, pray without words.

The Holy Spirit will be with you, praying in sighs too deep for words.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Questions of Prayer

We might be closer to the prepared text this week… Or we might not.

The image is “The Lord’s Prayer” by French artist James Tissot. Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006, 00.159.167_PS1.jpg, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on July 28, 2019

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