This morning I have a little confession. When I look at the texts for the upcoming Sunday each week, I rarely am excited about what lessons are presented. Invariably, Jesus will say or do something controversial or, like today, the Old Testament lesson will say something super provocative that I do not want to think about addressing in the pulpit. But this week was a bit different. When I read today’s gospel, and heard the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray, I wanted to cry, Yes, yes, Jesus! Tell us what to do. Teach us how to pray. Because lately, my prayers seem hollow. Whether I am praying about the nastiness and disrespect within this year’s political campaigns, whether I am praying about the sinfulness of racism in our country, whether I am praying about the way we dehumanize one another enough to think it is okay to shoot each other, or whether I am praying about someone who is not likely to recover from their illness and is facing the reality of mortality – I need Jesus to teach me how to pray. I need Jesus to teach me how to pray, because I do not feel like my prayers are working. “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples beg with a spirit helplessness, hopelessness, and haplessness that we can all identity with this week.
Into that sense of despair and longing, Jesus does two incredible things. First, he gives the disciples something simple and tangible – something to cling to in the most desperate of times. Jesus gives them what we call, “the Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father.” Luke’s version is not the version of this prayer that we are most familiar with – we know Matthew’s version much more familiarly. In fact, even Christians who have been away from church most of their adult life can recall this one prayer. We know the words so well that they become their own prayer beads, each word a talisman that our fingers and souls can cling to when our head and hearts are a jumbly mess. The Lord’s Prayer is one for the ages – telling us what we know about God, what we hope for about the kingdom, and what we need as we go about our earthly lives. Surely those words address all that we are facing right now. Surely, when we have run out of our own words, those are words that we can mutter over and over again. Surely those are the things we need: God to reveal God’s self, to right the world, to sustain us, to forgive us and help us forgive others, and to protect us from ourselves and the enemy. And on days when we do not have words, those are words that we can pray. Jesus is very practical with his gift of a prayer for the ages.
But then Jesus does a second thing. After giving the disciples something tangible, then he tries to teach them something much more profound. He teaches the disciples about what prayer really is. After giving the disciples the “Our Father,” Jesus does what Jesus always does – he sits them down for a little story. Basically, an annoyingly persistent friend comes pounding on the door of a neighboring friend, looking for food to give to an unexpected guest. It’s midnight, and the irritated friend tells him to go home – everyone in his house has finally settled in for the night, and there is no way he is getting up. But the friend “persists, and eventually the poor householder relents, not out of the charities of friendship but simply for the sake of his own peace and quiet.”[i]
The story is not the prettiest, but anyone who has had to put down a toddler for the fortieth time that evening knows how persistent that friend would have to be for the neighbor to risk waking up his children. Jesus’ conclusion about the story of a persistent friend is, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” This is where Jesus’ teaching gets tricky though. Too many of us know that there have been times when we asked and we did not find, it was not given to us, and the door was not opened. Those words from Jesus can seem empty for those of us who have experienced the opposite. But Jesus is not describing the economy of prayer: that you insert a request, and, with persistence, you get what you want. What Jesus is trying to say is that prayer is about relationship. Like the relationship that we have with the buddy who will get up in the middle of the night, our prayer life with God is a reflection of the relationship with have with God. Our prayer life is dynamic, involves conflict, necessitates initiative, and is relational.
One of my favorite hymns growing up was “What a friend we have in Jesus.” The hymn is a sweet, simplistic hymn that basically says that we too often try to shoulder our burdens on our own. The hymn argues that if we take our sins and grief, our trails and temptations, our weakness and heavy laden burdens, we will find solace in God. The hymn is comforting, and its simplicity can make us feel good. But as I thought about that hymn this week and our text today, I realized that the hymn tempts us in the same way that this text does. The hymn tempts us into concluding that all we have to do is ask, seek, and knock, and everything will be okay. All we have to do is “take it to the Lord in prayer,” or even say the Lord’s prayer, and everything will be okay.
But I do not think that is what Jesus is saying today. By talking about how prayer is relational between God and us, how prayer is a practice that resembles the relationship of friends, we can come to understand prayer a little differently. Like any healthy relationship, our relationship to God in prayer is going to change us. Our time in prayer with God might lead us to finding, receiving, and having doors opened. But our time in prayer might also lead us to acting, giving, and knocking doors down. Jesus says that the sleeping friend gets up because of his friend’s persistence. That word “persistence” in the Greek is translated alternatively as, “shamelessness.”[ii] In other words, our prayers to God are to be shameless: bold, audacious, and unfailingly confident.
As we think about our prayerful relationship with God, I was struck by a reflection by David Lose. He asks, “How might we act differently this week if our prayers were offered to God confidently, trusting that God will respond so much more generously than any earthly parent?” Perhaps [we] wouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to answer but would start moving, get to work, actually start living into the reality of what [we have] prayed for. So rather than pray for someone who is lonely, maybe [we’d] go visit. Rather than pray for an end to violence, maybe [we’d] campaign against the legality of military-grade semi-automatic weapons, or protest when police use unnecessary force, or go visit the police station to tell officers that [we are] grateful for their service and pray for their safety.[iii] In other words, what if a prayerful relationship with God is not passive, but is active and challenging?
The good news is that despite all the heaviness of the news lately, and despite all the examples of intolerance and degradation, there are also examples percolating of goodness – the fruits of shameless prayer with our God. In Dallas, I saw protestors hugging counter-protestors. In Kansas, I saw police officers and Black Lives Matter protestors not only holding a block party together, but also making time during the party for a real, raw question-and-answer period. In Cleveland, I saw protestors holding hands with a police officer and offering a prayer before the day’s events began. Now, I am not saying that shameless praying with God is going to be easy or even lead to the open doors we want or think we need. Anyone who has long-term friendships knows that friendship is hard. But what I am saying is that prayer is powerful and when tended to, can lead to transformation. So if you do not know where to start this week, start with the Lord’s Prayer. If you are too frustrated or jaded to say those words, then just show up at God’s door. As with any good relationship, showing up is half the battle. Wherever you are in your prayer life, know that our God is a God who will answer – and will use us for goodness. Amen.
[i] Stephanie Frey, “On God’s Case,” Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 14, July 13, 2004, 17.
[ii] James A. Wallace, C.SS.R., “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 291.
[iii] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 10C: Shameless Prayer,” July 19, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-10-c-shameless-prayer/ on July 20, 2016.