Teach us to pray.
First Reading Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm Psalm 138
Second Reading Colossians 2:6-19
Gospel Luke 11:1-13
"Lord, teach us to pray." In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
"Lord, teach us to pray." A seemingly simple request. Jesus is often referred to in the Gospels as Rabbi, which means teacher. It makes sense the disciples would ask Jesus to teach, and especially to teach them about prayer. Luke portrays a praying Jesus. Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray. Jesus went up mountains to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. Jesus prayed before he chose His apostles and when he fed the five thousand. He prayed the night before He died and from the cross itself.
"Lord, teach us to pray." What makes me wonder about this seemingly simple request is that Jesus' disciples apparently don't already know how to pray. The community around Jesus was well established by this point. Jesus has taught through many parables, performed miracles, the 70 have been sent out, and Jesus has won theological smackdown battles with the Pharisees. Haven't they prayed together? The disciples were practicing Jews. Their tradition is rich with prayer. Didn't they know how to pray? Apparently there was a quality about Jesus' prayer that was attractive to the disciples ... a relationship with God they desired to share.
Abraham was a person of prayer. Of course, much of his prayer time seems to be face to face, in the palpable presence of God. In our reading today, Abraham’s prayer is depicted as bargaining with God. We all know about bargaining with God. If you have ever taken a big exam, received a hard diagnosis, or sat beside the hospital bed of a loved one, you have probably bargained with God.
But the exchange between Abraham and God we heard this morning is not about negotiating with God. We cannot outsmart God. A man was talking with God and asked how long was a million years to God. God said, "My child, it is like a single second of your time." So the man asked how much is a million dollars to God. God answered, "To me, it is like a single penny." The man gathered himself and said, "Well, Lord, could I have one of your pennies?" God replied, "Certainly my child, just a second."
God invites Abraham to discover his plans to judge Sodom and Gomorrah in order to bring Abraham into conversation, to see what he thinks. Abraham finds as his instinct for justice and mercy rises, God matches and exceeds. God teaches Abraham that as much as we expect God to be just and merciful, we are also to be just and merciful. God also allows Abraham to set the pace of their conversation and join in the responsibility of what happens. Imagine Abraham discovering that what he is asking for is what God already wants. Imagine if we prayed with true investment in our responsibility in what happens. Imagine this kind of conversation with God. It is not bargaining, it is prayer!
In the gospel today, one disciple mustered the courage to ask, perhaps a simple prayer to the Son of God, "Lord, teach us to pray." Just as we should not hesitate to go to God in prayer, Jesus jumps right in. “Whenever you pray ...” Not ‘whenever’ as occasionally, or when we think of it, or only when we need something. ‘Whenever’ suggests a pattern of prayer, something we do often, always, unceasingly. We are to approach God in intimate relationship, as ‘Father’. We are to proclaim God holy, divine, and recognize God’s absolute difference from all created things. Jesus has already proclaimed the kingdom has come near. We are to pray for God’s continued presence in our lives, admit our complete dependence on God, and express our desire for the rule of God to be made effective in the world of humans.
We are to pray for daily bread. This seems to be setting our sights sort of low. Why not pray for steak, or pizza, or ice cream? But simple bread is life giving and sustaining. There is a wondrous character of bread, as in the manna provided to the Jews in the Exodus, the feeding of the multitude, or in the Eucharist. We pray for the bread of life.
Jesus teaches us that as we pray for God to forgive us, we are also to pray for the ability to forgive others. These things matter to God, and so they should matter to us. We pray for God to be present in trial and temptation. We pray for God to be with us in the conflicts with spiritual powers and human adversaries.
Jesus stresses the importance of persistent prayer. A good friend will help in times of need, but may hesitate if providing assistance is inconvenient. Yet with persistent, shameless begging, a friend may finally give in, not because they have a change of heart, but because the relentless asking is so annoying it wears them down. God's way of giving exceeds that of human friends. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the gifts that sustain and bless, and are given in abundance. Jesus teaches us to talk to God, bringing all of our lives to the relationship ... the messy, the sublime, and the mundane. We tend to want to only bring our best selves to God in prayer. We do not like to bring our anger or incomprehension or humor. We gradually bring less and less of our real selves to God in prayer, disclose less of our selves to God, and our relationship with God suffers. We know less and less about God and how to recognize Him.
Authentic prayer is the act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human beings. Abraham had the courage to go directly to God and question, even argue. Yet the purpose of prayer is not to alter the mind of God, but to further our relationship to God and each other, and to effect such a change in ourselves that welcomes God's kingdom and God's will. To be in authentic relationship with God is the essence of prayer.
"Lord, teach us to pray." In the Eucharist, as our Savior Christ taught us, we will boldly say the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. Prayer finds its most profound expression in the breaking of the bread, the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable. When we break bread together, God reveals to us, and we reveal to each other, the real story of Christ's life and our lives in Him. Perhaps the basis of all prayer starts with the longing to bask in the presence of God.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry suggests, "Prayer is not an escape from the world, but a way of deeper engagement with it, by drawing closer to God." Bishop Curry answers those who consider prayer a weakness, a crutch that we turn to when we can no longer help ourselves. This only happens when we mold God into our image and adapt God to our own needs and concerns. However, when prayer makes us reach out to the living God, not on our own terms, but on God's, prayer then encourages us to leave behind our own preoccupations, to abandon familiar ground, and enter the mystery of God and our relationship with God and others. Prayer challenges us to enter a new world, beyond the boundaries and confines of our own mind and heart, into a relationship greater than we are with a God who knows no limits.
We are challenged to pray constantly, until all our thoughts can be thought in the presence of God, so that those thoughts and prayers are transformed into the actions of our lives. Jesus encourages us in word and example to pray authentically and unceasingly. We won’t always get what we want, but by the grace of God, God gives us what we need. "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you." Amen.