"PRAYER" - Proverbs 3:5-10; Luke 11:1-13

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 3:5-10; Luke 11:1-13


            “The God of love had a really bad week.”

            That is the title of an opinion piece written recently by Diana Butler Bass for CNN. She wrote it following the infamous political rally in NC where a crowd chanted over and over: “Send her back.”

            Diana Butler Bass has long been a faithful and effective commentator on American Christianity. She has written many important books about the changes in Christianity in our country. In this recent article, she ponders how so many people at that rally – likely white evangelical Christians – could chant “send her back.” Had they forgotten that Sunday School song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world”?

            “The God of love had a really bad week.”

            And that was more than a week ago. This week saw the loss of 150 people who died in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy – 150 migrants trying to find a more wholesome life, an event which would break God’s heart.

This week saw the re-establishment of the death penalty; those in federal prisons on death row will actually be executed in the coming months.

This week gave us a growing list of discouraging events – maybe some sad news in your own heart, . . . or in the city, . . . or in the Commonwealth, perhaps about the 400th anniversary celebration in Jamestown, . . . or something else around the world.

            If you have been in worship across the recent weeks, we have been hearing different stories from Luke’s gospel about Jesus: Jesus dealing with demons; Jesus sending out the 70 to spread God’s love; Jesus and Good Samaritan – “go and do likewise”; Jesus encountering Mary and Martha. These stories flow one after another in Luke’s gospel.

            Today we have another story – Jesus teaching about PRAYER. If the God of love had a really bad week, then this teaching about PRAYER just might be what we most need. Listen to Luke 11:

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.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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. 9“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. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            This is a good day – and a good week - to think about Jesus and his teachings on PRAYER. In fact, it is always a good day to think about Jesus and PRAYER, but perhaps especially in these days.

            The disciples saw Jesus praying. So they said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They were longing, in their often dismayed and discouraged lives, to have a center, a life rooted in God – like they saw in Jesus.

There are lots of things that leave us discouraged and dismayed – so we are invited turn to God in PRAYER.

            Rabbi Harold Kushner thinks he knows God’s favorite book in the Bible. It is the Psalms. In the rest of the Bible, God is said to speak to us as God’s people. God speaks to us in the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam. God speaks to us through seers, sages, prophets, and through the history of the Israelite people. God speaks to us through Jesus and parables, and through Paul and letters. BUT in the Psalms, we speak to God – so that must be God’s favorite book. In the Psalms, we tell God of our love, conveying our praise and honor. In the Psalms, we express our needs and affirm our gratitude: “God is our help and strength, a present help in times of trouble.” God is “our shepherd, . . . our light and our salvation.” And more than that, in the Psalms, we find lament.  Because of our relationship with God, we can even shake our fist and express our anger. “Where are you God? How could you leave us in this mess?” (see Living the Questions, p.188)

            The Psalms show us that the covenant relationship with God is dynamic – praise and honor, gratitude and comfort, anger and appeals for help, faith and doubt, lament and joy. The Psalms have been called the church’s “prayerbook.”

So, PRAYER is the way we relate to the Lord of our lives. PRAYER is the means to connect with the Creator of all things. PRAYER is part of any life that seeks to be enfolded in God’s life, the reign of God life. Jesus comes to inaugurate the reign of God – to show us what God intends life to look like, to be about. It includes PRAYER – relating, connecting our lives to God’s life in covenant partnership. PRAYER is our striving to know . . . and be known by the Holy One.

            But PRAYER can also be very problematic.

            I have had numerous conversations, even recently, about PRAYER and what it means. Like this: “I keep praying that the cancer will stop growing – but it does not. Does that mean that my prayers are not working, not any good, . . . or God is not listening?”

            Or this: “I am on my knees day and night, hoping and praying that . . . my marriage will hold, . . . or my kids will find a new way, . . . or the abuse will stop, . . . or the darkness will go away, or . . . . . (fill in the blank).”

Doesn’t God care? . . . What is the point of prayer? . . .  What is it all about anyway?

See, many of us tend to approach prayer in a way that makes God into a cosmic vending machine: insert prayer into a slot, make your selection, and if you are good, voila! The outcome you had in mind.

            Moreover, we have numerous places in Scripture that might contribute to this line of thinking. In Matthew 21, Jesus says “whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Or in our passage today: “ask, and it will be given you.” Jesus also teaches about persistence in prayer: pray, pray, pray, and God will eventually give in (Luke 18).

            But, as with so much of Scripture, we get in trouble when we take verses out of context. What Jesus keeps teaching, keeps showing, is that all of life is enfolded in God – in God’s care and purposes, in God’s justice and joy – and we are to stay connected to God. The way we stay connected is through PRAYER – “pray, ask, seek, connect” – because we are part of the in-breaking of the reign of God.

            We pray for healing – not because we will always see healing, because we know we may not – but so that we can connect with the mysterious and wonderful love of God that promises never to let us go. We pray for safe travel – not because God will catch our plane if it starts falling out of the air, or because God will prevent a car crash – but so that we can be prepared for whatever happens – striving always to trust God in all things and serve God in all times. We pray for an end to the drought; we pray for leaders to act in the best interest of all; we pray for peace in the Middle East; we pray for no more gun violence; we pray for the frightened families crossing the border; we pray for the deepest concerns of our hearts; we pray for all this – not because PRAYER controls these things but to be forever enfolded in God’s purposes, forever connected to God’s concerns, forever part of covenant life with God. (see Felton and Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions, p.192)

God’s light prevails over darkness. God wins over despair and death. As I have said before – with God, the worst thing is never the last thing. God’s reign is emerging – goodness, hope, redemption, peace. We want to be connected to God and God’s emerging reign. PRAYER is how we connect to it. PRAYER enfolds us in God. PRAYER also connects us more closely to those people and situations that we pray about.

Here is another way to think about this: we do NOT believe in PRAYER; we believe in God! PRAYER is what we practice. PRAYER is another way – a primary way - we connect to God’s love, experience God’s presence, affirm God’s promises. Our lives are rooted in God. We believe in God. PRAYER is a powerful means to connect, to relate, to become God’s trusting and serving people.

So the disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They want to be powerfully connected to God. They want to have their lives stabilized in God’s life. And Jesus says, “when you pray, say:” and he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer intends to remind us that we are all connected always to God and God’s provisions, God’s guidance, God’s care. We do not live on our own – though much of life wants to convince of us that – we live life before God, in God’s presence, accountable to God’s ways. This is what Jesus keeps teaching and showing. Jesus says, “you have heard this, . . . but I say this: “love your neighbor, help the weak, tend to the poor, pray for your enemies.” Everything Jesus says and does wants to show us that we are part of the reign of God. We live in the world – but we live as God’s people in the world. We have work to do, and relationships to nurture, and community life to share – but we live a certain way – trusting God and serving God. So when the disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he says, “pray like this,” giving them a simple model, and then following that teaching with some parables.

The simple model of the Lord’s PRAYER here in Luke has 5 petitions. After “Father,” (and some manuscripts have “Our Father”) the first two petitions affirm God with power and honor: “hallowed by your name” and “your kingdom come.” A better translation might be – “may your name be revered as holy; may your kingdom come” (J. Carroll, Luke p. 247). Those petitions want to affirm that life is lived before a holy and awesome God. We can trust God, who made us and knows us and whose reign covers us and the whole world. When we repeat those petitions, we find ourselves living a certain way – in God’s care, connected to God’s love. When we affirm God’s honor, and confirm God’s coming reign, it intends to shape us – with reverence for God and with allegiance to the coming reign of God.

Then there are three petitions – asking for divine provision of essential and critical things – food, mercy, and protection from all that threatens us. We cannot live without the basic elements of life. God provides food day by day and we daily ask for it. Neither can we live without mercy and forgiveness; and it is clear here that those who seek divine mercy in the form of forgiveness from sins must also be in the business of debt cancellation – of sharing mercy in all of life. We have heard this many times from Jesus – so it is no surprise the we should repeat this goal when we pray – forgive us our sins as we forgive others. Forgiveness leads to forgiveness – this is God’s way.

The last petition – about the time of trial – reminds us that life is full of trials and temptations. We pray, not so much for a “free pass” and no struggles. Struggles are part of life. Struggles are often what shape us the most. So we pray that we can be strong, that we can face them, like Jesus did, with persevering integrity and commitment.

In these recent summer Sundays in worship, we have been using the Ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer. We are hoping that the words will sink in differently, that we will be shaped more and more in the ways of trusting God and serving God. That is what PRAYER is about.

Then Jesus follows this teaching with parables. These are parables about friendship and hospitality and honor. Given the importance of these values in the first century – friendship and hospitality in the village – Jesus makes a strong point emphasizing life with God. God cares. God provides. God will never leave us. We can trust God. Hence, we pray. PRAYER intends to shape us in a life with and for God.

The great spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, says this: “Prayer is an expression of who we are. . . . . we are a living incompleteness. We are a gap that calls for fulfillment.” (P. Yancy, Prayer, p. 13)

What a helpful concept – a living incompleteness, a gap that calls for fulfillment.

I think, when we are honest about our lives, we all know about this “living incompleteness,” this gap that “calls for fulfillment.”  We seem to have an addiction to being connected, and that addiction seems to be growing more and more with all our technology and devices that keep us connected all the time.

We are a living incompleteness – a gap that longs for fulfillment.

The disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

May we keep striving to devote our hearts to PRAYER – to staying connected to God and to one another – and transforming that “living incompleteness” to lives that trust God and serve God always. AMEN.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy Lord, by the power of your Spirit, move in our midst. Cover us with love; fill us with peace; and in every way melt us, mold us, fill us, use us as disciples of Jesus Christ. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on July 28, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.