Sunday, July 28, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
I think I was in maybe third grade when I first learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart. I liked it because it was pretty simple and straightforward. Though, if I’m honest, I think I mostly liked it because it was a lot shorter and easier to memorize than the Apostles’ Creed! These words have been with me for a long, long time, as I’m sure they have been with many of you.
However, for me, that deep familiarity can also mean that it’s easy to look at this gospel text – which is one of the places in the gospels where the Lord’s Prayer appears – and think to myself, “Ok, yeah, I know pretty much what this text is about. This’ll probably be a sermon about the importance of prayer.”
But the more I read over this text this week, the more I noticed how annoying it actually is. Almost everything and everyone in this passage is incredibly rude!
From the very beginning, it gets off on a rude foot. Jesus is praying and just as he’s finishing, his disciples come to him. And what do they ask him? “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples!” I mean, rude! If I were Jesus, I might be a little offended by that: “Okay, I’m only God incarnate over here, but if you want to learn how to pray like John, that’s fine…”
But of course, Jesus is a much nicer person than I am, and he does tell them how to pray. And the prayer that he teaches them has become the most well-known and well-loved prayer in the entire history of Christianity: the Lord’s Prayer (not John’s prayer, lol). But again, if you actually stop and really pay attention to the words, the prayer itself is kind of rude. Most of it is just asking God for stuff – without so much as a single “please.” It’s just: Give us food. Forgive us. Help us not do bad things in the future. And that’s basically it. There’s not even a part of the prayer thanking God for stuff!
The only part of the prayer that’s even about God is just the one quick line at the beginning: Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, yaddah, yaddah. And then it immediately jumps into: So anyway, here are the things that we want… What it makes me think of is the kind of letters that I used to write home sometimes when I was in college. Now you all have known college students – or have been college students: what’s the number one reason for writing home? That’s right: I need money! (No shame – college is expensive!) But I did always feel a little bad just coming straight out and asking for money right off the bat. So I would always start off my letters with some social sounding stuff, asking about how things were at home, how’s Grandma, before I got down to the point. That’s what the first part of this prayer kind of feels like to me: briefly acknowledging God so that we can get down to why we’re really praying.
And so it’s strange to me that this is how Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. And in case we had any doubts about this approach to praying, Jesus emphasizes his teaching by telling a story about people being extremely direct and rude to one another. In the story he tells, a man wakes up his neighbor in the middle of the night – rude – and he asks him for three loaves of bread. The reason he asks is because another friend of his has shown up and he needs to provide him hospitality; which means either that his friend just decided to show up in the middle of the night, or that his friend showed up earlier and he just couldn’t be bothered to go to the store before it closed, so he had to wake up his neighbor. And his neighbor refuses to help him provide hospitality, which went against a central cultural value. In the end, he only finally agrees to help because the man who woke him up is so persistent and annoying about it.
And, actually, the story in our first reading from Genesis is kind of similar to this. Abraham is relentless in asking God to reconsider God’s plans for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Granted, Abraham asks in slightly more polite language — polite to the point of obsequiousness. But he just keeps asking and asking and asking, saying: “What if there are 50 righteous people there, God; would you destroy it then? What if there were 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” What if there’s just like one really good dog?
But surprisingly, as persistent as Abraham is in questioning God’s judgment, God never gets angry with him. Again and again, God assents to Abraham’s increasingly rude pleas. God listens every time Abraham asks for mercy. And so it kind of makes sense then, that in our gospel reading, this is how Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God: to be direct and persistent, even to the point of being rude, to never stop going to God in prayer for what they need.
This is probably a little bit different from how we are used to thinking about prayer. I know I feel guilty when it seems like all I do in my prayers is ask God for things. Haha, in fact, I have to admit that sometimes my prayers start to feel like those letters I used to write home in college: hey God, how’s it going? You are so great; thank you for this day, and for like sunsets and cheese and all the other good stuff in the world. Anyway, so listen, I have this thing that I really need you to help with… And I could use some money…
Prayer feels like it should be something more elaborate – something otherworldly and saintly, something that uses fancy words and ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s. And of course, one important function of prayer is to connect us with something beyond just the ordinary day-to-day stuff of this world. But the kind of prayer that we see in these readings is not that at all. The prayers in these readings are earthy and immediate. They speak to God as a real and present person. And through these prayers, God is not some kind of otherworldly, distant being who’s unaffected by what goes on here. God is close by and accessible. Instead of taking us out of daily life to reach for God, these prayers reveal God at work within daily life. Praying like Jesus or Abraham – or even like John – means praying persistently and boldly and directly. And those prayers make God a real, tangible part of our everyday lives.
And ultimately, I think that’s what God really wants from us. God wants to hear from us and to be part of our lives, because God loves us. Even our complaints, even all our wants and needs, even when it’s the same thing again and again – God wants to hear it all. God wants most to be in a relationship with us.
That is the key thing that I take away from these texts. And I think it’s really good news – because, honestly, there’s some other stuff in these texts that I struggle to deal with. For instance, God deciding to punish an entire city of people – both the good and the bad alike – that’s something I find troubling coming from the God of love and mercy. And even in our gospel reading, I find it really hard to reckon with a bold statement like, “ask and it shall be given to you”; I know it’s often felt like some of my most urgent prayers have gone unanswered.
There’s a lot about prayer and about our relationship with God that is mysterious and hard to comprehend. But these texts make it clear that God does not give us the option of sitting back and not doing it. God invites us to pray even our rudest and angriest and most insistent prayers – because the only prayer that God doesn’t want to hear from us is no prayer at all.
So whatever you do, by all means, pray. Pray for the stuff you need. Pray for the stuff your neighbor needs. Pray for the stuff you are struggling with. However obnoxious or insistent or just straight up rude about it as you need to be, just pray.
Thanks for this.
Thanks for this!