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Sermon: Character Study

July 25, 2010

Luke 11:1-13

Here is an experience of prayer you might find familiar:

I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and his angels thither; and when they are there, I ignore God and his angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door; I talk on…sometimes I find that I forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell.  A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.  (John Donne, Funeral sermon for Sir William Cockayne, 1626 quoted by Peter W. Marty, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, July 13, 2010, p. 21.)

Those words were from the pen of poet John Donne in 1626, proving that a man who was a writer, a lawyer, a Minister of Parliament and a priest has just as much difficulty in prayer as you or I do.

In fact, even the disciples of Jesus had trouble.  They had probably learned all the conventions of prayer as they grew up in faith, and they watched Jesus go away time and time again to pray.  But still they begged, “Lord, teach us to pray.  John taught his disciples.  Won’t you teach us?”

People have had a love-hate relationship with prayer, probably from the beginning of time.  We feel like we should pray.  Doesn’t the Bible tell us that?  We feel that prayer is so important that we can’t afford not to do it.  But darn it, prayer is just so difficult.  So then we don’t pray, or we pray in fits and starts, and we feel guilty.  God will be disappointed in me.  God will discover that I am not an acceptable Christian after all.  So I am left with the choice to struggle through prayer feeling frustrated or to ignore prayer or to use a simple, mechanical ritual of prayer that helps me to feel as if I have done my duty to God.

Ironically, that simple, mechanical ritual seems to be the final solution that Jesus offers to his disciples.  “Whenever you pray,” he said, “just say this:  Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

That’s pretty easy.  It is simple.  It is memorable.  It is complete.  It says everything that needs to be said.  So why do I think Jesus doesn’t quite see prayer in terms of five simple lines that you should pray whenever you feel so inclined?  Why is it that if that’s all prayer is, the same all inclusive, not-very-specific words over and over again, did Jesus sometimes spend all night in prayer?

Somehow, I think prayer is not simply saying the right words to God, like a speech contest or a spelling bee or a Sunday School child reciting her Bible verse for a prize.  There must be more.  Jesus must believe prayer is deeper and more complex than those five simple lines.

Fortunately, we do have more verses in today’s passage to help illuminate Jesus’ understanding of prayer.  So let’s see if they help.  The first thing Jesus did was to tell a story about an imaginary situation.  “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight to borrow some food for an unexpected houseguest.”  This, admittedly, is an extreme situation that almost never happens.  People almost never show up in the middle of the night to say, “Hi, do you remember me?  I’m your third cousin from Tulsa.  I don’t suppose you have a bed to spare, do you?”  And no matter how strongly bound you feel by the rules of hospitality, and no matter how bare your cupboard is, it is also very unlikely that you will go to your neighbor’s house at midnight to ask if he has any leftovers to share with your third cousin from Tulsa.

Let me warn you right now that if you are ever in that situation and you need food, do not come to my house, because when you knock on my door at midnight, I will surely say to you, “Do not bother me.  The door is locked, my wife and kids are in bed, and I am trying to sleep!”  And don’t be persistent like the man in Jesus’ story, because I won’t get up even then.  I’ll simply call the police, and if there had been telephones in Jesus’ day, that’s how that story would have ended, too.

Jesus presented a ridiculous, unlikely scenario.  “Suppose this happened,” he said.  It stretches the bounds of hospitality and neighborliness.  In fact, one neighbor is being rude and inconsiderate to the other.  The only thing that might encourage the formerly sleeping neighbor to help is if the knocking doesn’t stop, and so he might get up out of bed to help only to get a little peace and quiet.  But that would forever strain the relationship between the two neighbors.  Could you imagine what might happen if they met in the post office the next day?  Awkward.

But suppose it is midnight, and you turn to God in prayer, even with the most trivial request on your mind.  “God, I’m a little concerned about this mole on the back of my hand.  I know it’s probably nothing, God, but I’m concerned.”  Can you imagine God saying to you, “Don’t bother me”?  Can you fathom the idea that God might say to you, “I don’t have time for you.  Take it somewhere else”?  You might have to knock on your neighbor’s door a thousand times before he gives in.  Is God like that?

And then Jesus said, “So I say to you, ask.  Search.  Knock.  If you can give good gifts to your children, don’t you think God knows how to give even more?”

When God gives to us, we call it grace.  Grace is a gift given to us not because we are good enough, not because we ask using the right words or because we hold our hands the right way, not because we have earned the gift, but because it is God’s nature and God’s character to give good gifts to Creation.  God is faithful to God’s own character, and so God gives generously to us.  So ask, search and knock.  Don’t worry about whether it is at midnight or whether what you are asking about seems too trivial for the Author of Life and Ruler of the Universe.  Ask.  Search.  Knock.

You remember John Donne and his noisy fly?  That’s all of us.  I sit down to pray and then remember that I left a cup of coffee on my desk.  I begin to pray and I can hear the sounds of children outside, and that makes me think of my granddaughter.  I pray, but this chair is not very comfortable.

A priest named Herbert McCabe thinks that the reason we are so distracted during prayer “is that we often pray for things we don’t really want.”  We pray for things we think we should pray for.  We pray in a way we hope will please God.  McCabe suggests that “distractions are nearly always our real wants breaking in on…prayer…If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these.  When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted.  People on sinking ships do not complain about distractions during their prayer” (Herbert McCabe, quoted by Peter W. Marty, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, July 13, 2010, p. 21.).

Ask.  Search.  Knock.  And don’t be ashamed.  Don’t be afraid to be a bother.  But do ask and search and knock with the spirit of a child who needs and relies upon the parent, the child whose own efforts are too feeble, whose abilities aren’t enough to do it alone.  The child needs grace.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what words we use.  The Apostle Paul wrote that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [the Holy] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).  Prayer is never about us.  It is always about the God of grace, who longs to give good gifts to God’s children.  We can only hope to pray because of the good and holy character of God.

I believe that prayer isn’t really for God; it’s for us.  God doesn’t need our prayers, but we need to pray them.  As we pray, we are reminded of the character of God and of our high calling.  We pray “Father, hallowed be your name” and it reminds us that God is holy and to be honored.  We pray “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” and it reminds us of our need to be forgiving people.  We knock on the door of heaven knowing that God is one who gives generously, and it reminds us that we are to be people who give generously.  Prayer doesn’t change God, but it can change us.

Prayer puts us in touch with the God of grace who will never say to us, “Don’t bother me.  It’s too late.  I’m already in bed.”  Prayer reveals God’s character to us, and helps us to discover the image of God implanted in our own hearts so that we can strive to be as giving and generous as the God we worship this day.

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