Knowing the God to Whom we Pray

Sermón 7/28/19 Knowing the God to whom we Pray

Posted by St. Athanasius at the Cathedral Center on Sunday, July 28, 2019

072819 Pentecost 7c 

Psalm 85; Luke 11:1-11


This morning in the Spanish service we welcomed ten young people to the Eucharist. We had 8 sessions of preparation, which I enjoyed greatly. Teaching the class made me realize how little knowledge of Christian faith exists among the general population nowadays. I had to explain everything in terms they could understand. Many young people have no tacit knowledge of faith, or of other parts of their cultural backgrounds. Learning that has not been part of their upbringing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have to explain everything in words they can understand, because it helps me learn how to better  communicate the gospel in this culture.

Cultural mores and patterns matter. As a country, we are undergoing profound shifts. When children are growing up, they only learn what is being taught while they are alive. So, it is important to find ways to nurture their awareness of the values we deem important, using language they understand. The US has been known during its entire existence as a place where refugees are welcome. Officials in the White House are proposing setting a refugee admissions ceiling of zero for 2020. That represents a major shift in values for the US. How will we respond?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples how and why to pray. It wasn’t the only time he did that. We could say his entire life was a lesson in how and why to pray. But here he taught the prayer we say each Sunday, followed by a story about a friend asking a friend for food at midnight. I believe that story, properly understood, speaks both to prayer and to the task of teaching values when a culture is losing them. I say properly understood because the Greek word most English Bibles translate as persistence is better translated doesn’t want to be ashamed. So it says, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because he doesn’t want to be ashamed he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

I never understood where persistence showed in the story. It doesn’t say the friend persisted in asking. He just asked once! There’s no nagging. But to speak of shame makes total sense against the backdrop of Middle Eastern culture, where hospitality is a top value. When someone arrives from a journey, the host must give food, even if the person isn’t hungry. If you don’t welcome the guest with food – good food, and lots of it –you will be shamed. Jesus’ listeners knew what was going on. A friend showed up after a journey, and the host didn’t have anything to offer him. Shame was one of the best motivators in their culture. If you are shamed, the whole village shares in the shame. Jesus’ listeners knew that the host had already asked his extended family for food. They didn’t have any either. So, he went to a friend. 

  Jesus begins his story with, Imagine the unthinkable. They couldn’t imagine anyone not getting up to help with such a request. Even if he didn’t get up because he was a friend, he would at least get up because of the shame to him and his village if he didn’t. A few weeks ago, I shared Fred Buechner’s test to see if we are functioning as free moral agents in the realm of the Spirit: If you haven’t cried for someone other than yourself in the last year, then the chances are you’re already dead. I would add that if you haven’t felt ashamed of the way this country has treated refugees in the last year, you’re already dead. 

I said Jesus’ story speaks to the task of teaching values when a culture is losing them – like ours is. Luke has Jesus telling the story to teach us something about prayer. Jesus concludes that we should ask, search and knock; and as we do we should expect something good. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? How much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. I entitled the sermon, Knowing the God to whom we Pray. That’s the point of Jesus’ teaching here, isn’t it? It is unthinkable that God would say no to a friend’s request. Yet when we fail to ask God for what we need, we’re acting as if that’s what we imagine. Jesus is telling the disciples that they need to get it through their thick skulls and hearts that God doesn’t give snakes when they ask for fish. 

When our lives are grounded in the knowledge that at the core of the universe is a big fat YES, we are empowered to stand against a culture when it starts to say NO. When a government starts closing doors to refugees fleeing from violence in their homelands, imprisoning children and separating them from their parents, deporting those who have made a life for themselves in a foreign country, favoring the rich over the poor in every policy, giving rapists more rights than their victims, and a thousand other ways of giving snakes to those who ask for fish, we need to ground ourselves in God’s YES to keep resisting.

Prayer is the way we do that. Jesus resisted the cultural norms of his day at every turn. No wonder he needed to keep going off to pray to stay firm. In the same way, we must pray; not because we don’t have any doubts but because we can’t stop ourselves, and because we know that we are not fully in control of our lives. Jesus taught the disciples to lay five commands before God:

  1. May your name be hallowed
  2. May your reign come on earth
  3. Give us each day our daily bread
  4. Forgive us our sins
  5. Do not bring us to the time of trial

Those are core issues of life: sanctity, peace and justice, food, forgiveness and protection. But for many of us, they are important but rarely urgent.  Many around the world face urgency around daily bread, but most of us don’t. We all want to be forgiven and protected but other things often feel more urgent. We could spend a lifetime on those five issues, but Jesus moves on. He seems to think that knowing what to ask is the easy part. The challenge is to know how to ask and what to expect.

We find the same lesson in Psalm 85. The Psalmist reminds God: You restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people. You withdrew all your wrath. Do it again! Revive us again. The Psalmist appealed to God’s honor. It would be shameful for God to violate the rules of God’s character by refusing to respond to our requests. That is what Jesus teaches about prayer. Even in an age of lost innocence we can pray with confidence because God’s integrity will not be violated.  

It’s important not to take ourselves too seriously in all this. By encouraging an acknowledgement of the issue of shame in prayer, Jesus is inviting us to a little playfulness in relation to prayer. Can you imagine playfulness in asking for bread at midnight? The neighbor was probably giddy with joy by his surprise guests. Whenever we find ourselves taking life too seriously, we might be surprised that prayer is a good antidote. Prayer invites imagination – like a game of make-believe raised to the nth degree. Contemplative prayer demands a sense of wonder that many lose as we grow up and come to believe that everything can be explained.  

Each Gospel lesson in the last month has shown that action must be rooted in prayer, and that prayer without action is dead. The most effective, committed agents of social change were pray-ers. Women like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Men like Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi once said that “properly understood and applied, prayer is the most potent instrument of action.” These people allowed prayer to shape their character, so that the anger necessary to motivate them to work for change didn’t destroy them.

Walter Wink wrote that “unprotected by prayer our social activism runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, the wells of love run dry, and we are slowly changed into the likeness of the Beast.”  

Peter Ilgenfritz issues a warning that speaks profoundly to the present moment in our nation: “I’ve been drawn back to prayer…it’s what I need so that my action doesn’t end up being violent, frenetic, furious and hateful…the very things I don’t want us to be doing as a nation to ourselves and to the world.” (In Journey into Freedom, July 2004)  As we resist the loss of values in the administration, prayer may be what saves us from becoming like those we resist. 

One day when Desmond Tutu was the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, he had just returned from one of his trips abroad where he openly sought support for the fight against the racial policies of his country. At an airport news conference in Johannesburg, he declared that he wasn’t worried about his passport being taken again. “Having one’s passport taken away is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Even being killed is not the worst thing. For me, one of the worst things would be if I woke up one day and said to people, ‘I think apartheid is not so bad.’ For me, this would be worse than death.” Grounding our lives through prayer in the unimaginable shamelessness of God’s character keeps that from happening.

My friends, each passing day in this country brings a new sense of shame and loss around values we have held dear our entire lives. While interviewing Mueller last week, Rep. Peter Welch from Vermont asked whether future candidates to elective office might be more willing to accept help from foreign parties – or fail to report their knowledge of foreign interference in elections. Mueller responded, “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.” We need to be grounded in prayer like Desmond Tutu to keep resisting and not wake up saying, “I think foreign intervention in elections isn’t that bad.” May each passing day bring us to greater awareness of God’s YES to the sanctity of life, peace and justice in all our dealings, daily bread for all, mutual forgiveness and protection from unbearable trials.