Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 3016

Most if not all of us have been praying since we were small. Maybe the first prayer we were taught was the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep”, praying for protection and care through the night to the new day. We probably said grace before meals – God is great and God is good; Let us thank him for our food”. We may have learned other prayers too that had special meaning for us, and most of them did two things. They said how good and powerful God was and they asked God to do things to help us. As we grew up, we perhaps didn’t say those prayers anymore, but our prayers, as Annie Lamott says, were basically in the category of “help me, help me” or “thank you, thank you”. Maybe we shot arrow prayers toward God when we prayed for a particular need, from a parking space to help with a test to freedom from a disease. No matter what our prayer lives are about now, many of us wonder about them. What is the right kind of prayer? What is enough prayer? What will bring me closest to God or God closest to me?

The disciples had those questions too. They had grown up praying the Hebrew prayers in the synagogue, but following Jesus was a new thing. Jesus prayed a lot and seemed to have a really close relationship with God and they wanted one too. So they came to Jesus asking for a good way to pray. And Jesus gives them the very familiar Lord’s Prayer, which we say often as well as because it is the one prayer we know Jesus taught and probably prayed. Luke’s prayer is a shortened version with only five short phrases. It tells us some things we need to know about the character of God.

First, the word Abba or Father means that God is close at hand and desires an intimate relationship with us. God wants to be our friend. Yet at the same time, God is so far beyond us that we cannot imagine, so God’s name is holy. We praise God for God’s being and for all God has done. God wants God’s world to reflect God’s plan for it – to be God’s kingdom – and Jesus tells us to pray for that. God has broken into the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ to teach and preach the kingdom so we will learn to pray for it. We are also called to be workers in the field to bring about its coming. “Thy kingdom come” is not just about saying what God wishes for the world; it is about offering ourselves to God for service.

So God is other, but God is working with us closely and lovingly to make God’s dream for us come true.

The next three parts of the prayer are requests. We who are needy and dependent turn to God as the giver of all gifts. We pray for our daily bread. God fed the Israelites manna in the desert on a day by day basis and we are asking for the same thing. But there is more to the word “bread” than that. We are asking for everything that helps us survive – food, clothing, shelter, family, friends, righteousness before God. We ask God to meet all our needs.

Then there is forgiveness. Now that one is a little tricky. We need forgiveness because we are sinners, but the prayer seems to be saying we forgive the sins of others before God will forgive us. Yet we cannot forgive unless we have the example of being forgiven by God. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment that God has already forgiven us and continues to forgive and we keep our side of the bargain by releasing others from their debts to us. However it goes, forgiveness is critical to our relationship with God. Carrying resentments around in our head keeps us focused on those and not on God and God’s work.

The time of trial (which is in the new version of the Lord’s Prayer instead of temptation) is not about moral acts. It is about our integrity, our personal beliefs and what might happen if we are persecuted or otherwise challenged in our faith (Matthew L. Skinner).

The Lord’s Prayer focuses on God’s immanence and transcendence and God’s breaking into the world to bring God’s kingdom. It focuses on God’s good gifts to us and the hope that God will protect us. On our part, we admit that we are needy, that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and that we are weak and unable to stay strong in our faith without God.

The Lord’s Prayer is a good prayer to pray and a good prayer to begin a regular prayer life with because it talks about the essentials of God and the essentials of humans.

But Jesus is not through with advice on prayer. He advocates persistent prayer. The parable about the sleeping friend is a strange one. No one in Jesus’ day would not get up and immediately give the bread that is needed. Hospitality was very important, and much shame resulted if it was not given. But it seems this friend is not like that and the needy person has to ask repeatedly before he gets what he needs, but ultimately he does.

Prayers are answered, Jesus says, if you seek, ask and knock. Seeking brings finding; asking brings giving and knocking brings opening. God wants to give gifts and God will give gifts beyond imagining. God who is our Father (which is where Jesus started with the prayer) is so much better than human fathers who are sinful yet even they know to give good gifts to their children. The gift God gives is one of the best gifts of all – the Holy Spirit, the source of God with us now, guiding our hearts and telling us what to do to be faithful to Jesus.

God answers prayer, Jesus says. Sometimes it may take some time and sometimes not, but prayer will be answered.

Many of us have questions about prayer. Where we are in our lives can dictate the way in which we look at God’s answer to prayer. If we are feeling blessed at the moment, we are certain God answers prayer with the good things we want, that God’s will is benevolent toward us. If we are in crisis, we can at least hope because we think God might answer our desperate pleas. But what if we have been praying for so long and God has not answered our prayers (Sarah C. Jay). I have a 14-year-old prayer request that has not been answered and so sometimes I am not at all sure God answers prayer, at least not with an answer I can understand. We are not sure persistence pays off. God seems silent and we are left to our own devices to cope with untenable situations.

And what about the world situation? Millions of people go to bed hungry every night without their daily bread. We work to help this situation, but there is only so much we can do. People we cherish die too early or get dreaded illnesses. We put them on prayer lists and they do not get better, even though some others do. What is wrong with our prayer lives? Are we not persistent enough or humble enough? Why, if prayers are answered is there so much that is bad in the world and in some of our lives. And yet we can also feel that there is so much good in our lives and be thankful for it.

Prayer works, Jesus says, and we get what is beneficial for us, but it can be a hard thing for us to come to terms with. Even asking only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out can produce feelings of contentment or rebellion. But the one thing God gives every time is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift that centers us on God, no matter what our answers to prayer and our feelings about it are at the time. We need to pray because Jesus tells us it is a good thing to stay close to God. And that is what we need more than anything else in the world.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Matthew L. Skinner, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.289
Sarah C. Jay, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, vol. 1, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 308