I am about to leave for vacation. As a matter of fact, tomorrow, Peter, Maggie, Karin, and I will be piling into our heavily loaded mini-van to drive to Texas. I will miss you all for the next four weeks, but I know that your Sundays will be filled with blessing while I am away.
I am always grateful to celebrate the Holy Eucharist with you, and to preach, and I was hoping—for the last Sunday before I take some time away—I was hoping that the Gospel lesson would be easy. As I read over the text for today, I noticed that it contained the prayer Jesus taught us. I thought my wish had been granted. After all, the Lord’s Prayer is familiar to us. In every liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer is used. I had visions of a nice little sermon about how Jesus changes our language from the quivering invocations of the Old Testament—“O Lord my God”—to the simple, familiar, “Our Father…” Daddy.
I could even segue into a mildly interesting discussion on the trickiness of the part that says, “Lead us not into temptation,” asking the question if, without praying those words, God might lead us into temptation. I remember evenings after dinner at seminary when such questions came up. You talk…and drink too much coffee and wind up spending a sleepless night wondering what you really believe about this and that.
I felt sure that I could round out that discussion and have a sermon that would sit easily on our minds, and I could just get in the car and see in you in four weeks. But then I realized that the lesson is so much more than just the Lord’s Prayer. And I started thinking more about what Jesus says in this lesson, and I found myself unable to shake my difficulties aside.
Luke begins this text by saying that one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and it seems that what follows is not really one thought, but several of Jesus’ teachings on prayer. Luke does this. Luke tends to collect sayings and teachings and compile them into one place and treat them like they all happened at the same time. He brings things together—he’s very orderly. So, I could be forgiven for, say, taking the Lord’s Prayer and preaching on it in isolation, but what caught my eye was the parable that Luke places immediately after it.
Jesus says that prayer is like needing something in the middle of the night and going to your friend next door and saying, “A friend of mine has just arrived. It’s a surprise visit. He’s up from Florida with his family, they’re on their way to New York, and I’ve run out of food. They’re hungry. Can you give us some food.” And the friend says, “It’s late, I’m tired, I’ve already started the dishwasher, I have to get up early tomorrow…” And Jesus says, “Even though he won’t get up for friendship’s sake, if the man is persistent, he will eventually give him whatever he asks.”
So, says Jesus, the moral of the story is, “Ask, and it will be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and door will be opened.” And that is very good news. If you are not in any particular need for anything at the moment, it sounds fine. But if you consider the analogy for a moment, what it is saying is that God is reluctant to hear our requests!
And if you consider the analogy further, it puts the burden of getting a response from God on us. We have to be persistent. And then our persistence is rewarded, not by the loving kindness of God’s gracious, overflowing generosity—but as a sleepy-eyed neighbor who grudgingly gives us what we need. Doesn’t that make both us and God seem a little immature? And it raises all kinds of questions. If God really needs our persistence to act, what is persistence, really, in the spiritual world? Does annoyance really have power?! Is God just so annoyed with his creation that he gives it what it needs?
If you look in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew has Jesus introducing the Lord’s Prayer with the words, (Matt 6) “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” And then Jesus says, “Pray then, this way, Our Father…” and so on.
But then you flip back to Luke and here’s Jesus saying, “God needs to be asked again and again…and then he may…if he can get around to it…you know…a little something.”
Can the Good News really be that you have to be gutsy with God? It just doesn’t sit right with me. How many times have I read the words in Isaiah (55), “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways may ways.” I mean, it’s right there. We can’t know that we are praying for the right thing.
There is nothing more like beating your head against a wall as praying for something that just isn’t going to happen. And the words of Jesus “Ask, seek, knock, you’ll get it, just keep asking,” don’t really help.
I can’t believe that the key to the kingdom is mere persistence. I have known far too many people who have prayed for healing or a job or a dramatic reversal of some major problem and though they have asked again and again…nothing.
And being devout Christians, when this kind of situation unfolds and the writing is on the wall, we set about the task of explaining God out of the corner. We say…”Well, there are bigger fish to fry, and God is working out his plans, we don’t know everything there is to know.” And though those concepts are true, it still feels that we are trying to reconcile our theology of a loving God to a careless—often heartless—world. And within that exercise there is a loss of hope, and a loss of trust.
Most often, in these instances, I have heard devout Christian say, “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” It sounds weary and wise, but God save us all from cold comfort. If you have ever been on the receiving end of it, you manage a smile, and a brave face, but it’s not very helpful.
Let me ask you something. If anyone other than Jesus had given this teaching, would you believe it? If someone you knew told you a story about a persistent neighbor who gets his way… and that this was an analogy for how persistence with God means answered prayer…would you believe it?
It seems to me like this is another one of those stories that needs to be changed. Let’s do that. Let’s make the parable say that you have a friend who comes to town and your next door neighbor sees the car pulling into the driveway, and notices that you’ve got company late at night, and the neighbor—considerate, thoughtful neighbor that he is—brings over some bread—fresh from the oven, and says, “Here you go! Fresh bread. Enjoy your time with each other! Glad you two could get reacquainted. Well…I’ll get out of your hair, it’s late…Good night!” That’s how the story should go, because “Your Father knows your needs before you ask him.” Matthew chapter 6 verse 8.
Does that sound good to you? Would someone second the motion that we accept the amendment? Those in favor, please say “aye.”
As I kept going over this text in my mind, it’s that word persistence that keeps pinching. I had to look it up in the Greek. The phrase there is την αναίδειαν αυτου, which means “the shamelessness of him.” The New Revised Standard Version chose “persistence,” the New International went with “boldness,” and the King James, back in 1611, went with “importunity.” We don’t really use the word importunity anymore. It means an insistent or pressing demand. And the word only appears once in the King James Bible… and it’s this verse.
A pressing demand, αναίδειαν –but that translation is still a little lacking, it really is closer to shamelessness. Shamelessness. And if you want to hear something crazy, the Greek is a little unclear as to whether it was the shamelessness of the person asking, or the shamelessness of the one who is asked. Could it mean that it’s because the person asking creates an awkward situation that the need is met? I don’t know. Parables are intended to tease the mind…I suppose it could be.
And I suppose it could be the shamelessness of the person who is asked. In other words, the neighbor feels bad about turning down his friend, so he gives the favor because he feels bad that he wasn’t helpful the first time.
But none of this really alleviates the problem. We’re still stuck somewhere between needing to be persistent, even shameless, and “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Which one is right? I don’t know.
I do know that prayer is the means of communication between humanity and God, and has been since “Let there be light.” Every prophet, priest and teacher, every man or woman of God, including Christ himself, prayed. And I believe with all my heart that God listens to everyone—even to people who don’t believe that God exists.
See, I think I understand this lesson a little bit more when we expand the meaning of prayer a little bit further. If I think of prayer as a sentence or paragraph that has been compiled into a grammatical unit of intention, then the persistence and shamelessness of the neighbor who asks for bread seems silly. We need those grammatical prayers when we gather together as we do on Sundays. Our Anglican piety is very deliberate about the commonness of prayer. But the prayers that are deepest within us, the shameless prayers, are rarely put into words.
When I get in my car and drive somewhere, I can feel the stirrings within my soul of intentions far too deep to come out. St. Paul spoke them as “groanings” στεναγμός. He writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with στεναγμός, groanings, that words cannot express.” (Romans 8:26)
These are, I think, the most authentic prayers we pray. Groanings. Desires and intentions that can be hard to form into coherent words. Or sometimes, they form the context of emotion that swells up behind the words. “Lord, please heal me.” “Lord, please heal her.” Simple words. A simple prayer. But oh, so many shameless groanings behind those simple words.
I do not know much about prayer. What it is… How it works… Just when I think I learn something definitive about it, the Holy Spirit whispers the words of Shakespeare in the back of my mind, “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
There is great power in prayers we understand and in prayers we do not understand, but the prayers I believe God really hears and takes to heart are the most authentic ones. The prayers that are shameless groanings. Prayers that come from deep below the surface, I believe, rise like sweet incense.
God does know our needs and desires. But still pray them. Pray your life. Pray your happy, and your sad. As long as they are shameless, as long as they are real prayers, I think we can be very confident that God is truly listening. What he chooses to do with them is, of course, a mystery.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.