God calls us to pray, teaches us to pray, and answers our prayers
Sermon Preached at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by the Rev. Tom Pumphrey, July 28, 2019
Proper 12, Year C, Luke 11:1-13 (Hosea 1:2-10)
Luke 11:1-13 (NRSV): Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: 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.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 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? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Today’s reading from Hosea is a stern and strange passage to hear in the middle of a cheery summer day. This may be a parable rather than a real experience, but Hosea’s call to marry an unfaithful wife is a prophetic statement about God’s relationship with Israel. They have been unfaithful to God. But God still pursues them, so that eventually they will be called the children of the living God. No matter how wayward we are, God always calls us back to him.
We see this at work in Jesus’ teaching about prayer. Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. The Lord’s prayer is part of what we learn from his response. But Jesus also emphasizes our call to prayer, and God’s response. Jesus calls us to pray, Jesus teaches us to pray, and Jesus assures us that God answers.
First of all, God calls us to pray. Now this doesn’t seem that remarkable, but I think that most people are often reluctant to pray. A large part of it is that we forget to pray. We get distracted by our lives, we get immersed in a world that seems to have forgotten God, and we forget God too. Then, especially when we are in need, we finally remember God. But then, sometimes we still hesitate.
Perhaps this happens to you. I know it happens to me. I find myself in a jam or in need of God’s mercy or direction. But I realize that I’ve neglected my prayers, or that I’ve failed to confess a sin or two or ten, and maybe I haven’t really repented from some of them. I become quickly aware of my shortcomings and how guilty I feel to be asking for myself yet again! So I get too tied-up in my own guilt to actually approach God. Perhaps the same thing has happened to you?
Isn’t that habit of ours a bit foolish, though? If God really wants us to pray, then not praying because we feel guilty is kind of making the problem worse. God certainly wants us to deal with our stuff, especially the stuff that gets in the way of our prayers, but the best solution to barriers to prayer is to pray!
Imagine if a young man were to grow up and move out of the house and loose contact with his parents for ten years. Then one day, out of the blue, he texts his parents “Car broke down. Send money.” Well, on the one hand, perhaps he should at least reconnect a little personally with his parents. But wouldn’t his parents be delighted that he at least reached out? Wouldn’t they want the best for their son, and want to help him?
But maybe they can provide better help than a little money. And what would it have been like if he had stayed in touch. Maybe they might have a car instead of a check. And better yet—they would have had ten years of being in closer relationship with each other! God yearns for us to reach out and be connected. Even if it has been years, reach out to God today and he will be delighted to reconnect with you.
When Jesus teaches us to pray, he invites us to call God our Father, to bring to God our simplest and daily needs. He wants us to seek God’s forgiveness and to share that forgiveness with others. He wants us to seek God’s help in the trials and temptations in life. This is the God who cares about us and seeks closer relationship with us. God calls us to pray.
God also teaches us to pray. Perhaps you are thinking “well, I know how to pray.” But most of us are like Jesus’ first disciples. They probably knew how to pray too, but they know they can learn more, and they want to learn more. So Jesus teaches them and us. And Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those who ask—and the Holy Spirit teaches us to pray too.
Jesus starts with some basic elements of prayer. First, we address God. Sometimes I hear people pray as if they are reporting to themselves and others what they might ask God, rather than speaking directly to God. They say “I pray for Bill, I pray for Sarah.” But they could say, “God, please heal Bill, and please encourage Sarah.” We address God and praise God when we say “Holy is your name!”
Jesus tells us to ask for our daily bread—to seek God’s provision for ourselves. This kind of prayer is called petition. We are to ask God for forgiveness, and to remember to share God’s forgiveness. This is called penitence. And our petitions include asking God to save us from temptation and trials.
These are basics, but there are other kinds of prayer that we see from Jesus and others in the Bible. In the Book of Common Prayer on page 856, there is a list of several kinds of prayer. They include intercession, where instead of praying for ourselves, we pray for others. We intercede with God on their behalf, asking for healing or direction or grace or forgiveness or blessing. Oblation is giving of our gifts to God’s service, like the offering on Sundays, or when we give of our time to others.
Thanksgiving is a kind of prayer where we thank God for what God has done. Praise is different from thanksgiving—praise isn’t so much about what God has done for us, as much as it is about who God is. God is great, God is loving, God is powerful, God is merciful. That is praise. Another kind of prayer takes another step even further from God’s actions. Adoration is simply resting in God’s presences—not praising or thanking or asking God for anything, but simply enjoying God’s presence! Like holding a sleeping baby in your arms, or sitting next to your beloved in front of a fire on a winter’s night.
One final kind of prayer that I would add to the list from the prayer book is listening. We bring so much to God, but we should listen for God’s reply. This requires silence. This requires praying with scripture. This requires expecting God to answer.
There are many styles of prayer too. We sing our prayers, in church or at home, with many styles of music. We pray in silence, in meditation or centering prayer. We pray conversational prayer—like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof. This is one of my favorites: “God you wouldn’t believe what happened to me today! What am I going to do about it? Help me, please!” We can pray formal prayers, especially when we’re not sure what to say. The liturgy of the church is a great blessing, helping us not to forget any of these prayers. There are walking prayers, or even ecstatic prayers, when the Holy Spirit gives us the words or sounds of prayer, helping us to express to God what we cannot express in our own words.
My advice to you in your prayers is this: first address God: focus on God and speak to God directly. Then, be honest. Bring yourself to God with all your feelings and needs and confusion. Thank and praise God for God’s love for you. Think of others as you pray, so that you can see the world the way God sees the world. And finally, listen to God. God calls us to pray, and God teaches us to pray.
Finally, God answers our prayers. Jesus takes a lot of time to assure us that God is eager to hear us and eager to bless us. I have often heard people in the church say to me “prayer works.” Sometimes I am bold enough to correct them and say “God answers prayer—God works.” Prayer is not like a magic spell that makes happen what we want to happen. Prayer is not who heals or restores or provides or forgives. God does all of that. Prayer is our experience of relationship with God, in which God changes us, calls our attention to new things, and prepares us for his blessings.
Prayer is not like a vending machine, where we insert prayer and always get what we expect. Sometimes God’s answer is different from what we envisioned. We always must approach God not as the eternal Santa Claus, but rather as the God of the universe who nonetheless loves us. I’ve heard it said that God answers prayer in three ways: Yes, No, and wait. Guess which is the hardest answer to receive.
And yet, when we have asked for bread, God does not give us a snake. Like the parents in my parable about the distant son, God is eager to be in relationship with us, and eager to bless us. Indeed, our relationship with God is the best answer to prayer that we can imagine. That relationship with God in Jesus Christ helps us to understand ourselves and our needs better. God gives us the Holy Spirit generously to be with us, to guide us, to open our eyes to his work in the world, and to help us follow.
God calls us to pray, God teaches us to pray, God answers our prayer.
So let us go to God in prayer.