Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12
July 27, 2019
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
I have to admit to you that sometimes, it is difficult to choose which text to focus on for a sermon. I mean, we have three different lessons – four if you include the psalm – and these lessons are often so beautiful and full of meaning that it’s hard to narrow things down. But this week, when I started reading the texts, there wasn’t a lot of discerning going on for me. The lesson from Hosea contains the word whoredom no less than three times, and Paul talks about circumcision in the second lesson. When I finally got to the Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, I breathed a huge sign of relief and made one of the easiest decisions of my life.
“Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus’s disciple asks him. Prayer is quite an intimate thing. Learning how to pray isn’t quite like learning how to ride a bike, or repair a carburetor. It’s more like learning how to kiss, or perhaps even something more intimate than that. There isn’t only one way to do it, but there are certainly wrong ways of doing it. Sometimes, in the deepest parts of who we are, we worry whether we’re not any good at it at all.
Jesus’s begins his response to this question, “Our Father…”. He’s teaching his disciples – and us – to approach God as one we relate to intimately. Someone who is family. But not just any old family member – one whose name is hallowed, or holy. This Father we’re approaching isn’t one who will let us down like our earthly fathers have done (some more so than others), but a heavenly Father who will never stop loving us, no matter what we do.
We’ll come back to the Lord’s Prayer in a moment, but fast forward to the short parable Jesus tells after it, for the verses following the Lord’s Prayer help us to interpret it. My first read of it left me scratching my head. In it, we are asked to envision a person going to a friend at midnight asking for food to feed an unexpected houseguest. He essentially responds, “leave me alone.”
But the translation we heard makes it difficult to think see that Jesus means to describe a highly unlikely scenario. In Greek, the first three verses of this parable are actually a single question that means something like, “Could this happen to any of you?” The question anticipates a negative answer: none of the people hearing this story would expect to have a friend say, “leave me alone.” A friend who refuses to help in such a situation would violate the cultural standard of hospitality of that day and time and would bring shame – and shame in 1st century Judaism is a very bad thing. Jesus is saying that even if the obligations of friendship and hospitality aren’t enough to convince a friend to provide help in this situation – an idea that’s so ridiculous it’s bordering on the absurd – a friend will definitely respond positively to the request because of the desperate persistence of the one who is asking.
And that brings up another problem with this translation – the word persistence. Frankly, on the surface, this parable makes it appear that Jesus is telling his disciples that they will have to nag God until he gets so annoyed that he finally does what they want. As one commentator said, “The notion that, repeatedly, we must bang on the doors of heaven if we are to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer.” And this notion certainly doesn’t make any sense in light of the intimacy of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.
The word translated here as persistence is better translated as “shamelessness.” In a world where hospitality was very important, the shameless knocking would tell the friend’s neighbors loud and clear that he’s ignoring the needs of his friend, and rather than suffer the shame that would come from that, he would help his friend in need.
So whose shamelessness are we talking about here? The person knocking, or the one who says, “leave me alone?” In other words, is prayer primarily about what we do and say, or is it about God’s goodness? The text isn’t clear until we continue to the next few verses:
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!’
It is because of God’s shamelessness that God provides us everything we need…because that’s who he is. This is what “hallowed be thy name” really means: God responds to our prayer to honor his name even when we act in dishonorable ways. If the parents who are evil respond to their children by providing for their needs, how much more does God provide us that which truly nourishes. God’s provision for us is most evident in the gift of the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, the same Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth and advocate on our behalf to the Father. God’s response to our prayer “thy kingdom come” is the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives us the grace to live out the Lord’s Prayer and bring God’s heavenly kingdom to the lost and broken world in which we live.
So, Jesus teaches his disciples to approach God as someone we relate to intimately. Someone who is family. But the God we approach in prayer is holy – set apart – different than our family members who can and do let us down. God’s response isn’t about how often we nag him, or how badly we want what we’re praying for, or how much faith we have. God’s response to our prayer is to provide us everything we need – our daily bread – because of God’s holiness and because of his love and care for us.
And that’s all great. But how do we pray? What do we do when we don’t know what to pray? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but every single service in our prayer book requires the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And this is not a new-fangled innovation in the life of the Church. The Church’s earliest liturgical manual, the Didache, written in the first or second centuries, recommends that Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer three times per day. And over the next few centuries as the Daily Office and the Mass developed, the Lord’s Prayer remained at the heart of both public and private prayer. And this only makes sense. For when his disciples asked him how to pray, our Lord gave them this beautiful prayer.
I encourage you to take a few minutes this perhaps this afternoon or later this week to reflect on your own prayer life, not to measure whether you’re praying often enough, or long enough, or to beat yourself up if you end up doing so despite me telling you not to. When you pray, do you expect God to provide material things that you desperately want but really don’t need? How do you approach God? Do you approach him as a loving Father whom you know will respond by providing for your needs? Do you trust him to provide the strength and courage you need to love him and those around you? If you struggle knowing how or what to pray, would praying the Lord’s Prayer a few times each day help to remind you of God’s extravagant love for you?
“Lord, teach us to pray,” his disciple asked him. May we too ask our Lord this question. As Jesus teaches you and me how to pray, may we be lay down the deepest parts of who we are that worry that we’re not any good at prayer at his feet as we enter into a deeper, more intimate relationship with him. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 289.
 Eucharistic Prayer D.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!