Sermon by Clare Heard, Sunday 24th July 2016, Trinity 9 at St Georges Church Campden Hill

Sermon by Clare Heard, Sunday 24th July 2016, Trinity 9 at St Georges Church Campden Hill

Prayer – Luke 11

Do you like praying?

Do you prefer praying on your own, or with others?

Do you prefer set prayers, or free prayer?

Do you talk or do you listen?

There is a myriad of ways on which we can pray and everyone will have a different relationship with prayer. Some will find it easy, others hard, different people like different styles, different settings. And this is something to acknowledge and affirm right at the start, as we pause, to reflect on Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel reading. We are a diverse community and whilst we worship God together, and pray together, we will also have our own preferences and individual ways of praying, and this is right and good.

Today’s gospel reading is all about prayer:
Firstly, we have Jesus giving the disciples what we now know as the Lord’s prayer,
Second, we have the parable of the persistent neighbour
Thirdly, we have the command to ask, to seek, to prayer to our Father.

So let’s look at these 3 in turn:

The Lord's prayer is something very familiar to any regular church going Christian. In most churches, it is prayed every week. This is the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples when they ask for guidance on how to pray, although, you will notice the version we get today is somewhat briefer than we are used to.

“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.”

It is really shoty and yet, there is a lot in it. Each line on its own could be meditated on for considerable time. But I think the briefness also indicates that Jesus isn’t giving a set formula. And indeed, nowhere in the book of Acts or the Epistles, do we specifically hear about the prayer being used by the disciples. Rather, we have some pointers as to the kinds of things we can bring to God.
- Calling him Father, setting up the relationship as that of a loving parent with his children
- Hallowing God’s name, remembering his holiness, and giving thanks for all he has given us
- Asking for God’s kingdom to come, for the earth to be transformed, redeemed
- Asking for our daily needs
- Asking for forgiveness
- Forgiving others
- Protecting us from temptation

Our prayer includes both the eschatological, looking forward to God’s kingdom coming, and the mundane, the material, like daily bread, what we need to survive. We are invited to both reflect on God’s nature and to bring our needs and requests, we look to God for protection, and we aim to be set free from our sins, which includes unforgiveness of others.

This prayer recognises our deep dependence on God for provision and sustenance. We are invited to be honest, and the ability to do this comes from intimacy and trust in the relationship we have with our Loving Father, who delights in bestowing good gifts on his children.

And then we move on to the parable of the persistent neighbor. Jesus is challenging us not to give up in our prayer, not to think something is too small to bother God with. We are called to be shameless (an alternative translation to persistence of the Greek anaideia). The kind of shamelessness we can only feel in an intimate and close relationship, where we are not worried about offending or shocking the other person. Jesus says we should shamelessly call on God, to keep his promises.

And then lastly Jesus says that God wants to answer our prayers, he is like a loving Father who wants to give good things to his children.

And this of course raises the question, what about unanswered prayer?

I have heard some people say that this passage is about asking for the Holy Spirit, and this is what God will not withhold from those who ask, it’s not about all prayers, all petitions. It isn’t saying God will give us whatever we ask for.

And whilst this may be helpful on one level, I don’t think it helps us much with why a loving Father allows such suffering when we ardently pray for the suffering to stop. Why clear evil and pain persist in spite of our prayers.

When we were at Ridley, a couple lost their only daughter, a lovely girl of 6 who had cerebral palsy.  She caught an infection at school, was taken to hospital, then transferred to a specialist children’s unit. The whole college was praying for her, throughout the whole week that she struggled with the infection, we were praying for her when she was in intensive care and we were praying for her when she finally died. And it almost broke us as a community. How could all our prayers not have been answered? I almost stopped prayer completely for a while after that. You may well have your own experiences of unanswered prayer and extreme pain, and you may also ask why? Why didn’t God answer my prayer?

Now let’s be clear, this has nothing to do with us praying in the “right way” – there isn’t a magic formula or rule, that means some prayers get answered and others don’t. As David Lose says “What makes prayer hard is that we want so very much -- and so very understandably -- to know how it works. We want to understand prayer as a mechanism, as a formula, as something we can practice and perhaps master.”

But in today’s passage, whilst in part, Jesus addresses the mechanical question of how, I think he is more focused on the relational question – to whom do we pray? We are praying to the God who shamelessly loves us more than we can ever imagine, who wants to listen to our prayers.

Last week Peter was reflecting on Mary and Martha and he mentioned Rowan Williams who advised, that as we grow older our prayer should not be what we want from God but what God wants from us. Now I agree with this, but only in part… listening to God for guidance and trying to follow his will rather than our own, is clearly the aim of any Christian journey. But I also want to affirm that we should never lose the petitionary element of prayer. In bringing our requests before God we build our relationship with him, we share our desires, hopes, fears and needs. I think the issue Rowan Williams addresses is that some people will only ever petition God for what they want, and don’t take the time to stop and listen to what God’s response might be, or what God wants to say to them.

In today’s gospel, Jesus clearly says pray, keep asking God for things, don’t give up. Prayer is one of the essential ingredients in a relationship with God. Without it, we worship a distant far off figure, with it, we worship a loving Father, who we depend upon to sustain us, guide us, and protect us on our journey through life.

Prayer is more than asking for things, of course. Prayer is praise; prayer is thanksgiving; prayer is conversation; prayer is questioning; prayer is arguing; prayer is lamenting. Prayer is all these things and more. But prayer is also -- and perhaps fundamentally -- asking God for what we most need and desire...shamelessly.

And why is asking is so central to prayer? David Lose says it is “Because it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. God has given us many, many gifts, yet we never stray far from our original condition of ultimate dependence on God's mercy, goodness, and provision. When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God's goodness.”

We believe that God listens to our prayer. Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer, and seems absolutely certain of God’s presence and attention. There is nothing more important to God than being in relationship with us, and so when we speak we can count on God's attention.

So God wants us to pray, and God is listening. Beyond that, we do not have any answers. All we have is the experience of time spent in prayer, of perhaps some prayers answered, and maybe sometimes, of God’s presence with us as we try to pray.

If you are someone who struggles with prayer, I would urge you not to give up. As Peter said last week, pray as you can, not as you can’t. Try different things, experiment, let’s be persistent and shameless in our prayers to God, and let’s listen expectantly and pray for the Holy Spirit to come and guide us in our prayers and draw us into a more intimate relationship with our loving Father.

So this week, let us pray as Jesus taught us, and let us trust in God's goodness and his love.

Ref: David Lose
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

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