Tenth Sunday After Pentecost (July 24, 2016)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Gen. 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Col. 2:6-15, (16-19), Luke 11:1-3
“Lord, teach us to pray.” It is a little surprising to hear the disciples making such a request at this stage of Luke’s Gospel. We have made it to the eleventh chapter, and the disciples have been walking with Jesus for some time now. They have seen him heal (e.g., 5:12-26; 6:6-11;); cast out demons (8:26-56); calm storms (8:22), and teach (6:17-49). They have gone out and done many of these things themselves (9:6; 10:1-12). They have also seen Jesus himself pray several times (5:16; 9:28). They are approaching a certain spiritual maturity, or at least we’d like to think so. Yet here they are confessing that they don’t know how to pray.
Is it so different with us? How many of us have been in situations—heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped, ready to utter those first words—only to find we don’t really know what to say? It may be a close friend of ours who has been diagnosed with a life threatening disease, or a relationship that is fraying at the edges; it could be a new job opportunity or a move to a new neighborhood. Do we pray for healing or acceptance? Does God want us to stay or go? Rarely is our prayer life characterized by clarity and eloquence; more often, it is a messy, stammering, disappointing stumbling in the dark. Prayer is a struggle because we rarely know what exactly we should be asking for; we don’t know if it is time to fight or give in; what we need versus what we want; to say nothing of the difficult, often tortuous task of trying to discern the difference between our will and God’s. We can make ourselves miserable thinking we are doing God’s will, lacerating ourselves in the name of obedience, when what we are really doing is using the name of God to enable or exacerbate our worst pathologies. It is hard enough figuring out the direction of our own wandering wills; throw in God’s will and prayer can feel like a concentrated experiment in schizophrenia, one characterized more by anxiety, confusion, and handwringing than peace or tranquility.
So when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, they are voicing something on behalf of all of us. And we can take the question as a sign of spiritual maturity just to the extent that it presupposes that prayer is no longer a given, no longer something we simply take for granted, but one more area that has been rendered uncertain and unfamiliar by our transformative encounter with Jesus. In embarking upon a path that is no longer solely determined by ourselves, we find that we are subject to new desires and possibilities, and these inevitably come into tension with old habits and assumptions. Prayer, it seems, is one of those activities, maybe the activity, that most intimately acquaints us with our inner complexity, our psychological depth, the fact that at bottom we are not one will, but many—or to put it in Whitman’s terms, the fact that we contradict ourselves, that we contain multitudes. Only when we feel that sense of inner complexity, of multiple instincts colliding, of hopes and fears conjoined, can we feel the need to find some way through it all, and learn to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Jesus famously replies with the Lord’s Prayer (11:2-4). The version that Luke provides is a little different from the one with which we are familiar. Matthew’s version is longer, and includes the lines “Our father who art in heaven” (Matt. 7:9) and “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (7:10). Think of Luke’s as the abridged version. Some scholars think it might be an earlier, more arcane form of the prayer, one possibly used in early Christian services; others think it may have been intended as an outline of themes that we should cover in prayer, not necessarily a prayer to be recited verbatim. I’m not sure we need to know exactly which answer is right to consider how it teaches us to pray. Either way, the Lord’s Prayer serves an elegant “how-to manual” for us no less than the first disciples.
The first line, “Father, hallowed be your name” (11:2), does away with all of the pious formalities. Jesus would have used the Aramaic word Abba for father, connoting the intimacy of the relationship between a parent and child. This suggests that God is not some distant Prime Mover in the sky, but a personal God who wants to be in relationship with us. Names are powerful things. They are not just descriptive; they are performative. They enable us to call upon and make demands of each other. God gives His name to Moses so that Israel might be His people, and that Yahweh might be their God. God has a name so that Abraham might intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, that he might persuade God to reconsider, as we see him doing in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. God gives His name to us so that we might enter in dialogue with Him, that we might remind God of his promises, that He might call us back to Himself, and that we might experience more of the joy and communion for which we were created. Any name that allows this is blessed, and surely anyone who invokes it will be blessed also.
If the first line clarifies whom we address when we pray, the second line, “Your kingdom come” (11:2), clarifies the context. Since Jesus’ first appearance in the synagogue, where he unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and declares the year of the Lord’s favor (4:18-19), Luke has been continually reminding us that the long-awaited kingdom of God has dawned. The blind now see; the mute speak; the lame walk; the oppressed go free; men and women walk together as members of the same movement. A new age has arrived. The kingdom has come. And with every advance of the disciples into new towns and cities, the kingdom spreads. Accordingly, the disciples are enjoined to see where else it could spread, who else could experience its liberation, where else captives are waiting to be released. So after invoking and blessing the name of God, the next word off their lips is, “Thy kingdom come.” Let more healing come, more liberation come, more reconciliation come, more of a palpable experience of what we were born to experience come. All of our deepest desires, the fulfillment of our greatest hopes, are encompassed in this single line. It helps us see both where we are and where we are going, and thus invites us to consider that whatever we might be going through—whether sickness or health, brokenness or fullness—we can expect to experience more of the kingdom through it.
If the second line tells us where we are and where we are going, the third line, “Give us each day our daily bread” (11:3) invites us to look back and see where we have come from. It reveals that the one thing that most of us are prone to take for granted, the thing that we feel most responsible for providing ourselves—our daily sustenance—is in fact a gift from God. If we confess that we are dependent upon God for this, then we confess that we are dependent upon God for it all: our life, our existence, the very air we breathe. In a word, we affirm that we are creatures, that our existence has an origin outside ourselves, that the deepest layers within us come from without us. Augustine liked to say that God was “more intimately present to me than my innermost self,” suggesting that if you peel back all the layers of the self, you’ll find that God runs deeper still. If you’ve ever felt yourself to be an enigma, it is because your origin and being is shot through with mystery; you do not contain yourself; you are more than yourself. And you become more deeply aware of that mystery in prayer.
If the third line reminds us of the origins that make our present possible, the fourth line, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (11:4) allows us to wrestle with all of the layers that have accumulated to shape the self we now inhabit. We confess that we have sinned, that all of the choices that we have made have congealed and hardened into a will and disposition that moves in the opposite direction of the kingdom. Prayer is where we interrupt our routines long enough to become aware of what would otherwise pass us by without notice; in prayer, sin stops becoming routine and becomes confession. Claiming the promise of the coming kingdom, we call upon the hallowed name of God to be forgiven, so that our future not be determined by our past, that we might claim the freedom that has been promised to us. What is shocking about Jesus’ prayer is that he makes such release contingent upon our willingness to extend it to others. And this is no mere spiritual forgiveness. Both Luke and Matthew use the explicit economic language of debt; we are to forgive not just slights and hard feelings, but perform the social and economic release that is constitutive of kingdom life. Here the performative power of prayer, the fact that it enacts what it says, is displayed yet again: if we are to say the Lord’s Prayer, we have to inhabit the reality it describes, and so we have to inhabit a world where debtors are released of their debts. In prayer we step into that world, and we are called to act with the knowledge that our world has become that world.
The fifth and final line, “And do not bring us to the time of trial” (11:4), serves as a concluding plea for us not to settle for anything less than what we have just spoken aloud. The trial here could mean many things. It could mean persecution for one’s faith, a reality facing all of the early Christians who would have prayed these words. It could mean the judgment that awaits us at the end of time. But surely such words are also meant to stave off that specific trial that results from the despair that tempts us to doubt the abundant promises of the four preceding lines. Here “do not bring us to the time of trial” means “Do not lead us into that state where we allow our world to swallow up the kingdom and its promises, our darkness to dim its light, our past to suffocate its present and future.” This trial is an ever-present threat, awaiting us the second we stop praying. And so it is fitting that we conclude the prayer with words that protect what we have spoken. This is not a guarantee against trials, but the hope that our struggles not be defined by the time of trial, but the time of the kingdom.
This is Jesus’ how-to manual for prayer, and he concludes by offering a few concluding stories and metaphors to provide further understanding (11:5-13). When we pray, we should be like the persistent host who knocks on the door of his sleepy neighbor. The host only knocks because he knows that it is his neighbor’s obligation to answer the call and have bread ready, no matter what time of day or night. His faith in his neighbor is what sustains him during those nervous few seconds when no one comes to the door, and so it should be for us when we pray to God who provides us not only with our daily bread, but the bread of life and the grace of the Spirit (11:13). In the silence, keep knocking. God is coming to the door.
Fittingly, knocking is one of the three metaphors Jesus uses to describe prayer. His point seems to be that the door is opened to those not only who knock, but who knock persistently, doggedly, stubbornly. “Would you save Sodom for fifty righteous people?” Abraham asks (Gen. 18:24). How about for forty-five? How about ten? God seems to like disciples with a little panache, who know how to bargain, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get into it with Him. He wants us to contend with Him, to debate with Him, to wrestle with Him. He wants Jacobs. He wants Psalmists who ask, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever” (Ps. 13:1). He wants disciples who say, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry” (Ps. 34:15).
The other metaphors, searching and asking, further underscore this sense of a persistent and ongoing conversation. “Ask and it will be given you.” It is tempting to hear this and think that what Jesus is saying is that we think deeply about what we really want, put together a proposal, and then ask for it. Good things only come to those who ask, right? But for most of us, the challenge is not so much in the asking, but in determining what it is we should be asking for. God says He will give us the desires of our heart, and we feel a bit like Solomon, wanting to give the right answer. But the desires of our heart rarely speak with one voice; what we more often hear is a cacophony, an atonal symphony set adrift without a conductor. What if we take “ask” here more in the manner of asking questions? This seems more in keeping with the knocking metaphor, and the overall picture of prayer that is emerging. It is as if Jesus is inviting us to see prayer less as a performance stage where we present our perfectly phrased petitions, and more like a dress rehearsal, a practice session, where we work out what we really desire in conversation with God. Here practice is performance, and prayer becomes an ongoing dialogue where we commit to asking, pondering, and wondering—“praying unceasingly,” in Paul’s words. It seems fitting that for beings whose essence lies outside ourselves, whose essence is mystery, that prayer would take the form of a question, and all the more fitting when prayer is understood as a conversation with a living, breathing God whose depths we cannot pretend to fathom.
It also accords with the final metaphor that Jesus provides, that of prayer as a search. “Seek, and you will find” (11:9). Again, the metaphor invites us to see prayer not as the culmination or outcome of a process, but prayer as the process itself, prayer as the search. Prayer is the medium through which we search for the direction we lack, where little by little, we try to find that elusive concord of wills between ourselves, our neighbors, and God. When we commit to such a search, we discover that the search provides its own reward, and it more and more becomes the object that we seek.
How so? Consider how the very act of prayer brings the gift of a certain heightened sense of consciousness. As we pray, as we seek, we become more aware of just how vast the depths of our soul run; we become conscious of the diversity within us. We become more conscious of our sins, but we also become more and more aware of the parts of ourselves that have taken up membership in the coming kingdom. What initially haunts us—the fact that we cannot will one thing—becomes a gift, the wonder that we contain multitudes, but only in conversation with the One journeying beside us, steering us to concord and the purity of heart that can will one thing. The process of asking and searching with God, with the increasing sense of awareness that it brings, becomes desirable in itself. It brings companionship, a sense of being heard and recognized, which is all the more intensified when we commit to pray together as a community. And that recognition, that self-discovery and fellowship, tends to be as important, if not more important, than the answered prayers. These tend to be things we find ourselves praying for anyway. So consciousness leads to communion, which in turn leads to consummation. Anxieties about what to ask for, and whether they are in accordance with God’s will, drop away when prayer becomes an ongoing dialogue of seeking, asking, and knocking. That is all that God wants from us. And in those moments of deepest honesty, which also happen to be those moments where we are most absorbed in prayer, we discover it is what we most want from God. Amen.
 For more background on this, see Richard Vinson, Luke. Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2008), 359-79.
 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York: Vintage, 1997), 3.6.11.