I am indebted to retiring Bishop Murray Finck of the Pacifica Synod of the ELCA, whose wise words were the inspiration for my work below. The idea that this prayer is one of persistence paired with action is his.
Sermon for July 24, 2016 Bethlehem Lutheran Church Mary Shaima
Text: Luke 11:1-13
11He 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.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
5 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 7And 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.” 8I 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.
9 ‘So I say to you, 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!’
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
The disciples ask Jesus to “teach them as John [John the Baptist] taught his disciples.”
A simple enough request.
But there’s a seemingly small cultural detail here that is actually critical to the story: Hebrew culture at that time held that religious masters taught their students a short prayer that acted as a sort of “badge” to identify them as a student of the particular master. Jesus’ disciples are very likely following that cultural norm, looking for a verbal identifier that they might share as students of this master.
Jesus – as is his custom – answers them to a far deeper extent, beginning by giving them the Lord’s Prayer.
Interestingly, though, the prayer that he teaches them has in itself become a verbal identifier for followers of Jesus. “The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us,” as we also refer to it, is the most common prayer shared among Christians around the world and across the centuries.
In my conversations with many of you over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about this prayer and how easy it is to recite it from memory without truly engaging in praying it. That can certainly be seen as nothing more than a verbal identifier.
But looking at this lesson within the context of Jesus’ teachings on discipleship within which we find ourselves, we can see that Jesus has a lot more to say than just answering a first-century version of a text.
(Which admittedly is a very amusing thing to ponder. One can imagine today’s version of the Fourth Petition about daily bread manifesting in a text as “I can has cheeseburger?”)
But maybe that’s kind of the whole point here. This prayer ISN’T just a verbal identifier. It’s NOT just something we memorize in confirmation and then recite by rote for the rest of our lives. Maybe this prayer IS meant for us to think about it in terms that make sense to us.
And maybe it’s meant to be a lot more too.
I used to wonder why this reading in the lectionary doesn’t stop after the Lord’s Prayer. That would make my job a lot easier, right? Just stick to what we know. But after sitting uncomfortably with this lesson for some time now, I have come to realize that the portions from Luke that FOLLOW the Lord’s Prayer are what give it life. These portions talk to us about both persistence, and being proactive.
When Jesus talks about the neighbor who asks late at night to borrow something for his guest, I’m reminded of when my son was very little, and I was still working from home. I’d be deeply engaged in typing a legal brief, trying to make sure I had all the details correct. This little voice would start next to me.
(I was, as I said, paying attention to legal details and wanted to get to a place where I could break away.)
“Mom. Mom. Mom. Mommy.”
And on and on, until I finally turned to him. “Yes, Timmy?”
Tim modeled persistence. He did not give up until I answered him. He even texted me a funny video in the same vein not too long ago!
Here’s the thing with this story. It’s a bit confusing until he Jesus sums it up in Verse 9: “Ask and you shall receive.”
The point here is not whether our friends, or us for that matter, would actually get up like the friend in the story. Rather, it is that we have the freedom to be persistent and bold in our prayers to God. In our first lesson, Abraham’s repeated requests to God – “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord” – are a good example.
Look at the sentence structure: Ask, and you shall receive.
There are no qualifiers here.
It doesn’t read “IF you ask THEN you shall receive.”
No, it cuts right to the chase. Ask and you shall receive. Period, dot, end of sentence. It’s the Nike approach to life: just do it.
Martin Luther claims this boldness in the Small Catechism, in his explanation of the Introduction of the Lord’s Prayer: “in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence.”
Consider these petitions. There are no qualifiers here, either. This is a bold and direct prayer that asks God to be at work in this world. It is also a bold and direct prayer by which we enter into deeper relationship with God, and by which we make a commitment to respond in action.
When we pray “hallowed be your name” we are asking God to be about things that bring honor to God’s name, just as much as we pray that WE might be about the same things.
When we pray “your kingdom come” we are realizing that we are in an “already/not yet” existence – remember, Jesus has been repeating “the kingdom of God has come near you” – and so we are asking God to continue to make that kingdom a reality. At the same time, we are praying that our actions would be ones that embody the ideal of the kingdom of God.
When we pray “your will be done” we know that God’s gracious will is not dependent on whether or not we pray for it; as Lutherans one of our central beliefs is that God acts first. But by praying this petition we are reminded, Luther tells us, “we ask…that it may also come about in us and around us.” When we pray this petition, we are actively engaged in ongoing discernment: what is your will, O God? What would you have me to do?
When we pray “give us this day our daily bread” this is where we really see the clear call to action as well as persistence. Luther notes that “daily bread” extends to “everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies” and goes into an extended and particular list in the Small Catechism. Our actions to provide food to the hungry, to house the homeless, to care for all children, to effect peace – these are ways that we pray this petition by our action. As the hands and feet of Christ, we proclaim through our prayer-action that the kingdom of God has come near. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said, the gospel to a hungry man is a piece of bread.
When we pray “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” we embody love of neighbor, which Jesus called the greatest commandment. The variety of translations is particularly helpful here. The text from which we read translates thus: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Scholars tell us this is the most accurate translation from the Greek. What does it mean that we ask God to treat our sins in the manner in which we treat those indebted to us? This is a radical and bold call to a very counter-cultural way of thinking and operating. Even when we consider the King James translation, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” it carries the same meaning. A wise person once pointed out to me that this is the only conditional in this prayer: we are asking God to treat US based on the way we treat OTHERS. What does that look like? I think it’s something worth some real thought.
When we pray “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” it might be helpful here as well to look at the more accurate translation “save us from the time of trial”, because this is a place where our English language can be less than helpful. Our cultural norm of temptation is, I think, bluntly stated by the bumper sticker which reads “Lead me not into temptation. I can find it myself.” I want to suggest that we abandon this way of thinking, regardless of the words we speak. “The time of trial” is far more encompassing of the slings and arrows that come our way and that assault our world day after day. We may be at fault for some of these things – but we may also NOT be at fault. We may simply be trying to get through a day that began with an appliance malfunction, and that ended with the phone call we’ve been dreading. In this petition we pray that God will continue to keep God’s promises and walk with us. We also pray for our own persistence in the face of trials, and that we might model persistence when walking with our neighbor through their trials.
Dear brothers and sisters, what does it look like when we pray this prayer boldly? When we LIVE this prayer boldly? When after we have spoken it, we go out into the world and take the chance of living into the reality this prayer imagines?
Perhaps as well as praying for a friend who is sick, we would visit them. Bring them a treat.
Perhaps as well as praying for an end to violence, I would visit a police station and let them know I am praying for them. Get to know my neighbors, including my neighbors of color, and listen to their joys and struggles. (And, I would bring all of them treats too.)
Because sometimes prayers are treats.
Sometimes, prayers are words. Words spoken in confidence, in fear, in desperation, and in joy. Words spoken alone, or words spoken here together as the body of Christ.
Sometimes, prayers are silence. Or sighs too deep for words.
And sometimes prayers are actions. Actions of peacemaking. Actions of truth-telling. Actions of love.
Dear friends, prayer is another one of those “both/and” things. Jesus has a theme going here, that is for sure. We pray with our words, and we pray with our selves. We are persistent, and we are proactive.
God calls us to embody what Paul writes to the church at Colossus:
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
It is for us to live into that for which we pray boldly, and live even more boldly. Luther allegedly said “grace abounds – sin boldly.” This is what I think he actually meant – when we are centered in Christ, we are bold to say the prayer Jesus taught us, and we are bolder still to go out with God and live that prayer into being. And if we mess up – well, grace abounds! Try again, another way. GRACE. ABOUNDS.
Jesus tells his disciples, and he tells us: Here is a good prayer. But it is not just words in your mouth. When these words in your mouth become mercy and justice in your hands, then the prayer is fulfilled. God is with you, and pours the Spirit upon you. So pray boldly. Act even more boldly. Grace abounds!
Thanks be to God.