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The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year C

Lord, Teach us to Pray

Readings: Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying, Luke tells us, in a ‘certain place’. I imagine him to be on a rolling hill by the Sea of Galilee. His disciples watch him at prayer with some interest. They see the serenity surrounding him as he prays. They want that same sense of peace. “Teach us to pray,” they say to him. Jesus responds with a prayer from his Jewish roots, a prayer that very much reflects his thoughts about who God is and the place God has in his life. He addresses God as Father. His prayer begins, not with his needs, but with his relationship with God. He prays that God will meet his needs. He prays to be a forgiving person. He prays not to be tested by life more than he can endure. They know from his prayer that Jesus is in a loving and intimate relationship with God, a relationship in which they want to share.

How did you learn to pray? I suspect that most of us in this church today learned to pray from our parents. I would also suspect that what we really learned was how to say some prayers. Speaking for myself, I would kneel at the side of the bed as my mother heard my prayers, simple prayers taught to me by rote. Somewhere along the way I learned to say the Lord’s Prayer. It became a routine. I would rattle it off without thinking about what I was saying. You see, I had not really learned how to pray.

Jesus continues in his teaching about prayer by telling a story. It is a story that paints the portrait of a loving God and offers instances of human generosity and the motives behind it. He tells of a person who will get out of bed and supply a friend’s need, not because he wants to get out of bed, but because the friend is persistent. A traveller has arrived unexpectedly on the man’s doorstep. He has nothing to feed him. He goes to his neighbour and bangs on the door. He wants his neighbour to give him some of tomorrow’s fresh bread. The family has already retired for the night. The gate is locked. It causes no small interruption. It wakes up the children and the dogs. It is stretching friendship a bit far. Jesus points out that hospitality is important enough, and the shame of not providing it was so great, that the poor man will get up, reluctantly, to respond to the request.

He is pointing out a simple truth about prayer. It is not the words that we pray that bring about some magical change in our lives. It is our attitude towards prayer. Prayer is intended to bring us into a closer relationship with God. It gives us the inclination to place every aspect of our lives in God’s presence and offer it in prayer. That means it is not enough to simply rattle off our prayers without really thinking about what we are saying, without allowing the words of the prayer to change our lives.

That seems simple enough, but this passage of Scripture as with many passages creates some real difficulties for people. “For everyone who asks receives,” Jesus continues in his story, “and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

So Jesus, what do I say to the young woman who opens up to me telling me her story of years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father? “I prayed every day to God that he would stop, but he didn’t!” she told me. “Maybe I didn’t use the right words. It must have been my fault.”

What of the man suffering from years of depression who was convinced by a well-meaning friend to pray to God rather than take medication?

Or the young widow who prayed earnestly that her husband, dying of cancer would be healed. What do I tell her when she asks me, “Is it something he did? Am I being punished for my sins?”

What do I say to the family of the teenager hit by a car, praying desperately for a miracle as the doctor tells them that there is no hope and that life support is to be withdrawn?

What do we tell people whose loved ones have been massacred in one of too many attacks over the past few weeks?

Those fervent prayers cause crises of faith. Why did God not answer my prayer? Did God fail or did I? Is it lack of faith on my part? Did I do something wrong? Did I pray the wrong way or use the wrong words? Perhaps there is no God after all? And there are well-meaning people who are quick to blame victims for their lack of faith. What happens is part of the human tragedy. There are things that challenge our courage, trials of pain and suffering, of loss and bereavement. And all of us die. Some of us it is true, die all too young.

Jesus says that the answer lies in continuing to pray, in being persistent in our prayer life. In prayer we ask for what we need. We ask, not because God has some sort of ‘money-back’ guarantee. Nor is it about getting the pink Cadillac you have always wanted. We ask knowing that we are building a relationship with God. We ask knowing that God hears our prayers. We pray with a sense of assurance knowing that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will keep. We pray in loving expectation for the responsive word of God to rise in our hearts.

As I reflect I think of three ways in which God responds to our prayers. All three are wonderful gifts. The first gift is the surprise we had not even considered asking for, but which delights us. God is constantly offering such gifts – a rainbow in the sky, a beautiful sunset, a kind glance from a friend, a smile from a stranger.

The second gift is just what we wanted. Sometimes God gives us what we want and pray for. Haven’t we all said, “That was an answer to prayer”? When that happens everything about it smacks of God. It happens at just the right time. We sometimes call it a coincidence, but for me it is God at work, a ‘God-incidence’.

The third gift is not at all what we wanted, but it becomes more valuable as we live with it. God may not respond to our prayers as we wish. We may hear God’s call through a word heard in passing. With time we may begin to value and understand God’s response. Sometimes we do not. In whatever way God succeeds in reaching into our hearts we may hear the voice of God. That gift of grace, that powerful love brings us to the feet of Jesus. There we sit quietly with him enjoying his company, knowing that God loves us and loving us cannot help but answer our prayer.

Jesus’ lesson to the disciples points out a deep truth. The answer to prayer comes about, not because we get it right, or because we are living better lives than everyone else. It is about persistence in prayer, not because we hope to tire God out in order to get what we want, but because in persisting we build a relationship with God. We make God a part of our lives. We make prayer a part of our lives. It becomes as natural to us as breathing. We open ourselves up to God and we let God do the rest. Amen

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