Shaped by Prayer

Luke 11:1-13 – A Lesson on Prayer

There are a couple of “take-aways” from today’s text on prayer. The first comes in the sentence: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened”.  We hear these words, and yet I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. I mean, those of us who tend to pray for our own self-interest find in this statement a promise that all our wishes will be granted. Others, who’s most ardent prayers went unanswered, find nothing but disappointment in this text, and perhaps even disregard it all together. Now, to be sure, both of these positions are on the far ends of the spectrum. But perhaps the lesson or the “take-way” here lays somewhere in-between.

A number of years ago I attended a small UCC church in Green Island Iowa for a short time. In that congregation there was a mentally challenged man who fell victim to this kind of quid-pro-quo thinking. In theological terms we call it “prosperity gospel.” In other words, if your rich it’s because you’ve been faithful and if your poor it’s because you haven’t been faithful enough. Now, to be fair, that’s really an over-simplification of this type of theology, but you get the idea. Anyway, this particular man came to my door one day despondent because he thought he wasn’t faithful enough. You see, he had watched a famous televangelist who claimed that if anyone just prayed hard enough, had enough faith, all of their bills would be paid off in three days. Well, three days came and went, and lo and behold, this man’s bills remained unpaid. So, in his mind, he wasn’t praying properly, or he wasn’t somehow being faithful enough. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the very real consequences of thinking of prayer like a genie-in-a-bottle waiting to grant your every wish. It can be damaging to individuals and it’s been my experience that a literal understand of “ask and you shall receive” has driven many people away from the church; away from God.

So, here’s the question for us today: “What do we do with a text like this? How do we understand it?” Well, I think the gospel lesson gives us some clues here.  For example, it’s important to note that this passage on prayer begins with the Lord’s Prayer and ends with the words “everyone who asks receives, seeks-find, knocks and the door is opened” This makes it clear to me that Jesus was teaching his disciples, and by extension, us, to pray for a recognition or an understanding of the present Reign of God.

What is it we say in the Lord’s Prayer? “Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The first clue to understanding “everyone who asks receives” is that all of our praying must be an expression of seeking first God’s vision of a global community of faith.[i] My friends, prayer isn’t intended to be a list of “I wants” but rather, prayer is a vehicle or a vessel that moves us a little closer to the Sacred reality of the Divine by aligning our ethics, our values, our compassion for one another with God’s ethic, values, and compassion for all things created. Do you see what I’m driving at here? When we say, “thy Kingdom come” we’re not praying for some pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by individual futuristic safe-zone. “Thy Kingdom come” means finding a way to be in tune with the presence of the Sacred reality that is within, around, and through all living things; the spark of the divine; the very breath of God that permeates all of creation.

And what’s more, Jesus’ approach to prayer suggests that the desires of our hearts ought to be shaped not by the values of our culture, nor our own self-interest, but by the principles that Jesus expresses over and over again in the gospels; mercy and compassion, peace and justice, freedom and new life.[ii] These are the attributes of faith that lead to recognizing the present Reign of God and the process of building a global community that consists of many faith perspectives, but that holds these values in common. [iii]

So, prayer as a global community building process is the first “take-away” from this text and the second is this: Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with God. It’s a both/and situation. While we are to pray for the advancement of peace and justice for all people and the earth, we must also tend to our own, personal sense of peace and wholeness.

But how do we marry these two concepts? Well, there are many references in the Gospel of Luke to Jesus spending time in prayer, and I suspect that he listened just as much as he spoke. In any case, he tells the disciples, and again, that includes us too, that we should talk with God as we would to a loving parent, a parent who listens to us, cares for us, forgives us, provides for us, protects us. Jesus doesn’t speak in obscure theological language. He brings the reality of God’s love home to the people in terms they (we) can understand, the language of everyday relationships at their best and their not so best.

But even when human relationships fall short, whether those relationships are personal or a communal, whether they’re intimate or global in nature, Jesus offers us a story to help us understand the meaning of relationship within the context of grace. He says, in essence, if those who are limited or weak have sense enough to answer the door and help a neighbor, or to give our children good things, not bad ones, well, then, of course, God, who is infinitely greater, more loving, more generous than we are, will give us even more. And that more, according to Luke is the Holy Spirit around and within us.[iv] So, even when the world seems like it’s falling apart, even when the powers-that-be abuse and imprison the innocent, even when we asked but didn’t receive, even in the midst of all of these disappointments, God continues speak in the world and in our lives. How? How is this possible? It’s possible, my friends, because prayer, whether it be personal or global, isn’t about miraculously altering the circumstance of reality or changing God’s mind. Rather it’s about changing our perception of God and of the world around us; it’s about changing our perception of reality. Perhaps my prayer shouldn’t be to change the reality of the situation, no matter how much I would like things to be different. Maybe my prayer should be to change something within me to either accept the reality of the situation; to activity to change my actions or attitudes to align with present reality. All this kind of reminds me of the serenity prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”[v]

My friends, as we go from this place today, may we all continue to offer our prayers of petition and intercession, our prayers of faith and confession, and our prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the on-going creation of a global community and for a deep inner peace that comes when we align ourselves with reality of life and death, of presence and mystery. And may we continue pray for justice and for courage to be a voice change in this broken and hurting nation and world; may we pray for the grace to be kind, civil, and respectful of all people and races; and finally, may we pray for this earth, for the changing eco-systems and climate, and the disappearing bio-diversity that supports all life on this earth. And finally, may we all pray for a deeper connection to all that is Sacred, all the interconnectedness of life, and may we all work toward that day when all of God’s people, all people, are one.

May it be so. Amen and the people of God said, Amen!

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[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.4.76, where he says, “the whole of the Christian life is a form of this petition.”  See also N. T. Wright, “Thy Kingdom Come: Living the Lord’s Prayer,” in The Christian Century (March 12,1997) 269: “We are praying, as Jesus was praying and acting, for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all. And if we pray this way, we must of course be prepared to live this way.”

[ii] It might be easy to miss, but there’s another clue here that our praying is to be informed by the principles of the Lord’s prayer, and above all is to be an expression of seeking first the Kingdom.  Matthew’s version of this saying says, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).  But Luke’s version says, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13).  Luke presupposes that Jesus’ disciples are praying for Kingdom matters–like peace, and justice, and compassion, and new life.  And Jesus promises that God will freely give us the Spirit so that we can not only pray for the Kingdom but also work for its realization in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 154.

[iii] Alan Brehm Everyone Who Asks (www.thewakingdremer.com) 2013

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Prayerful Disciples (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2019

[v] Reinhold Niebuhr The Serenity Prayer (www.thevoiceforlove.com)

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