PENTECOST 22, October 16th, 2016
A fellow once offered the following prayer, "O, God, I thank you that so far today I've done all right. I haven't gossiped, lost my temper, or been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent. But, in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed, and from then on I'm going to need a lot more help. In the Name...
Last week, the story of Naaman and the incident of the ten lepers served as examples of how obedience to God results in miracles beyond imagination. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us three practices which he said were basic to leading a life of obedience, Prayer, Fasting, and Tithing. And, this morning, our Gospel reading presents us with a parable about the practice of Prayer.
Now, there's a great deal that can be said about prayer, but the most basic question, I suppose, is why do we do it? After all, if God has all the knowledge and power to know and answer all our prayers before we ask, then why doesn't he? That perplexes a lot of people. In fact, some people get so hung up on this point that they give up on, not only prayer, but, religion altogether because while prayer is a wonderful thing, a source of strength and comfort, it's also the Achilles ‘heel of religion.
There's not one person, in or out of church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, who can claim 100% success. We ask, and do not always receive. And many try to explain this away or justify it by saying that it's a matter of how strong your faith is and whether you have doubts. But, who doesn't have doubts? And how strong is strong? No good answers there.
Prayer does produce results, though, but, not as casually as turning on a light switch produces light. It is something which requires preparation. Prayer is a discipline, not something that happens by accident. A fellow was once asked if he could play the piano. "I don't know.” he replied. "How can you not know?” he was asked. "Well", he said, "I've never tried."
I don't think that anyone who hasn't been working out would think he or she could win a marathon. I would hope that nobody would try to perform heart surgery without having spent years in medical school. School kids spend hours and hours practicing football or soccer. And, yet, how haphazardly do people treat prayer.
The widow in the parable didn't just ask the judge to hear her case one time, or every so often, or if she happened to bump into him in the market. No. She rearranged her life, her schedule. She probably went every day to the courthouse, filed briefs constantly, and made a right nuisance of herself. But, one thing she didn't do was live her life as if she didn't have an interest in the case. Whatever the case was, it mattered more to her than anything else and she wasn't going to give up on it no matter how much time and energy it took.
The disciples once asked Jesus to teach them how to pray and he responded with the “Our Father.” A magnificent prayer, and the Lord's Prayer is divided into two parts. The first deals with God and the second deals with us.
You notice that Jesus doesn't have us start off asking God for our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, guidance from temptation, deliverance from evil, and all the other things we usually associate with the act of prayer. No, it begins by establishing who we are and who God is. Our Father. We need to accept him as that and address him accordingly.
Because, the essence of prayer is talking to God just as we do with anybody else. Yes, God knows our thoughts, but, he gave us vocal cords, he gave us voice, and he likes to hear us use it because, when we use it, it means we think he's listening. That is the message of the parable. It can be difficult, though, because if we think God listens to us, we have to be prepared for him to say something in return.
Someone once said, "Everybody talks to God. We call it prayer. If God talks back, we call it schizophrenia." The problem is too many people have tragically justified deranged behaviour by claiming to have heard a voice from God and we don't want to be considered one of those. So, even though we say our prayers, deep down we hope God respects our privacy.
That leaves us, though, with a silent God, a safe god, the Santa Claus god who makes no demands on us other than a vague injunction to be good little boys and girls but who still provides presents, answers to prayer, even if we aren't. A Father God, on the other hand, has a lot to say about a lot of things and the only way we recognize his voice is if we know what he sounds like, and the only way we get to know anybody's voice is by spending time with them.
After all, how do we talk to our friends? How would you like to have a friend who only spoke to you when he wanted something and never had anything else to say? I'd get a little tired of it. Yet, so often that's how we treat and approach God. The real miracle of prayer is that he's willing to put up with that. But, that is not how he wants us to behave.
He doesn't want to be a silent and remote God. He wants us to spend quality time with him and get to know him as he knows us. He wants us to study his word and get a sense of how he speaks so that when we hear the voices of others we can ask ourselves if the styles match up and if they don't, then we know which represents the true and which the false. Unless we take the time, though, to learn his voice, we'll never learn the difference,
You see, the petition "Thy kingdom come" should remind us that there is another kingdom. And, that is a force which is constantly trying to interrupt our prayers. "Set your mind on things above", wrote St. Paul, but Satan wants our minds to remain focused on things below. He wants us to say "thy will be done" but mean "my will be done." For then, our words are not prayer, but, monologue.
Shakespeare, who was really a religious man, leaves us a memorable phrase demonstrating this in his play, Hamlet. There is a scene where the evil king is stricken with remorse for having murdered Hamlet's father and kneels to pray. Hamlet sees him and decides not to kill him on the spot since the king appears to recognize the enormity of the crime he committed. After Hamlet exits, however, the king gets up, shakes his head, and says, "My words fly up; my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts, never to Heaven go."
The practice of prayer. Like anything else, it takes time and effort, not because God isn't paying attention to us, not because God doesn't care about our needs, but, because it helps us pay more attention to him and learn to care about his needs.
"Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them."
In the Name...