We really have been getting hit with the “Old Faithful” kind of readings the past couple of weeks. What I mean by that is that these are the readings that I generally have to only say the title and people say, “Oh, yeah! I know that one!” We had “The Good Samaritan,” and “The Story of Mary and Martha.” Now this week we have “The Lord’s Prayer.” I think this weeks reading may be even more scary to preach on than the previous two! The Lord’s Prayer is especially loaded with feelings, ideas, and assumptions that many of us have carried with us since childhood. So instead of taking on all of these preconceived notions, maybe we should just go off and play baseball or something.
Ok, guess I will say something about today’s reading. Actually, if we take a look at the whole reading, not just “The Lord’s Prayer” part, we might get some new insights into what Christ is asking of us and how, if we take Christ’s words to heart, we may grow as Christians.
The last three Sundays have really been dealing with very Gnostic concepts. You may remember we talked about Gnosticism back on Pentecost. Gnosticism is the belief that there is a certain set of words, or rituals that someone needs to do to gain the favor of God. If we do these things, then God is happy. If something is left out, even if everything else is done, then God is not happy. It is a very black and white kind of thing. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the question was, “Just how nice do I have to be to achieve eternal life?” In the story of Mary and Martha, the question was, “How much do I have to do to gain the Lord’s favor?” And in today’s reading, the underlying question is, “What do I have to say to insure God will grant my desire?” Truthfully, each of these are Gnostic thoughts; in each of these questions, the person is looking for a way to assure themselves that God is going to be with them, and more importantly, to assure themselves that God is going to do what they want God to do.
So in our gospel reading, Jesus responds to the question. But, in true Rabbi form, his response actually opens more questions. Jesus gives the disciples a prayer, but that prayer is truly open ended. That prayer is NOT, in any way, telling God what to do. This prayer that Jesus gives is not a formula for letting God know what we want. What it is, is a prayer that affirms that God is still in charge and God’s kingdom will come. It is also affirming our place as followers, reinforcing that God will give to us as God sees fit. It reminds us that God will provide for our needs through having us ask for our daily bread. This petition for daily bread would remind the disciples of the manna in the wilderness that was only good for the one day. Any extra that was kept would become wormy. And this should remind us that in God’s plan, things may seem to be falling short, but God will provide.
So in answering the disciples’ question, Jesus really didn’t tell them anything. In effect, Jesus is saying that the disciples can pray to God, but God is going to do what God is going to do. And truthfully, that answer is not very comforting.
But it is into this discomfort that Jesus continues with some more teaching. Although this teaching is a bit on the odd side, if we look at it closely, we can hopefully take some comfort from it. However, before we can find comfort, Jesus wants to have us realize that our attempts to control are illusions. Jesus wants to take away our belief that we can control God. We are told to pray to God, we are told to ask God for those things that we want. But ultimately, we are told that we need to trust in God’s graciousness. And it is the next part that helps to reassure us that we can, in fact, relax into God’s graciousness.
I don’t know what an egg has to do with a scorpion or why someone would give a scorpion instead of an egg, but I guess that is the point here! We wouldn’t do that! We wouldn’t give our children things that would harm them; we would give our children good things. If we want to take this a bit farther, we would have to assume that if the child was indeed asking for something that was not good for the child, the parent would NOT give it to the child, even if the child were really persistent! We understand that children do not have as much experience with the world as the parent and that children may ask for things that are not good for them. The child may think something is a good thing, and may be angry when the parent says, “No,” but the loving parent will not give snakes or scorpions to their children, even if the child begs for them. And truthfully, that is a good thing!
And this is the realization that we must bring into our understanding of prayer: We will ask God for what we want; we may even beg God for something. We may even get all Gnostic and try to control God’s actions. But in the end, we must trust that God will give us what we need when we need it. God promises to give us daily bread, not our own bakery. God will not give us a scorpion or a snake even if in our short-sightedness that is what we ask for. What God gives us may not look like what we are asking for, but we need to have faith that in all ways God is looking out for our best interest.
Two things come to mind when I think about God giving us what we need; one is the old adage: “I asked God for patience and I ended up with children!” And the other is George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In the first case, we may want God to zap us with patience, but instead we are given the greater gift, children which also generally teaches us patience. In the second case, George is asking for God to make his problems go way, and Clarence the Angle, second class, shows up. In both of these cases, the answers to the prayers were definitely not what the prayers had expected, but in both cases, God did answer the requests and gave even more!
I think the most difficult part of this whole reading is the kind of obscure reference about knocking on a friend’s door in the middle of the night. Taken on face value, it sounds like we are to badger God until God gives us what we want. Keep pounding long enough and God will finally give in just to make us shut-up! But that would ignore the fact that God is infinite in patience. Our whole life is but a moment to God. So there must be something else there.
To be persistent in prayer keeps us focused on God throughout our problems. Being persistent in prayer keeps us looking first toward God and then to the world for our solution. Being persistent in prayer continually reminds us that God is constantly looking out for us.
Prayer has the interesting trait of being both active and passive as the same time. We are active in prayer, we put effort into bringing our needs, wants, and praises, to God; but then we also have to be quite and listen. And it is this combination that helps to make us strong in our faith. We are to be active agents in the world, but also are to trust that God will look over us and give us what we need in due time. We are praying to remind ourselves that God will provide that daily bread, but only that daily bread! We want to control God, but God reminds us that we just need to trust and act in faith.
Here is where I am probably going to take the cheap way out. Prayer is so much bigger than we can discuss in a sermon, or a series of sermons. I am planning on having some adult classes before the 10:30 service this fall. One of the topics we will be discussing is Prayer. I would invite you to join and learn more about this important part of our faith.
In closing here, I will say that prayer is a gift that God gave to us. A way to help us navigate this complex thing we call life. And the better we understand it and the more practiced we become, the greater the benefits we receive.