Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pentecost 10C

Genesis 18:20-32, Luke 11:1–13




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


One might think that after several thousand years the people of God would have prayer all figured out. But that is not the case. Prayer, conversation with God, is so basic to the life of faith. Yet the people of God continue to struggle with a variety of questions concerning prayer: How are we to pray? What are we to pray for? How does God answer prayers? How does God speak to us in prayer? Why are some prayers answered and some prayers not? What does it say about my faith if I pray seldom or not at all?


David Lose tells the story of young boys in the first congregation he served who prayed every day for their dad to be cured of cancer. But he wasn’t cured, and after his death his sons wanted to know why.


Lose also shares a tragic account of a young woman in another congregation who was sexually abused for years by her father. She prayed and prayed for her father to stop. But it lasted a long, long time, until she was able to leave home. She wanted to know why.


As Lose explains, unanswered prayer can cause “a huge crisis of faith. It puts honest believers in a bind between wondering whether God failed or they did. Most of us, believing it unfaithful to fault God, blame ourselves instead. We must not have had enough faith, or we didn’t have a sufficient number of other Christians praying for us, or we just didn’t pray the right way.”[1]


Jesus’ closest followers—his disciples— also struggled with prayer. They noticed how important praying was to Jesus. Jesus would engage in intense ministry, and then he would withdraw to deserted places and pray (5:16). Before significant turning points in his ministry, he would spend extensive time in prayer. According to Luke, before Jesus called his twelve disciples, he spent the whole night in prayer with God (6:12).


Seeing how important prayer was to Jesus, and seeing also that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray, the disciples wanted to learn more about prayer. One time after Jesus had finished praying in a certain place, one of the disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Jesus responded by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, telling them a parable on prayer, and offering them some sayings about prayer.


Martin Luther was once asked by his barber, “Dr. Luther, how do you pray?” Luther responded with a lengthy letter entitled “A Simple Way to Pray, for a Good Friend.” He offered some very practical advice, such as: “It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last of the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering: `Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that.’ Thinking such thoughts, we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us until the day of prayer comes to naught.”[2]


When meditating on or listening to God’s word to us in scripture, Luther encouraged his barber to ask questions of thanksgiving, confession, and intercession. Inspired by Luther’s questions, Walter and Ingrid Trobisch developed the T.R.I.P. method of prayer. For over two decades this T.R.I.P. method has been at the heart of the prayer life of Mt. Carmel Ministries. Each year we offer a special Mt. Carmel edition of the Daily Texts to enhance the devotional and prayer life of the people of St. Andrew. The T.R.I.P. acronym helps remind people of four questions: T is for Thanks; R is for Regret; I is for Intercession; and P is Purpose or Plan of Action. The T.R.I.P. questions are helpful in teaching us how to pray and what to pray for. But in learning how to pray we need to begin by asking: Who are we praying to? What is the nature or character of the one to whom we pray? The “who” question is at the heart of our life of prayer.


Answering the “who” question then clarifies or shapes how we pray and what we pray for.


The Lord’s Prayer begins with “Father.” It is an affectionate, intimate way to address God. It is the way children in the time of Jesus would have addressed a father who loves them. With this address Jesus teaches them that the God to whom we pray is like a loving parent. We pray to a God, the God of Jesus, who loves us dearly. Learning how to pray and what to pray for is important. But knowing that the One to whom we pray loves us frees us from being overly anxious about prayer methods and techniques. It frees us to share whatever is on our hearts and minds.


In our gospel reading Jesus asks his followers: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If 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!” Here Jesus affirms how generous, compassionate, and caring God is toward the children of God. God seeks to provide us with our daily bread, the essentials we need for life. But the finest gift God provides is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God and Jesus. Only God can give the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift that no one can take from us.


Our Old Testament reading for this morning is a lively conversation between God and Abraham — that is, it is a prayer. . One cannot help but smile as Abraham negotiates with God and gets God to acknowledge that God will not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous people are found there. On what basis does Abraham dare to negotiate in this way with God? Abraham knows who he is dealing with. He knows that God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Knowing who God is and what God is like frees Abraham to intercede on behalf of the people of Sodom. God is still a God of judgment— people are still held accountable for their sinful behavior— but God is first and foremost a God of compassion. Knowing we are praying to a God of compassion makes so much difference in how we pray and what we pray for.


Being clear on who God is and on the character of God will not remove all questions about prayer. At times our prayers will not be answered in the way we might hope. In recent weeks and months we have been doing a lot of praying for the victims of terrorist attacks and for an end to terrorism. While I was writing this sermon, I was saddened to hear on the news that nine people had been killed in Münich in another horrific attack. This summer it seems like we have been praying for the victims of a new attack each week. In Habbakuk 1:2 the prophet laments: “How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen! "Violence is everywhere!" I cry, but you do not come to save” (ESV). It would be a mistake to blame God for these horrific acts of violence, but at the very least we need to plead with God to transform many hearts and minds soon. Surely the God Jesus teaches us to pray to must be deeply saddened by these violent events.


As we struggle to understand why some prayers are not answered, it is striking that even Jesus had his most fervent prayer go unanswered. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus knelt down and prayed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” According to Luke, Jesus, in his anguish, “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:42–43). The cup of suffering and death was not removed from Jesus. Jesus was obedient to the will of God, and that led to him being put to a violent death by the political and religious powers that be. If the Son of God could be put to a violent, unjust death, even after he prayed so fervently, it is likely that we will continue to struggle with some unanswered prayers. At times we are going to need to hold on for dear life to Jesus’ assurance that our God loves us dearly, as loving parents do their children. In a violent, unjust world our only hope is to pray to a God who wants “so much more” for us.


In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come.” Be assured that the kingdom of the God who wants “so much more” for us is a kingdom of compassion, justice, and peace. People of faith will not cease praying for this kingdom. Nor will they cease to say and do everything in their power to seek that kingdom.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.















[2] Quoted in Daily Texts 2016, Mt. Carmel Ministries, 176.