Sermon on the 7 Pentecost, C, Lectionary 17: Genesis 18:20-32, Luke 11:1-13
Preached on July 28, 2019 @ Bethany, Escanaba, by Pastor Dave Van Kley
When You Pray
What pictures of prayer do you carry with you? Heads bowed in church on Sunday morning, as we recite, “Our Father, who art in heaven?” Family members holding hands before dinner? The familiar painting of the grizzled old man at the table, gnarled hands folded in humility? A child kneeling at her bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep?”
Do you see a rabbi bobbing his head? A sea of Muslim faces, all touching the ground, pointed toward Mecca? A Buddhist, sitting on a cushion, poised for meditation? Every religion teaches people to pray. And even non-religious people sometimes are moved to something like prayer. Prayer comes in almost as many forms as there are people on earth.
But while forms of prayer abound and nearly everyone prays, our cultural expressions reveal a skeptical view of prayer. If your car is on its last legs, you’re getting by “on a wing and a prayer.” When a basketball player tosses up an off-balance shot, “she’s throwing up a prayer,” which is rarely answered. If Aaron Rodgers lofts a desperation pass toward the end zone, it’s a “Hail Mary.” When someone is in dire straits, we say, “All we can do now is pray.” As if prayer is something to do when other, better options are exhausted.
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons offer a very different view of prayer. We are urged to pray boldly, persistently, and with confidence. And yet, we are also left with the sense that prayer is a mystery and God alone determines how to answer prayer.
Over the years, I’ve learned that most people feel inadequate when they pray. Once, a high school senior leaving for the Air Force Academy told his Mom, “Tell Pastor Dave to pray for me, because he’s got a little more pull than I do.” Well that’s not true! Everyone has equal access to God in prayer. No academic degree or theological training is required. There are no magic words. Eloquence is not necessary—Jesus even suggests it may be a detriment to prayer. The ears and heart of God are open to everyone who calls out in prayer.
Still, we ask, with the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Pray, Jesus says, like a person who knocks on a neighbor’s door at midnight, asking for food, because guests have arrived and there’s none in the house. No matter that it’s midnight and the neighbor is in bed! No matter that you should have stocked your shelves before guests arrived. Just knock. And if no one answers, pound on the door, until someone does.
Prayer is apparently not about good manners.
In today’s lesson from Genesis, Abraham intercedes for the notoriously evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham has an ulterior motive: his nephew Lot and family who live in Sodom. His prayer sounds like someone bartering for goods. “Lord,” he prays, “would it be right for you to destroy a whole city, if there are some good people within its gates? What if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom? Surely, you wouldn’t sweep away those fifty good people with the wicked? That wouldn’t be like you!” “Look, I know I’m only dust and ashes, but what if there are forty-five righteous people?” “Please don’t be angry with me, Lord, but if there are forty righteous, would you spare the city?” And then: “What if there are just thirty?” Abraham keeps going, as if this were some kind of reverse auction. “What if there are twenty, God?” Finally: “How about ten?”
God is not offended. “For the sake of ten good people, I will not destroy Sodom.” Abraham walks away knowing God has heard his prayer, confident that at least ten righteous people could be found in a city of a hundred thousand.
“Ask and it shall be given to you,” Jesus says; “seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Yet, when the door is opened, it may not reveal what we expect. God did not answer as Abraham hoped. If you know the rest of the story, you know that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed in a hailstorm of fire and brimstone. However, three escaped: Lot and his two daughters. They did not escape because they were righteous people. Actually, what we read of them in Genesis is not very good. They were saved by grace. Because God heard Abraham’s prayer.
We’re not told Abraham ever knew they escaped. In the next scene, Abraham stands on a distant mountain looking down on smoking ruins. As far as he can tell, God did not answer his prayer.
Answers to prayer can be like that. They can surprise or confound. We pray for a sunny day and end up with a deluge. We pray for rain and the drought continues. We pray for the right person to come along and end up single. We pray for grace to remain single and end up bushwhacked by love. We pray to be free of cancer and instead grow in amazing ways despite it.
We cannot see the end of our prayers. Who’s to say our prayers for peace will not, one day, result in weapons beaten into pruning hooks and plowshares? Or that our prayers for racial justice may bring deep and profound change long after we are gone (as they did for Dr. King)? Or that praying for children and grandchildren who have turned their back on the church may yet bring them to faith. Ask and ask again, Jesus says. Knock and knock again. If no one seems to answer, don’t stop. A loving God is listening.
Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. We are so used to reciting it that we don’t notice how bold this prayer is. It uses imperatives. Give us this day. Forgive our sins. Lead us not into temptation. It sounds as if we are telling God what to do! But this is how Jesus urges us to pray.
Yet, the Lord’s Prayer also leaves room for God to act. Your kingdom come, however you choose to bring it. Give us today our daily bread. Not everything we want for the rest of our days, but what we need just for today. It’s up to God how all this plays out in our lives. But because we know God will answer, we can keep praying and trusting.
How could praying Abraham know that one day, thousands of years later, God would send into the world a righteous one, his descendant? And that God would use a bloody cross to make the stunning promise: I will save the whole world through just one righteous person. Not fifty, not forty, not thirty, not twenty or ten, but one righteous person. No longer will one bad apple spoil the whole bunch; one good apple will save the whole bunch.
Abraham’s prayer for Sodom is still being answered. And we are the ones being saved by it.
Ultimately, the answer to all our prayers is God’s gift of himself, the Word made flesh, the source of the faith, hope, and love which is Life Everlasting.
Moreover, this One, this Jesus Christ, is present to us in the bread and the wine today and, indeed, through one another, to give us all that we need.
So we can pray today for many things, including a new beginning for Bethany Lutheran Church and the right pastor to walk with us and lead us.
Let us pray with confidence. Tenaciously. Morning, noon, and night. In Jesus’ name.
For God is listening.
Homework: This week, set aside a short time morning and/or night specifically to pray. Pray as Jesus taught. And let me know how this goes, would you?