July 28, 2019

Pentecost 12C

Teach Us to Pray

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from
within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 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!” Luke 11:1-13

One of the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
As I consider my own life of prayer, prayers that I have heard, and conversations that I have had with people about prayer, I cannot help but wonder if we see the vending machine as our primary go to icon for understanding this spiritual discipline or exercise.

Think about it. We put in the correct change, that is, we kneel down and utter a proper formula; we make our selection, yes, we specify what we want, and bingo, we get what we want or we expect to get what we want. We expect the desired candy bar or can of soda to drop down into the tray.

“For everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

So we offer the coins of our wants and needs, our faith or beliefs and our good behavior or the appraisal of our own righteousness and deserving nature. We tell God what we want and expect to get that for which we ask.

All that works fine, until it doesn’t. Vending machines are great until they take your money, but give you nothing or give you a 7Up when you selected a diet Pepsi. And how do we respond when that happens? We get angry. We push the button again and again in a vain effort to get the machine to deliver the goods. We might even hit or kick the machine. We did what we were supposed to do, we did our part, and we expect the vending machine to do its part.

Is it so very different with prayer? Some will get angry. Some will feel hurt and betrayed. Some will lose faith. Some will take their disappoint and use it to confirm their underlying conviction that all this stuff is really bogus. Some will use it as an excuse to stop praying and maybe even leave the praying community.

In my many years of ministry, I have not had a lot of people coming to ask me, “Why was my prayer answered? Why did I receive exactly what I asked for?” Sometimes we ask and do receive, search and do find, knock and the door has opened. But such a moment does not become a cause for concern. Rather people become concerned want to know why they asked but did not receive, why they searched but did not find why they knocked but the door never opened.

That last time I was in the hospital I prayed that whatever the diagnosis the doctors would arrive at, it would not be something from which I could not fully recover. Strange as it may seem, for me being diminished was more difficult than being terminal. This possibility hung in the air for a couple of weeks. But my preference, my wish, my will, my prayer was not to be the case.

That’s not just my story. It is your story as well. It is the story of everyone who has ever prayed. We have all lost our money in that vending machine at least once.

Many of us, have been attending to Bea as she anticipates her death. For this expression of love, concern and compassion she is deeply grateful. Visitors help to pass the time, which passes ever so slowly. In this dark hour, her most prized guests have been the children who have visited her bedside.

If there is anything Bea has prayed for, it has been for death to come quickly. She has no patience, at all, for the length of the journey. But if you know Bea, patience is not one of her strong suits. She asks again and again, “Why can’t I die?” “How long is this going to take?”

Her unanswered prayer takes her to one of two places. It challenges her faith in a God who is good, or causes her to wonder what she has done to deserve this awful punishment. When I tried to help her understand that while her spirit was ready to let go, her body was apparently still strong enough to go on, she responded, “Damn that yogurt.”

Yes, we struggle and we struggle mightily when the vending machine does not deliver the goods.

I don’t know why some prayers seem be answered and others seem togo unanswered. I don’t have any good answers or explanations, but I have heard some really bad ones. “You don’t pray hard enough.” “You don’t have enough faith.” “It is all a mystery and some day we will understand.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Something better is coming.” I can neither believe nor except any of that. These are nothing but attempts to bolster a vending machine understanding of prayer. We have go to let go of that. It is wrong. It is hurtful. It prevents who and how God is.

When I hear those kinds of answers and explanations I cannot help but remember another man praying on a Thursday night. He prayed with words, sweat and tears. “Please, please, please, Father, if it be possible let this cup pass by me.” They crucified Him the following afternoon. Ask. Search. Knock.

I don’t understand how prayer works but I do know this. It is not about the coins. It is not about a mechanical process. It is not a transaction. It is not the transmission of information to God, who “knows our needs even before we ask and ignorance in asking.”

In the midst of not knowing or understanding maybe the most and best we can ever do is to echo that disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We are always beginners, always learning to pray. The response of Jesus to his disciple’s request is not an explanation of prayer or how it works. He does not offer a formula or some magic words. He does not provide the correct change for the vending machine.

Instead, Jesus teaches us about who God is and how God is, with us, when we say,
“Father, holy be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins.
For we forgive everyone indebted to us.
And bring us not to the time of trial.”

God is holy and we are holy children of a holy God. We are holy sons and holy daughters. That is a given. That is a reality even before we open our mouths and move our lips to utter our prayer. Before we ever offer our coins and make our selection. The relationship already exists. That is how Jesus begins his teaching.

Prayer is about relationship and presence. We are not telling God something that God does not know. We are reminding ourselves of what already is, always has been and always will be. That relationship means that our life, our existence, our very being comes from our Father. Jesus speaks of that relationship as our “daily bread”.

We are too often convinced that we are or must be independent and self-sufficient. Prayer reminds us that we are not self-sufficient. We ask each day for our daily bread. That does not mean that we are deficient, but that our sufficiency comes not from ourselves but from God. It means that God sustains and nourishes our lives. That is another way of talking. Again that is about relationship with God and each other.

If prayer, as Jesus teaches, is really all about relationship and presence, then there is only really one answer to every prayer. God. I don’t just mean that God answers our prayer but that God alone is the answer to every prayer – God’s presence, life, love, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom, justice and mercy. God gives God’s self as the answer to every prayer. Jesus teaches us that.

“If you”, Jesus says, “know how to give your kids goods things, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit?” Perhaps the greatest difficulty in prayer is that too often we simply want to deposit our coins and push the button. We don’t want God. We want something from God. We want the candy or the soda. We want the sugar. We want God to change our circumstances. While God can and does sometimes change our circumstance, I am convinced that more often than not God changes us or would change us if we were but receptive to the relational power of prayer and to the One who is present with us, in us and for us when we pray.

God’s self-giving, sustains, nourishes, strengthens, empowers, emboldens and enables us to face the circumstances of life. We do so, sometimes with joy and gratitude, and sometimes with pain and loss, but always with God.

On my better days, I know this and that it enough. On those other days its, “Lord, teach me to pray”

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 28, 2019