Sunday, July 28, 2013

KEEP ON PRAYING!

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 11: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 10c, July 28th, 2013

"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. (Luk 11:9 NRS)

There is a powerful scene in the movie, "Flowers of War" based upon the catastrophe of the 1937 Japanese invasion, massacre and destruction of Nangjing, one the four great Chinese cities.   American mortician, John Miller, played by British actor Christian Bale, found himself in the middle of the death and desolation of a war zone, taking refuge in a Catholic Cathedral along with other catholic school girls and also 13 flowers.  When I say 13 flowers, I’m referring to 13 prostitutes from the red light district of that city.   This story takes a most dramatic turn when the Japanese leaders, who do not know about the prostitutes hiding in the basement, demand that all the school girls come and sing for their victory celebration.  This is only a set up for a planned raping and murdering of the young girls.   

Not knowing how to save the girls, John Miller, a sort of international playboy, who has up to now had little to do with God, finds himself in the middle of the Cathedral dressed up as a priest, praying and asking God about what to do to save the girls.  A surviving Chinese from that massacre, who later wrote about it, expressed her feelings in the voice of a survivor, “I’ve never even seen a priest pray like John Miller prayed for us in that moment.”   This amazing story of redemption and sacrifice concludes with the prostitutes being made to look like school girls by the artistic mortician.  They load into the Japanese trucks to attend the so called ‘celebration’ where they will raped and killed (but not without a fight), while the young catholic school girls escape with the help of the American.  It’s quite a story of redemption, sacrifice, and surprising prayer, where every character is transformed by the event as a family of heroes who work to save these young Chinese girls from their doom. 

Maybe something in your life has transformed you from a player into a serious pray-er? “Prayer is real religion,” wrote 19th century pastor and French reformed theologian, Auguste Sabatier.  I might add a simpler definition: Prayer is ‘getting real’---real about our human condition, real about our situation, or just getting real about the limits to our very short, brief lives, that are, as I heard some reiterate last week, ‘like a vapor.’

You have noticed, haven’t you, that even people who don’t normally make prayer a daily habit of their life; people who seldom go to church, will find themselves praying, or attending a prayer vigil when tragedy strikes.   We all remember how many people returned to church to pray right after 911.  Or we might also remember the prayer services after the Oklahoma bombing of the Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh.   You might even remember a time in your own life, when trouble threatened, when you lost someone you loved, and you found yourself uttering a prayer within, crying out ‘why me, Lord’ or ‘why them?’.  

We may not pray as we should, but humans do pray.   Evidence of humans praying goes all the way back to the Neanderthals.  Prayer has a history among both pagans and monotheistic believers.  Thus prayer is not just about belief but it is also about facing our limits and our deepest fears.  We are not always people of prayer, that is, making prayer a daily habit of our lives, but sometime or other we will pray.  People will pray whether they actually believe in God or not.  We pray because we are fragile and frail human beings.   And when we come to know our limits in moment of difficulty or desperation, we will find a way to cry out beyond ourselves.  People of faith, all kinds of faith, will cry out to the infinite, the eternal, and to the mysterious one.  There are very few obstinate persons like Christopher Hitchens, the avowed atheists who allowed no one to pray for him when he was dying with cancer.  Most people without faith or people of the Judeo-Christian faith will pray.   Most all of us will all upon the one whom Jesus taught us to call, “Father”.

In our text today, the disciples were ‘transformed’ by the presence of Jesus.   When they observed Jesus praying, they approach him asking, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1ff).  We are told that Jesus answers their request gladly, saying: “When you pray”….   Notice that Jesus does not say not ‘if’ you pray, but Jesus rightly says, ‘when you pray say:  Father, hallowed be your name.  Your Kingdom come….  Already Jesus shows himself a true prophet because he knows that most all of us will realize the need to pray.    But how?  How should we pray and why should we keep on praying?

TO WHOM DO WE PRAY?
Jesus beings his ‘school’ of prayer by giving instructions about ‘whom’ his disciples are to pray.  Jesus does not instruct believers, or Christians, but Jesus instructs his followers, his disciples.  And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his instruction of the correct ‘pattern for prayer’ with a single word, “Father”.

Jesus is the first who dares to called God, ‘Abba’, Father, or even more endearingly, “Daddy!”  All biblical scholarship will tell you that this was the most drastic change ever made in the practice of human prayer.   Jesus took a radical step forward when he instructed his disciples to address God as if they are part of God’s own family.   Jesus does not understand God as some distant, impersonal deity who created the world and then rode off into the sunset, but God is a constant, compassionate and caring Father and we are the his children---children of his great love and gracious concern.

Now, I realize, right off the bat, that in an imperfect world everyone does not have such a favorable image of ‘father’ in their mind.   Many people have been tremendously scarred by the painful remembrances of very imperfect, or worse, even cruel, harsh, or very absent fathers.  Some people cannot imagine a loving Father because such an appealing image most difficult, if not impossible, for them.   Perhaps they will need to call God their mother, as Jesus implies that he ‘would gather little ones us under her wings like a mother hen’.  Or perhaps they need to refer to God in more generic terms as a ‘caring, compassionate Spirit’.   There are even Christian theologians who insist that we should remove all expression of male gender when we pray, because God is not male or female, but God is an eternal Spirit with both feminine and masculine qualities.   This is what happens in the famous outrageously popular Christian book entitled, The Shack, where God is imagined as a mysterious, loving African-American woman named Papa who likes to cook.  I know this sounds quite strange to those who have ‘orthodox’ hears, but this image of God is filled with love, compassion and care for a man named Mack who is wondering if God cares after his daughter is killed.    The image of God he finds in the Shack helps him deal with the heartbreak of his own life through redeeming relationships with a God who reveals himself in many loving ways.   I can sympathize with such pain and limits with human language to grasp the loving presence of God.   God understands our human limits—that’s why even in the Bible God also has many, many names we can identify with: Jehovah, Lord, Yahweh, creator, provider, redeemer, sustainer, good shepherd and many more.    

A Jesuit priest in training tells how he once went to a shelter to hold mass and to preach on prayer.  He told his pastoral advisor what he planned to preach and his intent on helping the people understand that God is even bigger than a ‘father’ and other images of God can also apply to God, such as a nurturing mother.  When he revealed his sermon topic of giving God a feminine side, his advisor said, “I’d go slow on that one”.  But the young preacher dared to preach it anyway.  Then, right in the middle of the sermon, a homeless man named ‘Con’ stood up and lambasted the preacher in front of the entire congregation.  Con turned to everyone and said something like (I’m softening his more graphic words)  “This fellow doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.  God is not our mother.  Everyone knows that Mary is our Mother and God is our Father.  Who in the world does this ignorant Moran think he is to change the truth?”  With these words, the homeless man stormed out the door.  Everyone was stunned.  After the service, the young priest, still in shock, went back to his advisor who said, “I hate to say, but I told you to go slow on that one”.  “Do you think I need to change what I preached” for the next service, the young priest asked.   “No,” you go ahead and preach that same sermon again.   I’ll take care of Con and make sure he’s O.K.   Besides, the teenagers were all excited about how it went.  They loved the drama.  The truth is that even if people don’t like it, they need to understand that God is bigger than any single image, including ‘our Father’.   No one can exhaust or control how God decides to show up and share his great, limitless love  (From “Why Bother Praying” by Richard Leonard,  Paulist Press, 2013). 

WHY WE ARE TO KEEP ON PRAYING?
For Jesus, and for most of us, understanding and addressing God as Father is a much welcomed advancement in the history of prayer.  Yet, even Jesus knew that his disciples would sometimes struggle to address God in this way or keep on praying to him.   In at least two places in the gospel of Luke, Jesus deals with the problem of why and how we are to keep praying to this loving Father, even when we don’t always get immediate answers to our prayers. 

In Luke 18, Jesus told of the widow who went to unjust judge, persistently pleading for him to hear her case and give her justice.  Jesus intentionally reminds his disciples that God is not like this ‘unjust’ judge.   “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you (Jesus says), he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find (such) faith on the earth?”  (Luke 18: 7-8).  Jesus tells this story precisely because sometimes it seems like God is not answering, does not care, and is a distant or absent Father.  Jesus assures his disciples that God cares, even if it seems like he doesn’t.  The unjust judge is who God is not.

In our current passage, Luke 11, 5ff, Jesus gives us another look at why we should keep praying.  Jesus likens the Father we pray to as ‘friend at midnight’ who is approached by his friend with a very urgent need.  Stop and think!  It’s midnight.  It’s an inopportune time, but this friend of a friend needs to borrow a loaf of bread to feed an unexpected guest who has arrived late.   The friend wakes his friend from sleep who answers negatively: “Go away!  Don’t bother us, we are all gone to bed!   They are friends, but in this inconvenient situation the friend is naturally hesitant.  He needs his sleep.  Jesus then adds this important point about prayer: “Even though he will not get up because they are friends, because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  

What Jesus is saying is that God, our heavenly Father is NOT like this ‘unjust judge’ and surprisingly, God is also NOT simply a ‘friend’ who will simply wake up and give us what we want.  When you think about it, this is really an awkward, even a somewhat ‘mature’ or complicated understanding of God as Father.  God is a good Father, but he is not a pushover either.  God is more like a loving Father who requires just as much from his children’s own determination and resolve in their praying.   The father lovingly cares, but he cares in such a way that prayer can never be reduced to magic words or demands of entitlement to get whatever we want in life.  Life or prayer will ever work that way. 

So why pray?  If we can’t control the outcome of our asking, and there are no guarantees for answers, why bother praying?  This thorny issue of unanswered prayer is exactly why many have trouble picturing God as a loving, caring Father.  How can people believe that God is a loving Father who has their best interest at heart when they have had a terrible father in this world?   And how can they or we visualize God as loving, when all kinds of bad things have happened--when we’ve had too many prayers go unanswered, or when, in spite of all our praying, life has not gone as planned, hoped, or as we prayed?   It is indeed, hard to keep on praying to God as a loving, caring Father who looks an awful lot like unjust judge or like this slumbering ‘friend’ who doesn’t want to get out of bed in to meet our desperate need.   Why pray to a God who looks like that?

There are many lessons we need to learn from Jesus about praying, but Jesus teaching about ‘persistence’ in prayer may be Jesus’ most practical lesson: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least BECAUSE OF HIS PERSISTANCE he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”   Why do you think Jesus approaches our major problem with prayer very much like my mother used to tell me, “If you don’t first succeed, try and try and try again?”  It sounds almost too real, too human, and leaves a lot of the power and purpose of prayer within our own attitudes, our own tenacity, and in our own efforts, doesn’t it?   Why do you think Jesus approaches prayer in this very non-magical and almost non-miraculous way?  Is prayer as much human perspiration as it is divine power?   

How Jesus pictures persistent in a disciples’ praying might explain the ‘why’ of praying better than any explanation we could come up with.  In verse 8, Jesus offers us this unforgettable picture of praying with perseverance and persistence, saying: “Ask, (the original Greek (imperative active) can also mean ‘keep on asking’) and it will be given you; search (keep on searching), and you will find; knock (keep on knocking) and the door will be open for you.  For everyone who asks (keeps on asking) receives, and everyone who searches (keeps on searching) finds, and for everyone who knocks ( keeps on knocking), the door will be open.”   What do you think God is trying to accomplish in requiring that we keep on keeping on in our asking, our seeking, and our knocking?  Could there be something more to prayer than getting answers?

In one of the greatest books ever written on the practice of the Christian life in my lifetime, including the practice of prayer, Quaker theologian Richard Foster describes prayer this way: "Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life.  It is original research in unexplored territory… Real prayer is life creating and life changing… To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us… In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves. Progressively we are taught to see things from His point of view..."   I believe Richard Foster is on to what Jesus is teaching us about persistence in prayer.   I might add that we are not simply taught to see what God sees, but we are also called to ‘trust’ God, even when we can’t see why or what is going on.  We need to trust God more than getting answers because we need God most of all.   To understand prayer and asking, seeking, and finding God in our life, takes us to the highest purpose of prayer.  By not always giving us what we want, God, the loving Father can offer us more than we know to how to ask for.   God the loving father is never reduced to a ‘sugar daddy’, but God remains the loving father who draws us toward a living relationship so he can give his children what they could have never imagined.  Listen again to Jesus: “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”     

Has your main priority in prayer been receiving the presence of God into your life through the Holy Spirit?  I didn’t think so, but it should be.   It is this relationship of trust that God is after because this is what we need most to get us through all our lives.  What we need most is not things, not stuff, not what we want or even think we need, but what we need most is God, and to come to trust him, not matter what.

I heard E.V. Hill preach when I was just beginning my ministry in Statesville in the 1980’s.   Dr. Hill died back in 2005.  For years, Dr. Hill was the pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in south central Los Angeles and regularly was listed among the best preachers in the United States.  One of his best known sermons was the eulogy he delivered at the funeral for his wife, whom he affectionately called "Baby."   Here was a man doing a most difficult task, preaching his own wife’s funeral.  That would be extremely difficult.  But, what is particularly memorable about his sermon, says Ron Holmes, is the grieving pastors message about unanswered prayer and about trust in God.

In his eulogy for his wife, Dr. Hill tells of his persistent prayers to God during the time of Baby’s illness, asking God to heal her.  His prayers grew more and more persistent as she worsened and drew closer to death. And the message that came to E. V. in his prayers was simply this—"trust me."  In that repeated-theme-sing-song style of African-American preachers, E. V. tells of his persistent prayers and the repeated answer from God, "Trust me." By the end of his message, E. V., again in that unique style, is shouting the answer, "Trust me, trust me," and telling the congregation while that was not the answer he was seeking, it was good enough for him. Through a difficult time, E. V. Hill persevered and grew in his trust in a loving Father whose answer was not the answer he sought, but the answer we all will need when that time comes. http://www.soth.net/sermons%202006/sermon%203-26-2006.htm)

WHAT DO WE PRAY FOR?
We are to keep praying because God is our loving father who cares for us.  Even when our prayers are not answered as we want, God still cares for us and calls us to trust in him.   So, now that we know who we pray to and why we should pray, answering the question of what we should pray for should be more easily understood.   Once we get our priority of who and why out of the way, the what of prayer is made clear.
  
When you look at the Lord’s prayer, Jesus’ pattern of prayer encourages us to pray for the most basic needs we all have.   The list Jesus teaches us to pray for is not at all exhaustive, but exemplary.  ‘Give us our daily bread’ reminds us of our most basic physical needs God wants to supply according his riches and life’s resources.   “Forgive us, as we forgive others” points us to our emotional and relational needs which help us  know and experience the greatest gift: merciful love.   Finally, “Do not bring us to the hour of trial” is to ask for spiritual guidance so we are not overcome by temptation and give in to the destructiveness of evil.  These are the most basic examples of things we should be asking, seeking, and knocking on God’s door about.  God does not invite us to pray every extravagant thing we might imagine, but God invites us to keep prayer directed toward the simple things that enable us to live our lives to their fullest and to the glory of God.   

Jesus’ approach to prayer is very much like that hit AT&T commercial, which says through the voices of children, “It’s not complicated”.  Of course, AT&T is claiming that their network is bigger, faster, and has more benefits.  God doesn’t need to talk like that because what God has to give us through prayer nothing can compare.  “To whom shall we go,” the disciples once told Jesus, as other were leaving him. “Only you have the words of eternal life.”  In this way, what we should pray for is not complicated because Jesus lifts up our heavenly Father as the ultimate answer to all our prayers. 

Because our loving, heavenly Father has ‘gifts’ the world cannot give us, we pray.   This is where Jesus finally lands his lesson on prayer.  This is what Jesus means when the says that God is a father who knows how to give good gifts, even the best gifts to his children, of which the greatest gift is the Holy Spirit (11:13).
What Jesus means by giving us God’s spirit is so greatly illustrated in the story I began with, 13 Flowers of Nangjing.  In the story I mentioned before, neither the American John Miller, the Prostitutes, or even the convent catholic schoolgirls are as spiritually or heavenly minded as they should be.  Before the war came, they were all stuck in life, going nowhere.  The American is a playboy who drinks too much.  The Prostitutes are survivors who are making their living the best way they can, which brings them much regret.   Even the catholic school girls are not always Christian, as they struggle with their own character development.  There is also a young boy, who helped the priest look after the girls, who feels inadequate because has not done a good job protected the girls, as he promised the Priest who was killed.  Then, there is the father of one of the school girls, who is helping the Japanese navigate the besieged city, so he can help his daughter survive.  But his daughter calls her father a traitor because he is helping the Japanese.

Everyone in the story is a misfit, a mistake, or in some way either a failure in life until the day of testing comes.  In the day of trial, the American sobers up and plays the brave role of father to the girls.  The girls stop looking down on the prostitutes and appreciate them as hurting, helpless, and unfortunate women whom God loves.  The young boy who struggles to be a man, seizes the moment to sacrifice himself by dressing as a girl and sacrificing himself to the Japanese for the sake of the girls.  The father is killed trying to help his daughter escape.  His deed is what makes the escape possible.   Last of all, which is the most outstanding fact of the massacre in history, is that the prostitutes are willing to stand up, substitute and sacrifice themselves in order to save the young girls.  They take their place by pretending to be the virgins the Japanese soldiers want to rape and will eventually kill.   This is the one truth of the story which is verified, but in this story all of the victims become heroes.   They become a transformed people, who from this side of the tragedy, are now viewed as those who found their best selves while serving God and others, even at the sacrifice of their own lives in the worst of situations. 

Isn’t this core of the Christian gospel; that in dying we can live, in giving we will gain, and in serving, we bring the kingdom we are asked to pray for?  This is what prayer is about.  We should keep on praying because we can be more and have more than we now imagine.  We pray so that we become people who make a difference.   We pray so that God can give us, even in our worst moments, the greatest gifts we can never give ourselves so we can stand when the test that comes.   So, keep on asking, seeking and knocking because only God can give you what you can never give yourself: your salvation, your final redemption, and best of all, eternal life to all who believe and endure to the end!  Amen!

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