Sunday, July 28, 2019

Proper 12, Year C, 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The old joke goes: A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did” replied God. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Why do you pray?  And when you do, what do you say?  Do you pull out your Book of Common Prayer?  Do you sit in a dark room in private?  Do you fall to your knees in the presence of the Most High God?  When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers a prayer that, upon closer inspection, might really seem rude by many standards of etiquette.  

It starts off well enough, acknowledging the transcendence of God (who art in Heaven), the otherness of God (hallowed be thy name), and the sovereignty of God (thy kingdom come).  But also in the opening is a clue to the relational aspect of the Divine.  We start with, “Our Father”.  God is not some superbeing hurling lightning bolts from the top of a mountain.  God is our origin, our Father, is in relation with us in both a cosmic and personal way.   It is key to our biblical theology that God does not leave us alone, that we are inseparable from the presence of God.  God incarnate wants us to understand this important connection through this prayer and through all the many teachings that Jesus offers to emphasize our connectedness.  

Douglas John Hall, on his review of this passage best explains what happens next: “After the briefest of salutations, the prayer moves to the human condition with what must seem, to the properly theocentric, unseemly haste.  How direct, how ungenteel, how almost rude it seems!  “Give us… forgive us… lead us… deliver us.”  Not only does the prayer rush from glorification to petition in a manner very different from the usual patterns of human behavior where favors are being sought; it shuns all in direct rhetoric to the point of pushiness!  […]  There is no ‘Please,’ none of the softening, pious (and often wheedling) interjections that often mark what is called “spontaneous” prayer — “Oh dear Father,” “Blessed Lord Jesus” and so on.  Just ‘Give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us’!

While this could come across as rather brash and aggressive, I think it instead offers an underscore to the human condition.  It emphasizes our relationship with God and God’s encouragement for us to rely on prayer for our needs.  We are dependent on God, that’s why we say ‘give us’.  We are sinful and guilty of failing to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God.  So we ask, ‘forgive us’.  We are human, we are lost, we need God’s guidance and support.  “Lead us and deliver us.”  God has invited us into this relationship of prayer.  God wants us to be in communication, to ask fervently for those things we need.  And I think in the same token, as we assure ourselves and thank God for in this prayer, we have faith that God provides us what we need.  No, God is not giving us that Bentley we are praying for, but many people find that living by faith provides them avenues to what they need.

I learned an something interesting this week.  If you look through most of the services in the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, the Eucharistic services, and the pastoral offices with the exception of Reconciliation of a Penitent you will find the Lord’s prayer in every single service.  Our tradition finds that particular prayer to be so important that we really don’t do anything without it.  If you look at many of the structures of other prayers like the Eucharistic prayers or the collect of the day, you can also see a similar structure to the movements of the Lord’s prayer reflected in the words of these other prayers.

In many ways Jesus’ lesson on how to pray is an invitation for us to establish and maintain a deep and meaningful prayer life with God.  I can tell you that spending two or three weeks observing the daily office, at least morning and evening prayer, every day, you will feel different.  You will feel refreshed.  You will feel more connected.  This is about keeping that communication with God.  Yes, God knows what we ask before we even ask it.  In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he gives us that wonderful image that when we just don’t even no how to pray, the Spirit, “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  It’s almost as if God, the cosmic parent is standing there with the thing we are praying for and telling us lovingly, “Use your words”.

The examples Jesus then offers after teaching them to pray have at least two big meanings.  The first is that we are the neighbor knocking on the door and God is the sleepy housekeeper.  It’s our job to keep knocking.  Keep asking.  Keep praying.  God wants us to be persistent.  God wants us to shamelessly ask for that loaf of bread for our guests.  I say shameless because in Jesus’ time, this is how the story would sound.  The culture Jesus lived in was way more concerned with proper actions and shame and honor than even the most genteel of Southern manners.  Pray to God shamelessly.  Pray to God fervently.  Pray to God ceaselessly.

Another way to see this is that we are not just the person that is banging on the door, trying to get some bread for our friend, but we also can be the person who’s asleep, who’s already locked the door, but who needs to get out of bed for the sake of Love. And maybe we’re the friend that the bread is being gotten for, or maybe our fellow human is that friend, or maybe we will find God in that friend. Jesus isn’t setting God up to be the dispensing machine of our every prayer and desire here. It is just as much our responsibility to be the hands of Christ in this world, doing the giving as it is for us to do the praying. Give us each this day our daily bread.

Prayer is not the end of our work to spread the Love of Christ in this world, to help create new visions of the Kingdom every day where we are at, but it is the beginning. This is the hard task we are called to, in relationship with God and with Creation. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, is quoted saying, “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. This is how prayer works.” And I would add, this is how Christ’s Love works. This is how the peace of God which surpasses all understanding works.

I really like Teresa of Avila’s writing, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.” I will add to that Christ has no heart to Love, but yours. As you go out from here today, remember to pray, remember to Love, and remember that when you are hurt, when you are offended, when someone is knocking on your door after you’ve gone to bed, because they’re trying to get some bread from their friend, that you are called to that most divine practice of Love, as Christ’s heart in the world.