Jul 23, 2016

17th Sunday: "Lord, teach us to pray . . ."

"When you pray, say: Father in heaven . . ."

Gen 18: 20-32
Col 2: 12-14
Lk 11: 1-13

In this year of crazy roller coaster politics we are hearing the usual mantra spoken by those running for office: “Trust me – I will do this . . .” We respond with a cautious eye and if we’re smart, we look to the past reputation of the person to decide if they are trustworthy. Do they have a pattern of keeping their word and carrying through on their promises? If we ignore that in any candidate, then it’s a roll of the dice on our future.  “Why should I trust you?” is a logical question.  In the end, it’s still somewhat of a risk because we place a tremendous amount of power and influence into the hands of a human being.  In the end, we are all fallible.

However, this weekend’s readings offer us a different, more assuring answer to that same question – “Why should I trust you?  Are you good for your word?” We are offered both the example of Abraham and three teachings of Jesus on prayer that give us confidence that God is always, always good for his word.  What he promises, he fulfills for he alone can be trusted for all things.

The conversation, plea-bargain really, between Abraham and God in our first reading from Genesis, as they walk towards the infamous city of Sodom, is I think delightful in its humanness. Abraham is certainly persistent in his asking of God. God has threatened to destroy this city because of their great sinfulness so Abraham steps in as an advocate for the good people who remain in Sodom.  He appeals to God’s better characteristics of mercy and forgiveness.  “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?”

He begins to bargain on behalf of those innocent even if there are only ten left in this enormous city.  How far will God’s mercy go?  He knows that God does not desire destruction but will honor goodness.  Yet, unfortunately, we know the ultimate end of this story is that Sodom was apparently so totally corrupt that it was destroyed.  Yet, it teaches us that God is at heart, mercy and forgiveness; That he does hear our pleas and will respond, an important lesson on prayer.

Jesus’ Gospel stories of the traveler in need who knocks on the door in the middle of the night for some bread is similar, yet different in a way. It seems that the traveler is persistent as Abraham in his requests for bread, albeit in the middle of the night.  To understand this best is to understand Middle Eastern culture and the requirement for honor keeping.

In ancient times the mark of each town would be the measure of its hospitality.  It was expected, in fact required that food be given to travelers who arrive.  It was a matter of honor to be marked as a town of welcome and hospitality so there is a reputation to uphold here.  The traveler is aware of this expectation so his request is not unheard of; he expects to receive and he does in the end: “he will give him whatever he needs” if to save face with others let alone any particular friendship.  The lesson seems to be more the assurance of the traveler that his request will be answered, persistent or not.  It reveals to us the nature of God himself – “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.”  In other words, we can be assured that our prayer (request) our “daily bread” as we hear in the lesson on the “Lord’s” prayer, will be heard and answered.  God promises and it will be done.

Still, we become frustrated in prayer. We become disappointed in prayer. We become confused, tired or lax or only occasional with our prayer?  I pray and nothing in particular happens, least alone what I have prayed for is not granted. 

Maye the last example Jesus’ gives is an answer to this confusion.  If our Lord is good for his word, then we can be assured that no prayer is unheard.  That’s a firm given.  “The door will be opened for you,” Jesus promises today.

Yet, no matter how old we are, how successful, how educated or influential, we are all still children of God.  And being children, we don’t always know what is best for us – we think we do and often confuse our wants with our needs.  We see only what we see and know only what we know.  Divine vision and knowledge is far vaster and more complex than we can ever imagine.

If we call God, “Father,” then this parent God has more in mind for us than we can imagine; and sees and knows far more than we do.  That being said, it changes our expectations in prayer. At the end of these teachings he says in our Gospel passage from Luke: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?  If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirt to those who ask him?” (Lk 11: 12-13).

Clearly, this is a God who has our best interest at heart and we don’t always know what we need.  What we need is a fuller sharing in the Holy Spirit and that is the greatest gift we can receive.  To discern what is God’s will for us would be a great, an awesome, answer to any prayer.

Yes, we should pray for the things we need in this world; our “daily bread.” What we ultimately need, still may not really want, is a deeper relationship with God and with Christ himself. It may not be as instantly gratifying, or shiny and exciting, or even impressive to others. But, if our faith can grow stronger and more alive, everything else falls into place according to its importance for us. 

So, maybe its good to ask ourselves, “How is my spiritual life?  How regular is prayer for me? Daily? Only when in trouble? Do I feel a relationship with God that is friendly, fearful, fantastic, distant, estranged, or?

How I answer those questions may reveal the greatest needs of my life – and that I bring to prayer. 

O God, protector of those who hope in you, 
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, 
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that with you as rule and guide
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure. 

(Collect of Mass)