Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
1st Reading: Genesis 18:20-32
2nd Reading: Colossians 2:6-19
My dad was not much of a churchgoer in his adult life. He got enough church as a kid to more than make up for it. However, he did love to play church league softball. He was the coach of the Good Shepherd softball team for many years. As coach, though, he was expected to pray before games. He believed in God and he believed in softball, but praying out loud in front of a group was out of his comfort zone. So this is what he did. He wrote his prayer on an index card—I remember the card being that coral color, I think he always used the same one—and he'd tuck it in the inside of his baseball cap. When he took off his hat to pray, he'd have it right there in front of him and no one would be the wiser. It worked for him. And probably he could have prayed that prayer without the help of the card, but it gave him the confidence to lead the team in that spiritual part of the game.
Maybe some of you feel similarly about prayer. I know I even sometimes feel uncomfortable when I'm put on the spot and asked to pray, especially if I think the other person knows how to pray “better” than me! Is there anyone else who sometimes feels uncomfortable praying out loud? Whoever doesn't have their hand raised will be leading the prayers of the people today!
Today, we're talking about prayer, what it is, why we do it, what it says about who God is, and why we feel so nervous when the pastor asks us to pray out loud in front of a group.
The disciples ask Jesus in the Gospel reading this morning to teach them to pray. I picture the disciples gathered around saying, “Yeah Jesus, we're already in the 11th chapter of Luke! Maybe it is about time you taught us to pray!” So Jesus teaches them the Lord's Prayer. This is great for Lutherans because we like to know what words to say. I can't tell you how happy I was years ago. I had a dream and the earth was shaking and all the buildings were falling down around me and in my dream I started praying the Lord's Prayer. I thought to myself, here is proof that I could stay calm, that I would know what to do. It was kind of like when you're learning a new language and you start dreaming in that language, you know you are really immersed in it. Praying the Lord's Prayer meant that I had internalized my faith so much that it was showing up in my dreams.
Jesus gives us these words of the Lord's Prayer. These are the words we say every Sunday. We say them after council meetings and other church meetings. This is our go-to prayer. Jesus said to pray like this. The concern is that we start to recite this prayer out of habit and we stop thinking about what it means. So let's take a closer look. The prayer starts with God, not as someone distant and inaccessible, but as a daddy, our abba. And this prayer says something about God, that God is Holy, that God is different from others we know. Our prayer is best focused on who God is. It reminds us of our powerlessness, and maybe helps us to let go of situations that we have no control over. But to remember that God is in that position of incorruptible power and love, means hope.
Then Jesus prays, your kingdom come. “This is about you God and your plan. We don't know how to fix this world. We know it doesn't work very well. We're asking for your Kingdom to come and we're preparing ourselves so when it does, we don't push it away and say, nevermind!” This is also about the big picture. We can't see what is best in any situation, so we remind ourselves to let God be God.
Jesus says, give us each day our daily bread. This is about basic needs. Not “Give us this day a Cadillac car or marble countertops,” but something we need for survival. However, this isn't just about me getting my daily bread, this is about each person having enough, and each animal, each creature in balance and health.
The prayer goes on to address how God treats us, that God forgives us, and that God's forgiveness impacts how we behave toward others. That forgiveness and love doesn't end with us, but goes on and is shared. The way God loves us, changes us for the better. We behave differently out of gratefulness for the way God behaves toward us.
The two stories that follow about asking for help from a neighbor and a child asking for food, put us in the right mindset when we pray. We can address God as beloved children, unafraid, familiar, knowing God is kind and wants to provide for us.
The first reading from Genesis is also about prayer. For us there is a lot of baggage with this reading, because other Christians have tried to tell us what this reading is about and what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was. However, if we go on to read Ezekiel 16:49 it is clearly explained that “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Sodom's sin was that of inhospitality and indifference. So now that we've removed that first distraction, I think there is only one other, and that is the idea that God might be destructive. This is another case of explaining something after the fact. Scholars agree that fire did rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah at one point, and this is scientifically attributed to a volcano. So people wanted to explain in the Bible why Sodom and Gomorrah would be so completely destroyed and this was their best explanation.
However if we look at this story as a description of prayer, we can learn a lot. We have a lot of hymns about God never changing. “Built on a rock, the church shall stand.” “The wise man built his house upon the rock.” “Which wert, and art, and ever more shall be.” However, I don't find the thought of such a God very warm or comforting, not like the Abba that Jesus would have us pray to, not really the picture we get from these stories of Jesus about a responsive neighbor or a parent tending to the needs of his or her children. This story and many others from the Old Testament do show God changing God's mind, really listening to people. Remember Noah's ark? God regretted destroying all creatures and vowed not to do it again, even hanging his weapon, his bow, up in the sky and vowing not to go that route again. Then there is the story about Jonah and when the people of Ninevah listened to him and repented, God changed his mind about the destruction he was planning to visit upon them. In these stories, God seems to listen and respond.
In this story of Abraham and Sodom, Abraham is learning how to pray. He is practicing communication with God. This prayer has Abraham in his proper place. He's communicating with God. He's being humble, rather than demanding. He's speaking on behalf of others, hoping for the best for them, showing them mercy and appealing to God's mercy. This is a prayer about who God is, forgiving, careful, judging rightly, kind, accessible, and relenting. This isn't a God who just swoops down in anger at a few ruffians and gets rid of them. This is God who carefully considers each person and will spare even people who are inhospitable if there a few good ones sprinkled among them. And when we hear the story, of course, we know for the sake of one, Jesus Christ, we are not destroyed, although we might deserve it, but we are given new life and forgiveness and claimed as Children of God. We can almost hear Abraham saying to God, “But what if there were one who is righteous?” And God saying, “There is one, my son, and I am sending him to make you all my children, so that even if a volcano destroys you, you will still have life, and even if you are inhospitable, you will find another chance to show love, and even if you break the commandments, God will be with you to help you to find a more life-giving way.”
And one other important part of this stoy is that Abraham is persistent. Prayer is something that will come more naturally to us, like many things in life, if we practice it often. Be persistent. Set aside time. Set aside a space that is conducive to prayer. Make prayer a priority and it will become more a part of you.
Finally, our reading from Colossians is about prayer. It speaks of the church as one body, with Jesus Christ as our head. A body has many ways of communicating so it can work together in unity. When we communicate with God, when we pray, we are keeping the body working in unity. And when we act in ways that are consistent with God's love and with our faith, isn't that another form of prayer that builds up the body?
When we think of prayer, we often think of the right words. But prayer is communication with God. Prayer is about listening to God and being open to what God's will might be, apart from our own desires. Prayer is about how we live our lives. Prayer is about our thoughts. Prayer is about finding our proper place in God's Kingdom. They say that words only make up about 10% of communication. Most of communication is nonverbal. That's why they say, “Actions are louder than words.” So let our whole lives be a prayer, of gratefulness, of hospitality, of openness, of generosity and may prayer transform us to reflect our loving God.