July 24, 2016

Prayer.  Persistent Prayer.  That is the theme of this week’s texts.  These verses take the call to Pray without Ceasing (1 Thessalonians) seriously.  

I don’t know about y’all, but I have been going to God in conversation about the world more this summer than in a long time.

When I turn the news on, I am often filled with fear and sadness over domestic and international terrorism and politics, so I try to stop and pray.  

In my current school program, I sit with clients for several hours a week. To lower my anxiety and try to center myself before each session, I often turn to prayer, asking God to grant me wisdom and the ability to offer a small amount of comfort and support to each client.  

In my Louisville neighborhood, there are signs protesting a new school being built.  With everything going on in the world, I get mad that traffic flow is important enough for these people to put dozens of lawn signs up and down our street.  So, I pray for patience and understanding.

Those are the prayers I say for myself.  

They center me.  

They remind of who I am

and how I am supposed to be and act as a child of God.  

At the beginning of this chapter in Luke, we are witness to a Prayer 101 class taught by Jesus himself.  

Unlike the prayer that we normally say (found in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount), Luke’s prayer lesson is a bit more condensed.  

It is chockfull of requests that we can make for how we could be fed, judged, and forgiven.  

Jesus teaches us to engage with God and name what it is that we need.  But, of course, that cannot be the whole story.  

Our requests to God, Jesus teaches in this passage, are to be integrated with challenges.  

Our hope is in the Kingdom of God and it’s coming, but we have to give up control that we can bring that kingdom about on our own and that we can be in charge of what that kingdom looks like.  

That takes trust beyond measure and hope beyond expectation…we better add those spiritual practices to our prayer list.

Also included in the prayer Jesus taught us,

reconciliation with our neighbor.

Our forgiveness is tied in our forgiving the debts of others.  

While my car payment would love for that to be a reality, total forgiveness of debts (financial, social, or emotional) may seem like an impossible task.  

To forgive debts, to not hold grudges, to offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation over vengeance or good ole fashion getting even.  

I cannot pray that my neighbors have a change in heart and support all kinds of education in our community.  

All I can really do is work to forgive them in my heart for the, to me, almost unforgivable sin of trying to deny children their best possible education.

And if we keep reading past the first few verses of Luke 11, we have to be honest with the fact that praying all day and night alone in the safety of our homes and churches doesn’t really cut it.

Luke makes it abundantly clear that how we pray for others must be a process that matches words with actions.

In Luke, the call to and lesson in prayer is followed by a parable of sorts.  It offers two images.  One where we, the reader, are put in the role of the person seeking assistance from a neighbor and the other where we are suddenly the one with the choice to make about giving and offering hospitality.

The first of these two stories, deals with hospitality (a big theme of not only the Gospels but throughout the whole Old and New Testament).

To not be able to provide food and lodging for visiting guests has, throughout the history of our faith, been seen as something shameful.  

To not reach out to those in need, then seem most clearly in orphans, widows, and those passing through,

you were denying them the very grace and hospitality that God offered the Hebrew people when they were chosen and set apart as God’s own.  

It goes against the hospitality sought by Mary, Joseph and Jesus at the time of his birth,

and against the lessons taught to Mary and Martha which caused them to choose two different ways to welcome Jesus into their home.  

And, as Southerners, we all understand the importance of hospitality still today.  

We open our houses and cover our tables until strangers become neighbors and friends begin to feel like family.

So, you can imagine the sheer panic that must be going through the storyteller’s mind.

Here comes out of town company and there is no bread in the pantry.  

The journey takes our protagonist to a neighbor’s house.  

He knocks on the door and yells his request in to the neighbor.

Apparently he asked and asked and asked and asked.  

It is his persistence that gets him what he needs.  

It is his willingness to knock, ask, and seek that ultimately leads him to get what he needs from his neighbor.  

This persistence echoes back to the story we read this morning  from Genesis.  

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not one we usually march out in polite company, but the verses we read today are a perfect example of persistence.  

This time, instead of a request for food from a neighbor,

Abraham is requesting protection and forgiveness from an angry God.  

Abraham gets word that the entire city where his cousin lives is going to be destroyed and all the people are going to be killed.

This town has a wicked reputation and the verdict from God has come down on it.  

It is not good news.  

Abraham’s story is filled with persistence and pushing back when he feels like God is not pulling the weight of the divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  

He prays and keeps hope for children,

he prays and keeps hopes for the land and prestige God promised.  

His life and ministry do not come without faults and moments of failure,

but his persistence is something to be admired.

“What if there are only 50 good people? 10? 5? One good family?”  

These are the consistent knocks that Abraham goes to God with.  

Persistence.  

Some might say nagging persistence.  

Knocking, seeking, asking.  

It took Abraham knowing the generous, loving nature of God and just naming before God some of creation that was in danger.  

It wasn’t about the goodness or badness of the people,

it was about one person standing up and speaking for his sisters and brothers.  Rallying around their suffering and protesting on their behalf,

not just on the corner to passing cars and pedestrians,

but a protest,

a calling out of names,

that is intended to just one listener,

the same listener who is he, and their, creator.  

 

Abraham, in this moment, was an activist.  

He was an ally.  

And, like Jesus promises in Luke,

the door was opened and Abraham’s questions and requests were answered with grace and a second chance for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  

Abraham’s stubborn persistence, like a child negotiating for that one more cookie before dinner time, saved the lives of his cousin’s family and gave the people of that town another chance to turn their lives around and seek forgiveness from God.

Ask and it shall be given unto you.

Seek and you shall find.

Knock and the doors shall be opened unto you.

So, persistently, taking into account our needs for food, our desire for forgiveness, our hope in the Kingdom of God.  

That is the how we pray.  

The possibility of God’s grace and forgiveness and

the attempt to build a stronger relationship with God and neighbor,

that seems like a decent why.  

But, what.  

What do we pray?  What do we say?  

What words can we use?  Are words enough?

What comes first?  

What gets named?  Who gets named?  

What gets confessed?  What do we ask God to help us forgive?

Maybe it is best to think of our prayers as small works of art, imitation of the great works of grace, forgiveness, communication, and creation we are shown by God.

We name our needs.  

Food, shelter, water, community.

We thank God for the ways our needs have been met in abundance.  

For this community and others around this town and this world we call community and hold dear.  

For the homes with clean water, electricity, cable, internet, maybe even a back porch.  

For the meals our stomachs are rumbling for right now and the knowledge that we have what we need to feed our stomachs not just at lunch but throughout the coming week.  

We can take this to God in prayer.

Maybe we have sins that need to be forgiven or debts that we need offering forgiveness for.  

We can take that to God in prayer.

Maybe our prayer is lament.  

This summer has been filled with lament across our nation and world.  

Cancers, Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, and countless other illnesses changes our lives and the lives of people we know and love.  

Gun violence takes lives too early and wars across the world keep families apart and sends refugees fleeing by land and sea.  

We can take this to God.  

We can say the names of those people most affected by the violence and hate this world seems so willing to spiral into.  

I have been struck this summer by the power that comes with saying the names of people I will never meet but for whom I offer prayers of grief to God.

I have stood on street corners and marched down this streets this summer yelling petitions to God and anyone near enough to hear that the lives of my black brothers and sisters matter

and that we as a group will publicly grieve and offers shouts of prayer over  the travesty of so many deaths to gun violence.  

Our voices, and our feet, show our prayerful persistence.  

Persistent Prayer talking and walking.

Abraham spoke to God as walking to dwell amongst those he prayed for.  

Jesus’s lesson in Luke puts the seeker right alongside the giver, hand to hand passing bread, keeping safe the child and protecting her from animals that can cause her harm.  

Our ministry often puts us in the path to be with our neighbor’s in prayer and in companionship.

So, keep praying.

Please keep praying.  

As someone who has felt the presence and persistence of prayers from this congregation for many years now, I beg you to keep praying.  

Keep up your thanksgivings and your confessions, your requests for what you need, and your prayers that what you have God will use to bring about the peaceable Kingdom.  

Be persistent in your lament when the world is struck with terror and death and persistent in your rejoicing over new life and new hope.  

And as we pray, as we work to make our small marks of peace and reconciliation in this world, stay persistent and keep faith that what we do, even in our best intentions, is but a speck of the great and wonderful work God is doing to bring peace and reconciliation to this world and all of the people in it.

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