Sunday, July 25, 2010

When You Haven’t When You Haven’t Got a Prayer

When You Haven’t Got a Prayer

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 25, 2010

Luke 11:1-13

In Luke’s gospel we discover this piece of Jesus’ marvelous teaching on prayer, which might have become the paramount teaching of the church on the subject were it not for the fact that Matthew 6 includes a longer version of the prayer Jesus gives here, the one we have become accustomed to calling “The Lord’s Prayer,” and which we pray every Sunday.

Yet there is something important to see about prayer and its place in the life of believers from this compact version in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus’ teaching, which followed it.


Just after having visited the house of Mary and Martha – where Martha had busily ministered to the hunger of Jesus and his disciples, while Mary had sat at the Master’s tired feet – Jesus went out to pray, and one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray...” Failing to look closely at the passage, we might make the mistake of thinking that the request was, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” I know this request well. You probably know it too. In its contemporary manifestation, the question might go something like this: “Pastor, can you help me learn some beneficial prayer techniques...” or, “What is the appropriate body position for prayer?” or, “Where is the best place to go to pray, and how long should it take?”

Useful, if unanticipated, responses to these questions might be, “Where do you go to speak to members of your family, what techniques do you use, what body position do you use, how long should it take?”

There are plenty of prayer gurus and formulae for meditation floating through the cultural religious marketplace these days, no shortage of books, techniques, and spiritual guides ready to respond to a request like the one we might have anticipated from the disciples: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” But, as it turns out, that was not the request that was made. It was more straightforward, more needy, less presumptuous. To ask to be taught how to pray would have come from an assumption that it was already a recognized skill – like golf, say, or gourmet cooking – and that maybe a few lessons from a pro could sharpen up the game or the meal. But the request was more needy, more abject, hungrier and more helpless: “Lord, teach us to pray...” as if the subject were coming up for the very first time in that disciple’s life. Let’s take those actual words seriously, and perhaps we will be prepared to learn more from Jesus’ response than we had anticipated. This would make our lesson a great one for anyone whose prayer life is stuck at the starting line, anyone who thinks they ought to be praying, but have just not gotten around to getting started, and don’t know where to begin.

Jesus begins and ends his whole example prayer with our need. That is all. How are you, what is on your mind today? He encourages us just to lay those anxieties and needs out before God in all their un-fancy, unfinished human clumsiness. Jesus’ short example prayer gives permission for us to pray the sorts of petitions that most readily rise to our lips: He said,

When you pray, say: Father, holy be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

A contemporary expansion on this prayer could be rendered: “God, where are you? If you are there I need you now. It seems as though every time I bring home my paycheck, I’m looking over my shoulder, hoping that I won’t be the next one to be downsized. Forgive me for being such a busybody and know-it-all today; I am trying to learn to forgive other people for the very same thing. And Lord, give me strength to make it through the times when I’m tempted to believe you aren’t there and I really am on my own. That’s about it, Lord. Amen.”

Want to be taught to pray? Just start with what is on your mind, the way you would in a conversation with a good friend who asks, “How are you today?”

Still, about the time we reach the point in a prayer that is made up entirely of our needs, of “honey-do’s” for God, we may be tempted to wonder whether anyone is listening, whether the God of the entire universe really cares at all about our little worry over a performance review tomorrow with the boss. It is for this reluctance to open up our heartfelt needs before God that Jesus added the teaching of his little parable.


“Suppose one of you has a friend,” Jesus said, “and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

It seems to me that we are meant to see that our really good human friends might be disinclined to respond to our needs if the process of responding would involve a great deal of trouble or inconvenience for them. But I know what you may be thinking. You may be thinking that you might have a really good friend or two whom you know you could go to even at a very inconvenient time, and if you really needed their help, they would still be willing to drop what they were doing – inconvenience or not – and help you out. And you would do the same for them. Jesus makes room for this thought in his parable, when he says “at least because of his persistence, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” This might be true a time or two, but if you called even your most dependable neighbor constantly, night after night in the middle of the night asking for yet another loaf of bread or cup of milk, I can imagine that eventually a realtor would be called, and soon your former close friend would provide you with a new, possibly less well-disposed neighbor for your to pester.

The fact is, only so much need-response is possible from any human being. Eventually – and for most of us weak and selfish creatures, this does not take an exceptionally long time – “response-ability” can be exhausted, and we would have to turn away even our best friends.

This sets us up to learn something important about the nature of God.


God is seen in contrast with that crotchety neighbor who only reluctantly gets up and goes to the bread box to provide for his neighbor’s need. If friends come through for each other, even if only to get their neighbor to quit leaning on the doorbell, how much more can we rely on God to listen to our petitions, the God who stands to gain nothing by listening to us, yet who provides for us in our world in ways beyond our imagining?

This is no guarantee that those who pray for a red wagon will get one. Jesus offers confident assurance that all heartfelt prayers are heard. Someone is listening. And isn’t this, at heart, our deepest need? Aren’t we longing to know that whether or not we get that new red wagon we are hoping for, someone cares, someone listens, someone has the best interests of our hearts and spirits in mind? Jesus makes talking to God sound like intimate and satisfying dinner conversation where we may express ourselves unselfconsciously with the confidence that we will be heard and understood. Prayer is not a means of getting something, certainly not primarily; it is a way of being in relationship to God. C.S. Lewis once said that he prayed because he couldn’t help himself from praying, and that he didn’t hope to change God in the process, but that in praying he discovered he was the one changed.

“Teach us to pray” is itself a petition that is met by a responsive and caring listener. Want to pray? Then just say what is on your mind. God wants to hear it. “Successful prayer” does not depend on posture, formal words, or even receiving the particular answer we had in mind, any more than relationship with someone we love depends on always looking perfect, never ending a sentence with a preposition, or constantly getting what we want from them. Relationship rests its heart in communication, in saying what lies in the depths of the heart.

Someone once said, prayer is not so much a way to receive things we don’t have as it is the way of coming to the realization of what we have been given.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Penmanship of Faith

Penmanship of Faith

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Luke 10:1-11
Galatians 6:1-16

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!...
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

In a preaching journal that is popular among pastors, my friend Tom Long, professor of homiletics at Emory University, once published a sermon for Independence day when, as is the case today, it came on a Sunday. In his sermon, Tom repeatedly declares what we all k now to be true especially of this day: Today is both the Fourth of July, and the Lord’s Day. I found his sermon so compelling, I decided that what I would share with you today would be, in no small measure, owing Tom’s words.1

Every few years we have to face a Christmas Eve that lands on a Sunday, and the necessity of a “normal” service in the morning stacks up next to special services that night. But it’s only every few years. Something similar is true of the times when our primary national holiday arrives on a Sunday and flag waving is interlaced with the contemplation of the cross of Christ, the singing of hymns and praying of prayers comes amid anticipation of picnics and fireworks on the river, by the lake, or in the backyard.

For many, there is no disconnect between these two events at all, wearing red white and blue and singing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee seem to go comfortably hand-in-hand. Yet for some, the day is less comfortable, as both cross and flag are demanding symbols competing for loyalty from the deepest levels of our being. I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eberhard Bethge, who, upon being ushered into his first worship experience in an American church in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a huge American flag displayed at the front of the church and was struck that the only other times he had seen a national flag displayed in sanctuaries in his native Germany were when the Nazis had taken over the churches and stationed their flag in them. It was a startling thought to me when I heard him tell the story. In some ways, the symbols of faith and of nationalism coming togethe r on the Lord’s Day and the Nation’s Day makes visible on the calendar the decision facing Christian believers every day, as highlighted in Joshua 24:15: “Choose this day whom you will serve...”

We all recognize that there is plenty to be proud of in being part of this nation, and it is a very human thing to want to celebrate the truly stunning liberties that we enjoy and remember the sacrifices that made our enjoyment of them possible. A few years ago I visited Civil War battlefields outside of Richmond, Virginia, and I became more aware than ever of sacrifices, historic and contemporary, that have been made to keep our country free. Most of the time in our nation, the choice between love of God and love of country is not an either/or decision. But in a day when our country is undeniably a world superpower, and, whether we like it or not, much of the world sees us in ways that we would not find flattering, it is good to consider the choices that lie in our lives between discipleship under the Prince of Peace and citizenship in what has become an admittedly American empire.

Today is the Fourth of July, and today is the Lord’s Day.

Of course, the standard lectionary of scripture readings is oblivious to the collision of calendars. As far as the lectionary of readings for worship is concerned, today is the “14th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” Even so, as so often happens when we follow the lectionary, we have before us passages of surprising relevance, and today that relevance is for Christians who live in the tension between the Lord’s Day and the Nation’s Day. Our national leaders tell us we have a global mission and they have announced orders to bring it to pass in the cause of freedom.

Our readings from the letter to the Galatians and the gospel of Luke remind us that our true freedom finds its source not in armies on the march but in the cross of Christ, and that same Christ also has a worldwide mission which places be lievers under orders.

Today is the Fourth of July, and today is the Lord’s Day.

Senator John Kerry, when he was running for president, once said, “the highest responsibility of our government is to provide for the common defense and to keep the American people safe.” Defense and safety. Those are the highest responsibilities. For his part, George W. Bush said during that same campaign, “Defending our nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the federal government.” Establishing and maintaining the wall between us and the enemy is certainly a clear and fundamental commitment of our elected leadership.

But Jesus, who also desires to lead us, has another word. Jesus said, “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves...” (Luke 10:3). Jesus also said, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house’” (10:5). In other words, if today we are mainly celebra¬ting the Fourth of July, we are concerned with safety, defense, guarding against our enemies, and homeland security, and our national leaders appropriately speak of these things. If, however, we are observing the Lord’s Day, we hear another command. We are called by our Lord to fear nothing and to head right into the midst of those who we would have thought of once as enemies, and to speak a word of peace. Two different days. Two different missions.

Today is the Fourth of July, and today is the Lord’s Day.

James Billington, the Librarian of Congress and a student of Russian history, happened to be in Moscow in August of 1991, the tumultuous time when the old Soviet regime was giving way to a new social order. These were tense and dangerous days, and power was balanced on a razor’s edge. Boris Yeltzin and a small group of defenders occupied the Russian White House and successfully managed to face off an enormous number of tanks and troops poised to attack, to put down the rebellion, and to restore the old guard in the Soviet Union.

It turns out, a central role in this successful resistance was played by the babushkas, the “old women in the church” and their courageous public Christian witness. These bandana wearing old women, who had kept the Orthodox Christian church alive during the entire Soviet period, were the butt of many jokes over the years by both Russians and Westerners alike. Nothing could have seemed more pathetic or irrelevant than they, and they were widely regarded as evidence of the eventual death of religion in the Soviet Union.

And yet on the critical night of August 20, 1991, when ma rtial law was proclaimed, and people were told to go to their homes, many of these women disobeyed and went immediately to the place of confrontation. Some of them fed the resisters in a public display of support. Others staffed medical stations, others prayed for a miracle, while still others, astoundingly, climbed up onto the tanks, peered through the slits at the crew-cut men inside and told them there were new orders, these from God: Thou shalt not kill. The young men stopped the tanks. “The attack never came, and by dawn of the third day [it was clear] that the tide had turned.”

Today is the Fourth of July, and today is the Lord’s Day.
Choose this day whom you will serve.

When the disciples came back from their journeys to report to Jesus what had happened, they returned with surprising joy, bringing with them astounding tal es of healing, peace, and victory. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “while you were doing the work of the gospel, I saw Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10:18). In other words, the disciples thought they were out doing small deeds of ministry, unnoticed acts of compassion. They were simply obeying the commands of Jesus, traveling to forgotten places, touching neglected lives, working in obscure corners of the world and speaking peace and proclaiming the kingdom. But Jesus told them their deeds of mercy and grace were bringing evil to its knees. “The world saw a ragtag army of workers for peace,” said Jesus, “but what I saw was Satan plummeting from his throne.”

So if you are interested in a midsummer’s break, a relaxing day spent waving the flag, grilling steaks, and catching a few rays as you tune in the last innings of the ball game, then today is July the Fourth. Enjoy.

But if you want your life to count, really count, then know something more. Know that you are baptized and you have orders from another commander. Somewhere along the way, you will be called to leave your wallet, your luggage, and your spare wardrobe in the closet; you will be called to take a deep breath and to head out into places you never imagined you’d go in the name of Christ. Maybe you will be sent to comfort a friend in the hospital, maybe to speak a word of reconciliation in a neighbor’s living room, maybe to be a healer in a distant land, maybe to take a courageous stand in the pu blic square. You will carry with you only one thing: Jesus’ gospel of peace. The way will be hard and the path uncertain, but by the grace of God your work will become a part of God’s work and will help to knock the powers of evil off the throne. Satan will fall from the sky like a flash of lightning, and your name will be written in heaven.

It all depends on what day you think this is.

Today is the Fourth of July, and today is the Lord’s Day.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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1. I am much indebted to Tom Long's sermon "Today Is...," Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2004, pp. 40-46 for material in this sermon, which I have only lightly edited for length and to which have added stories of my own.
2. James H. Billington, "The Religious Dimensions of Post-Modern Change," American Theological Library Association, Summary of Proceedings, 52/1998, 154-155. The account of the babushkas is taken from this essay and from comments made in various addresses by Billington. Additional details of this story can be found in Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey Bass).