Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons all seem to touch on the topic of prayer in some fashion. Abraham intercedes with God on behalf of the Sodomites. The psalmist gives thanks to the Lord “with a whole heart.” Paul encourages the church at Colossae to “be rooted and built up” in Christ. Jesus responds to his disciples’ request that he teach them to pray. Volumes have been written by saints, sages and spiritual seekers on the subject of prayer. A few that I have found useful are Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton; Prayer, by O. Hallesby and Prayers by Michel Quoist. These books are all well worth reading as are many others. But for me, the most formative book on prayer is the biblical Book of Psalms. Here you find God framed in praise that is sublime, imaginative and at times disturbing. The God of the Psalms is not “nice.” God is as terrifying and ruthless as he is merciful and compassionate. The fear of this God is the beginning of wisdom. So also the psalmists are not an otherworldly spiritual lot. They are human to the core and often deeply flawed. They express anger, jealousy and a thirst for vengeance that makes us pious Protestant types cringe and wring our dainty little hands. Yet all of this reminds us that there is no part of our lives that ought to be excluded from prayer. The psalms invite us to “come as we are” and to speak freely all that is within us, however ugly it might be. Most significant of all, God speaks in the psalms. In fact, God sometimes initiates the process of prayer reminding us that prayer is a two way street. Freedom to pour out our hearts to God in words goes hand in hand with the obligation to listen for God’s Word to us. That is why I never tire of recommending two psalms every day, one in the morning and one before bedtime.
In popular culture, prayer is often touted as the means to some end. There is “power” in prayer that helps us overcome adversity. Prayer gives us peace in the midst of a stressful day. Prayer helps us shape and achieve our goals. It is an important part of our lives. But what if prayer is more than that? What if prayer is not designed to “get us through life,” but life is given to us so that we can learn to pray? What if prayer is the goal and meaning of life? As a child of the 60s, that notion does not go down well with me. My generation put a lot of stock in “doing” and “accomplishing” things. We were activists, organizers and agitators. (Actually I was never any of those things, but I am enough of a flower child to experience the nagging feeling that perhaps I should have been). Prayer is fine-as long as it fires us up for the pursuit of justice, peace and other abstract nouns. But prayer as an end in itself? That is just self centered, otherworldly, navel gazing.
Or is it? Throughout its history the church has been accompanied by the monastic movement, communities made up of persons convinced that prayer is their life vocation. Their disciplined lives revolve around intervals of corporate prayer, meditation on daily scripture readings and singing the psalms. The monks and nuns who have undertaken this life of prayer are anything but inactive. In the middle ages they built and ran hospitals, libraries, schools and orphanages. They grew food, manufactured household goods and even carried out early scientific research. But their productive lives were built around prayer. For them, prayer was not simply an oasis of peace in a busy day or an aid to coping with their heavy work schedule. Their work was an outgrowth of their vocation of perfecting the art of prayer.
Lately, I have been rethinking my priorities and the place of prayer in my life. Or perhaps I should say, I am rethinking the orientation of my life toward the practice of prayer. Too often, prayer is an “add on;” something I try my best to fit into some part of every day. The implication is that I value other things occupying my time more than I value prayer. Time belongs to me. Time is limited. I must decide how to parcel it out wisely and efficiently so that the important things get done. But in truth, time folds into eternity and eternity belongs to God. So in fact, we have all the time we need to know and enjoy God. That, according to St. Augustine, is what life is for. Something is seriously out of kilter with our lives if we cannot find time for the very reason we exist. Furthermore, if I cannot manage to recognize the highest calling for my life, how can I begin to prioritize the lesser tasks crying out for my attention? Is something important merely because I think it is? Is it possible that the outcome of my actions may not match my good intentions? Is it possible that my good intentions might be misguided? Is it conceivable that God might have priorities other than mine? To ask these questions is to answer them. As it turns out, life without prayer is a little like texting while driving. Fixation on the urgent can distract you from the truly significant, life altering matters that demand your full attention.
I am not ready to join a monastery just yet. Still, the older I get, the more evident it seems that God cannot make much good use of me or anything I do unless I am, to use Paul’s words, “rooted and built up in [Christ].” Colossians 2:7 Unless my life becomes prayer, my best work is just a lot of aimless busyness no matter how well and efficiently I may carry it out. So at the ripe old age of fifty-seven, after completing thirty years of ordained ministry and having just entered the estate of grandfatherhood, I find myself asking, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Better late than never!
The common lectionary’s hatchet strikes again! One cannot possibly appreciate what is going on between Abraham and the Lord in this passage without reading from verse 16. Recall that Abraham last week received three mysterious visitors who, it turns out, were the Lord and two angelic agents. They inform Abraham and Sarah that by the coming Spring, Sarah will be a mother. Now the two angels depart toward Sodom and we get a very rare look into the mind of Israel’s God:
“The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’” Genesis 18:17-19
This is important. God’s deliberations go to whether God will act unilaterally or whether God will draw Abraham into the process of judging Sodom. God finally decides to reveal to Abraham his intent to investigate the outcries against Sodom’s wickedness. Why? Because Abraham is to become a nation by which all other nations shall bless themselves. Abraham’s job is to bless and that is what he attempts to do. He pleads with God to show compassion on Sodom for the sake of the few righteous that might live therein. That is what it means for Israel to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Vs. 19. The outcome is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued along with his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot, it turns out, will become the father of two other near eastern nations, Moab and Amon. That these two nations became enemies of Israel only serves to underline the point: Israel’s job is to spread blessing in a world cursed by sin. She is to intercede on behalf of the peoples of the world-even if those people are her enemies; even when these people are Sodomites; even when intercession must be made against the very judgment of God. Punishment and retribution are God’s business. Israel’s job is blessing and intercession.
The conclusion of this saga in the 19th chapter of Genesis probably will never find its way into the lectionary. Read it at your own risk. It is a sordid tale of attempted gang rape, cowardice, stupidity, violence, incest and drunkenness that I am sure the American Family Association would be quick to censor-except that it happens to be in the Bible. You might well conclude that if Lot was deemed sufficiently righteous to be snatched from the destruction of Sodom, God must be setting the bar extremely low. Be that as it may, Lot did offer the visiting angels hospitality and sanctuary. This hospitable conduct toward the visitors marks a striking contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites who sought to abuse them. Kindness to strangers, aliens and sojourners goes a long way with Israel’s God and might have induced the Lord to overlook what we might see as Lot’s character flaws.
Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
I am particularly struck by the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. At my first parish where I served some thirty years ago, a crusty old Irishman in my congregation named “Jack” posed the following question. “Pastor, how do you know that God isn’t using you to keep this little church going so that the Alcoholic Anonymous group will have a place to meet?” The question infuriated me at the time. I fumed over it for the rest of the day and well into the week. Since then I have asked myself many times why Jack’s quarry upset me so. Was I insulted because he was suggesting that I and my ministry might not be at the center of God’s work? Was my pride hurt because I might be the nail holding the shoe on the horse rather than the general sitting in the saddle? Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough to know that God promises to weave my life into the rich fabric of his redemptive drama? Am I miffed because I didn’t get to play the lead role?
I think Jack was onto something important. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage, or the pastor of a church kept alive only for the sake of a bunch of recovering alcoholics. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.
Perhaps you can still recall how seven years ago on October 2, 2006 a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten little girls execution style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. Though certainly tragic, school shootings are hardly unusual in our violent and firearm saturated culture. What was remarkable in this story was the Amish response. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness and support to the family of the one who had slain their children. How different that is from the usual cries for vengeance, the death penalty, law and order, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-all those visceral responses that come so naturally through the media, over the internet and talk radio when our own children or loved ones are the victims of senseless violence like this. How do you account for such radical forgiveness, such unorthodox compassion?
I don’t want to idolize the Amish. I have been around them enough to know that their marriages have problems; their kids misbehave and neighbors within their communities quarrel. The Amish are no less human than we are, but they do have one advantage. They are in every sense of the word “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in the faith.” Colossians 2:7. Their daily lives revolve around worship and prayer. Scripture informs their dealings with each other and the outside world. Moreover, the Amish are not as exposed as we are to “philosophy and empty deceit” or as possessed as we are by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Colossians 2:8. They are not bombarded day in and day out with Kenny Rogers and his like singing “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Their brains are not programmed from near infancy by westerns and crime dramas propagating the myth that justice and peace can be established through violence. They do not live in a culture where faith is cordoned off to one morning each week while television, the internet and entertainment from a thousand digital duhinkies reign supreme for the remaining six and one half days. Consequently, when their children were murdered, the Amish responded in the only way they could possibly imagine, having had their imaginations formed by the image of Jesus. They forgave their enemies because, well, what else would a disciple of Jesus do?
I am no more ready to become Amish than I am to join a monastery. (I would starve without my microwave and I am afraid of horses.) But I believe that, whatever shortcomings there may be to the Amish way of life and their communities, they are right to allow their imaginations to be shaped by Jesus. So the question is: how does that happen for communities of disciples living in the midst of a culture like ours? I am not so naïve as to suppose that I can convince anyone to give up watching CIS or Hawaii Five O. But is it too much to ask that you start watching these shows more critically? Why not ask after each show you watch: what does this story say about the world? About human beings? About God? Is that what I believe? Is it consistent with what the scriptures proclaim about Jesus? How about trying to imagine how Jesus would meet the violent encounters you see on the screen? How about examining your own feelings about what is taking place and whether that squares with Jesus’ teaching and example? As Paul charges us in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.
Today’s gospel contains what I typically call “the other Lord’s Prayer.” It is significantly different from the form of that prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 that we routinely pray in our liturgies. Close examination of the prayer reveals that both Matthew’s and Luke’s version were likely based on an original composed in a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic which was then translated into Greek. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 455. There is some dispute over whether Matthew and Luke used a common Greek form of the prayer from the material labeled “Q” employed by both of them, each editing it for his own purposes, or whether they each supplied a form of the prayer used in their respective communities. Most scholars tend to agree that the Semitic original gave rise to at least two Greek translations of the prayer and that Matthew and Luke each used a different translation. It is noteworthy that Jesus substitutes the more formal and strictly religious word for “father,” abinu, with the informal abba used by children to address their fathers. Thus, Jesus transformed the fatherhood of God into an intensely personal form of address and instructed his disciples to pray with precisely such familiarity. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963, Penguin Books) pp. 151-52.
Jesus’ instructions on prayer are remarkably brief. First and foremost, God’s name is to be hallowed and praised. The disciples are to desire and pray for the reign of God above all else. Because God is a loving father, the disciples may confidently pray for their daily bodily needs. Forgiveness also can be confidently expected, though reciprocal mercy is to be shown to everyone indebted to the petitioner. Prayer is also made for guidance that the disciple might not fall into temptation/the time of trial.
Jesus does not instruct his disciples on methods for prayer, but he is clear about three things: audacity, persistence and faith. Like restless children, disciples are to keep pressing their demands to the point of being annoying. They are to keep knocking on the door until the weary householder cannot endure the pounding anymore and is forced to get out of bed. Above all, they are to trust their Heavenly Father to give them what they need (not necessarily what they want). What the disciples need (whether they know it yet or not) is the Holy Spirit. This prayer will always be answered with a resounding “yes.”