Monday, July 26, 2010

Coachings in Prayer

Readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost include Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

Our readings today offer us coaching in prayer. What do we make of it?

Consider that gnarly story from the Book of Genesis, showing us the patriarch Abraham bargaining with the one holy God. The Book of Genesis is built of stories that claim to explain how certain things came to be, and you could say that here we’re encountering an ancient forerunner of the Jewish minyan, the quorum of ten required for public worship. It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten righteous children of God are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.

But look how we get there! God has heard the street reputation of two neighboring towns, Sodom and Gomorrah, where it was alleged that what would become for Israel the eleventh commandment, Thou shalt practice generous hospitality and respect the needs of the guest, was not being honored. God is on a reconnaissance mission to find out if this is true. But Abraham can see that God is loaded for bear, indignant enough to be ready to sweep away the residents of both towns.

Is God like this? Does God have anger management issues? Does God solve problems in the created order by wiping out the problem-makers? A lot hinges on these questions, which ask a larger question: When you pray, to whom are you praying?

Even by confronting God with his questions, Abraham (he is called in both testaments, “the father of us all”, so he’s asking on our behalf) appears to be sticking his foot in heaven’s door so as to nudge his way into revealing the true nature of God. Could Abraham have put his gutsy question, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” if he actually believed in an angry and violent God?

Isn’t this a story that feels like the outing of a merciful God? Aren’t we given the sense that in this primitive time God has a primitive reputation to defend? As if, to keep up with the other boys on the block, ancient deities of the thunder-and-lightning set, the God of Israel ought to throw his weight around in a like manner, bellicose in a zero-tolerance sort of way?

Until, that is, father Abraham comes on the scene. Drafted out of retirement by this very God, Abraham takes him seriously enough to relocate in old age, to father a child in old age, almost to sacrifice that child in obedience to this God. Oh yes, Abraham has every reason to rattle God’s cage and ask the question of theology and of prayer, “Who’s in there? Who are you?”

And to start with, Abraham will require that God be consistent. Our story today takes us into that arm-wrestling relationship between father Abraham and the one holy God, in such a charming tale as might lighten us all up enough to wonder, “Wait a minute: is this story about what God truly is like, or is it more about what humanity dares believe God to be? We might even say that this is one holy shakedown showing the evolution of theology and the evolution of humanity.

And it all culminates in a minyan, the ancient and still-honored tradition that places responsibility for so many people in the hands of so few: enough to save two ornery towns, says the story—if they can be found. Enough to carry the weight of the whole synagogue, the entire Jewish community, ten people willing to observe the sabbath together open the gates of the tabernacle for the Torah to be read and heard and honored.

On summer Sundays, we occasionally slide close to a sense of quorum, don’t we? How many Episcopalians does it take to carry a eucharist? I don’t know, but I do believe summer attendance helps each of us feel how important a decision it is to observe the sabbath together.

How many Christians does it take to claim the divine presence? Two or three, says Jesus, promising to be with us even in that close a quorum. Had Abraham known, he might have tried to talk God down further.

What I’d like you to see from Genesis is how the revealing of God’s nature also reveals human responsibility. That is our first coaching in prayer, this morning.

Now, “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

John the Baptizer was an open air preacher who urged repentance at a time when the greedy rich were inspiring the poor and the merchant class to be greedy too. “Not so,” he told them: true life is not found in having. You have two coats? Give one to someone who needs it. You’re in a position of power? Don’t abuse it by soliciting bribes.” While we aren’t told how John taught his followers to pray, we can believe it featured human responsibility to meet and welcome the kingdom of God that John said has come near.

In the prayer that Jesus teaches, the kingdom or reign of God is one of the first concerns on his lips, but not until he teaches us to let prayer be personal. He wants us to hallow God’s name, to allow God’s holiness to be felt in our hearts. His focus on God’s name is like Abraham’s desire to know who it is he’s dealing with. And that name is deeply personal, Father. We may yearn also to call God Mother. Recognize here the same dimension of personal relation, as Jesus calls God Father. We see evidence in the Gospels that this got him in trouble with the high and mighty, who faulted Jesus for being so familiar with God (as if could Jesus could not have been familiar with God!).

You’ve noticed that Luke doesn’t speak of Our Father in heaven. That’s just one of several differences in Luke. Even the early Church had different ways of praying the Our Father--- worth remembering as in our time we pray it both one way and another.

Allowing, hallowing, feeling the holiness of God, we pray that God’s kingdom comes. There’s the theme of his prayer: the big picture, the deepest reality of God’s way that contantly breaks in on our many little ways, our many conflicting ways, our often aimless and wasteful ways. All else that we pray from here out must be consistent with the big picture of God’s way.

Give us each day our daily bread. And by the rules of the kingdom, teach us how to share it.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. Not, for Luke, “as we forgive those who sin against us,” but “for we are seriously practicing your call to forgive everyone who owes us anything.”

And do not bring us to the time of trial. When the new Lord’s Prayer was really new, I recall any number of people saying they didn’t like “trial”, and preferred “temptation.” What a headline that makes: “Episcopalians dislike trial, prefer temptation!”

Blame Luke. And credit Luke for talking straight in dangerous times when to be a Christian led to prison and often death. “Keep us useful to you, fruitful for you, this side of danger in these risky times.” But having started with “Your kingdom come,” we stake our lives on that kingdom mattering more than the dangers that could befall one of us, or ten of us, or fifty of us…but Lord, what if it were all of us who bear your name, your Spirit, and your presence? What would become of your kingdom if the forces of tyranny and greed and brutality swept us all away? We cannot imagine that being your will, you whose kingdom is within us.

Luke has no “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” But the power of will is the subject of the parable and the teaching that follow. The persistent friend who gets what he wants not because of friendship but because of his tenacious will, his not giving up, his endless knocking on the door. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

By his coaching so far, Jesus counts on us to ask and search in keeping with God’s kingdom, God’s way, not in line with our own way. That persistent friend was setting a table of hospitality for a guest, not feeding himself.

And to crown his lesson on prayer, sharp questions: If your child asks for a fish, would you give a snake? If hungry for an egg, would you give your child a scorpion? Apply this to your relation to God: rather than be anxious that you might not get what you want, recognize when you are given what you need, most of all the Holy Spirit, the prime gift of God.

Our final coaching on prayer today comes from St. Paul writing to the Christians at Colossae. “Abound in thanksgiving.” He gives many reasons that cause our gratitude to God, but the apostle of many words puts in a nutshell the most important priority we have in prayer: “Abound in thanksgiving.” His many reasons are all about what God has done in Jesus Christ to simultaneously free us for, and root us in, love. He wants us to remember who and whose we are.

It may be that no words do that better for us than the Lord’s Prayer. One day last week, I sat with someone who has lived nearly 100 years, and has little memory left about what just happened, moments ago. When we prayed, and I opened with the words “Our Father,” the tabernacle doors flew open and the words of that prayer came from her lips with a consistency she can no longer muster for herself, but is alive in her, ready to rise.