However many people there are
listening to this sermon
is how many opinions there are
about prayer —
and what it is or is not.
I do not know.
I know nothing about prayer.
but I don’t know
anything more than that.
I have never heard anyone
talk about prayer
that I thought knew anything
more than I do about it either.
I have heard a lot of people
who seem to be experts on prayer,
but they never convinced me.
Maybe I’m just a hard case.
It might be useful for us to listen
to what a First Century Palestinian rabbi,
had to say about prayer.
that parable about the late night knock at the door
is too delicious not to headline
Now 1st Century rural Galilee
and 21st Century America
are as far apart
as ancient subsistence farming
and American consumerism.
So there are a few things we need to know
about the world Jesus told his story in
or the wisdom of the parable
won’t ring loudly.
was the centerpiece
of 1st century Judea and Galilee,
the same way that consumerism
is central to our culture.
Hospitality was even
an engine of their economic life
just as consumerism has been for ours.
To undermine the strict
rules of hospitality
would have been to unravel
the whole social fabric
with severe economic consequences.
who traveled overnight to anyplace
was utterly dependent upon family,
friends or friends of friends,
for a place to stay –
an Inn was either a Brothel
or an otherwise impossible place
for observant Jews
to spend the night.
Third, (and I don’t know how many
numbers there are)
if you did not welcome a guest
into your home
you would face an intolerable shame
– a shame that could literally
be carried against you
for the rest of your life.
And in that culture,
to drag an injured reputation
was to be sorely disabled.
But at the same time,
while the door to your home
was always open
during the day,
it was always closed
To disturb the rigidly held
privacy of the home at night
was to risk a different kind of disabling shame.
So with that information,
we can see that this parable Jesus told
was really about how a neighbor
risked shame for the sake of hospitality.
That should be the subtitle of this parable:
Risking shame for the sake of hospitality.
Here is the scenario
behind the parable,
just to make it clear
because the parable itself
is a little complex and confusing.
The first neighbor
had unexpected guests,
apparently at night.
The first neighbor
was unprepared for guests
and had nothing in the house to feed them.
he would have been shamed.
So what could he do?
Dare he add more shame upon himself
by disturbing his neighbor at night
in the hope he could barrow some bread?
The second neighbor
was then faced with a different dilemma.
Should he answer the knock
on the door at night
And if so,
should he then save the neighbor
from his shame
by giving him some bread?
should he add to his neighbor’s shame
by giving nothing
in addition to being offended
for having his nighttime privacy disturbed?
Our sense of hospitality and privacy
are wholly different,
and so much less formal
So it interesting to note
how this intricate protocol for hospitality
required an intense sense
something that was born
of both economic need
and religious values.
(Assistance from Texts For Preaching, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome)
Jesus seems to be saying:
Well, if perfectly ordinary human beings
like the neighbor
who offered bread late at night
could be so generous,
how much more generous
will God be with your needs?
Or another way to frame it is this:
While we often operate out of guilt,
God operates out of absolute
compassion and love.
So I think the punch line of the parable is this:
There is no risk in asking God for anything.
a new bicycle for Christmas…anything!
Feel free to ask for anything
no matter how selfish or silly.
And then to prove the point,
Jesus offers us his
blueprint for prayer
that has this encouragement
to ask for anything sewn into the lining.
Jesus begins, “ABBA.”
But as we know,
we can change it to anything we want:
Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker,
Creator…even Our Father.
Jesus won’t mind
if we change his original, “Abba”
to “Our Father”
or something else
he didn’t say.
It’s a blueprint
not a prescription.
My theory about “Abba”
and the uniqueness of it,
is that Jesus
was trying to say
that God need not be approached
the way Dorothy and the Scarecrow
groveled before the Wizard of Oz.
Or more particularly,
the way peasants
were forced to grovel
before Pontus Pilate or Herod.
God as Oz
is how many of us were taught,
especially in the liturgical churches.
We were given only one language for prayer,
the formal language of corporate worship.
Jesus was offering
something more intimate
even though we have been saying it now
for so many millennia
that it seems formal.
But to go back
to my former point,
Jesus’ blueprint for prayer
is mostly a “gimme” prayer.
In fact, five times
Jesus asks God
to do something for him –
“gimmie” an actual, basic need.
Here is what Jesus’ prayer asks for:
- Daddy, keep me in awe
and inspired by your magnificence.
- Mommy, I need you
to get more active in this crazy world
and bump these power-mongers out of the way.
- Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker, I need you
to help me get my basic needs met
– and maybe you could throw in
something beyond subsistence too.
- Beloved, I need you to forgive me
for my failures and my evil,
and I need help forgiving
the people whose failures and evil
have hurt me.
- And please, non-gender specific God,
or non-binary gendered God,
whatever you do,
do not keep testing my character –
I’ve only got so much character!
But let’s not be literal.
does not require that we ask
for these five gimmies all the time.
We have different gimmies.
One of mine right now
is to ask God to stop Putin.
Do I think God will,
the way the Bible says Israel was saved
by Cyrus, King of Persia?
Not really, but I ask and ask and ask.
We do not copy how Jesus dressed
or how he wore his hair
or limit ourselves to what he ate,
so let’s not be so simplistic about prayer.
We don’t have to use
the same words
and the same gimmies
over and over and over again.
It is a model, not a prescription.
The model is this:
God is Mommy or Daddy
Ask for real needs
Expect a kind
and generous response
Prayer is an art not a science.
It is a relationship not physics.
It is meant to fit us
like a comfortable old shoe
not a specified suit or dress
we have to fit into.
And the thing about prayer
that is actually a little disconcerting
is that it depends upon
and responsive God…
even more than on our willingness to pray.
So here is my take-away.
Pick a name for God that fits.
Is yours formal and public
or up-close and personal?
Ask God for the gimmies-of-your-heart
not the same old things
that you think you should be asking for.
And finally, if we only pray at dinner or in bed,
then our prayers will always be competing
with our hunger for food,
sex, or sleep.
Prayer doesn’t win very often with that competition.
Really, this is not rocket science
or the Three-fold Blissful Enlightenment
of a Kung fu Master.
It is just prayer.