The 7th Sunday after Pentecost
This Gospel leaves me with more questions than answers. The first few verses are the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer a crash course offered at the request of the disciples. Then we hear this little story of the man who knocks on his neighbor’s door at midnight asking for bread to feed his unexpected guests.
Now really, can you imagine that happening in today’s culture? If someone bangs relentlessly on our door later than 10 pm, we’re likely to call the police. But Jesus is telling the parable in a very different time and place.
It meant something for his first century audience because the most important commodity valued in that society was hospitality. So this story speaks to that standard and is yet another instance when Jesus references the radical hospitality of God—a God who will get up at midnight from a sound sleep to answer the door and give us bread when we ask.
But this is also a parable that touts persistence—especially in terms of prayer. Does God only answer us if we keep banging on the door, in other words ask and ask and ask? What If I’m asking for something and someone else is asking for the opposite thing? What if you pray for a sunny day because you are having a family barbecue and the local farmers are praying for rain? To whom does God listen first or most? Does God have a threshold for boring, whiny prayers? In one of the collects in our Prayer Book, we pray that God knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking.
So why bother asking? Complicated questions—no easy, cut and dry answers.
Yet much wisdom and humor has been written about prayer. Comedian Myron Cohen told the story of the Jewish grandmother watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave takes him out to sea. “Please God,” she pleads, “I beg of you to save my only grandson.” And another wave washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to heaven and adds, “He had a hat!”
President Jimmy Carter once said that “God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer, “You’ve got to be kidding!” And another American President, Abraham Lincoln, said that he had been driven many times to his knees by the overwhelming conviction that he had nowhere else to go.
American Journalist, Mignon McLaughlin, said “I often pray, though I’m not really sure Anyone’s listening; and I phrase it carefully, just in case God is literary.” In her Take this Bread, which I highly recommend, author Sarah Miles asks a friend “How do you pray?” “Well,” she said, “I usually start off, ‘Okay, what the hell is going on here, God?’”
Probably one of the best explanations of prayer comes from C.S. Lewis whose wife Joy, not long after they were married, discovered that she had cancer. Lewis prayed. A friend, a fellow university professor, asked why he prayed. And Lewis answered that he simply had to pray, that he could not do anything but pray. In his helplessness, praying brought him some peace. His prayers, he said, did not change God. But they did change him.
And the real kernel of grace in this Gospel today is in the very last line: “…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!” We may be praying for peace in the world, we may be praying for someone who is terminally ill, we may be praying for the Yankees to win, we may be asking that we won’t be laid off from our jobs, but what God ultimately gives us is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God's presence with us. And God's Spirit does change us. Prayer gifts us with God's Spirit and that Spirit living in us prompts us to work to build God's kingdom in the world.
I can only speak from very personal experience. With all the questions, with all the contradictions, with all the uncertainties what I know for sure is that prayer works. I have seen that in your lives and I have seen it in mine—over and over again.
Here’s a final thought for our St. Andrew’s community in its worship. Walk into any of the great cathedrals and you will find people milling around it as if it were a museum. But in many of the Anglican cathedrals you’ll find that a staff member will ring a bell on the hour and call people into a brief time of prayer. It changes the whole environment; it brings a measure of the holy to bear.
You may have noticed last Sunday that there were a few moments between the bell sounded and when I welcomed our in present congregation and our livestream community. The brief gap’s practical purpose is to allow our audio-visual monitor to prepare to begin the livestream. Can we use this brief time as if we were in one of those great Anglican houses of worship, sit in silence, and reflect on those sublime words of the psalm: “Be still and know that I am God” bringing a measure of the holy to bear? Let’s try that on and perhaps make it a new tradition.