“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples say, and in response, Jesus gives them a model: what to our ears sounds like a version of the Lord’s Prayer that has been stripped of all its Matthean poetry. While it is not petty, it is stark, demanding, without elegance. “Father, your name be made holy. Your kingdom come. Give us enough bread. Forgive us our sins, for we forgive the debts of others. And do not bring us into a time of testing.” It is composed almost entirely of imperative sentences: Come! Give us! Forgive us! Don’t bring us! In the version we pray together each Sunday, that same core of pleading requests is there, but it is softened somewhat by the descriptive language about heaven, and God’s power and glory. Now that is the stuff of mature, sophisticated prayer, we think: praise, adoration, contemplation of the heavenly. Not the parts where we seem to be trying to boss around the Holy One, like a two year old with a delusion of great power.
But then Jesus follows his prayer with a parable that reinforces this notion of childlike dependence and pleading. This parable is easily mis-understood as an allegory about God, in which God is cast as the reluctant neighbor who really doesn’t want to get out of bed and wake up his whole family, but eventually gives in because the guy in need is so bold -- and besides, he’s probably already woken up the children already. The reluctant giver: No, this isn’t an image of God: this is an image of us! This is one of those “but even more so” parables, in which Jesus points out something decent that even we humble humans manage to do, and says “and so, imagine how much more” this goodness is the case with God. The sleepy neighbor in the story is not moved by friendship, but eventually even he shuffles out of bed to respond.
The story assumes that we would done the same -- just as we would give our child an egg if she asked -- and that we might expect even better of the heavenly Father.
Yet I think there is still something illuminating about the word that Jesus says is the key to the sleepy neighbor’s ultimately helpful response, because it is echoed throughout Jesus’ teaching today. What is it? What characteristic causes even a reluctant giver to get up? And how might it inform our prayers to the One who cares infinitely more than our grumpy acquaintances?
The key word is shamelessness. Now, don’t go scanning your bulletin for the word in the text, because it isn’t there.You’ll find instead “persistence,” which is not quite accurate. Most scholars point out that the Greek word used here really means “shamelessness,” or one who offends social standards seemingly without remorse. “At least because of his shamelessness the neighbor will get up.” To have no bread to offer a guest was a cause of great shame. By asking a neighbor for help, the man in the parable hopes to avoid shame in the eyes of his guest, but he does so shamelessly: announcing that he has nothing, rudely knocking at midnight: “Hey! Mr. Smith! I have nothing! Absolutely nothing! Please help!” Where is the man’s pride, his sense of decorum?
And this lack of shame seems to be Jesus’ point. While it’s true that our prayers may sometimes show ignorance or pettiness, that’s not our Lord’s concern today. He’s speaking to a different problem, both in the disciples and in us: the “unwillingness to ask, out of fear or deference;” the ways in which we cloak our greatest needs in shame and silence before God (Robert C. Tannehille, Luke,190).
Why do we avoid asking God for what we really need? There are countless reasons: a sense of unworthiness. Disbelief that anything can change. A fear that God will not respond as we hope -- and what will happen to our faith then? Or perhaps shame that we really are so needy, so dependent, along with the sense that we had really ought to do more for ourselves before we bring God into the matter.
And encompassing all of these, especially for educated Americans like us, is the costume of sophistication, maturity, and -- let’s face it -- pride. To ask God for things, with an earnest attitude of trust, is so childlike! As if it were that simple, we think. We’re not simpletons. We’re not children anymore. Even for us Christians -- well, we’re not those kind of simple-minded Christians, we think. God doesn’t work that way, we say, like a Santa Claus in the sky.
No, not like Santa Claus. Not like a vending machine.
But it seems that our Lord and Savior is giving us a primer in prayer, and this is at least how it begins: Ask. Search. Knock. Yes, like a child -- like the child of God that you are.
And Jesus isn’t just mildly saying this in the form of the demanding Lord’s prayer. He is emphatic and exhorting; he’s preaching: Ask! Search! Knock! Go on, now! Ask!
I know it doesn’t come easy!
But that’s where he tells us to begin.
We are clothed in intelligence, doubt, and a certain sophistication that tells us our prayers should be as polite and tentative as we are around this communion rail. And yet, when we dig a little bit, isn’t this just a cover for a sense of shame that we are ultimately we are so vulnerable, so tender, and so in need? Let me be clear: I don’t believe we are called, by any means, to give up our brains and our questions and even our indignation. Look at Abraham’s example today: he questioned God not once, not twice, but six times! But I do think we are challenged to be without guile or false pretenses about our self-sufficiency. We are challenged to notice what we really, truly, want and need.
Jesus calls on us to be shameless before God, trusting that God already knows us as intimately as one would who shaped our every cell, structure, and our very being. Dare to take off the cloaks of silence and shame and sophistication. It’s okay to be naked before God. Believe it or not, God already knows that you don’t have it all together.
Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to all the theological questions raised by intercessory prayer. Jesus claims today are outlandish, and I think the disciples stood there as wide-eyed as we are: EVERYONE who asks receives, EVERYONE who searches finds? Everyone, Jesus says. The Holy Spirit, the life-giving spirit of God, is available to everyone who asks.
There is so much that gets in the way of our asking. Yet throughout the centuries, thousands of men and women have offered testimony to God’s closeness, intimate love, and the power of the Holy Spirit in our fragile human bodies.
Nine months before I went to seminary, I was faced with a crisis of authenticity. I believed that God loved the world generally, but I stumbled when it came to the logically absurd idea that the creator of the universe had an intimate love for each of us. I simply could not wrap my curious mind around it. I realized that I could not go forward with integrity into a role that would call me to proclaim this crazy, illogical, personal love. So I went on a four day silent retreat, knowing that I might come out of the retreat with sad news for all those who had supported me. Pushed to the point where I finally saw my own longing and need, I came to God with the most embarrassing, childlike questions. Do you really know me? Do you really love me? And God’s mercy for me in those days came in the form of very intense and physical experiences of the Holy Spirit, which my rational mind could never dismiss as the whispers of my desperate ego. It was the kind of experience that wasn’t supposed to happen to a nice white protestant girl like me. But there was God, communicating in the only way that I might really hear: Yes, I know you, down to the tips of your toes. Yes, I love you -- how could I not? I formed every part of this body.
In talking about this incredible love, I am but one voice among many. This is nothing more than what Jesus tells us when he instructs us to say “Father” when we pray, pointing to the fact that the one who created you knows you, loves you, and wants to be in relationship with you. This is not everything -- it doesn’t answer all the questions or satisfy every need, but it is a place to start.
In the next minute of silence, after I leave this pulpit, consider reflecting on your current posture in prayer: Are you shameless? Do you trust that God is near? And beneath your polite requests, what is the mercy that you truly need and seek? Ask. Seek. Knock. What is it that you need in the middle of the night?
July 28, 2013
Year C - Proper 12