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Sermon for August 5, 2018

Texts: Hosea 1:2-10/Luke 11:1-13

Title: “Just Ask”

If you want to learn something it only stands to reason that you seek out someone you believe to be qualified to teach you. It was with mindset that his disciples approached Jesus, though with a result they wouldn’t have anticipated.

Evasive is not a term one would use in many instances to describe Jesus, though that term might well apply in characterizing the Lord’s response to his disciples in this morning’s lesson. The occasion arose, when having finished his prayers, the disciples approached the Lord with a request, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” After all, in all matters spiritual Jesus certainly outranked John.

Scripture is mute on the subject of the prayers John might have taught his disciples, but apparently the disciples were sufficiently impressed by his methods that they asked Jesus to do for them what John was doing for his disciples.  “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Their request earned for the disciples something less than expected, but also something more. First, the something less. Jesus did not set out a prayer method or strategy for the disciples, instead he offered something more. He taught them a prayer, the prayer we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer.

We have no way of knowing why Jesus didn’t comply with his disciples’ request. No, Jesus didn’t teach his disciples how to pray, not at least, in this instance, instead he shifted the focused to an essential element of prayer, persistence, introducing the subject by means of a story.

Suppose, he said, someone shows up at your house unannounced in the middle of the night requesting three loaves of bread. Odd request, those three loaves of bread at midnight, but the petitioner is a friend so it won’t do to turn him down even though you might think he has come unhinged, even as he has disrupted the peace and tranquility of your household. You reward your friend for his persistence by handing over the loaves.

The dictionary defines persistence as a “firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.” If we had to characterize the nature of the appeal the petitioner in Jesus’ story was making, you might fairly characterize it as an obstinate appeal. The person wasn’t going to give up until he got his three loaves.

Have you ever met an obstinate person? Of course you have. We all have. This is the type, of person who won’t take no for an answer. He is the type of person who will wear you down so thoroughly that surrender becomes the only option, even when it means forcing yourself out of bed and disrupting the household that your friend might have his three loaves.

“Teach us to pray.”  Jesus chose to stress persistence in praying, but there were many directions in which Jesus may have gone to address their concern. For instance, he may have turned to the psalms, the prayer book of the Bible to comply with the disciples’ request. After all, the psalms are as complete a compendium of prayers as you will find.

Then again, he may have concentrated on method, demonstrating things like proper posture for praying—kneeling, standing, back straight, hands clasped, hands folded.  Or he may have focused on what has become known as “centering techniques,” methods for clearing one’s mind, breathing properly and channeling one’s thoughts.

“Teach us to pray.” He may have stressed setting aside certain times for prayer.  He may have even recommended places to pray.  We know that the Lord sought solitude in the mountains when he wanted to pray.

“Teach us to pray.”  Jesus could have set out in many directions, but rejecting those, he chose to focus on persistence, the implications of which are vast. Consider where this teaching ultimately takes him as it is summarized in the following, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.”

Persist in asking you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. Jesus might have served his disciples better by teaching prayer basics rather than by elevating persistence in prayer to the degree he did? Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock, and the door will be opened. Really?

I hear Jesus claiming that no knock goes unanswered. How many, do you think, have tested that claim and found it wanting? Rather than speculate on that question. Suppose I ask how many of you have had a prayer go unanswered. I have sent up a few prayers, make that quite a few, that have gone unanswered. No doubt you have too.

It is fair to say that if Jesus’ credibility were graded on the basis of the claims he is making in our morning’s lesson numbers, many of us would give him a failing grade. How many of us have knocked on that prayer door until our knuckles were raw with no response to be heard within. Yet we hear “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.” Our lesson assures us that those outcomes are assured if we persist. Is that not the main point being made in the story of the householder and the three loaves?

Experience has taught us that some prayers go unanswered. Jesus’ disciples knew that as much as we do. So how does Jesus go about convincing them, and us, to temper our skepticism? For that we turn to the second part of our lesson and the relation between parent and child.

Jesus now asks his disciples to consider the petitioner’s request not from the standpoint of the householder disturbed at midnight, but from the standpoint of a parent. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg will give him a scorpion?”

Acknowledging that no loving parent would resort to such treachery, Jesus moves on to the conclusion to which he was building all along. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Jesus’ point is straight forward enough. God does not withhold from those who approach him with the confidence of the petitioner in the story. Persistence pays off. It pays off essentially, not because we wear God down with our persistence, but it pays off because the one to whom we appeal loves us with the unconditional love we associate with a parent.

Trust is the element that binds the two elements of our lesson together. The petitioner in the story persisted in his appeal to the householder because he trusted that the householder would, despite great inconvenience, come to the door and give him what he needed. Likewise, the child persists in approaching the parent for the child knows that the parent will not withhold what she needs.

Let’s focus on those six words, “will not withhold what she needs.” The child knows that the parent will not withhold what she needs. Now as concerns what she wants, that’s a different matter. Your child looked to you, the parent, to sort out the needs and the wants, while disagreements on that topic can, and often are, frequent and fierce.

God knows what we want, and God knows what we need. There are many times when our wants and our needs are identical. On the other hand, there are many times when they are not. We pray for outcomes that are very important to us, healing at the top of the list. There are times when we would surrender almost anything for a particular outcome. We want it that bad.

So what about that business, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Why persist with the exercise if all the seeking, asking, and knocking doesn’t deliver the outcome to which we have committed are most ardent prayers? Why persist? We persist, not so that our prayers might open doors, we persist to demonstrate that we trust God who loves us unconditionally has opened the door to eternal life in Jesus Christ.

I have had the good fortune in reading lately to sample the thoughts of people steeped in the prayer/contemplation traditions of Christianity, among them Richard Rohr whom I have quoted often in recent sermons, the Quaker Parker Palmer, Presbyterian Frederick Buehner, poet theologian Wendell Berry, Professor Howard Thurman, and Thomas Merton (the list is all male, but I might have assembled another list with female sources as well). In one way or another each of those I named stress the importance of persistence in prayer. And why? First of all, because, following my earlier point, it demonstrates that we trust God enough that we repeatedly turn to God, not only in fair weather but in foul weather as well. Second, our persistence in prayer opens us more fully to God’s presence. As we increase the amount of time we make for God, God becomes more present, a reality upon which all saints in the church have insisted.

Yet from the minute we rise in the morning until we go to bed at night we are preyed upon by distractions, many of them involving obligations to be met at a later date. Speaking of the “ruthlessness of our daily routine(s)” Professor Howard Thurman stresses that we are “prisoners of our daily time tables” (I count myself guilty as charged). He remarks that our spirits are “crowded with too much movement.” So disposed we don’t make time to concentrate on the immediacy of the moment, the immediacy of God.

That old over worn aphorism, “take time to smell the roses”, contains a truth with which we might agree, yet which we pretty much ignore in practice.

Persistence in prayer, however, is one way the truth of that aphorism is revealed, for as we persist in prayer the aperture on our senses expands. Each of our senses is able to absorb more of the stimuli to which they are exposed. As a result we are able to see the imprint of God more clearly in what our five senses experience.

I picked up a copy of the meditations of Thomas Merton not long ago. What I found to be most striking in those meditations was, largely ignoring the great biblical themes around which most meditations or devotionals are built, his reflections were shaped out of common place experiences. One of those daily reflections might be based on a flock of birds flying overhead, or the wind rustling the branches of a tree, or a farmer overturning the ground at harvest time.

As most of you know Merton lived his life in a monastic community, the majority of his most formative years spend on the grounds of that community in Kentucky. It was within the parameters of that relatively sheltered place that his deep spiritual life was nurtured. He allowed God to open the aperture of his senses, and has helped millions do the same.

God’s love for us in Christ is a given. He does not withhold even when for all appearances we feel we have been deserted and left on our own. As we cultivate our trust in God the truth in that statement becomes more and more evidence. Our trust in God allows us to sense his presence in more and more aspects of our lives.

Perspective can’t change if we remain stationary, habit bound. Yet day to day the content of our prayers changes very little. That is not to diminish the significance of what we pray for, but if we remain content, figuratively speaking, to stare in one or two directions, our ability to communicate with God on a deeper level is undermined. Our field of vision remains limited.

Finally, and importantly, perspective is not gained when we insist on doing all the talking, perspective is shaped in the reverent silence of expectation. “True silence which is creative silence, [writes Robert Llewelyn] is the most demanding activity God asks of any of us.  Here it is that heart and mind and will, meaning and imagination, are gathered and collected in God.”

The disciples came to Jesus with a request, “teach us to pray.” No, he didn’t teach them to pray, instead he taught them to trust God to be present in all circumstances, guaranteeing that no knock will go unanswered. Persist, trust, and let God do the rest. That’s how the saints have done it, and we can do it too. AMEN

PRAYER

“Lord, teach us to pray.”  The request OF your disciples, O Lord, is also our request.  Teach us to pray after the manner in which Jesus himself prayed.  Teach us to pray with renewed confidence and persistence. Teach us to pray with a new attitude, a willingness, O God, for you to direct our prayers, rather than for our personal needs and wants to fill our time at prayer.

Teach us even to pray for those we consider to be our enemies, or those against whom we seek revenge.

Grant that those of us who struggle to make room for prayer in our daily lives find motivation to create time and space for that to occur.  May those who have been disappointed by prayers unanswered, O God, not lose heart but in the confidence you inspire persist in prayer.

O God, we continue to pray for a world upon whom the curse of war is ever present. Even as we worship the war is levying a toll on the innocent, people who crave peace but live at whim of those who persist in making war. We lift up those who suffer in this hour, those with no more tears to shed, those whom grief has consumed. We pray for the citizens of Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Nicaragua who are deprived of justice, whose rights are ignored by tyrants.

O God, we continue to pray for the church in these challenging times. May your word go forth with renewed power and authority.  We pray for church leaders as they struggle to cope with declining membership and member giving.  We pray for conflicted churches for whom the concepts peace and reconciliation have lost all meaning. We pray for youth workers who are challenged to make Bible precepts accessible to children and youth.  We pray for those who leave worship unfed, who have become too discouraged to regularly participate in congregational life.

O Christ, you are the head of the church, from age to age the faithful have cherished your truth, and so we pray that our own confidence in that truth, and our ardor to promote it, may continue to increase until the day when you come to claim the earth as your own.

Lord, may your presence be felt among all those who suffer trials today, the homeless, the jobless, the newly divorced, the single parent, and those whose bodies are riddled with disease.  Abide with the nursing home resident who vacantly passes the day in a dementia induced fog.

Finally, we pray that in partaking of this communion meal we may experience anew the presence of our Lord Jesus with us. May bread and cup be transformed from a symbol of Christ’s presence to reality made present.

In his name, and through his grace we pray the prayer our Lord Jesus taught so long ago…