As I have worked in this parish for the past four weeks, I hope some of you have begun to get a glimpse of my personality. God forbid that I should be so foolish as to ask precisely which words you might use to describe me, but ‘shy’, ‘retiring’, or ‘quiet’ are, I suspect, not exactly near the top of the list.
How is it, then, for someone who is so adept at what we English love to call, ‘waffle’, how is it that I have found this sermon so difficult to compose?
Quite simply, because I think that prayer is one of the hardest things we as Christians are called to do, and still less to talk about.
If we were put on the spot at this moment, I think most of us would find questions like ‘What is prayer?’, ‘How do you pray?’, or ‘How do I get better at prayer?’ quite challenging ones.
But how ironic this is! Should not prayer be the easiest, most natural thing in the world? If we truly believe ourselves all to be the children of God, made in the divine image, is it not second nature for a child to speak with its parent?
Last week, we heard one of my favourite exchanges in Scripture, between Mary and Martha. I will hold up my hands and declare myself very much a member of ‘Team Martha’ – one who always goes for those dirty dishes, that dusty floor, and general busy bodying in the name of domestic propriety and orderliness.
However, while Martha’s work is noble, Jesus leaves us in no doubt: when Martha asks with a little exasperation, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?’, Jesus tells Martha that it is Mary who has chosen the better part. For someone who is clearly as industrious as Martha, this must have been hard to hear; but I think the reason for this answer lies in Mary’s supreme disposition to listening to the voice of her Master. Mary sits still; she uses ‘no words’, as Mother Liz told us last week; and she knows that this ‘better part’ will not be taken away from her. Mary rocks at prayer.
Mary is beyond doubt a role model for how we should pray. But I’ll be honest: I find Mary more than a little intimidating, precisely because she is already such a natural at prayer.
Today, by contrast, our Gospel reading presents us with a very different situation. Far from the better part of Mary last week, or the unhesitating Good Samaritan two weeks ago, this week, we are given three distinct but related portraits of prayer. In fact, we can talk of a script for prayer; a parable for prayer; and a promise about prayer.
What can we learn from our script? At first glance, the words of the Lord’s Prayer seem rather rigid. When a disciple asks Jesus to teach him to pray, Jesus’ response, ‘when you pray, say’ appears a little dictatorial, even condescending. But if this is so, I want to suggest it is not because the words themselves are the be all and end all of prayer, but rather, Jesus gives us an exemplar of the ingredients of prayer. Those ingredients, I think, are captured in the words ‘name’, ‘bread’, and ‘sins’.
Firstly, why God’s name? Jesus addresses God as ‘Abba’. Though we translate ‘Abba’ as Father, the Aramaic captures something much more intimate than any English word can convey. ‘Abba’, then, teaches us to have confidence in speaking to God. We do not plead for some mysterious deity to hear us, but rather a Father who loves his children without condition. This image is later acted out in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the son may go astray, but the father is forever ready to welcome his son back with open arms. God’s name is important, then, because it shows us how God invites us to enjoy an intimate relationship with him, and how he is the picture of mercy itself when we, like prodigal children, will always stumble.
Secondly, why bread? Truth be told, scholars disagree over what exactly Jesus means by this term: this could mean refer to food we need to stay alive; it could also refer to the manna the People of Israel receive from God in the wilderness. At this Eucharist today, let us also think of the saving bread from heaven we receive from God here at the altar. We are nourished not with bread ‘which our ancestors ate’, as Jesus tells us in John, but with the body of the One who gave Himself in every possible way to us. The prayer to ‘give us this day our daily bread’ expresses a heartfelt desire to encounter God in his own substance; it is an invitation to join Jesus at his Supper, and to say ‘yes’: yes, we are your disciples, yes, we are around your table, and yes, we seek to grow in prayer.
Thirdly, why sins? This is not a call to beat your breasts, gnash your teeth and don sackcloth, but rather, we are told by Jesus that if we forgive those who wrong us, then our Heavenly Father will do likewise. One of the most disturbing phrases I’ve often heard people use is, ‘I will forgive, but I won’t forget’. This, dear friends, is not forgiveness, in fact it’s not even close. God’s forgiveness is so radical, so unconditional, so unquestioning, as to be overwhelming: we are simply overcome by his forgiveness. In fact, when we acknowledge before God and our neighbour that we have fallen short of God’s glory, this is one of the most powerful means to encounter God in our lives. So let ‘sins’ be our third ingredient, and let us understand this as an invitation to forgiveness – both by God and by ourselves – when we fall short.
The Lord’s Prayer, then, is our script. Prayer teaches us about the name of God and his mercy; prayer grants us the spiritual food we need; and prayer grants us forgiveness.
We now move on to the parable of prayer in the second part of our Gospel reading.
I’ll admit, each time I hear this passage, I always wonder just how much of a role model this guy is. A friend comes to him at night and asks him for food – and with good reason, as he has a friend visiting. To refuse that friend bread would have been rude and unkind, so surely a little bread isn’t too much to ask? No – the guy is already in bed, his kids are tucked up too, so he simply can’t be bothered. Only after pestering him, does the friend get what he wants.
On reflection, though, their reluctance and persistence are what make these men so important. Is the man ideal for not wishing to get up? Hardly. Is the friend a little sloppy in only thinking to find bread for his guest in the middle of the night? Absolutely. But it is for these very reasons that this parable resonates so strongly with our own human condition, especially in prayer.
Why? Quite simply, because neither character gives up. The friend has a genuine need of bread in order to feed a friend, so he persists in asking. The man in bed doesn’t want to get up, but the fact is, he does. We, too, have needs for which we may have to speak up, or conversely, things may be asked of us which we may not want to do. But this parable tells us clearly: persist in prayer, and God will grant us all that we need to love him and others in our midst.
So far, then, we have a script for prayer, and a parable for prayer, and now comes the small print, the terms and conditions: the promise about prayer.
The man in our parable answered the door to his friend only after much knocking and pleading. Here, Jesus contrasts our response with God’s response. Whereas we might hesitate to ask, whereas we might hesitate to answer, Jesus makes crystal clear how God is always ready to hear and answer our prayers.
Ask, and it will be given; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. We have three short imperatives, or commands, each followed by three future tense verbs. There is no conditional, ‘you may be given’ response, no hypothetical, ‘If you do this, then…’ caveat by Jesus. By a simple action, we are guaranteed a reply. Now, this does not mean to say God gives us all we want – perish the thought! – but we must believe that he gives us all we need to know him, love him, and serve him.
And don’t forget to notice the most important words in this final part of our Gospel reading: how much more. If we, who are prone to failure, can do good, then how much more will our heavenly Father be listening for our prayers, how much more will he answer them.
I want to close with a brief reference to that ‘door’ which Jesus invites us to knock. Over my past four weeks with you here, I have been reminded time and time again of a line from the Rule of St Benedict: ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me”.
Four weeks ago, I arrived as a guest at the Church of the Ascension; this week, I leave as your friend. On Friday, I was privileged to have dinner, among other wonderful people, with your Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. During our conversation, I was asked to identify one of the defining features of the Episcopal Church. I said I could only speak first hand from my time with you all here; but I didn’t need to think what my answer would be: your unquestioning, unqualified and unhesitating openness makes Church of the Ascension what it is. You invite people, you welcome people, and you love people. You don’t add caveats; you say things as they are; and you mean every word. You are open to people – whether it’s for worship, the AA or the Food Pantry – and in so doing, you are open to God. As your Ascension Outreach motto states, ‘For the service of humanity in the Name of Christ’.
I hope and pray that this morning’s Gospel reading will only inspire you to go further in that openness, both to your neighbours and to God in prayer. You have the script of the Lord’s Prayer: intimacy and mercy are always to be found in God’s bosom. You have the parable of the man who, though not perfect, does help his neighbour in need. And you have the promise made by God himself, that no prayer is ever wasted.
Be ready, then, to open your doors, for you never know who will be the next guest. But don’t forget to knock on others’ doors, too, for Christ commands us to go out as much as to come in. Whether you are knocking or opening, you will be doing the work of Christ.
In sum, I applaud you for all that you do; I encourage you to go further; and finally, I warn you – because this Englishman will come knocking again. Thank you.