Sermon for July 24, 2022

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 11:1-13

Luke records that Jesus’ disciples wanted instruction in prayer. I suspect that we could all use some teaching about prayer, especially in a world that so desperately needs it. 

So, let’s take a closer look at what we heard just now from the gospel. Luke records that Jesus taught the disciples what to pray when he offered a version of the words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer. So far so good. We can handle that, and in fact pray the words of this prayer weekly, if not daily. 

But Luke also reports that Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, that is, in what manner or disposition. 

To make this point about the attitude we bring to prayer, Luke records Jesus telling a story about a friend visiting a friend at the midnight hour – precisely when many of our most desperate prayers are offered up – asking for bread to be hospitable to another friend who just showed up for a visit. Luke’s Jesus makes the point that it was not the friendship that got the request for bread fulfilled, but the persistence of the friend’s request is what made the difference. 

Jesus in Luke thus advocates for persistence in prayer. What does persistence mean? The New Testament Greek suggests immodesty, or importunity, boldness, pestering, nerve, gall, audacity. That’s the attitude we are instructed to bring to pray.

We get a good sense of such audacity when engaging with God in today’s first reading from Genesis where Abraham negotiates boldly with the Lord concerning the fate of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s audacious dealing with the Lord results in the Lord changing the mind in favor of mercy rather than punishment if in fact there are ten remaining righteous persons in Sodom. 

Listen again for the audacity in Abraham’s manner – when he rightly acknowledged his proper place with humility but nonetheless forthrightly, boldly bargained with the Lord. Abraham says when addressing the Lord:

  • “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you!” 
  • “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” 
  • “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more.” 

Thus, the story from Genesis gives us a good sense of what persistence in prayer might look like and feel like. 

Yet, such persistence, such nerve, such audacity is often hard for us to do without a sense of guilt or feeling that we’ve done something wrong. Who are we to nudge God? Moreover, we may fear God’s wrath if we step out of line in terms of what we might deem a properly respectful attitude of prayer. That is, don’t pray with an attitude! Lest we incur God’s wrath. 

And then there’s the inclination to try to protect God from our insolence. That’s more common when we humans try to vilify others for what we of faith may perceive as blasphemous attitudes toward God. 

Friends, such fears are the stuff of the old sinful Adam’s ongoing claims on us in my estimation. In my read of today’s lessons such seeking decorum in prayer is not what Jesus in Luke or Abraham in Genesis seem to call for! Jesus and Abraham call for a spirit of shamelessness. 

But how do we overcome our hesitancy to pray shamelessly? Let’s let the Apostle Paul speak to us about the true source of our confidence – our faith, our trust – that allows us to pray boldly. Here are Paul’s words from today’s second reading in Colossians: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” 

Paul suggests that it is our rootedness in Christ, which begins at baptism, that establishes our faith, our trust, our living our lives in him, he who is the tree of life from the cross, Christ the vine, we the branches. With such rootedness in him, in word and sacraments, Christ continues to teach us and we abound in thanksgiving. In short, Christ is the source of the faith that is also the source of our shameless persistence in prayer. 

In Christ, we need not fear offending God. God does not need to be protected. God in Christ can handle anything we bring. So, just say it; just pray it with boldness. God in Christ will sort it out, even if we feel we’re stepping out of line. 

And if we do step out of line, that too God will set aside, nailing it to the cross, our trespasses ever being forgiven again and again for Christ’s sake. The record written against is erased, ever wiped clean. Thus, we can sin boldly, as Luther said, but believe more boldly still.

Moreover, Christ feeds us with his very self when we come to him at this very table begging for bread at our existential midnight hours so that we might be fed to also feed the hungry who are in our midst in our fearful world. 

Jesus continued his teaching on prayer in Luke. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” 

But we know that we often do not get receive exactly what we asked for. And we know that when we search, we often discover surprises that we did not intend to find. And we know that when a door is opened to us, we may be quite surprised by what and by who we might find on the other side of the open door. 

Luke also reports that Jesus invoked good parenting in relation to the nature of God’s response to God’s children at prayer: “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!”

Every good parent knows that we cannot give to our children everything they ask for. That’s simply not good parenting. But good parents do give good gifts to their children. 

And the good gift we receive in answer to our shameless asking, searching, and knocking is the Holy Spirit, the very life and breath of God, ultimately everything we need, our very life in God. 

Thus it is that Paul writes in Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

The Spirit is always at prayer for us, making possible our own prayers. Which is to say, when the Spirit arrived at Pentecost as recorded in the second chapter of Acts, the Spirit gave all the needed good gifts – namely, proclamation of God’s mighty deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead, repentance, baptism, devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers (cf. Acts 2:37-42).

What more do we need as God’s beloved children when it’s all said and done?
What we experience here each Sunday is ultimately what we are asking and searching for and why we are knocking. It is life itself, the life of Christ and participation in the life of our Trinitarian God.

Meanwhile, the Spirit also gives us our prayers of intercession. And think about it. These, our prayers each Sunday are audacious. Every Sunday we pray sometimes desperately and with lament for the needs of a sorry church and world. We pray for peace, for justice, for the relief of suffering. And so often those prayers don’t seem to result in the peace and justice and relief that we cry out for. And yet we continue to pray without fail, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, decade after decade. That’s persistence in prayer. 

Finally, our prayers of intercession lean in to fulfillment when we act on the fact that our prayers set the agenda for the church in mission. What we pray for is what we’re called to do in our ministries in daily life. When we pray for peace, we then seek to work for peace. When we pray for justice, we do our part in working for justice. When we pray for an end to suffering, we offer a helping hand in one way or another to those in need. 

The disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I pray that you now have a better sense of what Jesus in Luke taught, and that your life of prayer might be emboldened with a Spirit of shameless persistence in the freedom of the gospel. Amen.