Passage: Psalm 85:8; Luke 11:1-13; Hosea 1:2-10
Date: July 29, 2007
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
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A woman whose seven-year old daughter wanted to take violin lessons took her daughter to a music store to rent an instrument. Hoping she would understand the importance of making a commitment to practice, the mother explained that the lessons were expensive. The mother said that she was willing to make the financial commitment, if the daughter promised to work hard. "There may be times you'll feel like giving up, but I want you to hang in there and keep on trying." Her daughter nodded in understanding, and then in her most serious voice said, "It will be just like marriage, right Mom?"
This week's appointed lectionary passages included the shorter version of the Lord's prayer. (The longer version is in Matthew.) We had a Psalm dealing with God's steadfast love, and turning toward God, and a passage from the prophet Hosea. In Hosea, the theme of unfaithfulness, and God's persistence with God's people is central. The image is that of an unfaithful spouse, and the isolation of broken relationship. That, plus the parable following the Lord's prayer, raises the question: What does faithfulness mean in our lives? What images come to your mind when you think of steadfast love? With what, to whom, do we persist?
Did you get the humor from the parable following the Lord's prayer in Luke? The situation is that it is the middle of the night, and a friend is at the door. By the custom of middle eastern hospitality, the friend should provide his unexpected guest with food. But his cupboard is bare. So, the friend needs three loaves of bread to share with his guest. He's pounding on the door of the sleeping neighbor, whose children are finally settled for sleep and he doesn't want to be disturbed. The punch-line to this story is, he won't be motivated by friendship to rouse himself and share the bread. But he will get up because the neighbor persists in pounding on the door! Because of persistence, he will get up and give the friend anything he needs!
What does this parable say about the nature of human beings? And God? And the relationship between people and God? I suspect the most common interpretation of this story leads to thinking of prayer as our persisting in pleading with God for what we want. A wise person once said that "the point of prayer is not to win concessions from almighty power, but to have communion with almighty love." What if, in the story, we are not the one pounding on the door, but God is? What if God is persisting for us?
It occurred to me that in our time and culture, with so much change, transition, new information, and cynicism-that faithfulness, steadfastness may be rare. We talk about family values, but then much of our culture undermines families. Pressure to work long hours, to appear successful can undermine the commitments we make to the people we love. For families with school-age children, there are the demands of sports and lessons that undermine commitment to church involvement. At the same time the institutions of church and family are undermined, interestingly, we are pressured to make commitments (unconsciously) to brands and companies. Now, more than at any time in history, children are targeted by marketers to buy their brands of food, clothing, toys. Companies know that if they can win children's loyalties, they'll be life-long customers. (If you'd like to read a great book on this, I recommend Juliette Schorr's The Commercialization of Childhood.
Have you ever been in the grocery store with a child bent on managing you into buying an item they want? For me, that is the personification of the word, persistent. But I am also persistent in the things that I want. Aren't we all? But perhaps we persist in the wrong things. We are urged to be faithful consumers, to be faithful to our alma mater and to nation. But do we persist in relationship to God? It is in the context of steadfast faithfulness that Jesus taught us to pray.
Jesus begins the prayer with "Abba" (the Aramaic word that we've translated to "father.") A more accurate translation would be "Daddy." Addressing God in this way is not about gender, but about intimacy and accessibility to God. Jesus showed that our God is one to whom we can cry with abandon, just like a child at home.
When we pray "Your Kingdom come", in the right spirit, we are praying that our hearts be in alignment with God. We are praying that we --turn in our hearts--and make the longings of God, our longings. This is a prayer for the community of God's people, so that when we pray for bread, we are praying for our essential bread. Our bread, not my bread.
The Lord's prayer shows that we mustn't persist blindly, clamoring for what we want, but we need to pray in way that changes us, allowing our hearts to want what God wants. Praying with faithfulness means trusting that in time what is planted will become what God created it to become.
A few years ago, the book "The Prayer of Jabez" was very popular. It was based on a passage from the book of Chronicles. The book promoted the principle that if we in pure heart ask God for a blessing - and do so using the very words that Jabez prayed - then God will bring wondrous gifts into our life. Many people interpreted the wild commercial success of Bruce Wilkinson's books (roughly 20 million copies sold combined) as yet another proof of the miraculous power of the Jabez prayer. In other words, it worked for Jabez, it worked for the author, and now it should work for the reader. Wilkinson learned though, when he attempted to rescue a million AIDS orphans in Africa, that it wasn't as simple as praying the right words with a pure heart. After a move to Africa, he eventually resigned from his own charity in a huff, leaving many disappointed people.
Some people of faith, who pray devoutly receive great material blessings, while many others have ended up in the dens of lions or stoned due to their principled living. God hears prayer, and loves profoundly, but prayer does not always bring material riches or expanded territory. C.S. Lewis said, that he prayed not to change God, but to change himself.
The theology behind the Prayer of Jabez implies that social structures are immaterial. It implies that a person reciting the right prayer can transcend an AIDS epidemic or escape being sold into slavery. To bring blessings to the orphans and widows of Africa, a dramatic shift in values - political, economic, and personal - will be required. And that challenge cannot be owned by Africans alone; it falls squarely on the shoulders of us in rich nations, who enjoy such great material "blessings." What we can pray is, "Your Kingdom come"-may Your longings be ours, and may we do the work necessary to bring about your justice and peace in the world.
It is more important in prayer to listen, than to speak. When we listen carefully, with the ears of our hearts open, we will know steadfast love. God's steadfast love is the kind of love that sees us through weakness, confusion, complaint, temptation, sin and defeat. This kind of love is not sentimental or easily duped. It works in relationship. It is creative. When options appear to be limited or closed or when meaning has collapsed, steadfast love creates a way to open our experiences to new horizons of meaning and fulfillment. As the psalmist wrote,
"Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other."
This month, while I was at Ghost Ranch, a wonderful Presbyterian retreat center in New Mexico, I learned the Casa del Sol Lord's prayer. We prayed it every morning, a small community of God's people, singing quietly as the sun rose on the day. We prayed that "God's longings be ours" and that we be led into new beginnings. I'd like to teach you that prayer this morning:
Ground of all being. . .
Mother of life. . .
Father of the universe, Your name is sacred, beyond speaking.
May we know your presence. . .
May your longings be ours. . .
Our longings in heart and action.
May there be food. . .
For the human family today. . .
For the whole earth's community.
Forgive us the falseness. . .
Of what we have done. . .
As we forgive those who are untrue to us.
Do not forsake us. . .
In our time of conflict. . .
But lead us into new beginnings.
For the light of life. . .
The vitality of life. . .
And the glory of life are yours, now and forever. Amen.
What would the world be like? What would our lives be like if we opened them gladly to God? What if we heard and saw that God persists for us? What if we answered "yes"? What does God want you to persist in? What if, as a community, we made God's longings our own? What would our lives and the world be like then?