Sunday, July 28, 2013

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Genesis 18:(17-19) 20-33
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]
Luke 11:1-13

And it came to pass, as he was praying in a certain place, that when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples.

I make prayer beads. I make two different types of prayer beads which I use as gifts or occasionally sell at craft fairs. I’ve even created a pamphlet about prayer and how to use the beads. I use the gifts and craft fairs as an opportunity to talk about prayer and the devotional life. I see it as a ministry, another way to help Christians grow closer to God.

This ministry wasn’t received well the first time I took my beads to a church craft fair. Some of the ladies were offended by them. “We don’t do that.” “We don’t need those.” I explained that I came from the same denominational background and that we can indeed use them, but many of the ladies rejected me outright, not only refusing to buy the prayer beads, but ignoring the other products I had for sale.

I have found in the years that it is important to talk about how to pray with one another. Those conversations are often the same, with people talking about the times and places that they pray. Most families with children talk about prayer times at dinner and bedtime. I’ve heard (and told) stories about praying while driving in the car and while doing the dishes. There are always those who talk about praying all day long, as if God were always there.

It is good to teach our children to pray. The dinner table and nighttime prayers are a great way to bond with our children, to help them see how God has provided for our most basic needs. We use those times to pray with thanksgiving, to worship God and praise Him for His faithfulness. We use that time to raise our needs and concerns to Him. This is good.

It is also good to be prayerful throughout our day. God is always with us, so it makes sense to have conversations in those moments when our hands our moving but our mind is not engaged. Some of my best conversations with God have happened at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel. I have to admit that those prayers are often for safety, since it seems everyone on the roads these days are insane (I’m being a bit facetious!) but those are also quiet moments when I think about the world and my neighbor. I’m reminded of the sick every time I pass a hospital and about specific people when I see stores that sell things they like. I pray when I see emergency vehicles and school buses. A trip to the grocery store can be an awesome adventure in intercession as I see the needs of so many in the passing world. It is good to pray this way.

But is this enough? Is it enough to be in constant conversation with God, knowing that He is right beside us the whole way? While there are some people who find time away from the hustle and bustle of the world to spend time in quiet prayer and contemplation, most people pray on the go. We are too busy and we think that it is enough to recognize God’s daily presence in our lives and talk to Him as a friend who never leaves our side. We think it is ok to raise up a million prayers at the spur of every moment during our day. And yet, Jesus, who was God in flesh, managed to find time alone to pray. He knew He needed that time to focus solely and completely on the work of prayer. He knew that He had to stop doing so that He could not only speak to God, but could also hear what He has to say. Why do we think we can pray any better than Jesus?

And here’s something else to consider. If it is enough to be in constant conversation with the God who walks with us, why did the disciples, who truly did constantly walk and talk with Immanuel, ask Him to “teach us to pray.” Jesus knew, and the disciples knew, that a powerful prayer life was more than conversation with a friend who is by our side. It is a time to stop, to worship, to praise, to thank, to intercede, to listen, to contemplate God’s Word. We might be able to do all that at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel of our automobile, but is that really the kind of relationship we want to build with our Father? Doesn’t He deserve our undivided attention for at least a few minutes of our day?

And so we are encouraged to set aside time specifically for prayer. Make an appointment. Establish a place. Turn off any distractions. Use tools that help you keep focused. Prayer beads are just one type of tool that we can use during our prayer time to help us. I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that my mind often wanders when I’m praying. I begin focused and with a list of things I want to talk about with God, and I get a good start until I hear the ticking clock or the phone rings. I remember that I need to make a shopping list for later that afternoon and remind myself that I need to buy milk. I think about my kids and say a prayer for them, but then I think about how I haven’t heard from them in a few days. I hear a siren in the distance and I wonder what’s going on. That reminds me that I need to go to the post office. You see how it goes? Does any of this happen to you?

There may be no way of avoiding some of these mind wanderings, but we can use all the tools available to us to help keep us focused. It is said that the more of your body you get involved in any activity, the better you are able to focus and to retain what you’ve experienced. This is as true about prayer as it is any other activity. This is why prayer altars include candles and incense, beads, music, icons. Engaging all our senses helps us keep our focus on the task at hand: prayer.

And so, I encourage people to use something like prayer beads to enhance their prayer life. Of course, there are many who do not want to use such tools because they’ve seen others who have used them in a way that has no value. They become a crutch, the prayers become rote. That is not the fault of the beads; it is the person praying who must use these tools properly.

The Lord’s Prayer is another tool. Like the prayer beads, many refuse to use the prayer because it has become too familiar. “I’d rather speak to God from my heart.” They don’t want their prayers to be heartless. Sadly, the Lord’s Prayer as we’ve all been taught can become rote. It can become heartless. It can become empty words without understanding. This, again, is not a problem with the words as Jesus taught us, but with our own focus and attention on the conversation.

It is a useful tool for us to use, but in this text Jesus is giving us the themes of our prayers. We begin with God, first recognizing Him and submitting ourselves to His will. We ask God for what we need, and in this Jesus reminds us that we do not need anything beyond today. We ask for forgiveness and then we commit ourselves to living as forgiven people. Forgiven people understand that our sins against God are far worse than anything anyone has done to us and if God can forgive our debts, then we certainly can forgive the debts of others. Finally, we ask God to give us the strength to avoid the temptations of this world.

If our prayer time is limited, then these words help us to focus our prayers on the things that truly matter. There are a million particulars that we can pray about, and God certainly wants us to ask, but Jesus teaches us to pray about the root of faithful living: praise and thanksgiving, supplication, confession and absolution, sanctification.

He also teaches us to be persistent. After teaching the disciples the roots of prayer, He tells them a story. Now, the wording of this particular text is always a bit confusing to me. I have to read it several times for it to be clear. Jesus says, “Imagine that visitors arrive at your door in the middle of the night and you have nothing to give them.” Remember last week we learned how important it was to provide hospitality in those days? The people who were listening would have identified with this story. Jesus continues, “So, you go to your neighbor and knock on his door, begging for something to give your guests because you don’t even have a loaf of bread in your house.” He tells them that even though the neighbor will not get up to give you a loaf of bread because you are his friend, he will do so because you are cheeky enough to go to interrupt his sleep.

In this Jesus is saying, “Go ahead. Be cheeky. Call God Daddy and seek His grace. It’s ok. God will answer the door.”

The story from the Old Testament lesson sees this impudence carried out by Abraham. After feeding the LORD and His companions, Abraham walks them to the edge of his camp. They talk about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Some versions of the lectionary do not include verses 17-19, but I think it is an interesting part of the story. In it God, thinking to Himself, wonders if he should tell Abraham about what is about to happen. After all, he’s headed for Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy it because of their sin. But God knows that He has chosen Abraham to be the leader of many people, the father of nations. Telling Abraham about the plans for Sodom and Gomorrah will give Abraham the opportunity to act as a leader. How will he respond? Will he say, “Yep, they are nasty people. Have fun with that.” Or will he concern himself with the innocents?

God tells Abraham that the cry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great. “I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.” I like this. It is very comforting. God isn’t taking the word of those who are crying out against Sodom and Gomorrah. He’s going to go see for Himself what’s happening. God makes decisions based on His knowledge, on His mercy, on His grace.

Unfortunately, we aren’t so gracious these days. We take the word of others without really looking at the situation fully. We hear gossip and we believe it. We take early reports on the news and we think they have all the information. By the time the whole story is revealed, we have made a decision to condemn someone even though they are not guilty. I find comfort in knowing that God is not going to believe my enemy without first seeing for Himself whether their cries are true. And we should consider His example as we listen to gossip and uninformed reports before we make a judgment against someone.

Abraham knows that his nephew Lot is in that city, and though he has most likely heard the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sinfulness, too, he also knows that there are at least a few people in those cities that do not deserve to be destroyed. “Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked?”

There are unintended consequences that come with our prayers. We may have every reason to ask God to sweep away our enemies. We’ve been hurt; we have suffered. We know that God will take vengeance on those who harm His people. We want to ask Him to deal with them, and perhaps God will answer that prayer. However, we do not always know how our desires will impact others. Even our enemies have families. They have spouses and children. They have people who rely on them. They have daily responsibilities. They have debts that need to be paid. Wiping our enemies off the face of the earth might solve one problem, but how will it destroy the lives of innocents?

And so, we are cautioned when praying to ask God, “Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham negotiates with God on this hilltop. He asks if God will destroy the cities if there are fifty righteous people. God agrees to leave the city intact if there are fifty. Abraham goes on to ask whether He will do it if there are forty-five or forty. What impudence!

But Abraham approaches God humbly. He knows he’s nothing. He knows he’s dust and ashes. But he knows God will listen. “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall thirty be found there.” The Lord agrees to spare the city if there are thirty. Abraham doesn’t let it go with that; he asks God if He will be merciful if there are only twenty or ten. God agrees. Unfortunately for Sodom and Gomorrah, the LORD does not find ten righteous people in the cities. He helps Lot and his family escape and then sends the brimstone to burn it to the ground. But in this story we see how God is willing to listen to our prayers and perhaps even change His mind if we are cheeky enough to ask.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” There is great responsibility in this statement. Do we cry out against the sins of our neighbors knowing that God will deal with them? Or do we, like Abraham, consider those who may be destroyed and beg God for mercy on their behalf? If we use the Lord’s Prayer as the foundation of our prayer life, our prayers will be focused on doing what is good and right and true, not what will satisfy our fleshly desires.

God knows what is right. Jesus makes one more point in the Gospel lesson. “And of which of you that is a father shall his son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” God is going to give us good gifts. He is going to give us what we need most.

What we need most is the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit as part of our life, our prayers and our actions will always be focused on God’s Will and whatever is best for His Kingdom.

Paul writes, “As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” When we look around at the Church today, we see that there are a great many diverse ideas about what it means to be a Christian. Some think there is value to the use of prayer tools; others think that those tools are nothing more than crutches or memorized words.

There were differences in the early days, too, when the Apostles were building new congregations and establishing the doctrines and practices we follow today. They faced many difficulties. Every city had false prophets who taught a false Gospel. It was no different in Colossus. The false teachers denied the divinity of Christ and they required obedience to ceremonial practices.

Paul wrote to the Colossians to make it clear that this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. This attitude reduces Christ to little more than a good person and raises humans to a level equal to the angels, even inferring that for men to be able to worship God they must become pure and perfect spiritual beings without imperfect flesh. This rejection of all things of the earth also separates us from the love of God given through Jesus Christ because it puts the human ability to be saved above the saving grace of God. Rejection of anything tangible that enhances our prayer life makes us appear to be superhuman. “Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” If the disciples who really did walk with Jesus on a daily basis needed to ask Him how to pray, then who are we to suggest we can do it better without help?

The psalmist understands our need to pray without distraction. When we focus our hearts, minds and bodies on God, we are more likely to hear His voice and recognize with great joy the touch of His hand. We’ll learn to pray rightly so that we’ll ask His Will not our own. It doesn’t matter what helps us focus; we will see and hear and experience Him fully as we use our senses, hearts and minds. The psalmist writes, “In the day that I called thou answeredst me, Thou didst encourage me with strength in my soul.” With these words, the writer recognizes the incredible grace of God in this world. He does answer our prayers. He seeks to do the right thing. He searches the truth and accomplishes what is best for His Kingdom. He has taught us to ask, to be persistent, to be cheeky. He encourages us to seek and to knock and has promised that He’ll be there to open the door. He will, as the psalmist writes, “…perfect that which concerneth me.” His love endures forever and He will complete His work in our lives.

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