When Prayer is Hard: July 24, 2022

July 24, 2022

 Year C, Pentecost 7                                 Luke 11: 1-13 and Genesis 18:20-32                               

            Every Sunday, we have two collects at the beginning of our service. The word collect is the Episcopal (fancy) was to say, “Opening prayer.”  We begin with the Collect of Purity which is the same every Sunday.  A few minutes after, we have the collect for the day which is unique every week and reflects some of the themes of the readings. There is a pattern to every collect, an anatomy of a collect. Every collect begins by addressing the name of God. It then acknowledges the character of God. 

            For example, today’s collect begins with the very simple “O God.” That’s the address.  The collect then goes on to acknowledge the character of God by saying, “The protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy.”  Obviously there are many ways that we can describe the character of God.  This week, the author of the collect chose to focus on protection and trust. 

Now I don’t know about you, but when I make up my own prayers, I almost never start by acknowledging the character of God.  I figure, God knows what God is like.  Why do I need to describe God to God?  Yet there is a long tradition of this in our prayers and in the Psalms.  We even see it to a small extent in the way Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Father, hallowed be your name.”

            By teaching his disciples to start with “Father” he is suggesting a very familiar form of address, a more familiar form than Jewish prayers would have used at this time. In many ways the address itself is also an acknowledgment of the character of God.  Because what is a father?  A father is a parent, hopefully a loving parent who will listen to his children.  Jesus goes on to make the character description even clearer.  This is not just any ordinary father.  This is a father who is holy—whose very name is holy. That is what hallowed means.  This father’s name is holy and worthy of our respect and adoration.

            Why did Jesus teach this prayer?  Was he hoping it would be the one prayer that would unite all Christians across denominations? That is what happened, but I am not sure it was his intention. The disciples did ask him to teach them how to pray.  Consequently a lot of people read this Gospel story and conclude Jesus is prescribing a method of prayer.  However, I am not sure that Jesus was teaching how to pray as much as he was emphasizing the importance of knowing and understanding who we are praying to.  If you look at the parables that follow the teaching of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus isn’t telling stories of ways to pray.   The parables speak to the character of God. 

            It’s the same with the reading from the Old Testament. This reading from Genesis almost seems like we are hearing two people barter. God had decided that Sodom and Gomorrah was an evil city (this was before the angels were sent down to investigate by the way.)  However since God was a just God, he sent a few angels down to do some reconnaissance for him.  Right after he sent them, we have our reading from today where Abraham barters with him.  He knows that God will probably destroy the whole city, but he also knows that God is just and merciful.  In talking to God, Abraham appeals to this characteristic of God.  He says things like, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” Here we have Abraham talking directly to the Lord Almighty, but interestingly he uses the same method of prayer as Jesus taught his disciples and the same ones we use in our collects.  He appealed to God’s character. 

            Was it because God needed a reminder of his own character?  I don’t think so.  I believe it was more of a reminder to Abraham.  Abraham had to remember that despite the power that God wielded (the power to create and destroy), he was still a just and merciful God.

            I have to admit that I struggle with the end of this Gospel reading.  “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find…”  I struggle because this is not always my experience of prayer and I don’t think its many people’s experience of prayer. Of course we do have prayers that are answered in beautiful and miraculous ways. But sometimes, our most ardent prayers are not answered, not in the way we hope.

Now, there are people who say that God always answers, but sometimes the answer is no.  And that makes sense a lot of the time.  But what about for the spouse or parent who is dying a horrible death and your prayer is that death can come quickly so as not to prolong the agony.? Why in the world would the answer be no?  Or what about for the 4 year old going through chemo?  The family prays the chemo will work and the child still dies.  How could the answer to that prayer be no?  I don’t know.  And I have to tell you, as a clergy person, those questions haunt me.  Because I want to be able to read this text: “Ask and it will be given to you…” with conviction, but I waffle a little. 

            Which is why I think that when we talk about prayer, the focus cannot be on how we pray or even the outcome of the prayer, but the God we are praying to …the character of God.   As I mentioned earlier, in my personal prayers…I don’t usually start by describing God.  However, while I was working on this sermon, I thought I would give it a shot.  I started with a low stakes thing. Joshua was having his first sleepover.  It was 11:30 and Joshua’s friend was passed out on the floor.  Joshua was wide awake.  I started, “Dear God, who loves me and wants me to sleep…who believes that in returning and rest we are saved, please make my kid go to sleep…”  While it was not immediately effective, I found it comforting. It made me feel less alone in that moment.

            Prayer is a really difficult thing.  When I was in the hospital, I found it extraordinarily hard to pray. When I got home there were dozens of cards from people telling me that they were praying for me, and that meant so much. It reminded me of how important the church community is.  Because when we don’t have the strength to pray, we have others praying for us. 

            That is one of the reasons why we have baptisms on Sunday mornings, so the whole community can pray for the child.  Thad and his family don’t live locally (yet), but for now, Thad will be a baptized member of St. John’s.  And when you find a new community, we will rejoice with you. There will be difficult times as parents, as a family, but please know that you are not meant to do this alone.  God wants you to have a community of the faithful, to be there when you aren’t strong enough to pray on your own—to remind you that our God is a loving God who believes in the importance of rest and restoration.  Our God is a holy God who loves us even more than we love our children or our most cherished friend.  Imagine that—a God who loves us more than we love anyone on this earth. That is a God worth praying to.