July 28, 2013
Dear Jesus, friend of little children, be a friend to me. Take my hand and keep me ever close to thee.
Dear Jesus, thank you for this food. Ask thy blessing upon it. Amen.
I inherited these prayers from my grandmother on my mother’s side. What little I know about them is that she started praying them long before I came along. The first prayer was the prayer I said every night before I went to bed as a little girl. I have no memory of when I learned to pray it. I just always did.
The second prayer was my family’s table grace. We said it – we still say it – before every meal. Again, I don’t have any memory of learning this prayer either. It’s just something I’ve said for as long as I can remember. I prayed both of these prayers long before my memory of them took hold.
I suspect that Gramma may have prayed those prayers with my mother and her brothers when they were little. I never questioned their origins when I was growing up. They were an just integral part of my childhood. We said them whenever we sat at table together, and my dad and I would say them each night. Just as they were my first prayers, I assume they were the first prayers for my sister and brother as well. In turn, we’ve all taught them to our children.
They were distinctive to our family. I had other friends who said grace before meals just as mine did, but no one I knew said the same prayer that we said. My friends understood that if they were going to eat with the Busse family you were going to say that “Dear Jesus” prayer before you got to eat.
I’ve never thought about the theological soundness of these two prayers. When I became a Presbyterian I quickly realized that we don’t often pray to Jesus specifically. My Gramma was a good Swedish Baptist and I’m sure that’s where that language came from. But regardless of their theological correctness, these prayers are precious to me. They are a link to my grandmother. Praying them taught me how to pray.
Today’s gospel is a lesson in praying. Jesus is noted as praying in a certain place. I’m not sure the geography of this place matters so much as the fact that Jesus set aside both a time and place to pray. When he was finished one of the disciples asked him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. Just as my family became known, in a small way, by the prayers we said, at that time teachers and disciples were also known by their prayers. The disciples of John must have had a unique prayer that only he could have taught them. It would have marked them as his disciples. So Jesus’ disciples want that same distinction. If Jesus teaches them a specific prayer, then there would be no mistaking them for anyone else but his disciples.
Jesus responded by teaching them these words, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Although it’s not exactly the same, this provides the basis for the prayer we’ll be praying a little later in the service – The Lord’s Prayer. A version of this prayer is also found in the gospel of Matthew. But Matthew’s context is very different from Luke’s. In Matthew’s gospel the prayer is taught as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is warning his disciples not to make a show of their religious piety. “Don’t be like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so everyone can see them and see how pious and righteous they are. Instead pray in secret. And when you pray, don’t worry about heaping up empty phrases, just pray these words.”
Luke’s context is different. As I said, Jesus has been praying “in a certain place.” His disciples want to be taught as John taught. They want something distinctive. It was not unheard of for rabbis to teach their students particular prayers to be used over and over again. So, Jesus, do what the other rabbis do. Teach us to pray.
Luke’s gospel emphasizes the point that Jesus spent a great deal of time in prayer. It was prayer that kept him close to his Father. It was prayer that kept him on the course he knew he had to be on. Jesus prayed. And his disciples want to know how to pray as he does. Teach us to pray.
It’s also interesting that the teaching of the prayer follows on the heels of two stories about discipleship, the Good Samaritan and Martha and Mary. I spoke last week about the importance of reading those two stories together as a way to grasp the fullness of what it means to be a disciple. You must both do and be, and the foundation of both the doing and the being is in prayer. You’ve taught us about doing, Jesus, and you’ve taught us about being. Now, teach us to pray.
So Jesus did just that.
If this prayer is to be a mark of distinctiveness for Jesus’ disciples, what makes it distinctive? When they pray these words, what do they say about them? What do these words say about their teacher? What do they say about God?
The coming of Jesus is the sign of God’s reign, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the age of humans. “Your kingdom come” could be a reminder to the disciples to always look beyond the world that meets their eyes and see the realm of God that is in their midst. It is a reminder that with Jesus the coming of the kingdom has happened. It is right there.
In her commentary on this passage, Professor Elizabeth Johnson writes that the prayer is said in a passive voice. “The passive voice indicates that we ask God to hallow God’s own name, to act in such a way that God’s name is held in honor. The petitions that follow flesh out what this means. When God’s name is hallowed and God’s kingdom comes, there is daily bread for all, forgiveness is practiced, and God delivers the faithful from the time of trial.”[i]
Jesus doesn’t just teach them this prayer; he goes on to tell them a story. “Suppose one of you has a friend,” he says. It’s midnight, but another friend has arrived at your door and you have nothing to offer this guest. You go to the first friend and ask to borrow three loaves of bread. But instead of jumping up and helping you, your friend tells you to stop bothering him. The door is locked. The family is all snuggled up in bed. He can’t get up. He can’t give you anything. But the one who is in need is persistent. He doesn’t go away. If the man doesn’t give bread to him out of friendship, at least he will give bread because of the man’s persistence.
Jesus further illumines this need for persistence by using words that are quite familiar. “Ask, seek, knock.” If a child asks a parent for a fish, the little one won’t be given snakes instead. Or if a child asks for an egg, he won’t be given a scorpion. Be persistent.
The implication, as I see it, is that if we are persistent in our prayers, if we pray hard enough, long enough, we’ll get what we want. But how many times have I, have you, prayed persistently for something only to have that prayer go unanswered? I’m not talking about praying for something mercenary or self-serving, such as “Dear Lord, shower me with money.” I’m talking about persistent prayers like, “Dear Lord, please help my friend not die from cancer.” And how often, no matter how persistently I pray, does the prayer go unanswered? I pray for my friend, but my friend dies anyway.
Right after the tornados wreaked their devastation, I was in a group of folks trying to process all that had happened. A man spoke up and said that he heard that at one of the elementary schools in Moore, all the children began to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” As the storm raged more fiercely, they sang more loudly. And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, their school remained unharmed. Every child returned to their loved ones that night. But the children and teachers at the other elementary school obviously didn’t and we know what happened there, don’t we?
He said this as though it was absolute proof that if you are just persistent enough, God will answer your prayers. I was so shocked and appalled I couldn’t find the words to respond. His assessment meant the tornados were no longer a terrible occurrence of nature, but a new sort of Passover. The children and teachers who prayed persistently, who prayed correctly were saved, while those who didn’t weren’t.
Be persistent. Yet when prayers seem to go unanswered or worse, unheard, we are often left with two choices. We blame God for being cruel or completely absent. Or we blame ourselves. If only we had prayed more persistently or correctly or used different words, the result would have turned out differently. Prayer becomes a grocery list of needs that go unfulfilled or merely a way to manipulate an arbitrary God. Often we try to explain unanswered prayer by saying that sometimes God’s answer is no. Or God answers prayer in God’s time, not ours. Both of these explanations have merit, but neither is fully satisfactory. Not to me anyway. If I am persistent, why does it seem that so many of my prayers remain unanswered?
I have no answer to the question of unanswered prayer. But one thing I learned in studying this passage is that a better translation from the Greek for the word we read as persistent is shameless. Jesus isn’t instructing the disciples to persist in their prayers as much as he is teaching them to be shameless in their prayers. Shameless can have negative connotations, but it seems to me that in this case it means something else. To be shameless in our prayers is to be bold, audacious. Dare to pray big, unembarrassed and unabashed. Pray shamelessly. Puts a different spin on it, doesn’t it? Be shameless. Be unembarrassed in your belief and trust that God listens to our prayers, to us. Be shameless in your conviction that God is with us, no matter what. Be shameless in trusting that prayer isn’t about manipulation or thwarting God from some other plan. It isn’t just listing out what we want or don’t want, need or don’t need. Be shameless in believing that being in prayer with God is being in relationship with God. There are different kinds of prayers – prayers of thanksgiving, praise, confession and petition. But they are all based on the belief that we are in relationship with God. We are in relationship with a parent who loves us, cares for us, listens to us, aches for us, suffers with us. So be shameless in prayer because no matter what the outcome, God is with us. Let all God’s children shamelessly say, “Amen.”