Of prayer and foundations

A sermon by John A. Bolt

First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, WV

July 28, 2013

Scripture passage: Luke 11:1-13

Today’s Gospel lesson comes from Luke, Chapter 11, verses 1-13, and is one of two versions in the Bible of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s just one of many times in Luke when prayer is discussed, but of course this prayer is different from any of the others, and it’s one we say every Sunday. But there are more verses after the prayer. In the translation we most often use, the New Revised Standard Version, those additional versions are under the subtitle Perseverance in Prayer.

I like to think of myself as a modern kind of fellow, not tied unnecessarily to the ways of the past, even the ways of five minutes ago. In fact, I once had one of my staffers at The Associated Press in Charleston tell me I liked change for change’s sake. I denied it, but frankly there is an element of truth in that. I like to have the newest technology – even if I don’t understand it – or maybe even really need it. I like new things, pretty much whatever they are.

Here, let me show you. Even though it can be quite addictive, I enjoy using social media and being connected 24-7, checking in on Foursquare – I’m the “mayor” here, in case you didn’t know – and if you have no clue what that means, ask a teenager.

In fact, I think I’ll do that right now, and include a picture of all you folks looking back at me. …

A blurry photo I took from the pulpit.

A blurry photo I took from the pulpit.

See I just proved I’m up with the latest stuff, know how to use it, and can even bring it into church, although I’m not sure how I feel about tweeting during worship,

even though my son did it when I preached his installation service at First Presbyterian in Nebraska City, NE recently. And I don’t quite trust technology enough to put my sermon on my iPad instead of good old paper. My son does when he preaches, but I can’t bring myself to cut that cord.

So I’m all for change, except, I must confess, when it comes to worship. I’m pretty much a Bach, Beethoven and Brahms kinda’ guy. I guess the reason for that, as much as anything, is because I don’t think we have done a good job sharing with most people the foundations of the past that give us the flexibility and grounding on which we can build new things.

That reminds me of one of my favorite jokes: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? (Come on, now, ask me:… How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?)

CHANGE!!!???

Seriously, though, I think it’s important to understand the past – warts and all – to appreciate the present and help create the future. Is some of the language challenging? You bet. So what?

Discussing and unpacking that challenging language can be one way to help those new to the faith understand, and frankly appreciate, that our faith is not static. It is evolving, indeed that we have been dealing with some of these issues for a very long time – and in fact we might discover that some of those dusty, old, archaic phrases and concepts are perhaps more modern than we give them credit for.

That is part of what an understanding of the basics provides. It helps us to understand why we believe what we believe and do what we do. One of those basics is the need for prayer, and the seriousness of it and the ways and reasons we pray.

John Calvin spends a good deal of time in the foundational Institutes of the Christian Religion talking about prayer.

Early in the discussion on prayer, Calvin says, “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable. Surely, with good reason the Heavenly Father affirms that the only stronghold of safety is in calling upon his name.” (Calvin 851)

This is one of those places where we stumble across one of those language issues I mentioned. The Institutes were written first in Latin and then in French, by a Frenchman in the mid-16th Century. Both Latin and French address gender, so the same word can change to reflect maleness, femaleness or neither. I remember those good ole Latin declensions of nouns and modifiers I had to learn to reflect that, and more.

English, generally, does not. So while Calvin often used those neutral words in discussing humankind, or non-gender specific references, when it got translated to English, “man” replaced those distinctions, and has come to be a stumbling block for many. In some of the following I toyed with trying to fix that, but it just got clumsy and a bit comic. So I ask you to, when you hear “man,” think “human.” And I’ll talk a bit more about “Father” in a few minutes.

(Just an aside here: the definitive English translation of the Institutes was by Ford Lewis Battles in 1960 – and it has been the standard ever since. Why mention that? Battles graduated from West Virginia University in 1935 with bachelor’s degrees in Latin and English before being named a Rhodes Scholar while a graduate student at Tufts University. His uncle, Friend Clark, was chairman of WVU’s chemistry department and Clark Hall, the home of the chemistry department, is named for him. That’s your WVU trivia for today.)

Calvin, as translated by Battles, continues on, saying that in praying:

[W]e invoke the presence both of his [that is God’s] providence, through which he watches over and guards our affairs, and of his power, through which he sustains us, weak as we are and well-nigh overcome, and of his goodness, through which he receives us, miserably burdened with sins, unto grace; and, in short, it is by prayer that we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us. Hence comes an extraordinary peace and repose to our consciences. (Calvin 851)

When I was putting together this sermon, I considered showing a video from a YouTube series called mr. diety. There is an episode on prayer, but I decided not to show it for a couple of reasons: one, I’m not sure it would be truly appropriate for worship – it is fairly irreverent and even heretical, perhaps, in some places. (That’s why I highly recommend you searching for it on YouTube and watching some.) Second, and more practically, we seem not to be able to seamlessly incorporate videos in our space so their use becomes more distracting than illuminating.

(I didn’t show it during worship, but here it is:

The main reason this particular installment is worth checking out comes when the God character – mr. diety – causally deletes the billions of voicemails, i.e. prayers, from his phone without listening to them, all the while reading the book “Why Darwin Matters.” This comes as a big shock to Jesse, i.e. Jesus.

“Sir, what are you doing,” Jesse says.

“Ok, I know that looks bad,” mr. diety says, then goes on to explain, “Prayer is not for me … it’s great for them, it gets ’em focused on what’s important, it’s meditative … plus it’s a chance to connect to me.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why prayer is important. Even Calvin says so: God “ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours.” (Calvin 852)

Here’s how one commentary describes it:

Talking to God is like family conversation where you express yourself unselfconsciously with the confidence that you will be heard and understood. And it is the life of prayer, of communion with God, that enables us to live out the consequences of our baptismal freedom without regard for the opinions of the elemental spirits of the culture. Prayer, then, is not a means of getting something; it is a way of being in relationship to God, and Christians ignore it to their own loss, since Jesus describes his Father in terms that come close to being an easy touch. (Soard, Dozeman and McCabe 103)

So how, then, are we to pray?

Once more from Calvin – again, because it is so important in my view to pull from the past to help understand why certain things are the way they are in our worship and theology. He outlines what he calls four “rules of right prayer:”

Paraphrased, they are:

  • Heartfelt sense of reverence;
  • Heartfelt sense of need and repentence;
  • Heartfelt sense of humility and trust in God;
  • And a heartfelt sense of confident hope. (Beeke)

Calvin wants us to focus, listen and trust God, so what better resource on how to construct a prayer and prayer life that helps us do that than by listening to Jesus.

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

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.

What are we to do with the word “Father?” I know many people find this language to be a barrier, and I confess it took me a while to appreciate why, but I understand that now and am sensitive to it.

But it’s important to understand that this is not some confirmation of the maleness of God, but it is a description of how we should understand the closeness and intimacy of our relationship with God.

As commentator Charles Cousar puts it, by saying “Our Father,” Jesus is inviting the disciples – and that includes you and me – “to pray with the same familiarity that Jesus prayed. The fact that the one to whom [we] pray can be thought of in such an intimate way markedly affects the confidence in which [we] offer [our] prayers.” (Cousar, Gaventa and McCann 447)

And Shirley Guthrie, in his classic book Christian Doctrine, says this:

Perhaps we can best summarize the two sides of God with the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer. We may call God ‘our Father,’ one of the most familiar, intimate relationships we know. (Remembering that scripture can also compare God with a mother, we could also call God ‘our Mother,’ also one of the most familiar, intimate relationships we know.) Yet God is our Father (or Mother) ‘in heaven’ – above us, beyond us, foreign to us, different from us and everything and everyone we know. (Guthrie 102)

So Jesus instructs us to pray as if to a loving parent. It’s interesting to note that there is nothing in this prayer that extols or praises God. “It contains no adoration, thanksgiving or confession, only five requests for God to do something. The disciples are being taught what their real needs are and to whom they need to go for satisfaction. God in turn is being asked to fulfill the promises previously made regarding God’s name and reign and regarding the care and protection of God’s people.” (Cousar, Gaventa and McCann 447)

I’m not going to discuss each of those petitions at length, because in the end this is not a sermon about the Lord’s Prayer, but about prayer in general, as exemplified by the Lord’s Prayer. There is more material available than one person can possibly examine breaking down each word and phrase, so I’ll leave that much further study to you. Just don’t neglect some resources such as The Larger and Shorter Catechism from the Westminster Confession of Faith.

I want, instead, to move to the end of today’s passage from Luke. Jesus follows up his instructions on how to pray with the story of what’s been called the “importunate friend.” I had to look up “importunate.” It means “troublesomely urgent: overly persistent in request or demand.”

Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

So is God the friend who won’t come to the door until we persist in asking? No, that’s why we have to read on.

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? [And here’s the important part:] 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 him!

Once again, as is so often the case, we can’t really understand what is being said here unless we transport ourselves back in time to First Century Palestine and the society and customs in place then.

One of the highest values of the time – perhaps as there should be now – was hospitality. It would have been understood, in that time, that if a friend asked for bread, it would be given. So to better understand this parable, some suggest that the word translated as persistence would better be translated “shamelessness” or “avoidance of shame.” (Cousar, Gaventa and McCann 447)

In other words, we should understand that the friend did not break down and give his “troublesomely urgent” neighbor the bread because of that persistence, but because he was afraid of what the community would think of him if he did not.

But still, that is not God. This is where God is in that story: “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 him!” And let me note that is not a question, but ends with an exclamation mark. It is a statement. A statement of fact! From Jesus! What more do you want?

“Lord, teach us how to pray.”

By recognizing that God is as close to us and as loving as the best example of a parent could be. By taking a deep breath and listening. By realizing that we are connected to God in a way we can’t explain. And by hoping, always hoping.

And by realizing and understanding that this need for prayer is as old as humanity, has been refined and contemplated through the ages. Is not some creation of a newfound “spiritual, but not religious” sensibility.

It is, in the words of Charles Cousar, “rooted in the kindliness and generosity of God, thus making it possible for even unworthy, stumbling disciples to offer petitions for their journey. What they receive is the Spirit, the ultimate resource for mission.” (Cousar, Gaventa and McCann 448)

To God along be the glory. Please join me in prayer:

Our Father, our Mother, our Sister, our Brother, we pray together in reverence, in need, in trust and in hope, that we can listen, and hear, and believe (even if just a little bit), and serve. We ask in the name of your son Jesus, the Christ, Amen.

Works Cited

Beeke, Joel. John Calvin’s 4 Rules of Prayer. 2013. 26 July 2013 <http://www.ligonier.org/blog/john-calvins-rules-prayer/>.

Calvin, Jean. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960. 2 vols.

Cousar, Charles B., et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year C. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Guthrie, Shirley C. Christian Doctrine (revised edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Soard, Marion, Thomas Dozeman and Kendall McCabe. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year C, After Pentecost 1. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

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