Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
July 28, 2013
Scripture: Luke 11:1-13 and Psalm 85
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1Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Jesus 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.” 2Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And he said to them, “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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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.
9“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. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches – finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
“Let us Pray…But Why?”
Just over a week ago I got back from our youth mission trip to NYC where our youth and adults spent time feeding the poor and homeless and helping to rebuild after hurricane Sandy. We served meals, we cleaned dishes, we listened to life stories… we pulled out nails, we ripped out door and window frames, we carried away debris, we hauled over 3000 gallons of bottled water… we ate lots of ice cream, we stood in Times Square, we enjoyed great pizza, we lounged in Central Park and we saw a Broadway show.
We experienced a lot during our time in the city, but now, a week later, the piece that lingers most vividly in my heart is our visit to the Brooklyn Tabernacle for worship and Bible Study. Around 1500 people packed into a gilded Broadway theater style sanctuary on a Tuesday night… some grubby from serving all day, some coming straight from work…youth groups from all over the country were there… all sorts of people were welcomed just as they were to gather in that place to sing and learn more about God and our part in God’s story.
For me, most of the service felt very familiar, comfortable and expected. For others in our group the songs and style of the message were both unsettling and inviting at the same time. But the one piece of worship there at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that challenged each and every one of us was their practice of prayer.
Early in the service one of their staff members was invited to come and speak to the congregation about a new mission emphasis taking shape in the congregation. This young woman came and spoke to us about a world-wide epidemic. This epidemic is the abduction of young boys and girls. They are simply gone… vanished… sold into the slavery of objectification and used against their wills by those who are seeking to gratify base desires.
She told us about Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, where 300,000 young ones have gone missing. She told us this was a problem right here in NYC and a member from our trip helped us know that this is a problem right here in Ohio. She told us that the Tabernacle’s response to this tragedy was still taking shape, but invited us in the meantime to pray for those 300,000 missing children in Moldova.
At this point the pastor leading the service asked us to stand and turn to our neighbors and get into small groups of two or three, women with women and men with men. He asked us to pray aloud together. He asked the women to pray for those who were missing and the men to pray for the systems that create and perpetuate this problem.
As those in the congregation around us leapt into action, our little row up in the balcony froze. To be fair, another Presbyterian youth group in front of us were also equally frozen. I noticed 11 sets of eyes looking at me, asking, “What do we do?” I turned and started praying with two of our youth. I pray all the time in front of other people…it kinda comes with the territory: I pray in meetings, I pray in worship, I pray in restaurants, but I will admit that I felt awkward in that moment.
On that balcony that night I prayed and I watched as those around us joined hands and started praying, I watched the ease with which they entered into prayer. And then I watched our group and the other youth groups around us as they awkwardly went through the exercise.
Later that night, during our group devotional we talked a lot about that moment and about the purpose of prayer. “Why did we pray for those women?” someone in the group asked. “Why did we pray for the world someone else” asked. “Why did we even pray?” someone else asked. The thought behind those questions: The need was so great, the facts of the situation were so dismal, what possible good could come from prayer?
I don’t share excerpts from these conversations to shame those who were with me in New York, I share them because I think they are all too common. I have had this same conversation with youth and adults of every age in every place I have worked.
This might sound strange to you, but prayer is not an easy thing to do. When you aren’t used to praying all the time, it can feel like you are talking to yourself…You can’t prove someone hears you…most times you can’t see the impact of the prayers you offer; and when you aren’t in the habit it can sometimes…oftentimes feel clumsy, the words don’t flow, it’s easy to feel like you are not doing it right.
I imagine the disciples often felt that way when they were around Jesus. He was always stopping off during their journeys to rest and pray. During his time of prayer the disciples must have somehow noticed the close relationship. Maybe it was his posture, maybe it was the language he used, maybe it was how refreshed and renewed he appeared after he prayed. Whatever it was, the disciples noticed and they wanted to know what it felt like. So one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray…to help them get closer to God like he was.
Jesus sees their hearts desire and responds with some simple words to use that should frame their prayer life…the Lord’s Prayer and in typical Jesus fashion a story to go along with it. Prayer, he says, is like a friend knocking on the door at midnight. A friend, traveling by night to avoid the heat of the day, has arrived at your doorstep looking for food and a place to sleep. You didn’t expect anyone at this hour of night and your refrigerator is empty and your cabinets are bare. Of course the Heinens is closed at that hour so your only option is to bother your neighbors and hope they won’t mind.
You knock on the door…it’s dark, there’s a chill in the air. “Who’s there?” asks your annoyed neighbor.
“So sorry to bother you. I am sure you were asleep, but would you mind if I borrow a loaf of bread, some grapes and maybe some juice? A guest has just arrived unexpectedly and I don’t have any food to share with him.” “Are you kidding? Go away and come back in the morning!” comes the reply. If you listen close enough you can hear your neighbor grumbling on his way back to his bed, “can you believe the nerve?”
But you are desperate…your guest has been traveling all night and is starving and you won’t be turned away.
You knock again, louder and more insistent this time. “Please, friend…I really need some bread and juice to share…I won’t forget this favor.” The groaning grows louder as your neighbor comes to the door, you hear the latch turning, the door opening and then you see the food shoved through the doorway.
You didn’t get what you wanted because the person was feeling particularly friendly towards you. You got what you needed because you were persistent, because you wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Jesus’ point in this story seems to be that the secret to prayer is persistence. The prayer doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be eloquent; you just need to keep talking, to keep asking, to keep lifting before God your heart’s desire.
But why? Why pray? When the world is full of such heartache? Why pray? What good will it do right here and right now to not only talk about it with God, but to KEEP talking about it over and over again? How often do we see our prayers answered when we say “Amen”? The needs of the world and the needs of our lives demand action. Why should we pray?
Pastor and storyteller, Michael Lindvall answers that question for me in one of his stories from his novel Leaving North Haven.
David, the pastor in the story goes to visit Minnie, a 90 year old woman living with Parkinson’s disease. She was recently very ill allowing the parkinson’s to progress rapidly. She is frail and resigned to what lies ahead for her.
David and Minnie begin to talk about prayer after a 10 year old named James tells Minnie that he has asked God to heal Minnie and he is certain that God will answer the prayer because his Sunday School teacher told him that God answers all our prayers. Minnie looks at her pastor and says in a moment of wonderful honesty, “David, the truth is, I hardly know what to pray for anymore. 10 to 12 years ago, when they first said the word, [Parkinson’s] I prayed to be healed. For years, I prayed that God would just take it away. Finally I stopped praying for God to take away the Parkinson’s and started praying bigger prayers. I just tell God what I think and what I feel. I don’t much tell God what to do. I just tell God I’m afraid, afraid for me, afraid for my old fool of a husband. I suppose God knows this already, but my words seem to make it solid”
Together David and Minnie sat in silence and let the words linger in their hearts and then Minnie continued.
“Well, Pastor, don’t worry. This old lady’s prayers have been answered. Not the answers I wanted though. God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear .”
“God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear.”
The power of persistence in prayer. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always eloquent, but Minnie prayed and God answered. Minnie prayed and God worked in those prayers to help Minnie see herself in the very arms of God. God worked through those prayers to create space in Minnie’s heart for acceptance and peace.
It wasn’t what Minnie was expecting, but it was what Minnie needed.
Persistent prayer helps us to see. It helps us to see ourselves more clearly and to experience ourselves being held in the very arms of God. We need to pray persistently in the face of the world’s tough problems because the problems are too big for us to see how to respond. We need to pray persistently for the 30,000 missing to be found. We need to pray persistently for the systems of the world to change… we need to pray for the homeless to have shelter…we need to pray for the sick to find healing…we need to pray persistently so that our fear might be replaced with hope, with peace, with the light of God’s love so that we may see how we are part of God’s solution.
We need to pray persistently because when we pray we put ourselves and others into God’s hands.
And when we put these things into God’s hands, we begin to see more clearly how we are connected one to another; we begin to see more clearly how God is shaping us to respond; when we put these things into God’s hands we begin to see more clearly that God’s doors have no locks, that God’s doors are always open to us; we begin to see and understand that God’s doors are not only open for us, but for those for whom we pray.
It is in our prayers that we begin to understand with whom we stand on that threshold. It is in our prayers that our connections grow one to another and with God. It is in our prayers that our fear is replaced with the hope that God is present and God will act to redeem creation. It is in our prayers that we begin to sense how we are called to participate in that work.
Let us pray bigger prayers; prayers filled with what we think and what we feel. Let’s worry less about telling God what to do and instead just hold others before God because the door’s to God’s home have no locks and God is always waiting to hear our needs.
Thanks be to God.