March 24, 2019

Lent 3 – “Ask and You Will Receive”

Luke 11:5-10

Rev. Nancy Talbot

A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with a colleague who has been completing a doctorate in preaching at the University of Chicago. She was telling me how shocked she was one day to overhear a conversation among her American colleagues about whether or not they kept pistols in their pulpits. In a country where gun laws are permissive and the memory of eight parishioners and a preacher being gunned down on Sunday morning in Charleston, South Carolina is still fresh in the minds of many, it was a serious conversation.

I can’t say that it’s a conversation I have ever had. I have never once wondered how I would protect you if a gunman were to come in here and open fire on a Sunday morning. After all, what is it that we are doing when we gather here on Sunday mornings that could possibly cause anyone to think that what we are doing here is so threatening, it should be stopped with gunfire? Praying?

As you know, that is what the 50 people who were killed in two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand were doing when they were gunned down last week. They were praying. It’s also what the six people who were killed in a Quebec City mosque last year were doing when they were gunned down and what the eleven Jews in Pittsburgh who were killed in October were doing when they were shot in their synagogue. They were praying.

Every time one of these tragedies takes place, after the blood stained carpets have been ripped up and the bullet holes in the walls filled in and re-painted, worshipers cross the threshold of those places of gatherings and take up the task of praying once again.

All of which has caused me to wonder this week, what, if anything, is so vital about our life of prayer that we would be willing to risk our very lives for it? Why does prayer matter? Does it matter?

As we have been reflecting in this season of Lent, prayer mattered to Jesus. Luke’s gospel, in particular, highlights that importance. As a Jew, Jesus would have been taught how to pray and what to pray and when to pray at a very early age. It’s thought that because Luke writes to a mostly Gentile audience, including teachings about prayer in his writings was even more important. In this morning’s reading we hear Jesus saying to his followers that it’s not just the words of our prayers that matter, it’s how we deliver those words.

When you pray, be demanding, he says. If someone came to your house in the middle of the night looking for bread to feed their hungry friends, and they pounded and pounded and pounded on your door until you couldn’t ignore them, you’d get up and give them something wouldn’t you? If not because they were your friend, because they were persistent.

Be demanding because what you are asking for matters. What you pray for matters. It matters as much as bread to feed your family matters. We know it matters because those of you who were here last week learned that we are to pray by saying things like: Bring us your kingdom; give us bread; forgive us our sins; Do not bring us into the time of trial.

We’re not being asked to pray for a cure for our cancer or for the strength to get through another day, not because those things don’t matter or because we don’t need to persistently pray for them as well.  But what we’re being asked for here is to to be vigilant in praying for something greater than these things: a vision of the world where there is equality, peace and justice for all, where there is daily bread, food not just for ourselves but for everyone, where we are reconciled in our relationships with one another (and with our planet), where we are released from those things that have a hold on us so that we can move into the future, so that we can be whole as individuals and therefore as community.

What we are being asked is to pray for and therefore to orient our lives towards a vision of the world that actually is threatening to those who have the most to lose if that vision were actually to come into reality. We’re being asked to keep demanding for the coming of this world until it becomes reality.

Seek. Knock. Ask.  Give it everything you’ve got. Pray big. It matters that people have enough food, it matters that we are treated with dignity and respect and that we find a way to live in the world that brings about a reign of peace. So pray like it matters. That’s how Jesus says we are supposed to pray.

Why would we pray for a parking space when we could have world peace?

And yet I admit I’ve had days when I’ve wondered if it really does matter if we pray for these big things. Ask and it will be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. I’ve been praying for these big things for years but some days it feels like the doorway to world peace, the freedom we are seeking, the justice we have asked for is not being given. In fact, lately, there are days when it feels more like hard fought freedoms and justices once won are slowly being taken away.

And if we do take our petitionary prayers (those prayers in which we are asking God to do something) to a very personal level, those prayers in which we do ask, seek and knock for cures and restored health for ourselves or our loved ones; for a job if we are unemployed; for a reconciled relationship when ours is on the rocks and we find that even our most fervent prayers appear to have gone unanswered we might wonder if a life of prayer actually is something we would want to stake our life on. What do we do about these unanswered prayers?

The questions we are really asking in these instances of unanswered prayers are questions about what we call the agency of God, the way God works in the world. Many of us have given up on the notion of an all-powerful God who intervenes in lives to answer prayer. God who is a separate other-worldly supernatural being. If God can’t stop a shooter from entering a mosque or a child from being abused by a family member or a good person from having their life cut off too soon by illness or disease, if God can’t intervene on these smaller scale occurrences then why would we expect God to do something about an issue as big as world peace?

Some people take a humanist view and say that because religion is at the root of so much violence we should just give up on the whole God and religion enterprise anyway and take matters completely into our own hands.

Unfortunately, our reading this morning, doesn’t give us an answer to the mechanics of how prayer actually works. It’s clear from experience that prayer isn’t about putting coins into a vending machine and getting what we want. Sometimes our prayers are answered in a way we have asked for them to be answered. Sometimes we get what we ask for and even more. Sometimes we bang and bang and bang on the door and it still doesn’t open.

Pray anyway the message seems to be. Even if it doesn’t seem to be working. Keep it up. Don’t ever think it doesn’t matter because somehow it does.

I can’t tell you how it works or why it seems to work sometimes and other times it doesn’t but I do believe with all my heart that our prayers are effective. I might even be willing to risk my life on it.

It’s been said that what we do effects what we become, that we co-create the future in concert with Divine will by what we pray for, by what we evoke. I know that I’ve been changed by prayer. It’s given me courage when I thought I had very little. It’s made me change my opinion of people. It’s pried my heart open to situations I had closed myself off to. It’s kept me working for things I would have given up on long ago if I thought that I was the only one responsible for making something happen. It’s reminded me of my dependency on others and more importantly, my dependency on the mystery of life over which I have some but very little ultimate control. And yet it’s not just the individual who utters prayer who is changed and I can’t explain how that works either but I trust that it is true. In circumstances where I have been prayed for by others I know that it is true.

If we were to ask the people of New Zealand or our Muslim brothers and sisters here in BC if it matters that we have been praying for them I am certain they would say it does. If we were to ask the people of Israel and Palestine who genuinely want to find a way to peace that comes with justice if it matters to them that we have been praying for them for decades I am certain they would say it does.

Despite all our human ingenuity we have not yet found a way to bring about a reign of peace upon our earth. We still need to pray for it and work for it. Despite all that we have come to know about one another as a global community, we have not yet learned how to forgive and be fully reconciled to one another. We still need to pray for it and work for it. Despite all we know about agriculture and climate change and all we know about taking only what we need and sharing our abundance, far too many people still go hungry. Despite all we know about what tempts us and what we should and should not do in life, we do it anyway. We need to pray and work together for all these things.

And the thing is, our prayers do get answered, big and small but we often seem to have selective memory loss when it comes to remembering the prayers we no longer need to pray. We don’t need to pray for women to be considered as people in Canada anymore (can you believe we ever did?) We don’t need to pray for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison. We don’t need to pray for the Berlin Wall to fall or for the First black man to be elected as President of the United States of America or for Trans people to have the same rights as everyone else, at least not in Canada, because these prayers have all been answered. God didn’t do these things without us and many would say we didn’t do them without God.

A few years ago I took a course with Marcus Borg who authored the book “The Heart of Christianity” that many of you are reading these days. I asked him what he thought about prayer given that he no longer holds an understanding of God as all knowing and all powerful. He said that for him prayer is one of the ways that we care about one another as human and earth family. It makes us more conscious of one another and our needs. And then he said “and you never know it might just do some good. Our prayers might just be answered and therefore we shouldn’t limit ourselves from the possibility.

However it works, whatever it does, prayer centers us in divine presence, it calls upon divine qualities such as love, courage and strength. It opens our hearts, it changes us and somehow it changes the world around us.

When we engage in the kind of prayer that Jesus encouraged us to pray, seeking a reign of peace with justice for all, nothing short of an upheaval of the social political powers that continue to marginalize and oppress and we do it as if our lives depended on it, our prayers do become threatening and dangerous. I, for one, am willing to keep taking that risk and I hope for the sake of the world that you are too.