A Sermon preached by The Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12,, July 28, 2019
For some reason, I love Sutro Tower. From Alameda, I see it standing like a Calder sculpture. When I come into the City, it’s like a fog-0-meter that shows me the weather will be like in the Haight.
In the midst of our sunny (today) and foggy (most of the time) summer, we have our Gospel reading about Prayer that has both sunny clear parts, and some that’s foggy in meaning. What is Prayer? How do we do it? What does Jesus say about our prayer relationship to God?
Prayer is at the center of Jesus’ life. He goes up to a mountain by himself to pray, he prays all night by the Sea of Galilee, he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he even prays on the Cross.
In today’s passage, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray like John taught his disciples, and he teaches them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
Our familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer, the repetition of it, plants it deep in our souls. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients often can remember the Lord’s Prayer if it was part of their earlier life. I found in my summer of hospital chaplaincy, that praying the Lord’s Prayer united people of many Christian denominations. Jesus gives us a framework of prayer focused on simple human needs.
Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer is as clear as a “regular” summer’s day outside the Bay Area. We know these lines; they are written on our hearts. The second half of our passage is also about prayer, but it’s meaning is foggy and is worth exploring in more depth.
Jesus tells a Parable about a man knocking on his neighbor’s door at night in need of bread to serve someone who’s come to his house. From what I have read this week, some of its meaning is lost in translation.
We recently hosted a neighborhood watch meeting here at All Saints’, and I went door to door on our block of Waller to deliver the flyers. I realized that I was being electronically recorded on camera at many front doors. In our world, someone knocking at the front door at night is threatening. So, when we hear this story we don’t quite know what to make of the relationship between the guy at the door and the guy in bed for the night.
The people of Jesus world would have not been confused. They lived in tight communities and they lived a hand-to-mouth existence, where they shared what food they had with each other, no matter what. Hospitality was a means of survival. Those who did not share were subject to shame, and not bringing shame on the community was a huge motivating force in their society.
Jesus begins his parable with the phrase, “who among you,” which in Greek is an idiom for “imagine the unthinkable.” That really gives a different spin on the story. It would have been unthinkable for the guy not to answer the late night call for hospitality. One commentator writes:
What is translated as “persistence” actually means “shamelessness”. There is no persistence in the story. There is no nagging. The person in the story only asks once. So the story is unimaginable to Jesus’ hearers – even if he didn’t get up because he was a friend, he would at least get up because of the shame to him and his village if he didn’t. So this friend inside, who is struggling economically with the rest of the village is going to share and risk that he too has nothing to eat.”
Once the fogginess of the translation is cleared up, Jesus’ meaning is clear: God is waiting for our prayers as a dear friend waits to hear from us any time day or night. God waits to give extravagantly, even sacrificially.
My enchantment with Sutro Tower has something with the rhythms of the fog in San Francisco. The fog moves mysteriously in and out through the City in a daily rhythm that frames our days.
I think our Prayer is like the fog, there’s a rhythm to our prayer that surrounds us with sacred intention at different times of the day, depending on when we feel we need to reach out to God, or more regularly if we have a disciplined prayer practice. And like the fog, prayer can be mysterious, beautiful, and sometimes grey and challenging. Sometimes our world seems just too grey, cold and foggy to pray. What difference does it make, we ask ourselves. Our prayer life withers.
Our popular American view of prayer has corrupted it into something transactional; God’s a gumball machine, and prayer is the coin that will give us our shiny wish. We know prayer is not like that, but we live in a transactional society that doesn’t understand grace.
We know that prayer is deeply mysterious and beyond words. Yet we want words to express our needs and longings to God. The comforting rhythms of the liturgy and their familiar words help express our prayers in community. I know that for some it is challenging to hear the new Mass setting we’ve been using, but I think it’s a good experience during an Interim time to learn something new. Thank you for being open to this new worship experience.
In the Anglican tradition, we say that our prayers shape believing. We have little official doctrine, but much beautiful language. That language frames our sacramental focus in the Eucharist, which may actually come closer to revealing what prayer is. The act of celebrating Communion is a mysterious ritual that takes us away from words, into sacrament, into a place of transcendent prayer.
I believe prayer is a relationship with God that we build over time in our hearts, our minds, and actions, ideally, within a community of prayer. And The Lord’s Prayer is central to our tradition. It is imbedded in the heart of our Eucharistic Liturgy, right before the breaking of the bread. It connects us to Jesus’ words as we prepare to connect with Jesus in the Eucharist.
Here at All Saints’ we continue with our daily weekday liturgies of the Mass and Evening Prayer, and it is one of the strengths of our parish. I invite you to come whenever possible. It is an intimate and faithful ministry of prayer. I’ve entered into the rhythm of leading 6:00 Mass and Evening Prayer three days a week, and it has become one of the heartfelt joys of being here as Interim.
What I take from our readings today is that God actively wants a prayer relationship with us.
Our reading from Hosea, though disturbing in its mention of whoredom, shows how in ancient days, God turned away from the people of Israel because like an unfaithful spouse, they turned away from God. But, as we know, God did not turn away for good. That is part of the Good News.
Our image of God can remain childish like the gumball machine, or as a judgmental figure, but the prophets show us an active God who wants to be in relationship with us, and waits for us to knock at all times of our lives, the sunny days, and those that are the most foggy and cold. God presence is with us in all that is good, and loving, and self-giving. We see the face of God in Christ’s self-giving on the Cross, in the Eucharist and in the face of each other in community.
In our passage from Luke, Jesus teaches us that we are always learning to pray. Prayer is not a one-time lesson, it’s a lifelong process of learning to knock, to listen, to be available to God in relationship.
The disciples’ question, teach us to pray, is itself a prayer we can take with us this morning, Lord, teach us to pray as you would like us to right now, for who we are now, and what our needs are today. Help us to open ourselves to your presence. Help us to pray. Amen.