The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale, Toronto, on Sunday, July 28th, 2013.
HERE is a link to the readings for the week (Track 1). I focussed primarily on Luke 11.1-13.
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Lk. 11.1).
Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word
Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you
Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.
In the name of your Son, Christ Jesus.
We do not know how to pray, but Jesus can teach us to pray to the One who is like a faithful friend and a loving father, only more so. Regarding the first part of that statement, that, “We do not know how to pray,” I should say that prayer is a bit of a confusing matter, is it not? What is prayer, precisely? I would hazard a guess that many Christians treat prayer as if we were making petitions to some sort of cosmic vending machine. We lay out our wishes and desires hoping that God might respond in a manner we see fit. And yet, often it appears that God does not answer our prayers. We did not get the job we had really been hoping for. The loved one who was ill died, despite our prayers to the contrary. There is a gentleman that I visit with each week as part of the work I do as a chaplain. This man has HIV and as a result of various treatments he suffers from excruciating pain in his legs: “I’m in pain, all the time, every day,” he says to me. When I went to visit him this past week he told me that he had something in particular that he wanted to talk to me about: “Why does God not answer my prayer?” he asked. Each night, as he goes to bed, he prays that God would let him die in his sleep. And each morning, he awakes to find himself very much alive. This angers him greatly: “Why will God not answer my prayer? I don’t understand why He keeps me here to go on living like this?”
Perhaps, in one way or another, you and I can identify with this. For us, prayer is additional to a great many things. We desire God to be present, not because there is no life without him but because it would be so nice, in addition to all of the other benefits we have received, to know that God is with us. He is additional to our needs. Furthermore, we are often confused about prayer because our affections are blind (Calvin), or at the very least our affections and desires are turned in on themselves. Thus, we must go outside of ourselves and learn from elsewhere how to pray, for we in our blindness are not competent judges of so weighty a matter as prayer (Calvin). From the epistle of James: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures,” (James 4.3). Our desires and affections, you see, must be cultivated and formed, and for this to happen in a Christian fashion we must draw near to Jesus. The closer we come to Jesus, the more our prayers change. Or, put another way round, the closer we come to Jesus, the more prayer changes us. That is to say, prayer is remedial for us in the sense that it confronts and challenges our preconceived desires and felt needs. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” This uprising begins as the disorder of our own lives is revealed as we draw near to Jesus in the Church.
From the beginning Christians have learned to pray by going to church. Indeed, it is worth noting the communal nature of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: “Forgive us our sins.” These sorts of spoken communal prayers addressed to God by the gathered congregation play an important role in our learning how to pray. We learn to pray in the Church because it is here in the liturgy where we are confronted in a powerful way with the narration of the scriptures. Christian worship, in its essence is the rehearsal of the Biblical story of the Triune God, and our participation in that story: “To praise God is to narrate what He has done,” said one commentator. However, these prayers, by which we recount the actions of God in history are not merely recollections of past events as if they were stuck somewhere “back there”. Rather, the prayers that we pray when we gather together to worship the Living God make these events present to us in Christ Jesus. Notice, for example, the shape of the Eucharistic prayer that Fr. Ajit will lead us in shortly. In this prayer we, together, recount Creation, the calling of Israel, the Word spoken through the prophets and so on. The prayer pauses for some time on the work of Christ Jesus, his saving and redeeming the world, his delivering us from evil, and bringing us out of sin into righteousness. The prayer then moves from recalling what God has done in Christ to what we do: “we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to you, Lord of all.” As the prayer continues we pray that in consuming the bread and the wine we might be united to Jesus in his sacrifice. In prayer, we offer ourselves to God in Christ and become participants in His story. As we heard from Colossians this morning, our life and prayer is primarily one of praise and thanksgiving for the good gifts we have received in Christ Jesus our Lord (2.7). That is to say, the Christian life and prayer is primarily responsive. It is only then in light of all of this that we are sent out at the conclusion: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Alleluia!” That is, in our prayer and worship we remind ourselves whose story we are apart of, and which story it is that makes sense of our lives. But we remind ourselves of this story in such a way that we are caught up in it. God’s story becomes our story, and because of this the future is open to us to “go in peace”, that is, to go out and carry with us, as we go, the peace that the risen and living Jesus has won for us and for the whole world. We only learn to pray in this way as we gather together, and this prayer forms us as we participate in the ministry and ongoing work of Jesus.
As such, the whole Christian faith is a prayer that must be learned. In fact, we can really do nothing else besides pray. We are commanded to love God, but we cannot, so we pray that we might be able to do so. To take up this prayer is to take up the Christian life (Barth). It is thus necessary that we learn to pray in this particular fashion. The necessity of prayer for us is founded upon the fact that Jesus is continually praying for us before his heavenly Father (Rom 8.34; Heb 7.25). And, because Christ has made himself our brother, we are related to him and therefore committed to joining ourselves in doing what he does. Consequently, we also are to pray, as it were, “through the mouth of Jesus Christ,” (Barth). And as our prayers are joined to Christ’s prayer, or as his prayer becomes our prayer, we see that this prayer is answered before we even express it. We pray for that which has already been accomplished by God in Christ. We pray for God’s kingdom to come because in Christ it has already been inaugurated. Thus, we learn to pray as we gather together, recall the story of what God has done and is doing, and understand that our very lives are caught up in this story. We are made actors, insofar as we give ourselves over to this prayer.
The prayer of the Church invites a turning of all things of the self towards the freedom of the will of God (Jan van Ruysbroeck). The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is an invitation to share Jesus’ own prayer life–and with it his agenda, his work, his pattern of life, his spirituality. As such, one of the effects of prayer is that it reforms us and our agenda, work, pattern of life, and spirituality. This is why prayer is dangerous. Christ beckons us to take up his prayer and thereby to submit our desires to the will of God. And I don’t just mean our silly desires (i.e. a higher paying job; a parking spot at the mall during the Christmas rush etc.), I mean the noblest of our desires as well (i.e. praying for a family member to come to know the love of God in Christ; praying for a co-worker who is terminally ill etc.). Are we willing to lay even these good desires down, to submit them to the will of God in Christ Jesus? The now deceased Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann argued that all of creation is sacramental in that it presents us with all sorts of opportunities to journey deeper into the life of God. Following this logic, then, even our noblest desires are not good in-and-of-themselves, as ends, but are good in that they lead us to God in prayer. This is the opportunity afforded to my client that I mentioned. He struggles to reconcile his suffering with his life and misses the fact that it is this very suffering that leads him to God in prayer, even if that prayer is that he might die in his sleep. Thus, in submitting ourselves to God in prayer we open ourselves up to the dangerous possibility that the living God may just see fit to transform us via prayer into the likeness of His Son Jesus.
Most of all though, prayer is a dangerous activity because, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10.31). Therefore, to set out deliberately to confront the living God is a dread adventure: every meeting with God is, in a certain sense, a last judgment. Thus, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom has said, when we come near to God we discover both the beauty of God and the distance that there is between Him and us. “Distance”, though, is an inadequate word. It is not a spacial distance, nor is it a distance determined by the fact that God is holy and we are sinful but by the attitude of the sinner to God. That is, our assertive pride whereby we think we have a right to stand there before God, to question Him, creates a distance between us and God without there ever having been any movement. On the contrary, we can approach God only if we do so with a sense of coming judgment and in humility, knowing our sinfulness and the fact that we are unfaithful, loving Him more than our godless security in our own righteousness. Indeed, it is this vision of the holiness of God that makes us aware of our own sinfulness. Thus, at the climax of the Eucharist, immediately before receiving the bread and the wine, when we are confronted with Christ’s Body, we pray the prayer of humble access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies…” The danger of prayer is perhaps most evident only when we realize that in the process of meeting God, we will lose our life. The old Adam must die. Did St. Paul not say this very thing in our New Testament reading this morning?: “…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God.”
To submit all that we treasure to God in prayer, to give our very selves as an offering of praise and thanksgiving, is in some certain way to share with Christ in his sufferings and to accept these events as he did, that is, to accept them in an act of free will, to suffer together with the man of sorrows, in real communion, so that there is no longer one and the other, but only one life and one death. This is the danger of prayer, that it leads us to suffering love.
However, the One to whom we pray is faithful and loving. Luke here, in our gospel reading, is not so much concerned with the technology of prayer (i.e. this is how you ought to pray) as he is with the shaping of prayer in relation to an accurate recognition of the one to whom prayer is offered. What is pivotal is Luke’s identification of God as the Father whose graciousness is realized in his provision of what is needed, and indeed far beyond what might be expected. Because the God to whom we pray in Christ Jesus is our Father, as He is Jesus’ own Father, we are freed up to give ourselves over, we are liberated to ask, to search, and to knock, knowing that God will not answer our prayers with harmful gifts but with good.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” Amen.