Sermon: 10th Sunday after Pentecost 24th July 2016

SERMON – 10TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST – 24.7.16

Readings:     Hosea 1.2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2.6-15, Luke 11.1-13

Rev. Catherine Eaton

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’

Probably all of us, at some point in our lives, have found ourselves floundering in the uncharted waters of prayer, or had times when our prayers have felt empty and lifeless.

While prayer makes up so much of the language of the church, I suspect many of us have been left to fend for ourselves on our journey of faith. There’s an assumption that when someone says ‘pray’ we all know what that means and how to do it.

Too often we’re left thinking prayer is about the words we say or the form or style of prayer we use. But fundamentally, prayer is about a relationship and therefore, it is about hospitality. It is about the space we create for God and the space into which God invites us.

Everything else flows from there.

Hospitality is a key theme in Luke’s gospel. Just last week we heard about Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary and the hospitality they offered him in their different ways. Jesus identifies Mary’s listening and contemplation as ‘the better part’.

Today we see Jesus modelling the same thing. We’re told, he was praying in a certain place, making room in his own life for ‘the better part’. He was taking time to attend to God, as Mary attended to him.

The disciples were waiting at a respectful distance for him to finish. Only then did they ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’

They would have seen Jesus taking time to be alone with God. They’d obviously seen John instructing his disciples. And perhaps they were witness to Jesus’ commendation of Mary for choosing the ‘better part’. They too now sought access to that deeper relationship with God.

So Jesus offered them what we know as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the words we rattle off every Sunday. Here in Luke’s gospel, we find a shortened version, quite sparse and to the point, a far cry from the long, self-seeking prayers of the scribes which Jesus condemned.

The prayer begins with a radical invitation to intimacy with God as Father. But it’s not a cheap intimacy, because it’s set within the context of the holiness of God and of God’s kingdom.

It then places our own daily lives within that context – we are to ask only for bread for the day and to live in an atmosphere of forgiveness. It concludes with ‘and do not bring us to the time of trial’. This is not a prayer asking God to save us from suffering, but a prayer that the evils of the world will not overwhelm us and separate us from God and a place in the kingdom.

There are only 2 places in Luke’s gospel where this phrase, ‘the time of trial’, is used – here, in Jesus’ teaching on prayer, after Jesus emerges from his own time of prayer.

The other place is in the Garden of Gethsemane – but that time after Jesus returned from his prayer, he found the disciples, not waiting and alert, but sleeping. Echoing the Lord’s Prayer, twice he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

This reminds us that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a simple set of words to be learned and glibly recited. It is a profound preparation for the disciples, and for us, for the times ahead. It is our invitation to God to enter into our lives, and an expression of our desire to enter into God’s life.

Jesus then tells a story to encourage the disciples to be persistent in prayer. Set in 1st century Palestine, those listening to Jesus would have been very alert to the rules of hospitality. Here we have 3 relationships – the friend who arrives unexpectedly and must be fed; the friend who has nothing to give him so goes banging on his neighbour’s door; and the neighbour who has just gone to bed and doesn’t want to get up. Eventually because of his friend’s persistence, he gets up and gives him what he needs.

This is all about both men trying to avoid the shame of a failure in hospitality.

The story is not implying God goes to sleep or just decides not to be bothered with our requests. It is saying – if these people, who are so self-concerned, will still give good things, how much more will God give us what we need.

This idea is echoed later in the gospel when we’re told if parents, in all their frailty, give the children what they need, how much more will our Father in heaven, our true parent, give us what we need.

Our task is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking. It’s not because God forgets we’re there or fails to give us what we need. It’s about our need to keep returning to God, to the intimacy of relationship.

It’s why at the end of today’s gospel after all this talk about bread and fish and eggs, we’re told ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’.

This seems out of the blue, but every time we come to prayer, even if we’re praying about a job interview, it is the Holy Spirit who energises our prayer and unites our hearts with God.

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Every time we ask, we open ourselves up to intimacy with God – we are saying, I have a need and I turn to you to help me in this situation. Every time we seek, we are revealing to God our vulnerability, that space within us that only God can fill. Every time we knock, we are saying to God, please invite me in. Allow me to find my home in you.

It reminds me of the Rule of St Benedict which places a huge priority on hospitality – ‘All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.’

The stranger who knocks at the door of the monastery will find the door opened. The stranger who asks for assistance will receive. The stranger who seeks shelter will find the lighted window of the monastery, where the candle is always burning. This is how God always welcomes us.

Prayer is not about the words we say or the form of prayer we use. It is about the space we create for God in our own hearts and lives, that hospitable place for God in us, not a space full of words and wants and confessions and fears and distractions, even of obsequious praises, but rather an offering of silence and love, heart-space where God can come and be within us, a space where the Holy Spirit can pray through us, a place in us where God is welcome, and prayer can find its own way.

And prayer is even more about the space God creates for us. It is a hospitable place within God where we find ourselves at home, where God desires to be generous to us, a place where we are fed with daily bread and given a foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Prayer is essentially a mutual welcome and a mutual beholding between us and God. It requires an openness of heart – God’s heart and ours, and a mutual self-offering to one another.

So as we say the Lord’s Prayer later in the service, let us attend to the words and open our hearts in hospitality to the one who offers himself to us.

 

Catherine Eaton