The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Father Chris Harris, Associate Rector
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Ask and it will be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives; and everyone who searches, finds. I don’t know about you, but I find those words to be enormously comforting. My heart sings when I hear them. And I will confess that when it comes to my prayer life that’s generally not been my experience.
I don’t know, I feel I rarely get what I ask for in prayer. Maybe I’m shooting a little too high. Maybe Jesus is engaging in some hyperbole here. Someone at our Wednesday Bible study suggested that maybe those last lines, maybe that’s somewhere where the Bible over promises and under delivers.
And I know that we can rehabilitate this gospel in some ways, we say, now, now, God does answer prayers. It’s just that the answer is sometimes no. Or at least not in the way you asked. Or it’s going to be in God’s time, not yours. And, fair enough, I get it. But somehow these explanations have never really satisfied me. I mean, ask and you shall receive, except when you don’t. Knock and the door will be opened, except when it stays locked. Search and you will find, except if you’re looking for the wrong thing. Those are some reasonably large exceptions, aren’t they?
Back in my days as a lawyer, I would say those exceptions were so big they almost swallow the rule entirely. It makes me wonder is there possibly a disconnect between how we sometimes think of prayer and what Jesus is trying to teach us this morning. For example, do we tend to pray mostly when we need something? Do we ever treat God as a kind of divine waiter, someone that we come to with a long list of petitions for God to heal, to fix, to repair, to solve, to overcome? And do we ever find ourselves frustrated or disappointed when the waiter doesn’t bring us what we ordered?
The late Christopher Hitchens, the renowned atheist and critic of all things religious described it this way, he says the one who prays is the one who thinks that God has arranged matters all wrong. But also who thinks that he can instruct God how to put them right. Is Hitchens on to something there? Do we ever treat God as if He were that grumpy friend who needs to be cajoled out of His sleep to give us what we need?
I’ve had more than a few parishioners over the years, who after sharing something going on in their life, I ask them, “Would you like me to pray for you?” “Oh, no, not yet. It’s not that bad. I’ll let you know if it gets to that point.” Almost as if what, God has a limited number of wishes or something, we better save them up for something big. Do you ever find yourselves bargaining with God, like Abraham did this morning? Except throwing something in to sweeten the deal, God if you just grant me this one thing I promise I’ll be a good person, whatever.
If you can get me out of this mess I just created, I promise I will never do that again. I can remember my very first prayer was basically this, I was in my early 30s, had never been to church, never cracked open a Bible. Yet, there I was in the parking lot of a health clinic downtown, praying to this God who I arguably had never met, saying, “God if you can just see to it that these test results would come back negative, I promise –,” and I just can’t remember what I promised. And I know it’s terrible to admit. I assume God knew that I was going to totally flake out, but that was my first prayer.
Do we ever go maybe to the other extreme? Do we ever say, you already know what we need, I’m just going to pray that your will be done? I’m not going to share with you all my petty needs in my life, all my concerns. You’ve got bigger things to do. Or do you ever stop praying altogether for that same basic reason?
Maybe all this confusion and these kinds of questions is why the disciples go to Jesus and say, how should we pray? So let’s look at the Lord’s Prayer, we say it every Sunday. It’s the one that many of us have memorized. In fact it’s so well known, I wonder if it’s become a little rote? It begins with Jesus telling us say Our Father. Now that’s something, isn’t it? That the hallowed, sovereign of the universe, the creator of creation, the hearts of all reality itself Jesus says call Him Father.
Do we appreciate how profound that is? As I reflected on that, I realized that is mindblowing. If you really think about it, Father, the creator of all, the great I Am is like a parent who knows every hair on our head. As if He has been counting each one of them from the day we were born. Do we get up each morning as if that were true? Do we begin each day knowing that regardless of whatever relationship we had with our own father, or mother for that matter, that we have a Heavenly Father who loves us perfectly.
Who loves us more than we could ever imagine. Who will always be there for the big game. Who will never miss a school play. Who never works late. Who never loses His patience and never raises a hand. Who always has time to read us a story, whenever we can pick up a Bible and climb into His lap. Our Father reminds us that at the heart of prayer is relationship, because at the heart of God is relationship.
This God who is forever chasing after us, forever longing to be in an intimate abiding relationship with each and every single one of us. And we let Him catch us when we spend time with Him. When we take time out of our day to share our life. To share our hopes and our dreams, our fears, our aspirations, not with an expectation that He will do our bidding, but so that we can grow closer to God by sharing what’s on our hearts.
In the same way that we might do with our spouse or a close friend, not with any expectation that they’re going to fix or solve, but so that we can grow closer by sharing some of ourselves. And knowing that somehow in that sharing, our burdens become easier to bear. We’re one word into this prayer, it could end right there and I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to go out into this world a different person. I feel energized just preaching about that.
But it goes on. Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Be the center of my life. Be the center of all of our lives, so that together we might build that kingdom of compassion that you call us to. Fill each of us with a thirst for a world where justice and peace reign. Where the lost and the lonely, the least and the left out are loved. That the children of God that we’ve been all along.
It goes on. Give us our daily bread. Like manna in the wilderness, give us each day what we need, no more, no less. Give us just enough so that we might be reminded that all good gifts come from you, not from our own efforts. Keep us mindful each day of our dependence on you. Feed us so that we can feed the world and keep us from storing up your blessings, and building ever bigger barns where they will simply spoil.
Remind us that in this self-sufficient, self-satisfied culture that we have nothing without you. And that even if we have more food and more stuff than we could ever eat or ever use, that we will starve without the bread of life.
And it continues. And forgive us our sins as we forgive. Reminding us that no matter how far we stray, no matter how distracted we might get, no matter how short we might fall, God will always forgive us. He will always be there waiting to welcome us home, and to throw the biggest party He could ever muster when we do. And then Jesus reminds us that forgiveness is also a two-sided coin. That being forgiven means nothing if we refuse to offer it as well.
If God can forgive us, who are we to withhold it from others. Who are we to hold grudges and to keep score and to let resentments poison our soul in the world around us. If God can let go, do we not put ourselves a bit above God when we refuse to forgive others? Like manna, does forgiveness also not spoil if we try to store it up?
And finally, do not bring us to the time of trial. This reminds me that I am prone to wander. I am prone to get distracted, to follow my own plans, my own agenda, to fall in love with all things temporal as we said in our collect this morning. Save me from the many temptations of this world so that I might stay focused on you. And don’t let my fears get in the way. Don’t let me get discouraged when people say, “You know what good can one person do, Chris?” Or, “You know it’s just too risky to get that involved. Why not leave that to someone else?”
Help me to stay the course, knowing that we will build the Kingdom of God one life at a time. I don’t know about you, but that’s quite a prayer. Reflecting on this breathe for me new life into that well known prayer. And did you notice something different about it? Jesus teaches us prayer, and it’s entirely about shaping us. It’s not about changing God, it’s about changing us. It’s not about pestering or cajoling or bargaining with God to get what we want, it’s about changing the things we want so that we might be instruments in changing the world.
And what’s more, He says be bold about it. Our translation uses the word persistence as if to suggest God is the sleepy grumpy friend who needs us to keep bugging Him, but that’s not really what’s being suggested here. A better translation is the word shameless, that is don’t hold anything back. You ever notice in our worship every Sunday when we introduce the Lord’s Prayer, it says we are bold to say. That’s this gospel. That’s what this is referring to. Be bold when it comes to prayer.
Be bold when it comes to sharing your life with your Heavenly Father. Nothing’s too small. Nothing’s too petty. He’s not too busy. He is only focused on us. He knows each one of us, every hair on our head. He wants to hear it. Be like Mary in the gospel last week, find time every day to sit at the feet of God and be present. And after you’ve shared what’s going on in your life, be equally shameless about asking God to shape it.
And over time, see if prayer for you becomes less about words, less about verbal formulas, less about judgment and calculations, and more about just spending time with God. More about developing a new posture of a life shaped in constant loving union with God and one another. So much that everything we do, everything we see each day, we begin to see it through the lens of the Kingdom of God. Such that our entire life becomes a living prayer.
At the end of the day, I think Hitchens had it all wrong. Prayer isn’t about changing God, it’s about being willing to let God change us. Prayer isn’t about requesting that God reorder the world, it’s about asking God to send His Holy Spirit to reorder our lives so that we might reorder this world on Earth as it is in heaven.
That’s a prayer God will answer. That’s a way of life that will be found. That’s a door that will be opened, every time. So may we be bold in our asking.