Genesis 18:20-32, Luke 11:1-13
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in their private devotions. It was customary for each individual to have a separate place where they would go to pour out their hearts to God. Over time, the paths to these private places of prayer became well worn. As a result, if one of these believers began to neglect their life of prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, “Brother/or Sister, the grass grows on your path.”
According to Jesus, the most important thing about prayer, is to keep at it. Don’t give up. In today’s lessons we learn that persistence pays off. In the reading from Genesis, we see that Abraham’s bargaining with God reveals both the value of persistence in our seeking God’s resources, and God’s persistence in seeking our restoration. And what we discover is that God is a remarkably lenient judge. Recall, if you will, that Sodom and Gomorrah were on the chopping block not for small misdemeanors, but for sadistic cruelty to beggars and visitors, for murder, greed and rape; for violating long-standing rules of hospitality, which, in a dessert culture, were essential to life and well-being. Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah and God responds: “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake. Note, if you will, that Abraham wasn’t asking for everyone to be spared, just the righteous. It’s God who throws in the unrighteous as well. Abraham keeps haggling—and as we read the lesson, we get the impression that God is waiting for Abraham to “talk the Almighty down”. God, here isn’t angry—God is engaged. God is listening to Abraham and responding to his prayers. This is a story of engagement. Abraham negotiates down to ten righteous people, and the Lord Almighty agrees. For ten righteous people—only ten—God will spare not just them, the entire city—the righteous as well as the unrighteous. The whole shebang. Everyone. Sadly, there weren’t ten righteous people in all of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there was Lot’s family—and God saves them. Think about it. In this lesson, God is approachable. God wants to engage—and each time Abraham asks, the Lord responds—and offers more than what Abraham was asking to begin with.
In the Gospel lesson Jesus teaches his Disciples to pray. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, he tells us. If a person will answer the door at midnight when a visitor knocks, how much more willing will God be to answer our prayers? In other words, keep at it. Don’t let the grass grow on your path.
Jesus goes on and gives an example of parenting saying, even if a parent isn’t quite up to snuff, when their child asks for basic food, like a fish or an egg, even those parents aren’t going to give that child something poisonous like a snake or a scorpion. If mediocre parents do this, how much more, Jesus tells us, does God, who loves us with the care of the best parent, intend to give good gifts to his children, says Jesus.
Each of these lessons for today tells us about the nature of the God Jesus teaches us to speak to in our prayers. When the disciples ask Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray”, he doesn’t respond by suggesting some technique (such as standing on one’s head or holding one’s hand in a gesture of supplication); or regimen (for example, praying three times a day and holding a special prayer session on the eve of the full moon). Instead, what he says (in essence) is that genuine prayer, real prayer—the most effective kind of prayer, depends upon knowing the character of God. Who is God? And Jesus tells us, God is not only high and lifted up “in heaven”, God is also as near and dear as a parent to every person, and God wants to hear our prayers. “Our Father, who art in heaven”. If you want to know who God is like, says Jesus, he’s like a tender father. As the Lord’s Prayer progresses, here’s what we learn: God provides. God forgives. God protects. And, God expects us to be generous to one another. This is the nature of God. The nature of God is engagement. Prayer, ultimately, is a relationship far more than it is a request. So, don’t let the grass grow on your path.
Consider the prayers you offer to God. You see, everything about a prayer reveals something about what the person who is praying believes God to be. Is God merciful? Or angry? Or is God forgetful? Is God too busy to listen? Is it God’s job to order the entire universe to make you happy? Or does God have everything firmly in hand—and you’re just working on catching up?
But here is something else to contemplate on this Sunday as we discuss the nature of prayer. Martin Luther once said that to be a sinner is to be bent, to be crooked, to be twisted in upon ourselves. The root of sinfulness begins in selfishness; in looking at the world as a place to get my needs met, my life straightened out, my career on track, my enjoyment and happiness met. But the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray does not begin “My Father”. It begins “Our Father”, and it is not a prayer aimed at getting our personal needs met so much as this is a prayer designed to turn us away from our wants toward what God wants.” This is a prayer designed to change us rather than God.
It’s in praying this prayer that we become the people God made us to be, and wants us to become in Jesus Christ. Here’s a bit of Episcopal Trivia for you to regale your friends with at your next BBQ. In every public service held in the church, the Lord’s Prayer is always said. That’s right—you won’t attend a service here at St. Paul’s without it being said. That’s the rule. It is prayed at Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline; at weddings, baptisms, Eucharists, funerals and ordinations. It’s even prayed with those who are dying. It is Our Prayer—and it reminds us who God is. It is a constant in our lives as Christians. It is meant to be said every day—perhaps even more than once each day.
Prayer, we discover, isn’t so much about persisting in order to change God’s mind—it’s about persisting in order to change ourselves. Spend enough time in prayer and you discover that prayer is less about getting what you want than it is building a relationship with God. Take some time this week to create a personal path to a place of prayer—and whatever you do, don’t let the grass grow on your path. In Jesus’ name. Amen.