“Lord, teach us to pray….”
Jesus’ instruction about how to pray appears in both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels, as well as in the Didache (Gr. Διδαχή) or “The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations” (8.2), which dates from around the second century AD. It was part and parcel of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” (vv. 5:1—7:29), sandwiched in between Jesus’ admonitions regarding “almsgiving” and “fasting.” For Jews in particular, it was a question of the first importance. Those who were present for last Sunday’s “midrash” on the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) might recall that this was one of the things that Jesus spoke with Mary about as she sat listening at his feet, while her sister Martha toiled away in the kitchen. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a recurring question posed to Jesus by his disciples throughout his years of active ministry: “Lord, how shall we pray?”
And it’s a loaded question… or at least it’s a question with a loaded answer. Perhaps you’ll remember a week and a bit ago… I sent y’all a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer by Frederick Buechner. Don’t worry if you didn’t read it, or have forgotten some of what it said… I’ll recap: “Father, hallowed be your name.” Jesus instructing his disciples to address the Lord God Almighty, Jehovah, Yahweh (YHWH) as “Father” was notable in and of itself. It evoked an entirely different image of the relationship between the Creator and the created… one based upon kinship and love rather than servitude and fear. But then comes the ask: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Think about that for a minute. We can mean it as a supplication: “Pleeeeze, God! Things are tough down here on earth! Won’t you come down here right now and save us?” And God hears the cries of his people, right? But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is talking about. And neither is Buechner. When we ask for God’s will to be done, says Buechner, “We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want, but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now mostly hidden, to set free in all its terrible splendor the devastating power that is now mostly under restraint. ‘[Your] kingdom come . . . on earth’ is what we are saying.” Let that sink in for a minute.
I often invite y’all to join me in praying the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say….” And it is indeed a bold prayer. Does the idiom, “Be careful what you ask for” come to mind? If God’s kingdom was to come, and if his will was to be done… today… tonight… tomorrow… in a week’s time… what then, asks Buechner? “What would stand and what would fall? Who would be welcomed in and who would be thrown the hell out? Which if any of our most precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more-or-less on-the-mark and which would turn out to be phony as three-dollar bills? To speak those words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.” It’s pretty heady stuff, but if you can bring yourself to pray the first part of the prayer, which is essentially a prayer for Judgement Day, then you can also pray the second half of the prayer from the heart: Give us… forgive us… save us… deliver us. All things a child who is in trouble might ask a father.
So, this brings us to the second half of today’s Scripture reading: the part about needing bread… and having a friend who has some, but who won’t give it to you because you’re calling too late at night. What to do? “Keep asking!” says Jesus. Your friend may not get out of bed to give you what you’re asking for just because you’re his friend, but if you keep making noise, he’ll do it just so you’ll go away and he can get some rest! It’s kind of a funny metaphor for prayer, isn’t it? But the point is this: Have perseverance! Ask, and you shall have. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened. If, at first, you don’t succeed… keep on praying! And pray above all for this: that God’s will be done. God is good. God loves you. God knows what you need—what we all need—even when we don’t know it ourselves. And, if we’ll only have faith, our Father in heaven will grant to us in this world knowledge of his truth, and in the age to come, life everlasting.