Prayer is about giving not getting (A sermon from Luke 11:1-13)
In Flannery O’Conner’s short story called The Turkey, a little boy named Ruller has a poor self-image because nothing seems to turn in his favor. At night he overhears his parents talking about him rather negatively about how unusual he is.
One day he is walking through the woods and happens upon a wild turkey that had been wounded. He starts after it thinking, “if only I can catch it and go home with that turkey slung over my shoulder they will say, “Look at Ruller with that wild turkey! Ruller, where did you get that turkey?” And he imagines saying, “Oh, I caught it in the woods. Maybe you would like me to catch you one sometime.” But then a thought flashes through his mind, “God will probably make me chase that damn turkey all afternoon for nothing.” He feels like it is wrong to think that way about God, and yet he can’t help it.
Ruller finally catches the turkey and starts to think that maybe it’s a sign of God’s change of mind towards him. He even begins to feel some gratitude. He considers giving his one dime away. He prays that if God will send him a beggar he will give his dime away. And sure enough, a beggar shows up and he puts his one dime inside her hand and goes on.
Ruller then notices a group of country boys creeping up behind him. He says to the boys, “Y’all wanna see this turkey?” “Lemme see it,” one boy says. And Ruller hands him the turkey. As soon as the boy has it in hand, he slings it over his shoulder and is gone.
The boys are out of sight before Ruller moves. He starts back toward home. He walks slowly at first, and then he starts running as darkness descends. This is how O’Conner ends the story: “He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”
Now, sisters and brothers, if for any reason in the back of your mind you have this image of God as Something Awful then there is hardly any reason to pray. You might have good reason to fear, but not pray – unless of course you are praying that the Something Awful will spare you and leave you alone.
How we imagine God has everything to do with how we pray or even if we pray. This is one reason I spend so much of my time in my writing and teaching trying to help folks like you and those who read my writing imagine a very good and gracious God.
Of late, I have been posting excerpts from my sermons on my facebook page. Prior to the sermon I will post previews of the upcoming sermon and then afterward I will post excerpts with links to my webpage where this sermon is posted in its entirety. Last week I heard from two persons on facebook I hadn’t seen or talked to for a very long time. If you were here last Sunday or possibly read the sermon on line you may remember I admonished you not to worry about the afterlife, about heaven and hell. I said that because God is good the afterlife, whatever it may involve, will be good. My admonition was, “Chill. Relax. Don’t be afraid. God is not a tyrant or a monster or an angry deity. God is love. God is good. So whatever the afterlife involves it will be good because God is good.” Apparently, for my two facebook friends, this was just too much to take in without comment.
One who responded was a former parishioner at the church I left to come here in 2002 who informed me that she was glad I left. The other person is a young lady who was just a kid when we lived as neighbors in Flatwoods when I pastored FBC Greenup in the early 90’s. She is a member of the church where I grew up in Westwood. She responded by quoting the passage in Luke where Jesus is purported as saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing . . . [rather] fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” If the passage ended here then we might be led to believe that O’Conner’s fictional character is right, God is Something Awful. But immediately following that statement Jesus says in Luke: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are more value than many sparrows.” Jesus says, “Do not fear. Do not be afraid.” On the surface it sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself, but what he saying is this: If there is anyone to fear it is God, because God could kill you and throw you into hell. (Keep in mind that some Jews during the time of Jesus believed God would throw some people in hell – not all Jews, but many – just like many Christians believe today.) But, says Jesus, no need to be afraid, because God is not that kind of God. If God cares about the birds that fall from the sky, certainly God cares for you. God even knows the number of hairs on your head. So don’t be afraid” (see Luke 12:4-7). In other words: If there is anyone to fear it would be God, but you don’t have be afraid of God, because God cares for you. That’s the logic of this text.
This is the God we can talk to and be comfortable around. It all comes back to how you imagine God doesn’t it. When it comes to nurturing a relationship with God, how you conceive of God is everything. It determines whether you relate to God in fear or in love. I can assure you of this. You will never really love a God that you are afraid of.
The argument for the good and gracious character of God turns on a “much more” kind of analogy. If earthly parents want what is good for their children and give their children what is good for them, how much more does God want what is good. God is always better than the most gracious, good, and loving person you know or can imagine.
This is how the model prayer orients our praying: “Our Father, our Abba. Our good and loving God. Let your name be so regarded as holy.” God’s holiness as Jesus so beautifully embodied and expressed is a holiness of compassion and grace. It is a holiness expressed in an open table that treats the condemned and marginalized as equals and fellow children of God. In fact, the mantra that Jesus championed was not so much, “Be holy as God is holy” because there was so much misunderstanding about what God’s holiness meant. Rather, for Jesus it was (as we read in Luke 6:36): “Be merciful (or Be compassionate) just as your Father (your Abba, your good and gracious God) is merciful.” You see, God's holiness according to Jesus is a holiness of compassion.
When we first read these teachings on prayer it is common to assume that what Jesus is insisting on is persistence. But actually, I don’t think that is it at all. If you read the parable as a lesson in persistence, then the implication seems to suggest that if we are persistent enough we will eventually wear God down and get what we want. That, I think, is not only really bad theology – it misses the point.
The culture in Palestine during the time of Jesus was an honor and shame culture, and high priority was given to hospitality. To fail to be hospitable brought shame on the one or family who refused or failed to be hospitable. Again, it’s a “much more” kind of analogy. We might imagine someone forcing the hand of a neighbor to be hospitable, but God is “much more.” You don’t have to keep beating on the door to get God’s attention. Because God is with us all the time. Actually, when I am talking to God, I am talking to my deepest self, my true self where the Divine dwells.
When I first started praying years ago with any persistence I imagined God as out there, somewhere else. Typically, we think up there, but mainly somewhere else rather than here, looking at us and relating to us from a distance. I imagined a God who from time to time would intervene into our world to control events, circumstances, and people.
I have given up that image of God. I am now convinced that God controls very little. Isn’t it obvious really? Just look around. Surely God believes in freedom much more than God believes in control. Clearly, God deeply respects and regards our freedom, even when we use that freedom in abusive and horrendous ways.
I still believe there is great mystery to prayer. I believe that our prayers connect to positive forces and powers that we do not understand to help with healing, wisdom, and guidance. But I also realize that the way God works in our world and in our lives is much more subtle and indirect than I or most of you like.
When you think about it, everything God wants to do in the world God does through you and me, or it doesn’t get done. Paul, I think, understood this when he employed the image of the church as the body of Christ. How does God, the living Christ, make God’s self known and bring about peace and justice in the world?
The only way I know God can do this is through you and me, through people who are willing to be instruments of peace and conduits through whom God’s love and grace can flow. This is the meaning of incarnation. God becomes incarnate through us as we are led by God’s Spirit, Jesus being our supreme example and model.
Remember what Paul says in Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are qualities we embody when God is working in our lives. These qualities become present in our demeanor, our conversations, our actions, our relationships. The Divine Spirit works in this material world through material means – flesh and blood – you and me. It’s the only way God gets things done in the world.
Prayer then is the means by which I open my life to God. Prayer is the means by which I become aware of and sensitive to the ways of God’s love and make my life available to communicate God’s love through my life.
Here I need to say something about the line that ends this Lukan passage on prayer, because if you take the language literally it really gets confusing. It’s based on this “much more” argument: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
The language of the Spirit is just another way of talking about God’s active presence in our lives and in our world. The biblical language and the language we use in our hymns and litanies to describe the Spirit can be very confusing. We tend to use spatial language. We talk upon the Spirit coming upon us or descending on us, but remember, this is all metaphorical and symbolic language.
The Spirit gives us life and breath. Without the Spirit, without the life of God flowing in us, we would not be alive. The Spirit is with us, around us, in us – all the time. So the question then: In what sense do we need to ask for the Spirit since we already have the Spirit?
What we need to ask for, sisters and brothers is readiness, awareness, enlightenment, openness, and a willingness to be yielded to the Spirit who is always with us and wants to show us new wisdom and inspire us to a greater love.
Prayer is our way of being available to participate in Divine love. It is not a way to get things from God. If we think prayer is a way to get things from God, then prayer is useless as a spiritual discipline and exercise. Prayer then becomes just another means the ego uses to assert itself and pursue its own self-interest.
True prayer is listening to God and asking God to make us formable, teachable, guidable, and changeable into the likeness of our gracious and compassionate Lord. We must keep the main thing the main thing. Prayer is a spiritual exercise that opens us to the Spirit who is always with us and is the one who empowers us to love.
That sisters and brothers is the power of prayer. Prayer is not our means to acquire for ourselves; it is God’s means for empowering us to give ourselves for the good of others and our world. It’s not about getting; it’s about giving. It is the power to love.
Our good and gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is our love, because you have already given us your love. Help us to discover over and over again what your love looks like and feels like. And may we not keep it to ourselves, for then it wouldn’t be love. Let us realize that the only way to grow in love is to give love away. Give us the wisdom and will to participate in your loving ways in the world. In Christ’s name. Amen.