BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PRAY FOR
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Texts: Psalm 85; Luke 11: 1-12
“So, what did you do?” I asked. The young Indonesian woman bowed her head: “I prayed, I prayed that God would give me strength no matter what happened.” Well, I did know the worse hadn't happened because she was alive and seated in front of me. “And God gave me strength so that I did not flinch when he pulled his knife out of his sash.” She paused. “And then a miracle!” she shouted, “A miracle!” He put the sword back in his sash. I thought he was going to kill me.” I could feel the vibrations from her knees, visibly shaking. I waited. She continued: “But, he did not become a Christian. “ Imagine that, I thought. “ I am sure God will come to him in the future, don't you think?”
Prayer. It's more than uttering a few words, even the ones that Jesus suggested. Where did it originate? In the dark recesses of Neanderthal caves? Yes, that's right, there is evidence that even the Neanderthals prayed. Our first evidence of prayer comes with our first evidence of belief – of faith – in our fear of death – oh, it's so natural, even when we have great faith. And that is, of course, what prayer strives towards – great faith, which is but another way of saying faithfulness. Living the Gospel, living the very faith that Jesus had. But, remember, his cry, his prayer, at the moment of death, was a prayer of doubt: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Let's look at prayer and how it can shape, does shape our lives. There are many stories about what happens to us when we pray, really pray. Sometimes we lose our sense of time, of what is around us, of where we are. Prayer is not just muttering a few words, saying “Thank you, God” or even “Please, please, God.” It is a way of life. That sounds strange, yes, but prayer is a way of life.
There was a time when our lives were governed by the hours we were to pray, even as recently as a hundred and fifty years ago. Jean-Francois Millet's painting The Angelus shows a couple somewhere in France who stop their farming duties and bow their heads when they hear the church bells peal. In the foreground are their wheelbarrow. A pitchfork and a bag of potatoes; in the background, a church spire and the waning light of the day. These were not people who lived in cloisters and monasteries but ordinary people; their lives were governed by prayer.
There are many kinds of prayer: prayer of petition, confession, ecstasy, adoration, healing, and, of course, gratitude. The beauty of the simple prayer offered by Jesus in this morning's reading from Luke is that it combines each and every one of these elements. “Father,” the Gospel writer has Jesus saying. Now we can use any word we want here to address our image and relationship to God. Our Native American brothers and sisters use the word “Great Spirit” and my Muslim friends use any one of ninety-nine names, “Allah” is only the Arabic word for God, closely related to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke: “Abba.” Hindus use many names for God as well, and Sikhs call God “Waheguru,” or great teacher, among others.
“Hallowed be your name” is a statement of adoration recognizing the holiness of God, no matter what name we use for the Creator of our lives, our spirits, our souls. “Your kingdom come” is a statement of expectation. We pray for the kingdom of justice and peace, but that doesn't mean we stop there. It means we work for justice and peace. Yes, the work done by you in contributing to organizations, walking dogs, planting gardens, caring for the sick all contribute to building the kingdom of justice and peace.
And, of course, there is petition: “Give us each day our daily bread” is a plea to God that all will have their daily bread – not more, not less, but enough to get through the day. I don't know how many of you have ever been to a third world country – although, certainly, the way the poor in our own Nation lives helps us to realize what it must be like to be in a third world country. In some of the places I have been, people are lucky if they get one meal a day.
I keep a reminder of this on my refrigerator door. It is the iconic image of a young girl starving in the Sudan hunched over, almost dead from hunger, and the vulture is just behind her waiting for her to die. The photographer Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for that photo. He had prayers of despair after his experiences with famine, murder, and terror; finding them unanswered, he took his own life.
Prayers of confession are the most difficult – at least for me. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” It's really hard to forgive those who have offended us. In spite of our symbolic greeting of peace, forgiveness, real forgiveness is really, really hard, especially when you’ve really felt hurt by another person. Those are the people we feel are beyond forgiveness.
But Jesus makes it clear that we cannot obtain forgiveness without forgiving others, those who have cut us to the quick, whether it's through betrayal or just plain lack of thought. Anger and bitterness kills the soul. In spite of Samuel Johnson's quip that marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, we all know families torn apart by divorce where people are so angry and bitter that they close themselves off from even the possibility of ever loving again – whether it's the love extended to spouse or stepparent. Prayers of confession need to lead to healing of the soul.
“And do not bring us to the day of trial” is another petition. Don't make us have to live up to what we say we believe. Don't make us have to face ourselves in the mirror. Each of us has failed our ideals at one point or another in our lives. For me it happened the first year of college.
The period of time is ancient history to many of you but for me, it was an important time in my lives. I had joined SNCC – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group dedicated to ending racial discrimination in the 1960s. See! I told you this was ancient history. We petitioned for a chapter on campus where I was in college at the University of Maryland. Each of us who signed the petition was called into the dean's office individually, not as a group, because then we would have been able to resist and told we would be expelled if we persisted. I buckled as did others. I felt the taste of dirt in my mouth.
Although we found another way to organize – through the Episcopal Campus Ministry – a move, by the way, that brought me back to the church as an instrument of social justice, I hated the taste of fear, of humiliation, of cowardice, for yes, I was a coward and failed at the time of trial. I swore to myself it would never happen again.
We all fear that we will fail ourselves. Do not bring us to the time of trial. Please do not let me fail myself and others! It is our ardent prayer. What that experience gave to me was a resolve that I would never, never buckle again. We pray for the courage to take on the challenges that confront us, that teach us how to live faithfully. Challenges come in so many ways in our lives. Sometimes it is befriending someone who is friendless; sometimes, just taking up a hammer and nails to rebuild a home destroyed by a storm. But these are all challenges in our lives.
The important lesson is in the way that this prayer is framed. Notice that Jesus does not use the word “my” as in my sins, my daily bread, my time of trial but the word “our.” This means we do not live in isolation but in community. For us, we live in communities of faith and our prayers are more than simply our individual petitions – although that is important. Our prayer as community is not just found in the prayer offered in Luke's Gospel but also in the Psalms.
In the Psalms we sing in jubilation, cry out in pain, raise our voices in praise, and shout out our hopes. The Psalm we read this morning is one of petition, calling for forgiveness as a community that has failed and asking God to revive us, heal us, and bring us back into faithfulness, for we know that the Lord God is faithful and steadfast beyond our weaknesses, which are surely many. But we are offered the assurance that God will make a path for righteousness, a word that encompasses not only justice but healing and reconciliation; that path is made up of our actions, yours and mine.
When we pray the, we do not merely mutter words but we rise up against the disorder of the world, we make a pledge, a commitment, and we move into social action. Prayer governs our lives even more than we realize. So, be careful what you pray for.
Let us pray: Creator who holds us in your hands and your heart, grow our words into deeds and our intentions into action. In the name of the One who taught us how to live our prayers, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.