Jeff, Our Savior’s worship chairperson and best golfer, hands down.
These texts, I must confess, confound me. They give me a certain sense of shame, even, because if I may confess something to you, I don’t think of myself being very good at prayer. But there’s more to it than that.
This sermon got personal for me very quickly, so I’m inviting you into my head for a minute — well, about ten to twelve minutes, as usual — but I hope you enjoy the journey.
All around the preacher-sphere this week, with “preacher-sphere” being a term that I just made up, there were rumblings about these texts. And by rumblings, I mean bitter complaining. There just doesn’t seem to be much for a Lutheran pastor to go on here.
First, you’ve got Abraham haggling over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the speed of an auction announcer: give me one righteous man, one, gimme two, there’s two, gimme three.. Because some of us know the story, we know that after this, Sodom and Gomorrah get destroyed anyway, and the one righteous man, Lot, loses his wife as she becomes a pillar of salt. Well, that’s messed up.
Then in the Gospel lesson, you’ve got Jesus explaining prayer in terms of the Lord’s prayer. “Great,” we think. “I can get a sermon out of this.”
Then, to sum things up as one of my pastor friends did, you’ve got Jesus saying “Bug your neighbors, because it’s kind of like bugging God. And don’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg; that’s messed up.”
The idea you’d get from our English translation is that because the friend was persistent, you’d give in, indicating that if we are persistent before God, God will give in and give us what we want. God likes to be nagged, apparently.
That’s kinda messed up too. Especially considering how we can all recount instances where we or someone we love was absolutely persistent in prayers that never got answered. We pray and pray and pray for someone who is sick or injured, and they still die. We pray and pray and pray for relationships to be healed, and they aren’t. And so it goes. I long ago finished with platitudes to explain these things away.
I do not think that God needs our excuses.
So what is Jesus saying about prayer? What is livable, and useful, about these texts?
Here’s where I let you into my brain. One of the things that I find almost funny about being a pastor is when people confess things to me as if I’m not just another person like them who does the exact same things.
People guiltily confess to me that they don’t go to church that much.
Meanwhile, I wake up many Sunday mornings just grateful that some of my favorite people go here because otherwise I’d be dragging myself out the door with the mantra “I have to go to church. I have to go to church. I can’t sleep in. I can’t go to brunch. I’m the pastor. I’m the pastor.”
Thanks for making it easy for me to go to church, by the way.
People apologize for cursing. They use some of my favorite words.
Finally, they confess that they aren’t very good at prayer to me, someone who is decidedly not very good at prayer.
Now, before you fire me, don’t get me wrong: I went to seminary. I can wax theological and philosophical about prayer. I can tell you why it’s good for you psychologically and why it helps you to see people differently. I believe it’s good for me and for you. I’m just not a naturally pious person. I’ve tried to be, a long time ago, but it never felt right.
I’m not a mystic. I’m not a prayer warrior. I’m just a person who tries, a person whose prayer books sometimes gather dust until Advent or Lent rolls around and I make a fresh commitment to try doing morning prayer every morning. Or maybe three mornings a week. Or maybe… and then I forget, and the books start collecting dust again. I find myself praying for people real quick right after I say that I will because at least then I did it once. Then I’ll think of them again and say another quick prayer. I become a prayer opportunist, which I am pretty sure is better than nothing.
The point is, if you tell me shamefully that you struggle with prayer, I’m probably going to look right at you and say, “me too.”
There’s a lot of shame around church and piety and prayer: who does it, who doesn’t, whose prayers get answered, and why. So I’m hoping I can help cut out the shame by being more honest with you myself.
This week, I went golfing with three of the best humans I know, who also happen to also be members here. We talked about prayer on the way back to the clubhouse, mostly because it was Thursday and I still needed a sermon. I heard some good answers — tales about surprising encounters with missionaries that still inform prayer for them. About how prayer is praising, asking, and confessing. I heard confessions of what often feels like a one-sided conversation, but is worthwhile nonetheless. About how it’s hard to hear the replies to our prayers, even if we believe God is a friend who walks alongside us all the time.
That’s when it started to click into place that, despite our shame around prayer, this prayer thing is just different for everyone. We think of prayer as if it only has to take one form when really, it takes many forms for all of us at different times.
“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
Jesus’ answer to this question becomes the most famous prayer in Christianity, one that can usually be found in almost any Christian worship service of any type. One that gets repeated over and over before some sports games and often when a group of Christians wants to pray together but no one wants to lead. It’s the prayer that we’ll say right before we take the Eucharist: the one we know as simply “The Lord’s Prayer.” Luke doesn’t include the whole thing that we know today. In Luke, it’s simply: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
I think you’ll agree that Luke’s version would’ve been far easier for many of us to memorize as children, but no one asked us, so it’s Matthew’s version that gets repeated, including the part about temptation and the forever and ever bit.
Then there’s that story about the horrid, intrusive friend. And once again, our English translation might get in the way. The version we read today has Jesus telling us that because the friend was persistent, he gets what he needs. But “persistence,” you see, isn’t the right word at all.
The right word is more like “shameless.”
My best pastor buddy pointed this out to me, and it all started to come together. We have so much shame around prayer: who does, who doesn’t, who should. How we pray, why we pray. What we pray for, and what we don’t. Who we pray for, and who we should pray for.
Even the disciples get in on this a bit: essentially, they ask Jesus how they should pray.
Should should should.
In his answer, though Jesus says instead: when you pray, be shameless. Not persistent. Not nagging. Shameless.
Think about the people you love most. Think about the people who love you most. Think about the purest expressions of love that you’ve ever experienced or seen. Think about any time anyone has ever said to you when you felt like you were being a bother: “Of course I will do this for you. I love you.”
Real love is shameless.
From the first offense in the garden of Eden, shame has crept into our relationships with God and one another, as the humans hid themselves and God cried out “Who told you that you were naked?”
I’ve seen it over and over as a chaplain and a pastor: real love is shameless. Shameless love is a parent who cares for their sick child, a spouse who tenderly changes the bedding, a friend who lets someone they love collapse in their arms in a fit of anxiety or mourning. When we love someone, we will care for them in the most intimate of ways. When we love, we feel no shame over what our bodies do or what they look like, and we feel no shame over our emotions.
As my friend Kathleen says, real love is when you “no longer have to tuck in your crazy.”
You may experience this with a parent, a child, a sibling, a dear friend, a spouse, a lover, or just with God, but wherever you’ve found it, you know: real love is shameless, because you know that all of you, all of you, is accepted. You know you’re not perfect, and you know that you’re loved anyway. That is shameless love.
And that is what Jesus says that prayer is supposed to be like.
And that’s when I started to realize that maybe I’m not all that bad at prayer after all.
I’ll tell you shamelessly that I’m very bad at sitting at a home altar and lifting up the people I love in prayer. I want to be good at it, but I never have been, not for any long period of time.
But what I am good at is running. The rhythm. The simplicity.
There is only the road ahead. There is only my breath. Everything that I am is there. And in my more pious moments I’ve imagined that maybe, just maybe, God matches my stride. When I’m running, my shame is gone. There is no room, and no time. Sometimes there’s prayer, I think. Not in words, usually. There’s no room for words, which is probably why there’s no room for shame. But that’s where this sermon came from: a good hour on Friday, enduring the heat, surviving. Thinking of you, and thinking of prayer, and thinking of what to say in a sermon about prayer, step after step, breath after breath. Shamelessly.
Then I finished my run, went to a coffee shop, and wrote you this sermon.
So I invite you to drop the shame around prayer and focus instead on where you feel most at home, most you, most human, most connected, and most shameless. Consider that maybe that is a form of prayer, too. It can be running, hiking, writing, heck, even skydiving.
So yeah, this is a pretty messed up set of texts. But humans — all of us — are a pretty messed up set of people.
Thank God, then for being God — for being shameless. Amen.