Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 2004 (Proper 12, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on July 25, 2004. 
Based on Luke 11:1-13 (Proper 12, Year C).

If you could ask Jesus one question, what would it be? Since we all come at faith from different perspectives our one question may well differ from the person sitting next to us. A widow might ask whether she will meet her late husband in heaven. A theologian might ask about the complexities of Trinitarian doctrine. You might want a definitive answer to the classic question about why bad things happen to good people. I’d be curious to know if the Orioles will win the World Series again in my lifetime. (But I’m afraid I already know the answer.)

Unfortunately, we don’t have the disciples’ opportunity for face time with Jesus. They did get to ask him questions. Granted a lot of them were pretty self-serving. “Who is the greatest?” “May I sit at your left hand in your glory?” But others get right to the point. And I do think that Scripture offers us answers to questions we, too, would ask. In fact, if we gathered at coffee hour to come up with a single question for Jesus I wouldn’t be surprised if we arrived at the question we hear put to Jesus in this morning’s gospel. I could envision us collectively whittling down our personal questions to come up with a more universal one. My Orioles question would be axed. But so would other questions of self interest.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s a question in the form of a statement. “Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s almost a plea. The disciples are asking Jesus how to pray. And it’s a great question, a question with which we all struggle. The Church teaches all sorts of types of prayer: intercessory, praise, adoration, etc. But despite all of this, most of us still wrestle with our prayer lives. Jesus’ answer in this passage gives us the great gift of what’s known to us as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a pretty simple prayer. It’s not full of big words or fancy phrases but we’re taught to pray with our whole heart and mind and soul. It’s a prayer of praise: “Hallowed by thy name.” It’s a prayer of acceptance: “Thy will be done.” It’s a prayer of intercession: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a prayer of mercy: “Forgive us our trespasses.” It’s a prayer of hope: “Deliver us from evil.”

And in the context of this passage, Jesus’ teaching about prayer could be summed up in one word: ask. To ask is to pray. He bids us to ask, to search, to knock. And that should be the essence of our prayer lives. God stands ready to respond. Our responsibility is to seek God through prayer.

People are sometimes embarrassed to pray. This is especially acute when we’re asked to pray in public. You’ve probably been to a family dinner where there was great awkwardness about who would say grace. Some families cope with this by just digging in and ignoring the whole issue of giving thanks. Others tend to anoint a “designated pray-er” for such occasions. No one has to worry about it because Uncle Ted always says grace. (For some reason, I’m the Uncle Ted of my family.) We get self-conscious. We worry what others will think about us if we’re not appropriately eloquent. ‘She goes to church every Sunday, why can’t she even string together a decent prayer? Maybe she’s not as faithful as she’d like us to believe.’ The root of this embarrassment is, of course, fear. We’re fearful that our relationship with God isn’t good enough. We’re fearful that we’ll appear foolish in God’s sight or, worse, in the eyes of our family and friends. And so the idea of praying aloud causes us to spiritually cower in the corner. Which is an impossible posture in which to converse with God.

To pray doesn’t mean that we already have the answers. “Ask, search, knock.” That’s the posture of prayer Jesus commends to us. It’s an attitude of questioning and seeking. But it also implies action. To ask, search, and knock is to engage in active prayer. Jesus doesn’t tell us to wait idly and passively. He tells us to go towards God, to reach out to God, so that we may ultimately be drawn closer to God. Which is what prayer is all about. It’s about being drawn into deeper relationship with the living Christ.

Simply by asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples show they’re on the way. They are actively searching. They are knocking on the door of the divine. “Lord, teach us to pray” is itself a prayer. And it’s one we need to pray over and over again.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

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