The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
Sermon for July 24, 2016 (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Genesis 18: 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13
Forty years ago, I instantly changed how I pray. A friend of mine told me about one of his seminary classes taught by Robert Jensen, one of our fine Lutheran theologians. At least how I understood it, Dr. Jenson said that when we pray, rather than hemming and hawing, we should ask God for exactly what we want. I have always interpreted Dr. Jenson’s words this way: no prayer to God is too audacious. Telling God exactly what’s on our mind was such a startling notion that I still wonder whether Dr. Jenson really advocated this manner of prayer.
Audacious prayer is daring. Audacious prayer never prettifies. If we have just received horrible news from the doctor and assume there is no sensible, scientific reason to hope, audacious prayer prays for healing if that’s what we want. Or, let’s say we want our church, Holy Trinity, to be a vibrant force on the Upper West Side, no matter what the experts tell us otherwise about the future of this or any other church in 2016, audacious prayer deletes all the timid ifs and buts and prays unflinchingly for God to make this a vibrant congregation, bursting at the seams, for years to come. Audacious prayer is formed deep in our bones and is as hard-hitting as a Muhammad Ali one-two punch.
Today’s readings from Genesis and Luke school us in the gutsy art of hard-hitting prayer. Who among us didn’t smile when we heard old Abraham bargaining with God for the sake of a few righteous people in Sodom? God was all lathered up in rage, ready to obliterate the entire wretched town in one fell swoop, that is until Abraham started bargaining away as if at a downtown flea market. Abraham started with fifty: “God, will you destroy this city if fifty righteous can be found among them?” What is flabbergasting is that God was willing to recant if fifty righteous folks could be found. You would think Abraham would have left well enough alone but Abraham had heard God’s promises before, to make his miniscule family a great nation, so his mantra was, if God gives me an inch, I’ll take a mile. “What if only forty-five righteous could be found?” Once again, ever long-suffering, God okayed Abraham’s forty-five plan. Abraham feeling a bit more formidable by then, upped the ante, “Suppose forty are found there.” God seemed good with that, too. Well, thought Abraham, how about thirty…twenty? “What if only ten righteous could be found?” Surprise, surprise, God was still willing to bargain with Abraham: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”
Do you ever pray like Abraham, like a riverboat gambler trying every trick to obtain God’s heavenly assistance?
And then there is the story in Luke where a person went to an Upper West Side apartment late at night; he needed three loaves of bread for a hungry friend on a journey. He banged and banged on the door until the groggy person answered with a loaf of bread in hand—you have warned me New Yorkers can be pushy! The story is filled with hard-hitting verbs: ask, seek, knock. Do you pray like that, refusing to give up until God answers the door?
These biblical readings are an invitation to risky prayer, encouraging us to do as the late New York rocker Lou Reed advised, “to take a walk on the wild side.” Bargain: fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten! Hit hard: ask, seek, and knock!
Jesus uses bold strokes when teaching us how to pray. In a world where dragging God’s name in the mud is almost second nature, Jesus urges us to pray, “Hallowed be your name.” When wars and violence, hatred and prejudice, are rampant, yet again this week, in Munich, Germany, and Kabul Afghanistan, Jesus puts this courageous plea on our lips, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” When so many in our world go to bed starving, Jesus implores us to pray,
“Give us this day our daily bread.” When we perpetrate all manner of evil against one another, Jesus begs us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And it is almost absurdly quaint to ask of God, “lead us not into temptation,” when self-aggrandizement and petty name-calling seem the rule of the day but pray we must.
Ever the good Jew schooled in the ways of father Abraham, Jesus schools us in the bold ways of prayer, to plead with God, not with our tails between our legs, but by banging our knuckles against heaven’s doors.
Praying what you think, by the way, can be an enormously healthy practice. You probably already know that, especially if you have paid $175 for fifty minutes on the therapist’s couch. What is always amazing is that even after you have been shockingly honest about your most terrifying and nasty thoughts and feelings, the capable therapist can talk you down from the ledge of your venomous anger and cowardly fears and you end up walking out of the office clicking your heels like Fred Astaire. And, likewise, how important when we confess our sins together or privately in the presence of God, saying what bedevils and haunts us; and then we are moved beyond our toxic resentments and paralyzing anxieties into the fresh breezes of new life as we hear God say, “I forgive you all your sins.”
After we have audaciously uttered our deepest pains, most alarming fears, and our most wretched hatreds, then God bids us to cock our ears and wait quietly and patiently so that we might be shaped by the Lord’s heavenly intentions for us and those we love.
If you have not done it before or of late, I urge you to walk on the wild side and to try some hard-hitting prayer for a change. Abraham did it; Jesus urged it; and now it is your turn. And, once you have spoken honestly and fearlessly, never forget to listen for God’s answer.