More years ago than seems possible,
in another congregation,
in another town,
I knew an eccentric young man named Harry.
Eccentric hardly names it.
Harry dressed for Church in knickers,
a boller or straw hat,
and from time to time, if he felt the occasion warranted,
he added a Batt Masterson style cane.
To top it all off
Harry spoke out of the side of his mouth like W.C. Fields.
Although I knew Harry for two years
I could not venture a guess as to who the real Harry was.
Please consider as well, that I was a 29 year old rector
with only two years of experience as a priest
when Harry walked in one afternoon.
He told me in a long and involved way,
which was his custom,
that he was chasing the job of his dreams
that would relocate him to another state.
He apparently had a chance for this position
but said the competition was fierce
and thus his visit to me.
After describing his wish for the job of his dreams
he looked me in the eye and said with a straight face:
“Pray for me to get this job.
If your prayers are efficacious,
there’s a C-note in it for you.”
Well I didn’t even know what “efficacious” meant.
I felt deeply conflicted about praying for such things
– as if asking for a bicycle at Christmas –
and I felt ashamed of myself for hoping
he would get the job
so I would get a hundred bucks.
Well, Harry did not get the job
and I did not get the $100,
and to add insult to injury,
Harry went looking for another priest
whose prayers were more efficacious.
Today’s Gospel reading has a simple, earthy,
even sweet message about prayer that, surprisingly,
Harry would feel right at home with.
Let’s acknowledge there is a great deal in our tradition
written about prayer,
and these days
there is quite a lot of interest in prayer exotica:
And while all of that is good stuff if in your heart’s desire,
I think it is useful for us to listen
to what a First Century Palestinian rabbi named Jesus
had to say about prayer.
the parable about the late night knock at the door
has been made more complicated
by the fact that we cannot simply take what it says
and apply it directly to ourselves.
The reason we cannot be so direct
is that 1st Century rural Galilee
and 21st Century urban culture
are as far apart as ancient peasant subsistence farming
and affluent American consumerism.
So there are a few things we need to know
about Jesus’ world
before the wisdom rings through this parable.
was the centerpiece of 1st century Judea and Galilee
the same way consumerism is central to our culture.
Hospitality was even an engine of their economic life
just as consumerism has been for ours.
To undermine the strict and intricate rules of hospitality
would have been to unravel the whole social fabric
with severe economic consequences.
who traveled overnight to anyplace
was utterly dependent upon friends or friends of friends,
for a place to stay –
an Inn was either a Brothel
or an otherwise impossible place
for an observant Jews to spend the night.
Third, if you did not welcome a guest into your home
you would face an intolerable shame
– a shame that could literally be carried against you
for the rest of your life.
And in that culture,
to drag an injured reputation was to be sorely disabled.
But at the same time,
while the door to your home was always open
during the day,
it was always closed and locked at night.
To disturb the rigidly held privacy of the home at night was to risk a different kind of disabling shame.
So with that information,
we can see that this parable Jesus told
was really about how a neighbor
risked shame for the sake of hospitality.
That is the subtitle of this parable:
Risking shame for the sake of hospitality.
Here is the scenario behind the parable:
The first neighbor had unexpected guests,
apparently at night.
The first neighbor was unprepared for guests
and had nothing in the house to feed them.
Left unremedied he would have been shamed.
What to do?
Dare he add more shame upon himself
by disturbing his neighbor at night
in the hope he could barrow some bread?
The second neighbor
was then faced with a different dilemma.
Should he answer knock on the door at night or not?
And if so,
should he then save the neighbor from his shame
by giving him some bread,
or add to his shame by giving nothing
in addition to being offended
for having his nighttime privacy disturbed?
We can see how complicated this gets,
and how far away from it WE are
in the absence of shame as a social regulator
in our culture.
Our sense of hospitality and privacy are wholly different.
It is also interesting to note
how this intricate protocol for hospitality
required an intense sense of inter-dependence;
something that was born of both economic need
and religious values.
Anyway, here is a slight re-working of the parable
that makes clear what the issues are:
Jesus asks his disciples,
“Which of you will go to your next-door neighbor
at midnight and ask to barrow bread
for an unexpected guest,
and then be turned down?”
And his disciples answered him,
“Why, none of us.
We do not have unresponsive neighbors.
It is unthinkable that a request like that would be denied.”*
*Texts For Preaching, Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome
Jesus’ response to them would be,
“Well, if perfectly ordinary human beings like yourselves would respond to a neighbor’s need late at night,
how much more generous will God be with your needs?”
What I hear in this parable
is a challenge and a promise:
While we so often operate out of guilt, social obligation, and self-interest,
God operates out of absolute compassion and love.
The punch line of the parable is this:
There is no risk involved in asking God for anything. Forgiveness, bread, joy, healing, a new bicycle for Christmas…anything!
Feel free to ask for anything
no matter how selfish or silly.
The punch line of this parable
is then sewn into the lining of the model prayer
we call The Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus begins, “Our Father” –
but literally “ABBA”.
Some scholars have argued that “Abba”
in ancient Aramaic
translates better in our parlance
as “Daddy” or “Mommy.”
Others have argued against this transliteration
but in either case, “Abba”
is a title more intimate than formal;
more personal than corporate;
more colloquial than liturgical.
That Jesus prayed to God as Abba
and invited his friends and students to do the same,
suggests to me that God need not be approached
in the way that Dorothy and the Scarecrow
groveled before the Wizard of Oz.
And yet, unfortunately,
that is how many of us learned to pray.
We were only taught the formal language
of corporate worship
but nothing of prayer
as a private language of holy intimacy.
The other element of this model prayer
we need to observe
is that it is exclusively a “gimme” prayer.
Jesus asks God to do something for him –
“gimmies” to meet actual, basic needs.
Here is what Jesus’ model prayer asks for:
- Daddy, keep me in awe
and inspired by your magnificence.
- Mommy, I need you
to get more active in this crazy world
and bump these power-mongers out of the way.
- Daddy, I need you
to help me get my basic needs met
– and maybe you could throw in something beyond subsistence too.
- Mommy, I need you to forgive me for my failures and my evil, and I need help forgiving some of the people whose failures and evil have done me-and-mine wrong.
- And Daddy, please, whatever you do, do not keep testing my character – I’ve only got so much character!
Here’s the deal.
The idea of a model prayer
is not that we are supposed to
ask for these five gimmies all the time;
you and I have different gimmies
we want and need.
We do not copy how Jesus dressed
or how he wore his hair
or limit ourselves to what he ate,
so we need not be so simplistic
about getting the words or petitions
he might have used just exactly like him either.
The model is this:
God is Mommy or Daddy
– intimate, immediate, safe, present, trustworthy.
Ask for real needs
– basic, sensual, earthy, real needs.
Look for a kind and generous response
– healing, hopeful, appropriate, and genuine.
That is all we hear about prayer when we listen to Jesus.
There is no particular technique mentioned.
There is no one methodology offered.
One kind of prayer
is not stressed as more efficacious
than another kind of prayer.
Efficacious prayer – effective prayer that is –
does not depend upon whether we stand or kneel
or think or speak
or meditate or contemplate
or anything that WE do.
Efficacious prayer is not influenced
by who offers the prayer
– Pope, priest, Dali Lama, or you.
Prayer depends upon a listening
and responsive God.
That is all.
Prayer depends upon a listening
and responsive God…
and our willingness to pray.
But here is the thought I want to leave you with.
If we do not pray
then we are wasting our time trying to know God.
Praying is how we come to know God.
Prayer is not a method or technique,
it is the expression of our relationship.
If we feel dissatisfied
in our relationships with God,
then we simply need to try changing the way we pray.
The little parable we heard today,
and Jesus’ model prayer,
leave us with three very basic, concrete,
even diagnostic questions
that may help us gain a closer relationship with God.
First, what is your name for God?
Is it intimate and personal or is it formal and public?
Secondly, what do you ask God?
Is it for the same old things
that don’t really inspire you
or for the gimmies of your heart
that keep you awake at night?
Third, and finally, how often are you with God in prayer?
Just at the dinner table or
before drifting off to sleep,
or more frequently throughout the day?
Really, this is not rocket science.
It is not the Three-fold Blissful Enlightenment
of a Kung fu Master.
It is just prayer.