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Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Jul 28

Luke 11:1–13

“I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Or to paraphrase Sen. Mitch McConnell… “He was warned. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted.”

At the heart of this parable is an ancient Mediterranean practice now largely lost to us: the deeply ingrained practice of hospitality to travelers.

It’s a little hard for us today, in our cultural setting, to imagine a world—a much harsher world than our own—where opening your home to out-of-towners was considered a sacred obligation: one on which your very honor—and sometimes the life of the traveler—depended. Whereas Jesus’ listeners couldn’t have imagined a world where that wasn’t the case. When a visitor arrived on your doorstep, you asked them in; you brought water to wash their feet, you offered them food and a bed for the night.

You did not, say, have them arrested. Or take away their children. Or try to bar them from coming in. There are stories in the Bible about cities that behave this way, and they are cautionary tales: Think Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Bible, hospitality is a sacred mandate.

It’s also a given. Even though it’s the central image in today’s parable, the parable itself is actually not about hospitality; it’s actually about prayer. Prayer is the theme of our extended reading today, which is long and so dense with teaching that it could easily fill 3 sermons. And really, any sermon on prayer is likely to bring up more questions than it answers, this one included.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples say. Their plea brings me right back to my earliest experiences of God, first as a child and later as a college student. Growing up in a secular home, with few experiences of church or faith, when God came knocking, I had no idea how to respond. Those first experiences went something like this: Yikes. God is real. God is here. What do I do? What in the world am I supposed to SAY?

When you’re talking to God, where do you even start?

That was almost 40 years ago. I’ve had a lot of time to practice and learn. I still feel like a beginner.

I’ve prayed in words and I’ve prayed without words. I’ve prayed in church, and out walking alone, and at night as I wait for sleep. I’ve prayed the psalms, I’ve prayed from prayerbooks, I’ve written hymns and kept prayer journals. I’ve read books on prayer, so many books on prayer. These days my prayer is mostly the practice of silence: a centering word, a heart turned toward God in mystery and self-emptying. That seems to be the place where I feel most at home with God.

And I still feel like a total beginner. “Lord, teach me to pray…”

Prayer is hard. It’s awkward. It’s confusing. If you feel that way sometimes, I hope you know it’s not just you. Then again, maybe you’re one of those for whom prayer comes as naturally as breathing: What a rare and wonderful gift! I have to admit that I’m still struggling.

Here are a few things that have made prayer hard for me over the years, and sometimes made my prayer life less regular than it could have been.

First, the silence of God. Have you ever been on one of those dates that keep lapsing into awkward silence? Maybe the other person doesn’t know how to hold up their end of the conversation. Maybe the two of you just aren’t a great fit. Either way: so uncomfortable.

Prayer can feel a lot like that. You want to connect, but instead you just feel self-conscious. Are you supposed to do all the talking in this relationship? Or just be quiet and listen? What if you aren’t hearing anything?

Tap, tap, tap. Knock, knock, knock. God? Hello? Are you awake? Are you there?

The second thing that has sometimes made prayer daunting for me is that God is daunting. God is God, while I am limited and fallible flesh. How do you begin to address someone who is utterly transcendent and ungraspable? Where do you start?

Or here’s one I hear a lot in ministry, usually after someone has shared some painful situation they’re going through: “Of course, I know God has much more important things to worry about…” I call this the busy CEO model of God. Sorry, God is very, very important and can’t be bothered with your problems. You’re on your own.

You know this, but just a reminder: There’s no such thing as “busy” with God. God literally has all the time in the world for you.

The third difficulty I have has to do with asking for things. I’m talking about material things—especially those hard realities that matter most, like healing from illness, where it feels so often as if our prayers haven’t made a difference, when nature just seems to take its own unstoppable course, no matter how many hearts get broken in the process.

And it’s confusing to be told that if we ask, God will give us what we need, and if we knock, God will open the door to us, and if we seek, we’ll find what we’re looking for, because I think for most of us, most of the time, it’s just not that simple—or at least, it doesn’t feel simple. Honestly a lot of prayer just feels like a muddle. We offer our needs, we offer our longing, we ask for what feels impossible or out of reach… and then we go on, knowing that life is messy, and the world is complicated, and sometimes things are just going to be agonizingly hard, prayer or no prayer. “The world,” as novelist John Green writes, “is not a wish-granting factory.” And God is not a wish-granting genie. God is God, not a power to be made use of, or a force to be leveraged when we reach the limit of our own power and self-sufficiency.

But that doesn’t stop me from praying for God to make right all those things that matter so terribly. And so I pray, and wonder, and live with mystery and my own internal confusion.

Which brings me to the fourth thing that makes prayer so very hard for me sometimes: unruly emotions. Maybe I’m going through a bout of depression. Maybe I’m upset at myself over messing something up, or something hurtful I’ve done without realizing it. Maybe I’m the one who’s been hurt, and I just want to curl up and forget the rest of the world exists.

At such times, my mind indeed becomes like that closed, locked door in Jesus’ parable. Except instead of me trying to get in, it feels like I’m the one on the inside refusing to answer. Or maybe I can’t even hear the knocking over the sound of my own unhappy thoughts.

These are just some of the obstacles to prayer I’ve run into over the years. There are plenty of others; I’m sure you could come up with your own list.

To all of this, Jesus replies:

Keep knocking. And knocking, and knocking, and knocking. The translators use the word persistence: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

But as a matter of fact, scholars say that persistence is not at all a good translation of the Greek. The word in question actually means something much more interesting. It means something like shamelessness. “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his shamelessness he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Which makes sense in the context of the parable: In the story it’s the middle of the night, the whole household is asleep, the next-door neighbors are asleep, and this guy just won’t stop pounding on the door! Yeah, hospitality is sacred, but waking up the whole neighborhood? In middle of the night? Who does that?

Someone whose need is too powerful to be shamed or denied.

Someone, perhaps, like the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit—remember her? The one who barged into the house where Jesus was staying and refused to leave, even when he told her that he couldn’t help her; that he was a Jewish healer and she was a Syrian; that it wasn’t right to “take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”? She stood her ground, argued right back, until, in awe of her faith, Jesus gave in and healed her daughter. Shameless.

Or like the friends of the paralyzed man who were so desperate to bring that friend to Jesus that when they couldn’t get through the crowd, they literally dismantled the roof of the house where he was teaching, they literally took the roof apart and lowered their friend down from above. Shameless! (Jesus gave them what they asked.)

Or the woman who came to Jesus as he was sitting with his friends, and poured a jar of expensive ointment over his feet and dried them with her hair, while the disciples looked on, embarrassed and appalled by this intimate act of devotion. Totally shameless.

Pray like that, Jesus tells us. Pray shamelessly.

“Shamelessly”: AS IF we didn’t have a cargo of regret and mortification coming between us and God, making it hard to feel, let alone trust, God’s deep, healing, abiding goodness, and God’s infinite joy in us.

Shamelessly: as if we felt as worthy as God made us to be. As if the door didn’t feel closed and locked against us.

Pray and keep praying, Jesus says, even when it feels like the obstacles are just too great. Refuse to take no for an answer. That “no” is not God’s no to you. It’s coming from some stuck place inside you.

The more I pray, the more I see that the reason I need to keep praying isn’t to wear GOD down. It’s to wear down my own inner resistance to God. Prayer is about learning to open the door to the one who sees me fully, in the radiant light of love.

Which means I don’t need to worry so much whether I’m doing it right. All prayer, if it’s even the tiniest bit honest, works to draw us into union with God—just as we are, imperfect as we are. Day by day, it teaches us to rest our gaze, our desires, and our trust on that One who is both beyond us, and intimately with us: the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Prayer, Jesus says, is like coming to a door in the heart that is closed and locked, marked Asleep: Do Not Disturb in handwriting that looks suspiciously like our own—and daring to knock anyway. Daring to trust God more than our own misgivings. That door, Jesus says, will spring open wide, and God will welcome you with joy, and give you the one good gift on which all life depends: the gift of God’s own self, which changes everything.

My prayer for our community, as we enter into a year of discernment and wayfinding, is that we might take more time to pray, and especially to pray (shock, horror!) together, cultivating together what Thomas Merton calls the basic attitude of prayer: “faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, joy.” (Merton, Contemplative Prayer)

May we overthink less, and love God ever more; may we try less to control and practice trusting God all the more, keeping the doors of our hearts open to what we can’t yet see or imagine. And may God’s grace abound in our messy, imperfect, and precious human lives! Amen.


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