This is a non-lectionary sermon that was inspired by the readings from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity whose theme this year is 'pray without ceasing'. It's loosely based on Luke 18:1-14
Prayer in Luke
This evening’s Gospel reading is from the Gospel of Luke. And one of the recurring themes in Luke is the theme of prayer.
In the bible-reading scheme that we use on Sunday mornings, the two stories that we heard earlier are normally divided up. And so on one Sunday we hear the story of the widow and the unjust judge. And on the next Sunday we hear the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. And we’re used to concentrating on the meaning of each one of these stories separately.
However, I think that Luke also put them together for a reason. Together, the two stories tell us: on the one hand, be persistent in prayer and; on the other hand, don’t be prideful in your prayer either.
I think that this balance between persistence and pride is actually a very difficult balance to strike. Speaking for myself, I know that I swing back and forth between these two extremes of praying persistently and pridefully and I expect that many of us do.
In any case, this difficult balance is one reason that preaching about trying to achieve a balance is also difficult. For what they are worth, here are some thoughts.
First of all, I want to talk about dogged persistence. The kind of dogged persistence that the widow showed in asking for justice against her opponent.
But I don’t want to think about this story in the very literal way of ‘If you pester God long enough for want, your prayer will eventually be granted.’ I simply want to think for a bit about the value of dogged persistence when it comes to the very act of praying itself.
There is a phrase that has been used in child-rearing that I hope society is now beginning to understand the folly of. That phrase is ‘Quality time.’ The implication is that as long as we spend quality time with our children, we don’t need to worry about the quantity of time that we spend with them.
What’s wrong with this picture is that children do need quantity-time with their parents. Quantity-time is how children bond with their parents, how they learn by imitation and how they learn to relax and be themselves in their parents’ presence. An intense, short period of time spent with his mother or father is just going to make the child anxious to ‘get it right’. The child may learn the value of performing in front of his parent, but it’s not a real, long-term relationship.
And I think it’s the same thing with prayer. I think that regular time before God – regular prayer time – is a very important practice to try to cultivate. Sure, it’s wonderful when our prayers seem to flow out of us spontaneously. And, yes, it’s difficult, or boring or a struggle, to sit down to pray when we’re angry with God, when we don’t perceive his presence or when we simply don’t have anything to say to him.
And I suspect that we’ve all been in one of those situations – if not others – in the course of our Christian lives. But I actually think it’s important to have a regular time of prayer even in times – maybe especially in times – when we can’t pray.
Pray as You Can, not as you Can’t
But what is a person to do in these instances? How do you pray when you can’t pray? Well, everyone is different, and my second point this evening is ‘Pray as you Can, not as you Can’t’.
Particularly when we feel like we don’t have anything to say to God, prayer-time can be a real struggle. In this instance, I think it’s helpful to have a range things that you know you can ‘do’ even when you feel that you can’t talk to God.
And I think that this something that is often personal and sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error. Sometimes we have to try approaches and see if they work or we can ask others what they do and see if these approaches work for us.
Personally speaking, I’ve found that using written devotions is helpful; I can read through these and let my prayer be in the words. Also, simply reading the bible can be helpful when I feel I can’t talk to God.
I was hoping that perhaps we could share some prayer practices that we find helpful ourselves?
When we regularly spend time with God in prayer we are like a child who gets to spend ‘quantity time’ with his or her parents. This persistence – this quantity time – is how a real, everyday relationship with God comes to be established.
Our relationship with God is not just based on coming to him in the good times, but – if we’re persistent in prayer – we know what our relationship with him is like in the difficult times too. I think that every experience we have of praying through a difficult time gives us a better foundation for the next time of difficulty. Each experience gives us tools, and the knowledge of how we find it helpful to pray in times of crisis.
Pray without Pride
Our Gospel reading also suggests that when we pray, we should pray without pride. And that’s what makes preaching about prayer a difficult thing to do. As a preacher, I risk setting myself up as some kind of expert on prayer, which I’m not.
The irony of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, of course, is that it’s the person who is supposedly the ‘bad pray-er’ who is actually the one who is making the authentic prayer. Perhaps part of the point of preaching on prayer is for me to lay my cards on the table and say that I don’t have all the answers. That I sometimes find prayer difficult too.
The other risk in preaching about prayer is that someone hears that there is some kind of ‘right’ style or methodology of praying. Sometimes we succumb to the temptation of thinking ‘my way of praying is better than your way of praying’.
And that’s why I think the message ‘pray as you can and not as you can’t’ is important. We are all different people, created unique by God. Some of us find practices helpful that are of no use to others. That is part of God’s rich variety in creation.
That said, this Gospel reading does tell us that there is a wrong attitude toward prayer – an attitude of pride. As one wag once said, if your God hates all the same people you hate, you had better start suspecting that you’ve created God in your own image rather than the other way around. It’s somewhat amusing as a saying, but there is a lot of truth in it, as illustrated by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Where is the Good News in all of this? Well, I hope that there is something like ‘good news’ in knowing that prayer is something that most Christians struggle with at one time or another. And I hope that there is Good News in the fact that scripture encourages us to be persistent in our prayers to God. And I think that there is Good News in Scripture’s promise that God hears our prayers, even if we feel that they are not be answered in the way we might like.
As we approach the Lord’s Table this evening, let us remember that God’s hospitality is open to everyone who will accept it and let us come into his presence.
The celebration of the Lord’s Table is also a prayer. It’s a prayer that we make together as a community. It’s a prayer that we make with real, physical things taken from our every day lives. And it’s a prayer where we have Jesus’ promise in scripture that he will be with us when we do it.
So when we come in a few minutes, I invite each of us to draw near to the Lord’s Table as a physical act of prayer. As your feet bring you to the Lord ’s Table and as you eat and drink, may these actions be acceptable to God as a prayer of intention to be in communion with him and with his church. Amen