Sunday 17 • 24 Jul 2016

Genesis 18:20-33
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Rev. Chris Udy

There’s an old Russian story
about a village deep in the forest,
where a holy man lived.
Whenever anything was wrong in the village,
the holy man would go off through the trees,
into a very holy place,
where he would light a sacred fire,
and kneel in a particular way,
and pray some special words,
and the prayer would be answered.

But after many years
the holy man died -
and one of his disciples had to take over his work.
The disciple had learned
about the special words,
and about kneeling,
and he even knew how to light the sacred fire,
but his teacher had never taken him
to the holy place in the forest,
and all knowledge of it was lost.
So, whenever the village was in trouble,
he would walk to the edge of the forest,
light the fire, kneel down,
and pray the special words,
and hope that it was sufficient.
And it always was.

Another generation passed,
and the disciple’s disciple
was now the one
who was asked to pray on behalf of the village.
All knowledge of the holy place in the forest was gone,
and the holy man’s disciple had died in an accident
before he could teach his disciple
how to make the holy fire.
But his disciple still knew that he had to kneel,
and he remembered the special words,
so he knelt and prayed,
and hoped that it would be sufficient.
And it always was.

More years went by,
and all disciples of the holy man
and all of their disciples too, had gone.
The villagers knew nothing
about holy places or sacred fires -
they’d even forgotten how to kneel,
and the special words were lost in time -
so now,
whenever the people in the village needed help,
all they could do
was speak directly to God,
thank him for his faithfulness,
confess to him their failures
tell him about their troubles and their needs,
and hope that it was sufficient.
And it always was.

Today we read about the time
when the disciples of Jesus came to him
and asked him to teach them to pray.
They had heard about other teachers
who gave their disciples
all kinds of secret and sacred
instructions about prayer,
and they were probably looking for
some privileged and powerful instructions
about the secrets of prayer from Jesus.

But Jesus didn’t say anything
about special places,
or fantastic rituals,
he didn’t tell them
to stand or sit or lie or kneel in any particular place,
and he didn’t teach them any magic words.
He told them just to talk to God
as they would to a loving father;
to remember that God has a purpose
that is bringing healing and justice
and peace to the world;
to ask for what they needed to live;
to seek forgiveness for themselves
and for those who’d done them wrong,
and to look for God’s presence and protection
in times of trouble.

Nothing fancy,
nothing secret or magic;
he said - just talk to God.

Then he asked his disciples
to imagine that some visitors arrived,
good friends - but coming late at night,
and there was nothing in the house to feed them.
He asked his disciples
what they’d expect
if they went to another friend who lived nearby -
even late at night -
and asked to borrow some bread.
What would you expect? Jesus asked -
Would you expect your friend to say
“Go away, I’m in bed”?
No - of course not!
And even if your neighbour
didn’t help you out of friendship -
he’d certainly get up and help you
just to stop you knocking on the door.

And what about you - Jesus said -
if your child came to you
asking for something to eat -
some fish, or an egg -
would you give her something bad for her?
No - of course not!
And that’s how God cares for us.

So ask for what you need,
and search for God’s truth and meaning,
and knock on the door of heaven -
because God hears and answers prayers.

What Jesus told his disciples
is a wonderful and beautiful promise.
“Whoever asks will receive,
whoever seeks will find,
and for everyone who knocks,
the door will be opened.”

But most of us can think
of a time when we asked,
but we didn’t get what we asked for.
When we searched and searched
for some meaning in what was happening,
but we couldn’t see it -
and we knocked and knocked
and knocked on that door,
and it seemed to stay shut tight.
Even Jesus, on the night before he was killed
prayed that the cup of his suffering
would be taken away -
only to be arrested a few minutes later.

Often - a bit later on -
we might find that the things we asked for
wouldn’t have been good for us,
or for other people -
or that we were searching in the wrong place,
or knocking on the wrong door -
but most of us, even now,
can think of prayers
that we think should have been answered,
and it makes us wonder
what’s going on when we pray.

One of my favourite movies of all time
was based on a play called - "Shadowlands".
It's based on the life of C.S. Lewis,
and it tells the story of his love
for Joy Gresham,
an American woman with a young son.
In one scene from the movie
Lewis is returning to Oxford from London,
where he and Joy have just been married
in a private ceremony
performed at her hospital bedside.
She is dying from cancer, and,
through her struggle with the illness,
Lewis has been discovering
how deeply he loves her -
even though he knows that loving her
will bring him enormous grief and pain.
As Lewis arrives at the college where he teaches,
he is met by Harry Harrington,
a friend, who is also an Anglican priest,
who asks what news there is.
Lewis hesitates; then,
deciding to speak of the marriage
and not the cancer,
he says, "Ah, good news, I think, Harry.
Yes, good news."

But Harry doesn’t know about the marriage
and he thinks that Lewis
is referring to Joy's medical situation.
So he replies, "I know how hard you've been praying.
Now, God is answering your prayer."

And Lewis says:
"That's not why I pray, Harry.
I pray because I can't help myself.
I pray because I'm helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me
all the time, waking and sleeping.
It doesn't change God; it changes me."

I’m not sure we only change ourselves
when we pray -
certainly I know people
who are sure that God has healed them,
or spoken to them,
or shown his care for them in miraculous ways -
and when Jesus teaches about prayer,
he tells us to expect good things from God -
but prayer certainly does change us,
and it changes us in ways
that are much deeper and more powerful
than we can imagine.

Ministers tend to collect stories about prayer –
it’s a bit of an occupational obsession –
and I have 2 stories I’d like to share with you
about people praying the prayer
Jesus taught his disciples.
The first was told by a minister
who worked with bikies -
a pretty rough and tough congregation,
and people you wouldn’t really imagine
would have much to do with prayer.
This minister decided he would invite the bikies
to a special service in a parking area -
where - if they wanted -
he would bless them and their bikes.
He really didn’t know what would happen,
or how many would come -
but when the day arrived,
the parking area was full,
and there was even one bikie
who had crashed his motorbike the week before,
and all he could bring for the blessing
was his carburettor - so he did.
Near the end of the service
the minister had planned to use the Lord’s prayer.
His plan was to invite everyone to join him,
but he fully expected
that his would be the only voice
he would hear on the day.
But at the end of the service,
when he began the prayer,
he found one or two of the bikies joining in -
and by the time they came to the end,
nearly everyone in the parking area was praying.

I’d like to tell you the second story
in the words of the person who wrote them –
a Methodist minister called Stephen Portner.
“I will never forget the time
I took communion to a woman
whose Alzheimer’s disease was well advanced.
She knew she was losing her memory
and that depressed her,
but otherwise, she was cheerful,
smiling and trying to crack jokes.
Just before she died
I took the elements for communion to her room,
and she was nearly incoherent.
She would string words together
in ways that made no sense,
but she still smiled
as if she was involved in witty conversation.
I couldn’t help but smile back.
Her family was with her that day,
but they often shook their heads,
to let me know that they did not understand her either.
I was bringing my visit to a close when I said to her, “Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer together.”
Immediately she started praying,
and not only did she have every word right,
she also said them very fast.
The family members were staring wide-eyed.
They didn’t think this lady
would ever say anything coherent again.
I looked at them and then at the elderly woman,
a little bit flustered from trying to keep up
with her recitation of the prayer.
And then she smiled at me and said, ‘I won.’”

Prayer does change us.
It seeps into our character and attitudes and memories;
it focusses community and builds compassion,
and it keeps us connected
to God’s presence and protection
when everything else we have to keep us on track
is lost and forgotten.
Jesus didn’t say it was magic -
he didn’t give us tricks to use,
or reveal any secret techniques -
he just said - do it.
Pray - pray constantly - pray persistently:
pray when you’re angry
and when you’re thankful
pray when you’re frightened,
and when you’re at peace.
Pray with words, or with music,
or without words and in silence;
pray in your room, or in the garden,
pray for courage, and for forgiveness,
and for healing, and for wisdom -
pray for your children, your neighbours,
for the world, and for yourself.
However you do it - do it –
and you’ll win –
you will certainly find the blessing of God.