Tenth Sunday after Pentecost Luke 11:1-13

A disciple said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” A lot of well-meaning people want to have a specifically Christian prayer before city council meetings, or before a collegiate ball game, or at the beginning of the public school day, or other such times.
In the middle of one such debate, a school teacher discovered some boys kneeling in a circle with their heads down. “What are you doing?”  All eyes went to one particular boy. He had some money in one hand and a pair of dice in the other.  “We were just playing with the dice,” he lied.
“Thank goodness,” she said. “I thought you were praying.”
“Lord, teach us to pray,” but if we expect the wrong thing from prayer, we shall be disappointed.
I have conducted veterans’ funerals and I continue to give thanks especially for those who were drafted for service to our country.
Some of them had experiences that help uncover the problem of prayer.   Will a soldier who carries a Bible and prays, live through a battle?
Or, suppose we’re in a plane full of paratroopers locked on its jump target and unable to take evasive maneuvers amidst all the bursting shells.
And in unspeakable fear, someone recites part of the 91st Psalm. “You shall not be afraid of the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near you.”
Right there the Bible tells us not to be afraid in the coming battle, for it shall not come near you. And Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given you.”
Suppose every other soldier is reciting the same verses, not only on our side, but their side too. Who does God hear praying?
My seminary classmate from Latvia told me he saw German soldiers boarding trains for the battlefront. They were singing Ein Feste Burg, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  They were Lutherans.  Was God on their side?
No one can believe God gives a positive answer to that sort of prayer from soldiers trying to kill their enemies.
No one can believe that the only ones to die are those who were not praying when the shooting started.
Or a family is gathered around the bed of a 90 year old parent.   I’ve been with them.   One son prays for a merciful death because it is clear that death is at hand.  Another prays equally fervently for a miraculous healing in this total extremity.
Does God toss a coin? Is one prayer more sincere?  Disciples still call out to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”
Apparently the disciples did not ask Jesus how to preach or heal the sick or tell stories about God or how to establish congregations.  They asked about his prayer life.
The gospel stories tell us, “he went away to pray,” or “he arose before daybreak and went to pray.”
Jesus did not give specific words for every situation where equally faithful people have conflicting hopes.
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is different from Matthew’s, which indicates that Jesus did not offer a set of words locked in concrete, but rather a suggestion, a signpost pointing the right direction.
If we look at his total prayer life, we see his dependence on God and his plea to God, “My God. Why have you forsaken me?
Our dependence on God is reflected in how we address him.  In the language Jesus spoke, the word that we translate “father” is too stiff and formal for what he had in mind.
The equivalent address would be “daddy,” the familiar, family-use term, the love of a small child for a parent who can soothe any hurt, and make everything come out right.
Look at the phrases. Hallowed be thy name?  God’s name will be holy regardless of what we say.
Thy kingdom come? It certainly doesn’t need our help or prayers to come.  Daily bread?  Why not a shiny red bicycle, or a three-bedroom house, or job security or safety on the highway.  Just bread?
Then we come to forgiveness and temptation. But can we tell who is forgiven, and who is not?  What about ourselves?
Most of us are not overly successful in resisting temptation. Yet, these were his response when the disciples said, “Teach us to pray.”
What would Jesus have us pray when we face a high-risk operation, or when we are recovering from hurts given by our well-intentioned friends not to mention our enemies?
How should we pray when we know we have been needlessly cruel to someone?
Will God work magic if we just say the right words?
I knew a pastor who asked for prayers for a friend whose life was torn apart, unmanageable, broken, painful and sinful.
Without identifying his friend, the pastor said there was “too much fear, too much booze, too many drugs, and not near enough hope to help him weather the storm. His life is coming apart.
“I won’t tell you his name,”the pastor said, ”nor where he lives, or anything more about him, except that he is in desperate need.”
“I don’t know what to ask you to pray for, what words to use. All I know is that my friend’s needs are unimaginable, serious, and all else has failed.  So I ask you to join in prayer.  Once will be enough.
“Just so God hears intercessory prayer from you for a person you do not know, and so that my friend knows you care.”
St. Paul knew about that kind of prayer when he wrote, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that same Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
And I want to assure you that in many of the complex situations we face, our only prayer is sighs that are too deep for words.
Paul wanted creature comforts same as we do, but he was put in prison, beaten with a lash, with a stick, stoned, shipwrecked, in all kinds of danger, often without food –  did he not know the phrase about our daily bread?
And we have all known people who prayed for healing and died anyway; prayed for safety and were victims of tragedy; prayed for a passing grade, and failed anyway; prayed for peace, and were disrupted from their prayers by the sounds of killing.
There is another way of looking at what Jesus taught, and he illustrated his teaching. The man who had bread his neighbor wanted, got up and gave it to him.
He stumbled over his children asleep on the floor in a dark house. But he got some bread for his neighbor.
And what father among you would give his son a deadly thing if he asks for something to eat?
You give your own children good things. How much more will the heavenly father give you himself?
Jesus gave us a prayer that suggests the primary question is not whether we have the right words but whether we have the right spirit.
In our prayers, whatever words we use, we are really trying to touch the Spirit of God by saying, “God, here we are. You see that we need your help.”
Having the spirit doesn’t mean your neighbors can see your halo or that you will lead a charmed life or never be disappointed or never get angry with God.
Having the spirit doesn’t mean guaranteed safety on the highway or protection against ills and troubles and anxieties and tragedies that come without respect on Christian and non-Christian alike.
Jesus suggests that praying is not asking God to intervene and make right what would have been wrong if we hadn’t prayed about it, but prayer in the right spirit will change our perception of what God’s help means.
God’s help doesn’t mean sunshine on your parade and rain on my garden at the same time.
God’s help doesn’t mean that every tragedy has a purpose that we don’t understand right now, and God’s help doesn’t mean that everything will come out O.K. or at least better than it would have without our prayers.
God’s help means that God — whose love and understanding and presence and power cannot be defeated even in death — is with us.
It is all summed up in that familiar great passage I think of as the word of God for daily living with all its trials of life and faith.
St. Paul wrote in the eighth chapter of Romans: “If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
“Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.
“No in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.
“For I am convinced, says St. Paul, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So regardless of the words, God has already answered every prayer by coming to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. The body of Christ is given to you. The blood of Christ is shed for you.
He is God’s presence with us. Nothing will ever separate us from God.