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Psalm 85 & Luke 11:1-10
In the 1970’s, a social science experiment was conducted in the subways of New York City, which are already a social science experiment on their own. Experimenters boarded crowded subway cars and asked able-bodied people who were already sitting to give them their seat, with no explanation given. 56% of those asked in this manner gave up their seats. Maybe that goes to support the adage that you won’t ever get anything if you don’t ask for it. However, I suspect if they had asked for their seat and $25 dollars, the positive response rate would have been much lower, not to mention if they had asked for their seat, $25 dollars and their rent-controlled apartment.
Sometimes it’s not only the asking, it’s what you are asking forthat matters.
In our Gospel reading this morning we heard the familiar refrains of the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps the single element of Christian worship that transcends all of our denominational division. It is spoken more often, and in more places, that perhaps any other element of Christian liturgy. And, if you’re a regular here, you might have noticed it sounds different in Luke’s words than it does in the way we will say it in just a few minutes.
Luke’s version begins, “Father, hallowed be your name.” We are, probably, more familiar with the King James language, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” And then we say, “Our Creator, who is in heaven, holy is your name.” Perhaps it’s just semantics, but what we say matters, for a prayer can be an ask, and asking ought to be specific. Since we don’t all identify with the metaphor of God as “father” here, but do, I think, commonly identify with “Creator,” we say the term with the broadest coverage, and then clean up the Elizabethan language a little.
That process continues through our version of the Lord’s Prayer, where we say “kin-dom” instead of “kingdom,” for a couple of reasons. One, kingdom is a pretty patriarchal image and, two, it’s an inert image. None of us know, I suspect, what it’s like to live in a “kingdom,” since we’ve never lived under a king, despite some elected officials’ best efforts. We say “kin-dom” to maintain some connection to the ancient language and also to reflect our ideal that community is what Jesus is asking for here, as he asks that the “kingdom come.” He is asking for rulers andrulingthat is far different than what exists now, motivated by new values, empowered by new ideals. It’s a good ask…one that echoes for us today.
You might notice that we keep the language of “debts” that you find in Luke’s version, despite the fact that some of you will have grown up saying “trespasses.” We do so because of what’s being asked for in the prayer…daily bread, the reassurance that we need not hoard nor fear, for God will provide for us. This is a claim of vulnerability and trust that few of us surrender to in our actual lives. Such a surrender would naturally produce debts, for we are not vulnerable without dependency. This prayer claims the reality of debts – social, emotional, spiritual and economic – debts that will be forgiven to the extentthat we forgive them. So, if you want forgiveness, forgive. The prayer actually asks for a system of vulnerability and trust, something like Christian karma. We’ll be forgiven to the same degree we forgive. We ought to be aware how that’s pretty different than what often happens in Christian prayer, where we ask God to forgive us, but to go after that other guy.
And finally we also change the last line. We don’t so much change it as add it. Please note that nowhere in Luke’s version does the more familiar, “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, forever,” appear. Luke’s version just asks for God to not bring us to the time of trial, the subtext of which seeks God’s Grace and mercy, something for which we all ought to ask. No, that line was added by tradition, and it’s full of the same “earthly ruler” language that sounds comfortable but doesn’t, I think, inspire us to seek something other than a really good King. And that’s not what Jesus is asking for here. He’s asking for a sea change, for a paradigm shift, a transformation of culture and control. He is asking for the love of power to be overcome by the power of love, and so that’s what we’ve changed that last line to reflect. What we ask for matters…and maybe HOW we ask matters even more.
Psalm 85, in contrast, represents some theology that may not match yours, and it is hard to “re-imagine” it in a way that doesn’t take that into account. It envisions a God whose anger has to be appeased, a world in which our maladies and tragedies can be blamed squarely on God’s vengeance. It imagines a transactional God, a very punitive parent model, who punishes us when we are “bad” and rewards us when we are “good.” It may not be yourtheology, but it is very, very prevalent. We might be able to say that it is the dominant framework for God.
But let’s read carefully, friends. For what it is asking is that God would forgive again... “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.” It envisions a God who has shown compassion and grace and mercy before, and may do so again. Rather than imagining God to be a punitive parent, it recognizes God as the source of compassion and mercy and then, not experiencing that in their life, the psalmist does a very theologically Jewish thing, reminding God that God used to be a whole lot nicer. Do we ever consider thatas a methodology for our prayers…reminding God of who God is supposed to be? So when we don’t feel mercy, we ask God to show up…or when we don’t experience compassion, we look for the presence of a God of compassion?
When we plead with God, like the Psalms often do, or set about to remind God of who God is, or just go through the motions of a prayer we routinely say, like we do each Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for something. If we don’t think about that with some care and intentionality, and don’t listen for an answer with the same care and intentionality, we can miss the mark completely. We have to work at this, for God isn’t a cosmic vending machine where you put in the right change and, as long as you punch the correct number and letter combination, out pops your desire.
Ask, Jesus says to his students, for everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Of course, Jesus tells his students this after he tells them precisely what to pray AND he tells them this brief but critical story in which a person gets what they ask for because they persist. Not because they ask for the right thing, or because they say it the right way, but because they ask, and keep asking, and keep looking for the answer.
In Greek, Jesus says that the man in his little story about a bread-poor, bothersome neighbor, shows anaideia,(an-ah-ee-die-ah) a word that means persistence or shamelessness, it was the name of the Greek goddess of ruthlessness. Or it can mean simple boldness. Ask for what you need of our Creator with boldness. In many meditation practices the technique is to imagine the answer already exists and then seek it, be ready for it, leave yourself open to it’s arrival. Be bold, as if what you seek is already here, for we do not often find what we seek through apprehension.
Of course, you may be saying to yourself right now, what if it never shows? There’s not a person here, I’d bet, who hasn’t prayed for something only to have nothing delivered. This may seem like such a common outcome for some of us that we’ve given the whole practice up altogether. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves how we are praying, or who this God is to whom we are praying? Our prayers, after all, reveal who we believe God to be. And maybe that’s why Jesus initially gave his disciples a script.
The Lord’s Prayer makes more than a claim on what we ask for or how we ask, it also makes a claim about that which our prayers are aimed towards. God is shown to have certain characteristics in The Lord’s Prayer… God hears us, God has an intention for God’s creation, God provides, God forgives, God protects, and God expects us to be generous, forgiving and gracious to one another. We might listen for that as we say the prayer together in a little bit, and we might imagine how such a routine, a rote, steady, constant recitation of a prayer we’re probably all so familiar with actually has a chance to open itself to us anew each and every Sunday. It’s not because it’s magic, but because ritual is meant to remind us, to solidify in us things that can be slippery and elusive. Who is God? What is God? You can get a thousand different messages about that every single day, most of them way off base. How do we know something that is unknowable, or touch something that is untouchable? Most of us, I would think, believe that the best example we have of an invisible God can be found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So this prayer is meant to help remind us of the claims that Jesusmade about God, claims that Jesus didn’t make up, but claims that were shaped by his life as a Jewish man in first century Palestine.
God, to Jesus, is present, as close as the sound of your voice. God is real and relatable and reliable. You can count on God for the very food you will eat tomorrow, the food you cannot see today. You can count on God for forgiveness and a lack of judgment that ought to permeate us so fully that we have no option but to pass it on to others. God does not promise us our every desire, but instead offers us fullness, wholeness and the kind of life that isn’t limited by our finite bodies or our limited capabilities.
Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer, you might notice, is there a claim on God working things out the way that we’d like them worked out. The ask is, “Yourkingdom come,” not mykingdom come. Though we pray in classrooms and at hospital beds, in exam rooms and at our kitchen table over our bills, during tests of all kinds and in the middle of our worst times for things to play out in a particular way, it doesn’t always happen like that.
But that doesn’t change the reality that God hears us, God has an intention for God’s creation, God provides, God forgives, God protects, and God expects us to be generous, forgiving and gracious to one another. When life doesn’t turn out the way that we want it to, it might be precisely the time to remain bold in our asking…to continue to look for God’s revelation to us…to keep knocking and expecting the door to be opened, even if it wasn’t the door we wanted opened.
After all, God remains. Not the candy-coated, vending machine God who doles out trinkets and bling to the obedient, but the gracious and justice-loving God who continues to love us into transformation, residing just on the far horizon of our hope, resurrecting things that we think are dead. And our prayers, even the one we say over and over again, can help us to imagine, and to re-imagine, that God who stands beside us right now.
May God’s Grace be with us all. Amen.