Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 24th July 2016
Colossians 2:6-19 & Luke 11:1-13
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
I was a great Terry Wogan fan, especially during the days of Wake up to Wogan. The banter between himself, his producer Paul Walters and the various news readers combined with the contributions from his listeners – the TOGS (Terry’s Old Gals or Geezers for the uninitiated) would always bring a smile. That joyful banter provided the backdrop to the business of getting young children up, dressed, fed and off to school, breakfast left for Mike when he came in from milking, and me off to work. And in the midst of the music, Irish humour and banter there would be a few moments space for reflection provided by Pause for Thought and I remember three contributors in particular from those long ago days: Fr. Brian D’Arcy, Rabbi Lionel Blue…..and the third – a man whose name escapes me now, but the manner of his offerings remain fresh in my mind. For this was a person who spoke with a very strong Scouse accent and enabled us, the listeners, to eavesdrop on his regular telephone conversations – with God! And perhaps I remember them because of their raw honesty, they were so refreshingly normal – a Liverpudlian talking to God about the ordinary everyday of his life – the minutia as well as the major stuff of life, telling God about the joys and sorrows of the world as he saw them, but also demanding, challenging and questioning God – and always with the wonderfully, shamelessly audacious take on life and faith that seems to come so naturally to many Liverpudlians!
We glimpse some of that same audacity in the parable Jesus tells his disciples concerning the request of one friend to another at midnight for loaves to feed an unexpected guest, especially since the householder would have had to get up and first make the bread from scratch. No possibility here of diving in to the freezer for supplies!
But the context is about hospitality both given and received; it is about welcome and generosity, of relationships of trust and love, in a time and place where the cultural understandings about hospitality left no room for a meanness of spirit – if a traveller arrived needing food and shelter, one was under an obligation to provide it, no matter the time of day or night! The one friend persists in his request, because he knows that his sleeping friend will in the end understand and will respond!
The relationship that allows this freedom in prayer, the kind of freedom that I glimpsed when eavesdropping on the conversations between our Liverpudlian and God – that kind of freedom was born out of Jesus teaching his disciples to call his Father our Father. This was utterly revolutionary and may indeed, have scandalised some.
Radically, Jesus dared to abandon special religious language when addressing God. He spoke Aramaic in daily life, but when Jews prayed, they spoke in Hebrew. But here we have Jesus using, and teaching his disciples to use the Aramaic familial name ‘Abba’. Jesus gifted to his disciples an intimacy never before experienced, an intimacy that was sadly lost for a time when Latin became the language of the Church. It was only after the Reformation that something of that intimacy and wonder was recaptured when ordinary people experienced once again the wonder of speaking to God in their own language and dialect. It is hard for us today to comprehend the wonder of that moment, the realisation that God spoke our language – whoever and wherever we were! But praying in everyday language is surely the natural consequence of the incarnation – praying to the God who shares our earthly life and experiences, in all its glorious wonder and beauty and in its rawness, pain and brutality.
Luke tells us this morning that Jesus was praying in a certain place. He doesn’t tell us where but we do know that while he would visit the Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogue, he would also go into the hills, or out on to the lake or up the mountain to pray; he would pray wherever he was. And so this morning we hear that the disciples are there with him, perhaps watching as they will have watched in the past. They will have been familiar with the traditional prayers practiced within the synagogue and within the home. And yet their response on observing Jesus suggests that his way of praying was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced or practiced themselves. They wanted something of that for themselves – ‘Teach us to pray’ they ask.
And Jesus does just that, and gives them a prayer. He doesn’t teach them about the importance of stillness, or correct posture and breathing, or focusing the mind, or finding the right place. Jesus shows them that it is possible to approach God as a loving parent while still recognising and acknowledging God’s holiness and mystery. He teaches them to talk to God, bringing the whole muddle of our lives – the mundane and the gloriously wonderful, the joy, the questions and anger, to God. In the space of a few words, they and we – will learn to focus on the coming of God’s Kingdom, as the most important object of prayer while asking for the essentials to keep them going through life. Jesus shows them the importance of forgiveness – to God and to us; so important that we need to share it and get our relationships in order. Finally, the disciples are taught to ask for all that they will need to cope with the demands and challenges, risks and dangers that Kingdom building will inevitably bring. He gives them a prayer that that would remain on the lips of his people 2000 years on.
The amusing story about a man waking his friend demanding bread for his visitors was a way of telling the disciples (and us) the importance of seeing prayer as something basic, day to day; it is not sanitized, only bringing to God the things we think he will like. Jesus encourages us to talk constantly to God, bombarding him and involving him with every part of our lives. ‘God’ and ‘prayer’ are not to be carefully wrapped and placed in a box, and brought out on a Sunday. But go straight to God in all things, with all things. But it is also a story about persistence. Exasperated though he is, and in spite of the entire household being asleep, the neighbour ultimately responds to his friend’s plea for bread to feed the unexpected guest. And so we are encouraged to keep going – keep knocking, keep asking, but keep searching also – ready to see and to recognise the gifts that God longs to give.
Our relationship with God should be no different to any of our relationships. If we only bring the best of ourselves, and guard against bringing to our relationships our questions, uncertainties and anger, our dubious humour even, we will gradually bring less and less of ourselves, we know less and less about each other and the relationship suffers. If we do that in our relationship with God, we risk knowing less and less about Him and how to recognise Him in our lives who loves us so much.
The other day when I happened to be in Church, a gentleman came in and wandered quietly for a while. He lived in the north of England and was visiting his sister he told me; he went on to say what a remarkable place he thought this was – not because of its architecture, but more because of the feeling that it had; somehow he could feel the power of the prayers offered by countless generations of people who have come through these doors to worship, but also to pray quietly, informally on their own, having their own conversations with God. The power of those prayers offered by God’s ‘living stones’, reflecting the whole rich variety of relationships between God and his children, has soaked into these material stones, mystically and mysteriously drawing others to approach the door of grace and knock. We glimpse those very ordinary yet profoundly moving conversations between God and his children through the offerings on our prayer board – many of the people unknown to us, but all known intimately by God who draws them here.
Like the Colossians, we live our lives rooted in Christ. The roots of that relationship are nourished and sustained through prayer, through opening our hearts in conversation with God whom we are invited to call ‘Our Father’. Jesus reminds the disciples that no parent would respond to a child’s request for food by giving them something inedible or poisonous! Likewise, God our Father, the source of all goodness and generosity and whose love is boundless, without measure will give liberally to those who ask, not least his gifts of love and joy and peace.
And so we are encouraged to be shamelessly audacious – keep on bring the minutia of life to our conversations with him; keep on bring the highs and lows, joys and sorrows; keep on bringing all of ourselves always; keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking – confidently trusting that we worship the God of loving faithfulness who always keeps his promises, and will give generously to us from his deep well of love and grace. AMEN