As most of you know, Chris and I recently took a vacation to Las Vegas. Some of you had a familiar question: did you gamble? And we did. And we didn’t win anything. I played a complicated slot machine that I can’t begin to describe how it works or how I won when I actually did win (a few cents here and there). Most of the slot machines that you may be familiar with are almost phased out. These would be the traditional 3 window slot machines with one “win” line in the middle. Usually it’s filled with symbols like cherries or seven’s or something similar. You put the coin in, you pull the arm, and you know immediately if you win. First of all, rarely do people put coins in anymore. And while the lever is still there, most people push a button that says “spin reels.” A more traditional slot machine is easy to understand. I wonder if we think about prayer the same way sometime. We say the right words, we make the right gestures, we put the right amount in the offering plate, and JACKPOT! God answers our prayers. It’s not that easy. Thankfully, it’s not that complicated either.
Before you feel yourself tense up, I want you to know that this will not be a sermon about how you should be praying more and that praying is good for you. We all know this already. It isn’t my job to stand up here and guilt you into doing anything, especially something I know I need help with. I would love to understand prayer and how it works. But, the thing is, I don’t. I don’t know why God answers certain prayers and leaves others unanswered. I don’t know why God feels like answering prayers for someone else but not me. What I know for sure is that I am still learning about prayer. I also know that God wants us to pray. God desires for us to be bold and persistent in our prayer. In fact, in the text today we hear the story of the man waking his neighbor for bread and he is persistent. The translation would more accurately state that he is shameless. I’ve never thought about being shameless in prayer. And I believe that God listens to our prayers. Please understand though, my beloved, listening to our prayers and answering our prayers are two very different things.
The words of today’s text are familiar because we pray them every Sunday. Maybe you pray them every day. In the Gospel of Luke, prayer is central to who Jesus is and what Jesus does. “According to Luke 11, through prayer believers participate in God’s commitment to bring forth God’s reign.” When the disciples come to Jesus and say “Lord, teach us to pray” they are asking the right person. Notice Jesus doesn’t tell them how to pray, as in, “close your eyes” or “bow your head.” Instead, he tells them what to say. And the entire prayer is built around a relationship with God. A loving and shameless relationship with God.
The prayer does not assume that we need to be something that we are not. We are not expected to become greater than we are. We are not asked to transform ourselves into some kind of super human. It is a “deeply human kind of prayer. It is a prayer for … creatures in need.” What do we need? Well, the prayer breaks it down quite simply. We need relationship. When we address God as father, we speak to that relationship. And yes, it is okay to address God as mother. If you’ve had a difficult relationship with your father or father figure, thinking of God as a loving father may prove to be challenging. After that, it is simple human needs that we pray for: “give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.” We cannot do this on our own and as crazy as it may sound, we need God’s help.
Prayer is a lifetime practice. I want to emphasize that word: practice. Prayer evolves as our life does. If you’ve ever listened to a child pray, they are some of the most thoughtful and thought provoking prayers. But they may also not reflect your life at this moment. But what remains constant in our prayers is our reliance on God. You hear me say this almost every Sunday and you hear the disciples speak it in the text “teach us to pray.” We will never advance to “Lord, remember us in your kingdom and you taught us to pray…” The idea is that it is ongoing. Again, I don’t know how prayer works. It’s not a Holy Spirit slot machine. But, I know that God desires a relationship with us and that is accomplished through prayer.
What keeps you from praying? I can’t very well ask that question of you if I don’t ask it of myself first. What keeps me from praying? I thought about that for a while and every answer I came up with really boiled down to one main answer: fear. It’s easy for me to say I don’t pray because I just don’t have the time. But maybe it’s not that I don’t have the time but I don’t make the time. Because if I pray, God might actually respond. I don’t pray because I don’t have the right words (whatever those are). Well, Jesus gave me the words right here. My desire to be a perfectionist keep me from praying because I am afraid I will screw it up. So, every excuse I came up with really was just fear. And with a loving, grace-filled, mercy-filled God, why do I fear? God wants you and I to be shameless in our prayer. Shameless in how we pray, when we pray, what we pray and to whom we pray.
God wants us to pray and God wants us to ask for anything. “Prayer is praise; prayer is thanksgiving; prayer is conversation; prayer is questioning; prayer is arguing; prayer is lamenting. Prayer is all these things and more. But prayer is also — and perhaps fundamentally — asking God for what we most need and desire…shamelessly” (Lose, Working Preacher). And I understand that we may have a deep desire to know how prayer works. Because then if we know how prayer works then we can pray just the *right* way and our prayers will be answered. And then cancer would be gone, and hungry people would be fed, and people wouldn’t die of curable disease, and on and on. But we don’t know how prayer works and I know how frustrating that is. While we don’t know the “how” of prayer, we do know the “who” and that is Jesus.
We pray to the God that answers, no matter the time of day. We pray to the God that gives us more than we expect or needed and loves us like a parent, but even better and even stronger. We pray to the God that gives us, feeds, us, forgives us, and leads us. There is no such thing as a small prayer. There is no prayer to big for God. You can scream at God or sing to God, there is no wrong way to pray. There is no wrong way to pray. Because every time we pray, we once again admit to God, and maybe, more appropriately, to ourselves, that we can’t do this alone and that our lives are dependent on the one who generously gives us our daily bread. Our lives are dependent on the one who forgives our sins and encourages us to do likewise. Our lives are dependent on the one who will not allow us to be tried beyond our limits. Our lives are dependent on the one who loves us beyond our comprehension. Be shameless in your prayers. Be bold in your prayers. Be daring in your prayers. God is always listening.