A few weeks ago, a good friend and I got together for breakfast. She had taken her only child to college three years ago, and I wanted her advice as John and I prepare to send Grace (whose permission I have, by the way, to bring her into this story today). Mostly, I think, I wanted someone who knows and loves me to bear witness to the conflicted question that it is to live into these months as we prepare our daughter to go out into the world. She’ll return to us, she promises (she PROMISES), but we recognize that she will return differently, more independently…and we know that it’s our job to prepare and to send her – for us to do that, for her to become that.
“So, how are you doing?” my friend asked. I talked about the lists of supplies and classes, the forms, the roommate and suitemates Grace has begun to know, about the ways we’re spending our time together before she goes.
“So, how are you actually doing?” she asked, maybe more pointedly this time.
“Well,” I said, “I feel like it’s my job now to impart ALL KNOWLEDGE before freshman orientation begins on September 7. You know, ALL KNOWLEDGE. ALL THE INFORMATION. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. And to do it before she goes, so Grace knows ALL THE THINGS that she needs to know. Like remembering to floss her teeth, and asking good questions in class, and to start studying for final exams before the night before her final exams, and getting to know lots of people but still with the studying, and being careful with money, and picking up after herself, and making her bed. Like, what if she goes to college, and I haven’t told her everything she needs to know? Because everything matters – in fact, everything is of EPIC IMPORTANCE right now.”
No pressure, huh?
At first glance, Jesus might look a little like a parent trying to do the same thing with his disciples in the stretch of the gospel of Luke that we’ve been reading in recent weeks. Ever since he set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus has been preparing his followers and friends for a time when they won’t be with each other in the same way anymore.
Three weeks ago, he told 70 of his followers to go out in pairs – without extra sandals, without a bag, even – to heal and to proclaim the good news. “If people receive you, wish them peace. If they don’t receive you,” he told them, “Knock the dust off your feet and move on.”
Two Sundays ago, the gospel passage had Jesus responding to a test with a story: “Who is my neighbor?” someone from the crowd asked him. Jesus told about the man attacked and left for dead at the side of the road, about the priest and the Levite passing him by, about the unlikely Samaritan who stopped and showed great mercy. “Go,” Jesus commanded the man, Jesus commands us, “and do likewise.”
Last Sunday, we saw two illustrations of what it is to be faithful, in Mary and Martha, through active service and hospitality, through active attention and presence. We heard Jesus’ caution against worry and distraction, calling Martha and calling us to choose the better part, which shall not be taken from us.
So is that it? Is that Jesus IMPARTING ALL KNOWLEDGE???
Today’s gospel finds Jesus praying “in a certain place.” After he has finished, one of the disciples says, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus teaches the disciples what many of us know as the Lord’s Prayer, or the “Our Father.” Then he tells a series of short and strange parables – about a friend who says he’s all tucked in for the night and won’t get up to help his friend who’s asking outside, at least until the friend annoys him enough that it’s worse to keep ignoring him than to just get up and give the guy what he needs. He shares the question of a parent giving his child a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. Embedded in there is a promise: ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.
Prayer is a tricky thing. How we stand before God as we are and find words to give thanks, to ask, to lament, to praise, to listen…sometimes to rage…it can be pretty daunting. Mostly, what I hear from people when we talk about what it is to pray is what they don’t do: “I don’t pray like my friend who goes to an evangelical church,” or “I don’t have the prayers from the prayer book memorized,” or “I don’t know how to do it right,” or “I don’t know what I’m trying to do when I pray, or why.”
On the face of it, Jesus’ response to the disciple’s request can seem pretty simple: formulaic, even, and contractual: “This is what you say, and this is what you get.” What you say are those familiar words, words in one form or another that many of us know by heart. And what you get, if we take Jesus’ words literally here, is what you ask for.
Except that’s not how it works, like, mostly ever, especially the second part. So, as a priest and pastor, what breaks my heart is when people ask me if they haven’t prayed the words the right way, or if they haven’t prayed faithfully enough, or if it even matters if they do.
What if there’s more to all this than contract and formula? What if there’s something deeper underneath it all…instead of a slightly frenetic teacher trying to IMPART ALL KNOWLEDGE of EPIC IMPORTANCE, what if Jesus is a clear-eyed savior who has set his face toward Jerusalem, who knows that the only thing that will save us, finally, is love?
Rather than seeing the Lord’s Prayer as a formula that has to be said the same way in order to effect a desired outcome, what if we look at what Jesus is really helping us to say in that prayer:
“Our Father, who art in heaven,” we pray – God doesn’t ask to be addressed with some otherworldly title, but with one of affection and intimacy.
“hallowed be thy name,” we pray – You are holy, your name is sacred.
“thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray – May the world as it is become the world you have created us to be.
“give us this day, our daily bread,” we pray – Grant us what we need in order to survive, day by day.
“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray – Help us to find our way back to each other and to you, when we get lost.
“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we pray – Save us, God; save us.
The prayer Jesus teaches is a prayer that his disciples then and now can use to stand before God exactly as they are, exactly as we are, to say something real about who we are and who God is, and to ask for what we need.
And that second part? What if we take ourselves out of the “if I/then I” obligatory expectation? Jesus’ examples invite his followers to approach God by asking, seeking, knocking…with expectation and maybe even annoying persistence. These are not things that we do with a detached and impersonal figure. These are things we do with someone who matters to us, somebody who cares about us…who loves us.
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem – toward the cross and tomb – because of his love for us. What if all this teaching, since the time he set out, is about equipping his followers to share, and heal, and serve, and welcome, and attend, and listen, and discern, and now, to pray…what if this is all preparation? What if he’s doing this for the disciples, and for us, so that they and we can love God and love one another more fully, especially once Jesus is not here in the same way he has been?
Maybe, at the heart of it all, this is less about IMPARTING ALL KNOWLEDGE of EPIC IMPORTANCE, but instead trusting ourselves to the kind of vulnerable love that calls us to ask, to seek, to bang on the door if we have to. Remember: this gospel passage begins with Jesus praying in a certain place. He prays a lot - he prays in many, many "certain places." And when he teaches his friends, Jesus doesn’t say “if you pray,” he says “when.”
So let us pray, friends. Let us find the ways we have to stand before God as exactly the people we really are, and say:
Dear God: you are holy, and your name is sacred;
let the world as it is become the world you have created us to be;
grant us what we need, day by day;
help us to find our way back to each other, and to you, when we get lost;
save us, O God, save us.
…For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.