Ask, Seek, Knock—then Listen
Rev. Jon Greene, Deacon
Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, VA
Proper 12, Year C: Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19), Luke 11:1-13
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our savior and redeemer.
Generally speaking, we as a society and even as the Episcopal Church, aren’t very good at praying.
As evidence I turn to the noted theologian, Ricky Bobby.
My younger two daughters and I have a couple of particularly sophomoric movies that we like to watch together.
One of them is “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” starring Will Ferrell
It is, in truth, a bad movie and I cannot in good faith recommend it, but there are a couple of really funny scenes.
In one, Ricky Bobby, a very successful, if vane, materialistic and not particularly bright, NASCAR driver offers grace over a table filled with fast food with his family and friends packed around the table. His version of grace starts:
Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers in the South call you: 'Hey-suz'. We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell.
He continues to thank the Baby Jesus for his sons, his wife (who he notes is “smokin’ hot”) and the large amounts of money he has won. There ensues a number of interruptions, but eventually he concludes:
Also due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just wanna say that PowerAde is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day and we look forward to PowerAde's release of mystic mountain blueberry. Thank you, for all your power and your grace, Dear Baby God, Amen.
Silly I know, but I think the reason this scene strikes me as so funny, is that isn’t too far removed from some prayers that I’ve heard.
Contrast that prayer with the version of the Lord’s Prayer that Luke shares:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
I tend to think of the Lord’s Prayer that we repeat every Sunday as direct, to the point and efficient, but this one is stripped to the bare bones.
Luke is the most florid and has the biggest vocabulary of the four Gospelers. But the version of this prayer is pared down even from what we see in Matthew.
We know that Jesus prayed for hours at a time according to Luke’s Gospel. If this is teaching the disciples to pray like he did, why is it so short and why is the language so sparse?
After the prayer he tells the parable about waking up your neighbor in the middle of the night; the lesson here apparently, is that perseverance in prayer will lead to answers.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
It concludes with the assurance that if we ask for good things, we will surely not be given wiggly, venomous things.
All wrapped up in a nice little package.
Only we know that some parents ask that their children be cured of cancer, and sometimes the children die.
There are parents that search for a job that will pull them out of poverty, but they do not find one.
And there are people that knock on the door of the US Southern border and are turned away.
While we typically don’t receive scorpions or snakes in response to prayer, there certainly are some disappointing and nasty responses.
Perhaps even worse, sometimes what we get from our prayers is silence. No response at all.
Why is this?
Some will explain it away saying “it’s God’s will” or that “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “all in God’s time”.
But the suffering of a child being part of “God’s plan” makes no sense for the loving God that I know.
The truth is that no one can provide a succinct and credible answer on why sometimes our prayers go unanswered.
But perhaps if we look at Jesus prayer practices we can get a hint of an answer.
When asked how to pray, he gives his disciples 6 lines and 38 words and never once does he mention PowerAde.
Jesus prays a lot in Luke’s Gospel. Luke records that after the Last Supper
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22 39-42)
Those are the only words recorded in this prayer.
It’s certainly possible that there were more, but my theory is that a great deal of the time that Jesus was praying he was just waiting and listening.
Waiting and listening for the Holy Spirit.
Further, I believe that what he waited for was not answers, but for what one of my favorite hymns refers to as mystic sweet communion.
Mystic sweet communion with all that was and all that is and all that will be.
Mystic sweet communion with the Living God.
Mystic sweet communion with what he (and we also) came from and what we will one day return to.
And that mystic sweet communion doesn’t always provide answers, doesn’t always provide the healing that we ask for, but it always provides a little more wholeness and the ability to get up and do what we need to do, what we are meant to do, which is to play our part in the continuing creation of the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ practice came out of the Jewish contemplative tradition. And this continued as an important part of early Christian spirituality.
But, somewhere along the line, that important, for me crucial, element of spirituality got lost in our faith tradition and in the western church generally.
Only in the last fifty years have we, as a community, “discovered” a group of practices called contemplative prayer.
There are a number of methods included in this type of prayer, but they all have in common a focus on deep listening for the voice of God.
I am so excited to hear that Kathy intends to do a session on contemplative life every third Sunday starting in September. I hope your will join me in attending; there is much to learn.
When I look back on my prayer life, I started out, just like you did I would imagine, kneeling by my bed at night saying, “God Bless Mommy and God Bless Daddy…”
Growing up in the Roman Catholic faith, I was taught that there were five forms of prayer: adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise.
All of them involved me flapping my gums or at least me reeling off a bunch of words in my mind.
I stuck to that formula as I matured. But as I entered my formation as a deacon and talked to others, it became clear to me that my prayers weren’t a whole lot different than when I was four kneeling by my bed.
My prayers weren’t a whole lot different from Ricky Bobby’s.
I have begun a journey in which more and more of my prayer is contemplative
Not giving God a to-do list of things I need or want, let’s face it God knows what I need much better than I do, but listening for the still small voice and seeking to walk, humbly, into the presence of the Living God.
I’m no expert, I’m just learning, but every once in a while, I get a glimpse of that mystic sweet communion.
And while I start every day at work with a prayer of thanksgiving and follow with a prayer for intercession for friends and family that need help, and much of my prayer life still involves my gums flapping…
And I know that sometimes those prayers won’t be answered, at least not in the manner that I ask.
I’ve come to believe that the ultimate aim of prayer is to get a glimpse of that mystic, sweet communion and to join in the ongoing process of creation that God invites us into.
And while that can and does occur with our mouths moving, I’ve found it’s far more likely to occur when we shut up and listen
Perseverance in prayer is still important. We still need to ask, to seek, to knock…but then we should…wait and listen.