Our Luke text demands that I preach about prayer today. This should be an easy bunt for a pastor, right? However, prayer is not my strongest suit in my faith life hand. Being quiet, still, both things that are associated with prayer are just not things I have ever done well. Stringing together flowery language in spoken prayers is not a gift I have either. Most of the time when I hear sermons on prayer, I leave defeated, feeling as though prayer is just one more way I am falling short.
It can be easy for many reasons to feel defeated by prayer. A relative of mine prayed hard for her son to be healed. She took him to healing services where strangers prayed over him. She took him to her pastor where he prayed for him in his office. She packed him in a car and drove him to Canada and paid a Christian faith healer to pray for him. And of course, her and her husband gathered around him in their home nightly, asking God to heal him. When he wasn’t healed the pastor shrugged helplessly, as bowed by the mystery of God and the power of disease as any of us. Feeling a need to have an answer, side note: pastors should just stop at I don’t know, but they rarely do, he sighted this text from Luke. God said we must be persistent sister, maybe God needed you to try harder before he would act.
I probably don’t need to say his comment devastated her…and it made me really angry. Verse 8 at the end of this parable says the friend will answer the door because of our persistent knocking. The parable conjures a picture of God who is such a heavy sleeper that unless we really bang on that heavenly gate, we ain’t getting her out of bed. Or a God that wants to see us work up a little sweat before he punches in and does God things like healing children. Wanting to give some answer to something that is not understandable, my relative’s pastor told her she just didn’t bang on God’s door enough for God to notice.
I was taught that whenever we read a parable, we are to look for the surprise in the story. The surprise here is that the guy didn’t wait until morning to borrow bread for his unexpected guest. Instead, in the middle of the night, he banged on his friend’s door that likely caused a scene in the street waking the other neighbors, just for a midnight snack for an equally rude late night, unexpected guest. To those who heard Jesus tell this story, this guy was an idiot. They would judge that the friend who knocked on the door abused his friendship. An emergency? Yes. This is not an emergency.
Why did he do it? When my kids were in college, I sometimes had to loan them money. Often when I would have to collect from one of them, they might tell me they couldn’t pay me right then. They had the money, but they owed some other people, too. Looking right at me, with the money they could give me in their hand, they told me without any sense of shame, that they were going to pay others before me. Why? Because they figured it was better to disappoint me than them. They knew I wouldn’t stop loving them, disown them, even get that mad about it. Family and good friends are sometimes people we can abuse like that.
The friend in the parable does this rude thing in the middle of the night because he knows he can get away with it. He knows his friend will be irritated with him, even angry, but will lumber to the door and like Jesus said, give him whatever he wants. Friends in Jesus’ day don’t do that. Unless, of course they are good enough friends that they figure why not.
Jesus is not teaching persistence in prayer. Jesus is teaching shamelessness. The word in fact in verse 8 translated from the Greek as persistence here is rarely translated that way anywhere else. It is nearly always translated as shamelessness. Ask for whatever you think you need. If God has it in the kitchen, God will get it for you. Seek God regardless of the time or place. The middle of the night? No problem. Our God is a light sleeper. Knock whenever you get it into your head that you need to talk to God. Sure God has other things going on, but like your best friend, or a loving parent, they will put down what they are doing and listen. Don’t be ashamed about being a bother. You probably are…but God doesn’t care.
The spouse of a close friend was really sick for a couple of years. Scary sick. It was all hands on deck sort of sick. My friend was terrified he would lose his wife. In the midst of her illness, I spent an evening with my friend. I of course got updated on how she was doing, emotionally, physically. Then I asked how are you doing? Of course, he talked about his worry and concern and tears, but we ended up talking most about things he hadn’t ever said out loud. Thoughts and feelings that are real for a caregiver sacrificing so much, but can sound petty, mean or selfish. Here his wife is so sick, and he is complaining that he hadn’t golfed all summer. Why was he shameless? Because he knew I loved him fully. There was no need to hide from me. Why was he shameless? Because he needed to say these things out loud and I was the only one he felt he could say them too. This is what prayer needs to be about sometimes. Saying things out loud that need to be given air, regardless of how they might sound.
Prayer is always about staying in relationship with God, like we would a close friend or family member. I went out with my friend that night because I cared about him and his wife. In Jesus, God is revealed to be just such a close friend to you and me. God cares about us. God in Jesus is such a close friend that we can shamelessly pour out our hearts. Persistence is not rewarded, an honest authentic relationship is what God hopes for. What that pastor should have told my brokenhearted relative, is that she did the best job in prayer she could by telling God everything that was on her heart. Sister, you kept God beside you. God weeps with you now. I am not the best prayer person. I am not likely to be leading any seminars soon. My habits are sporadic, my language always seems to fall short, my style honestly sounds to my own ears as sophomoric. The one thing I know about prayer is a simple thing. Pray to God as if God were our “bestest” friend in the world. Ask for whatever we think we want, just to get it out there. Saying it out loud is important, which is why some of us spend hours on a phone or on a deck talking with people we love. Seek God out regardless of the time or day. If I needed my best friend at two in the morning, would I wait until they were up at 8? No. Shamelessly I would call at two in the morning. Knock on the door, wake up the neighborhood, barge ahead of the line. Our concerns, needs, worries, fears, desires, are important to God. Make them known. We can trust this friend. Amen