A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, July 24, 2016
If you were to do a Google search for the phrase ‘My postillion has been struck by lightning’ you might be surprised to learn it would return a really quite impressive number of results.
On the face of it, it is a quite ridiculous phrase – and therein lies its purpose. It is a shorthand for describing a phrase so ridiculous that it could not possibly need ever to be used, let alone included in a foreign language phrasebook.
And, yet, here’s the thing. That phrase, ‘my postillion has been struck by lightning’, did feature in a phrase book. Ridiculous it may be, but day-in and day-out phrasebooks are published with seemingly equally bizarre phrases that one could not imagine to be of anything other than very limited utility.
As it happens, I have a certain penchant for these kinds of phrases. I remember having a Swedish phrasebook that included, in the hotel accommodation section, the phrase ‘I would like you to prepare me a bath for the day after tomorrow’. I would love to know why the author though that this would be remotely useful.
I actually have a phrasebook that I picked up in England when I was a kid. It appears to have been published around the early 70s and amongst all the usual stuff about finding the way the station and ordering breakfast contains the following gems: ‘the balloon is hovering over the town’, ‘the farmer gives us some eggs every day' and, my personal favorite, ‘an old woman told me to hide here’.
Of course, the most ridiculous thing about phrase-books is that they tell you how to ask for something in a foreign language without seeming to realize that if you ask a question in a language you don’t speak, you’re generally going to get an answer in a language you don’t speak – and so the phrase book ends up being about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.
It may seem an odd leap to today’s Gospel reading, but that’s what got me reminiscing about phrase books - because it seems to me that when it comes to prayer, and how to pray, we tend to focus on – perhaps even obsess – about how we ask the question without especially knowing how to recognize the answer.
Let’s recap on that Gospel reading. Jesus’ disciples have heard that John teaches his disciples to pray, and they ask Jesus to teach them also. Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer, a parable about prayer and a couple of sayings about prayer. One might think that would make prayer easier for us, but underneath prayer’s calm exterior lies, as we know, a seething whirlpool of puzzlement and, perhaps, of pain.
Let me be frank upfront. Prayer is a bit of a mystery to me and I suspect that it is a bit of a mystery to most of us. But just because something’s mysterious doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand it better. Yet, which one of us has not fervently prayed (so we thought) for something or someone and felt that those prayers have gone unanswered. Which one of us has not felt that God is far away from us in prayer when we have really needed him to save a situation, or a loved one.
I think it needs to be said, and said often, that if we think that prayer is some kind of divine shopping list then we are way off the mark. We’d agree on that, I think. And yet, and yet, why is it that so much of our public and, perhaps, our personal prayer seems to be just that, getting things from God rather than cultivating a relationship with God.
The very first thing that Jesus tells his disciples about prayer emphasizes that what prayer is is about relationship with God more than anything. Have you ever noticed how we tend to obsess on the mechanics of prayer: the ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘when’, when Jesus bids us focus from the outset on the ‘who’. Jesus invites us to call God ‘Father’. It’s hard for us to see how shocking this is, but it’s pretty much for the first time in human history that anyone has been invited to view God not as a remote figure whom we approach with trepidation, but as an approachable, kindly and loving parent. Even the warmer parts of the Old Testament do not sanction speaking directly to God in such a familiar manner. Yet Jesus invites us to do this, and simply entering into a state of being where we recognize God’s presence as close-by and warm-hearted is, itself, an act of prayer.
In the parable that follows the Lord’s Prayer in our reading, Jesus describes a man knocking at his friend’s door at midnight to get a few loaves of bread. Initially the friend refuses to get out of bed but the caller’s sheer chutzpah in banging on his door will get him the bread. Jesus invites us to approach God with this kind of temerity. Just think, if the unfriendly neighbor gets up and answers the door, how much more will God answer the door as our friend. Yes, Jesus invites us to be upfront and bold with God.
And finally, Jesus gives his disciples some sayings about prayer. And this is where we get on to the most difficult territory. This is what Jesus says:
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.
This is hard for us. As I mentioned earlier, we have all earnestly and fervently desired things in prayer and have experienced the disappointment or sadness of those prayers seemingly going unanswered or ignored.
When we make requests of God in prayer, as Jesus bids us to, what are we actually asking for when it really comes down to it? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that ‘God knows what you need before you ask him’.
When we ask for something in prayer, what are we really asking for? God knows.
It may be helpful to think of it this way: if someone prays that a sick loved one is healed to full health, what is really being asked for? At the immediate level, yes, it is the restoration of health. It seems to me, however, that God wants to address our more fundamental, primeval needs. If we pray for a loved one to be restored to us, perhaps what are really asking for, fundamentally, is that we will not feel the pain of loss and separation, that we will not feel lonely, that we will feel calmer about our own mortality. God may not directly intervene to heal our loved one: after all, God has given us free will and that means that he doesn’t mess with the minutiae of our lives; but we can dwell more fully in his presence such that those fundamental, primeval reassurances we are seeking when we ask God to do something are in fact gifted to us by Him.
Like the phrasebooks, knowing how to ask the question is only half the story. Knowing how to recognize the answer is the more important part.