Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12C/Lectionary 17C] - July 24, 2016 (Luke 11:1-13)

The French Cathedral, Berlin, will soon be outfitted with Wi-Fi
Coinciding with its country’s celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which officially began when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the Protestant Churches of Germany announced last month they would be providing free Wi-Fi in each of its churches beginning this summer. The plan is to start with 220 churches and then get on pace to outfit 3000 more church buildings with Wi-Fi by March of next near. While the church authorities are not intending the free Wi-Fi to be used as a recruitment tool, it does look like they are getting a jump on addressing a shortcoming in Germany’s technology. Most other European nations offer more public Wi-Fi than Germany does. The church’s Wi-Fi will be offered at no cost and will involve no passwords. People can enter the building, turn on their smart phone or lap top, and start websurfing and checking email, just like that. The church has decided to call these areas of Wi-Fi Godspots. And while it doesn’t appear these Godspots will enable a connection to God, strictly speaking, they may offer a way for people to connect with each other in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, in this country, hundreds of churches have figured out that they’ve been designated as Pokestops in the past week; that is, places where people can congregate with their smartphones and get more Pokeballs which is what one uses to catch Pokemons (pocket monsters). Apparently it’s a good thing to be a Pokestop. People of all different walks of life may end up gathering to get Pokeballs side-by-side. Some churches have tried to take advantage of their Pokestop status by offering water and places to charge phones to people playing the game. One church even put up a sign: “Come inside for Pokeballs. Stay for Jesus.”

The theme here is connectivity. The church perceives itself—and is often perceived by others—as a place to connect, as a place to send and receive information. As it happens,  our own congregation just spent several thousand dollars from its Endowment Fund disbursement to upgrade our outdated network system. Council last week got a brief explanation about what Cat-6 cable is and what its benefits are.

This morning we see that Jesus’ own disciples sought connectivity in their time. They’ve observed Jesus and how he occasionally withdraws to connect with God, and they’ve watched John the Baptist outfit his disciples with Cat-6 cable, and they reach the conclusion that Jesus must be a Godspot. There is something about how Jesus sends and receives information with God, that intrigues them. And so they come to him and ask him to teach them how he does it.

What’s interesting about Jesus’ response is that it is so specific. He could have just answered that there is no right or wrong way to pray, or he could have responded by saying, “Do your own thing,” or “Just enter the mystery of God and the words will come to you.” Some people may have found those types of response helpful, and in some sense they are also true, but Jesus actually gives his disciples a clear and definite pattern for prayer, for the language we use to connect with God. We can even assume it was the language Jesus himself was using in his own prayers. Nowadays, given the way they teach songs at VBS, we might assume he’d give each line hand motions, too.

The Lord’s Prayer, as it has come to be known, is a comprehensive prayer that in a very simple but very thoughtful way helps frame our most basic needs in terms of God’s grace.

One writer has noted that when the disciples ask Jesus about prayer, he responds by teaching them about the type of God they have. It begins by recognizing that God is a divine parent, a heavenly Father, who can be addressed not with fancy, flowery language like you would a king or queen, but with the very words you would use to talk to your closest friend.

In fact, the very first word Jesus uses to address God and wants his followers to address God is best translated as “Daddy.” To pray that this Daddy’s name be made holy does not mean that our words have some special effect on God’s nature but it acknowledges that while God is set apart from the ordinary, he also has the power to come into our ordinary lives and establish his reign. When God does this, his kingdom does come to us. And that kingdom is not necessarily a physical place with a castle or a wall, but any time and place when God’s sovereignty is realized, when God’s love and mercy is seen and known.

Adult and youth leaders this week provided the opportunity for over a hundred young children to experience the kingdom come during our Vacation Bible School. It is always interesting for me to watch the transformation from the time some of the children first walk in on Monday morning, many of them apprehensive and even frightened of the experience, to the end of the week when they don’t want to leave. Many of them cry when it begins and then cry when it has to end. They’ve felt, even if just for a while, the sense of community and joy that God’s kingdom will eventually bring to all of creation.

One young girl who is not a church member here sobbed in the hall on the first day, crying, “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” because her father had dropped her off and she felt lonely. I believe her heavenly Daddy must have heard that as a prayer because pretty quickly she came to know He was very much present with her. One of the youth group volunteers came up beside her, sat down with her and comforted her and slowly integrated her into the class. Imagine how that young girl now will perceive connecting with God in church. Imagine how any person entering a church or encountering a Christ-follower out in the world would perceive God’s kingdom coming if Jesus’ disciples were to come alongside the suffering with such parent-like tenderness.

Once Jesus tells his disciples to begin with God’s name and God’s kingdom, the Lord’s prayer focuses on the three basic needs that humans have. Daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. Daily bread, as Martin Luther explains, is not just food, but anything we need each day for life. Like the manna that the ancient Israelites gathered every morning, Jesus instructs his disciples to concentrate on what is needed only for this day.

Forgiveness, as the prayer implies, is never something that happens in a vacuum. We often think of it this way, however…as if whatever happens between me and God stays that way. However, God’s forgiveness, even if it is held and announced privately in the heart of one person, is always something that affects the whole community. When God forgives us, we are made new. A change occurs in us that cannot help but be shared, then, with others around us, which is why Jesus, in this prayer, links God’s mercy to us with our mercy to others.

To pray for deliverance from evil or the time of trial is a realization that God is ultimately responsible for our salvation from the world’s brokenness, that at some point all our accomplishments and all our accolades will not be able to help us overcome death or estrangement from our Creator. That task will be up to God, and it is good news that the one who is teaching us this prayer is also the one who will go to the utter end and experience total estrangement on the cross on our behalf. He will place himself in the very time of trial for us. When it comes to connectivity and connection with God, you see, it is ultimately not our prayers or our words that do the trick, but God’s decision in Jesus to be with us in the hall when we’re crying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” in the moment of need, at the point of loss and suffering.

Because I think all of us, at some point, have struggled with prayer. We’ve stumbled over how to put our feelings and thoughts into words that God would like and understand. We get intimidated by God’s holiness and purity—and the fanciness of church—especially when it’s matched up with our imperfect speech. We expect our prayers to be eloquent if God will hear them.

And while Jesus clearly gives us a pattern to follow and some words that will never get worn out, Jesus also assures his disciples that God hears and listens with our true needs in mind, just like a father will give what’s best for his child and a friend will come through in the middle of the night for a buddy in need. There are no special words you need to say when you knock on a neighbor’s door for a loaf of bread in the middle of the night when you’re trying to help someone else. It’s in the knocking itself when the petition occurs. The point is not necessarily the words, but the position we are in when we come before God…not as people crafting a list to Santa Claus or a person forming a To-Do list for a lackey but as a child who is in need…a child in need of love and guidance…a child who trusts and listens.

A year or so ago Melinda and I were having some friends over for dinner. One of the people coming over had been diagnosed with something serious and was preparing for some intense and risky treatment. Believe it or not I stressed for days about how I was going to offer a prayer that would appropriately call attention that situation but not get overwhelmingly emotional or make it too central. I tried to think about what exactly I was praying for and how to craft the right words. The moment finally came. We all circled up and joined hands for prayer. All my time for preparation and forethought had run out and I was going to have to open my mouth and pray something. I bowed my head and closed my eyes and then words began to flow…

But they weren’t my words. Nothing was coming out of my mouth. They were words from a familiar voice that surprised me. One of the children among us—an 8-year-old in this congregation—had seized the moment before I had, in front of all those people, like a child humbly asking for an egg or a fish. So natural, so pleading, so confident. “Now where in the world did she learn to do that?” I thought to myself. Who has modeled talking to God like God’s just a friend or a parent who needs no magic words but who listens and knows what we need? Ah-ha! People in her community of Jesus-followers must be teaching her prayer, must be helping to connect her to her heavenly Father.

Oh, that they could teach me again! And again! This place, I realized, must be some kind of Godspot, after all.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.