Giving ourselves to prayer-Paul & Capria Jaussen
Paul and Capria Jaussen
Sermon—July 28, 2019
Last Sunday afternoon, as we were preparing this reflection, our conversation was disrupted by a howl that quickly turned into a full-throated cry. Our son Ransom charged into our living room, clutching one eye as tears spurted out of the other. There was the moment of panic—as they say, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye—but a few hugs, inspections, and an ice pack later, and things were soon mended. Or so we thought; later that night, we found ourselves in the emergency room waiting to discover the extent of this injury. Fortunately, there was no permanent damage, but Ransom had learned a valuable lesson about the hidden dangers of bungee cords.
Childhood accidents offer a poignant lesson in prayer. For isn’t this more or less why we pray? There is an encounter with pain, with danger; something confusing or unexpected enters into our lives, and we are confronted with the realization that we can’t make it on our own. So we run somewhere, looking for someone to at least hear and acknowledge our suffering. We all experience this urge to articulate our vulnerability and need, even those who aren’t practicing faith or reject the entire notion of God. Think of the old movie trope of the hardened cowboy or soldier bending a knee in the face of an impossible situation, the one who confesses, in the words of a Willie Nelson song, that I’ve been “too sick to pray,” but, after all, here I am.
Of course, we also pray out of thanksgiving, gratitude, or joy. But, if you think about it, those prayers are also an admission of our frailty and weakness. When we give thanks, we acknowledge that our circumstances are abundant beyond our abilities or control; we testify to a grace that is overwhelming, an excess that we could never conjure on our own. So whether it is out of pain or joy, fear or gratitude, prayer seems to originate when our small selves confront their limitations.
In today’s gospel, we are given the most famous prayer in the entire Christian tradition, or at least one version of that prayer; the more extensive version, which we use every Sunday, appears in Matthew’s sermon on the mount. Rereading this very well-known text, we were struck less by the prayer itself, and more by Jesus’s commentary on prayer in general. To begin with, there are some important things that Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t admonish his disciples to deny or ignore their needs, to recognize that their small selves don’t matter in the cosmic scale of the universe, and they should therefore rein in their desires, fears, and hopes by practicing a form of stoic resignation. Instead, the prayer and his commentary are teeming with the material needs of daily life: bread, eggs, fish, neighborhoods, homes. Nor does he say that prayer is something like a magic spell, a lucky charm against evil and darkness, that somehow if we utter the right words in the right order enough times we will have a special power over reality. Instead, he insists that prayer isn’t about our individual power to overcome our lack but is profoundly relational. In fact, this passage is chock full of various and varied relationships. There is the address to God as Father, a central concept in all of Jesus’s teachings. Then there is the “us” and “we” of the prayer, suggesting that prayer isn’t meant to be merely an individual practice, but something that arises from a community; we don’t pray only for and as ourselves, but for and as an “us,” a “we.”
And then look at all of the friendships. The first parable that Jesus tells involves a strange triangulation of conflicting needs and wants, a kind of New Testament game of social hot potato. One friend goes to another friend to ask for three loaves of bread, and that request isn’t for himself but for a third friend who has arrived unexpectedly. The need, here, is passed along the chain, and each step reveals another need. The first friend needs shelter; the second friend needs to provide hospitality, and that means he needs bread; the third friend needs peace and quiet so his kids will FINALLY get a good night’s sleep. The needs, it turns out, can’t be isolated; my need reveals your need reveals our needs.
It’s important to recognize that mutual neediness is awkward and uncomfortable. We all understand this sense of discomfort that haunts our social interactions, ready to pop out at any moment. We want to be close to people, but not too close; we don’t want to push too far into someone else’s business, and we certainly want people to stay out of ours. We like our respectable distance, even from those we call friends and fellow parishioners. Just to give one example: Remember when you used to call people on the phone? Now, in the age of texting, a phone call out of the blue has come to feel a bit aggressive, a bit too needy and demanding. We have to text people before we call them, maybe set up a phone appointment, even among our friends. And don’t even consider trying the “no call pop in!”
Actually, this story from the New Testament is all about the no call pop in. While the cultural norms in our time are quite different from those of first century Palestine, it’s pretty clear that the friend is breaking the rules of appropriate social behavior. He shows up at midnight, pounds on the door, asks for help, and doesn’t go away. In fact, Jesus points out that it isn’t friendship that ultimately resolves his need but persistence, an insistence on the neediness that binds us together. And perhaps that is why Jesus uses this strange parable to teach us a lesson about prayer. Perhaps he is asking us to embrace the unseemliness of our needs, the impropriety and excess of our mutual indebtedness to one another and to God.
Indebtedness, after all, is in the language of prayer itself: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We ask God for ultimate forgiveness and offer up our own acts of forgiveness in return. It’s easy to approach this line as a kind of quid pro quo or deal-making; “since we forgive others, God, you should forgive us.” But there is another way to read that line: as a reaffirmation of our mission in this world, a reminder to ourselves of our primary moral purpose. We are here on earth to need and be needed, and these needs will inevitably exceed the bounds of normal human society, friendship, even family. Thus, our ultimate need is to be transformed into people who can give and offer forgiveness. All of the friends in the story are left in need of forgiveness in some fashion—the first friend needs forgiveness for showing up unannounced; the second friend needs forgiveness for breaking the bounds of decorum by waking his friend in the middle of the night. And the third friend needs forgiveness for using that decorum as a defensive gesture to deny the need that is literally at his doorstep.
So if prayer has everything to do with unseemly, uncomfortable, embarrassing need, then what does it mean for a prayer to be answered? One of Jesus’s most famous statements about prayer appears in this text: “Ask, and it will be given 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.” Sounds good, right? We ask for what we want, and we get it; prayer is just like a letter to Santa Claus. This interpretation is somewhat reinforced by the image of a child asking a parent for food; we don’t give snakes and stones to children needing eggs and bread, so why would we assume that a loving God would behave differently? But Jesus ends with a remarkable twist that turns things upside down. For the gift from the heavenly Father isn’t bread or eggs or X-Boxes on Christmas morning. Instead, God’s answer to prayer, according to Jesus, is the “Holy Spirit.”
What do we make of this turn? It seems strange that after spending so much time discussing material needs, Jesus would say “haha, just kidding, all you need is the Holy Spirit! Be more spiritual and these things won’t matter.” If that’s what Jesus means, then it seems to contradict so much of what we find in the rest of the passage, with all of its bread, eggs, and fish. This text clearly teaches that our needs matter to God; they are the conditions that prompt us to ask, search, and knock. But if God’s answer to those requests is not material things but the Holy Spirit, then what, exactly, is God giving us?
Meister Eckhart’s poem may provide us with an answer. He defines the Holy Spirit as that which consumes, dissolves, and transforms us into love. Left alone, our needs can quickly lead us down the path of fear, anger, and violence; faced with our neediness, we seek to compensate, to protect ourselves at the cost of others, to focus upon our fears until they devour us. When God gives us the Holy Spirit, however, the declaration of need in prayer can lead us more profoundly into the way of love. And love is the root of every “living work”; as Jesus says elsewhere, the great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is at the core of our relationship to God and to one another; love is the divine madness that declares, as Paul does in today’s reading from the letter to the Colossians, that the “fullness of the deity dwells bodily” in a Man crucified on a cross. If prayer is a confession of our neediness, then the Holy Spirit as the answer to prayer is the one who teaches us that neediness is also another name for loving and being loved. To say that we are needy is to say that we are in relationship, and to say that we are in relationship is to experience our need of love; that is our fundamental human condition.
So when we come to God in prayer, we are confessing, screaming, crying, singing; we are holding our hand to our eyes and asking for the world to be otherwise, thanking the God of this world for its excess and beauty. God’s response isn’t simply to address our specific need, the thing we think we want, although so often, and thankfully, God does. Instead, God’s unexpected answer to prayer is also the lesson of prayer; prayer teaches us to enter more profoundly into a relationship with God and with one another. It teaches us to recognize the Holy Spirit at work, transforming our neediness into love.