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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on October 17, 2010

Luke 18:1-8  

Today’s lesson from Luke is about prayer but that doesn’t mean this is an easy Sunday or that you will feel any comfort by it. It ought to be an easier topic than what it is but this parable gives us a troubling version of God that one writer identified as “God as Anti-Hero.” Prayer is a spiritual discipline that connects us to the God who created us and who continues to want to hear from us about all those things we that burden our hearts. Prayer is a lifeline tossed our way on those days when that’s all we have. Simplistically speaking, prayer is no more than a conversation between two good friends. Mary Gordon once observed, “Prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to.” We should accept prayer’s simplicity as an invitation to spend time with God talking about what’s on our hearts with room to listen to whatever God might wish to offer in return.

But what about praying in public? I hope I’m never guilty of implying to any of you that praying in public is easy because I know it’s not. I once made a horse’s behind of myself in one of my first occasions to pray in front of a crowd of my peers. As a ninth grader, I painfully remember kneeling in the end zone with my football team on a hot September night as we knelt to listen to our coach try his best to inspire us. We opened the fall in a brand new Junior High School and only two of us on the team had ever played a down of football. We were predictably bad and lost every game we played. After a half hour of calisthenics, we were already sweaty; add to that our nervous anxiety about taking the field and the fact that we were fourteen-year-old boys getting ready to take our weekly Thursday night beating with dignity.

In those days, no one challenged the saying of a Christian prayer and our team tradition was that we said the Lord’s Prayer together in unison. After a fiery speech to us about what we needed to do but likely could not do, the Coach without warning turned to me and said, “Herron, lead us in the Lord’s Prayer.” I was a team leader and he knew I went to church. I guess he figured I would know the Lord’s Prayer well enough to get us started.

Here’s my confession to all of you this morning:  My head was not into God, or about asking God for anything (not even mercy); I was not even conscious in that moment I even believed in God. It was Friday Night Lights playing on Thursday and I was thinking about football! I was thinking about how nervous I was, knowing I was going into a battle we had no chance of winning. I was anywhere but in touch with God! I remember how jolted I was that looked at me and barked out my name demanding I lead the prayer. I was accustomed to him yelling at me and I was ready to do anything he ever asked me to as in the religion of football, he was God Almighty and I was his humble servant. Scared out of my wits, I had nothing to say. I was blank. So I said the only religious words I knew:  “The Lord is my shepherd …”

Immediately I knew those were the wrong words but I didn’t know what to do. So I stopped in mid-sentence and honestly, there was not one other religious thought I was capable of thinking. Ever the teacher, I heard the coach’s voice correcting my mistake, “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be thy name …”

Prayer is anything but simple. Ever heard of the “dark night of the soul?” Remember Jesus praying in the garden and being irked because he had struggled alone, having been abandoned by his followers who fell asleep? Ever prayed while facing some of life’s toughest concerns? Ever had your back against the wall and you reached out desperately to God for relief? E. M. Bounds once described how one learns to pray in those moments: “Prayer is not learned in a classroom but in the closet.” 

I

For the last few weeks, we’ve immersed ourselves in the experience of the exile when the Babylonians destroyed the great Temple and carried off the aristocracy of Jewish life and culture to serve as slaves. When the prophet Isaiah came along, he challenged to take their suffering and put it to use for a new future. He taught them to use the crisis to accomplish the redemption of the world:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant,
these will I bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in the my house of prayer …
For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
Isaiah 56:6-7, NRSV
God’s covenant of inclusion is offered to all who humble themselves and pray. In doing so, outsiders become insiders! The outcast is brought into the place where God and humankind meet through prayer and are given shelter and become known as God’s people.

Stephen Shoemaker clarifies what this means: “(God) tore down the walls of the holiness maps which divided people into clean and unclean; (God) crossed all boundaries which divided people into good and bad, superior and inferior, and invited all people into the presence of the Lord. This was why he cleansed the temple; this was why the veil of the holy of holies in the temple was rent when he died. This is why Paul wrote, “Christ is our peace, who has made us all one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Those far off have been brought near. The cross has cleansed us all. Jesus paid it all.”[1]

He adds further so we can all be clear about this:  “A house of prayer is not a house of prayer unless it is a house of prayer for all people. It is not a house of religiously privileged, the morally and spiritually superior; it is a house of prayer for all people.”

What does it mean for us at Holmeswood to be a house of prayer? In this case, the little story Jesus told is to encourage us to be a people who pray always and do not lose heart. Don’t we sometimes get discouraged? Don’t we sometimes lose heart about what we’re doing and think it’s all for naught? Sometimes we’ve lost our faith in the goodness of God and we’ve lost our patience in God’s desire and power to answer our prayers. 

II

So Jesus told them this parable to urge us to pray always and never lose heart. The parable rests on two unsettling characters. There was a judge who had neither reverence for God nor regard for people. There was also a woman, but not just a woman, she was a widow, in that city who kept coming to him demanding that he listen to her and to give her justice against the one oppressing her. The judge flicked her away like a bothersome bug but she kept bugging him until he said, “Though I have no fear of God or respect for anyone else, I’ll grant this widow justice so she’ll stop bothering me and wearing me out with her constant cries for justice.”

Who’s who in this little story? No mystery that when we determine we won’t be stopped in persistent praying, demanding God answer us, that we’re the widow. So who’s the judge in this story? That’s why Robert Capon calls this “God as Anti-hero.”[2]

If a cold-hearted judge would yield to the persistence of a widow, how much more will a loving God respond to our persistent praying? Put another way, if a helpless widow’s persistent asking accomplished to much with a cold-hearted judge, how much more will the persistent prayer of God’s people accomplish? We have more power than we can ever imagine if we’ll seek the kingdom of God and start asking for the right things. “You have not because you ask not,” says James.

Over a century ago, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of London’s greatest preachers, wrote this:  “If God be near a church, it must pray. And if (God) be not there, one of the first tokens of (God’s) absence will be a slothfulness in prayer.”

The Apostle Paul described in his letter to the believers in Rome a spiritual chain of cause and effect:  “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15a, NRSV).

Most often we read those questions emphasizing the preachers who preach and the listeners who believe. But notice where this sequence spills out – it’s not so much about believing as it’s about calling on the name of the Lord:

Sending leads to preaching,
Preaching leads to hearing,
Hearing leads to believing, and
Believing leads to calling on the name of the Lord

Perhaps our greatest spiritual poverty is this:  There’s not enough calling on God. Notice there are no set formulas to follow, no right or wrong ways to pray … just calling upon the name of the Lord.

How do we pray? We pray at the end of the day Tolkien’s line which sounds as though it came from Jesus in the model prayer: “What should be shall be.” [3]

[1] Stephen Shoemaker, “The Church as a House of Prayer for all People,” Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, “God as Anti-hero,” The Parables of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988

[3] Cited in Thomas Parker, “Prayer in God’s Presence,” Christian Century, 1/29/97, 101-102

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