Genesis 18:20-32 Psalms 138 Colossians 2:6-19 Luke 11:1-13
Harry Cohn, the tycoon responsible for the success and respectability of Columbia Pictures, once bet that his own brother Jack did not know and could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. Equally full of bluster, Jack Cohn accepted the wager and with a certain trepidation, began, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Harry Cohn glowered and shoved his money across the table. He said, “That’s enough, I didn’t think you knew it.”
In the reading from Genesis, we hear of God’s famous bargain with Abraham where he is challenged to find ten righteous people in Sodom. This story is a part of the larger narrative concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom is tied to account of the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham by the travels of three messengers. Last Sunday, the messengers appeared to Abraham and Sarah, conveying the divine promise of a son. Before the reading for today begins, they are said to be headed to Sodom and Gomorrah, and afterwards, their number reduced to two, they visit the sinful cities.
Today’s reading from Genesis is limited to the dialogue between Abraham and Yahweh. Having been taken into the Lord’s confidence about the destruction of the sinful cities, Abraham initiates the dialogue with a plea on behalf of Sodom. In this conversation, a new possibility is introduced – that the majority who are guilty could be forgiven because of the minority who are innocent. Abraham poses his petition in terms of divine justice: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” What a bold intercessor to instruct the Lord on divine justice! Is God willing to forgive the sinful city because of a few who are righteous? The answer here is yes. In the account of divine justice, the dialogue emphasizes divine mercy. At the same time, it serves to argue that the subsequent judgment on Sodom was fair.
For a response, a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance is chosen. Exhortations to live out the implications of “life in Christ,” along with warnings against useless pursuits and needless restrictions, are continued in the Epistle reading from Colossians. It may be obvious to us that Christ should be the ordering principle of our lives, but it was not to the Colossians. If Christ is merely another member of the angelic hierarchy, as the false teachers claimed, we can see why Paul would need to convince the Colossians to make Christ the sole basis for their lives. This deceit threatens the faith of the Colossian church. Although the specifics of this conviction remain vague, it seems to hold sin as unforgiven and unforgettable.
In Christ’s death on the cross, all fullness of the deity became his and the powers that enslave have been emptied of their power. The old contract – that we would on our own strength live godly lives – has been nailed to the cross.
The task of shaping a shared identity is the hard work facing the Colossian church. Just as it is for us! Struggling with outside influences to which they once trusted, these believers are trying to develop the common, shared identity without which no community can exist. A shared identity is one of the essential elements that define a community. Simply living in proximity to one another or sharing a common language is not enough. We are reminded to remember where we came from and to live faithfully out of that powerful source of remembering. Remember that they, we, are rooted in Christ and build up in him. Remember we are established in the faith. Remember what we have been taught. This is a poignant and powerful call to shared identity through the practice of collective remembering.
So how do we survive and thrive as a community of faith? We share a common identity as followers of Jesus through prayer. Jesus knew the importance of being grounded in prayer. The disciples needed to recognize that too. “Lord, teach us to pray.” After offering the disciples a template for prayer that has become the prayer written on human hearts for over two thousand years, Jesus begins the story.
The idea and ideal of prayer summons many thoughts. Thomas Merton spoke of prayer as the communion of our freedom and God’s ultimate freedom. Anne Lamont wrote that she has two basic prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “help me, help me, help me.” Henri Nouwen writes, “Deep silence leads us to realize that prayer is above all, acceptance. When we pray, we are standing with our hands open to the world. Prayer creates that openness in which God is given to us.”
On vacation in Ireland, we rented a car – a car to ride on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car. I prayed a lot! Our mantra became “Turn right, stay left.” On one of the first days, we were leaving a parking garage and our GPS told us to turn right. So, we turned right, right into a Garda, police car headed toward us. A police woman jumped out of the car yelling it was a one-way street. She graciously stopped traffic to allow us to turn around and head in the right direction. Come to think of it…I bet a lot of people were praying.
We all have our own prayer history, but todays’ Gospel takes us back to the beginning of praying with and in Jesus Christ. It is more than a recounting of a pious moment in the life of Jesus, more than a story of how we got the Our Father, more than a lesson from Jesus the teacher. Jesus taught his disciples how to pray and for what to pray. Prayer is an integral part of Jesus’ life. Luke’s Gospel points out that Jesus “would withdraw to deserted places to pray” and at other times, “he went out to the mountains to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. Jesus prayed before he called his disciples and when he fed the five thousand; he prayed the night before he died and from the cross itself. Prayer was a part of his life, even unto death.
So, when Jesus responded to the request of his followers that he teach them how to pray, what he taught them was very important – and has remained important – for the life of the church. He gave them – and us – words to address God, words to praise God, and only then, words to petition God. Jesus begins, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be thy name, your kingdom come.” We are to approach God as “Father” as “Abba,” one we relate to intimately. Much has been written about this one word, inviting us to think of God as one who looks upon us as family, to whom we are as dear as if we were God’s very own children.
Jesus’ prayer reminds us that there is one who has power over all and who is near to us. The two phrases that follow call on God to be God: “Hallowed be your name” and “Your kingdom come.” They implore God to truly take charge of life, our lives, to bring justice and peace to our world, something only God can bring about. The remaining petitions concern three basic needs: food (“Give us each day our daily bread”), forgiveness (“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”), and fidelity (“And do not bring us to a time of trial”). These petitions name what is essential for the life of our individual bodies, the life of our communal body – society, the church or the world – and the life of our ongoing relationship with God. These are the gifts of the kingdom, which will not be refused, because they flow from our being united with the very being of God, who sustains, forgives, and is faithful to us.
In my own journey, I don’t remember when his drinking got so bad. I was so busy trying to hold my marriage together, with duct tape and bailing wire. I don’t remember when it got so bad that he would forget his wallet or lose the car keys or not remember what he had said or done. I don’t remember getting lost in my own world. We went to church, but no one at church knew of my struggles in living with an alcoholic. It was not something I could talk about. They could not see the frayed edges of our lives. Then, after fourteen years of marriage and so so very much energy, he told me he wanted a divorce and he didn’t love me anymore.
I raged against God for letting the divorce happen. I thought that I was a good person, trying to help others and giving so much. I was a special education teacher and was devoted to my kids. I was a lifeline for those kids, but I had let go of my lifeline to God. How could God let this happen…why me…no compass to guide me….no true north to show me the way. I was mad at God for months....disgusted that all of my efforts to fix my marriage were not successful…were not rewarded…broken and in pain. So far away from God. During those months, my sister and her Emmaus reunion group prayed for me….prayed that my heart would heal, prayed for me to be reunited with God. Months later when I was visiting my sister and met some of her friends, and they told me of their prayers, friend after friend, prayer after prayer. To be embraced by a community of faith, to be loved just because I was a child of God, to be appreciated and valued for me. God had a plan for me once my heart healed and my vision cleared. A plan to serve….a plan to live and celebrate life each day. Their prayers saved me.
Today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on the story of our prayer life and where it has taken us. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who put us on the path to prayer as an essential part of our life. So, we continue to ask, Lord, teach us to pray. Teach us truly to pray the words given by your Son, calling on God as our guide and protector. We can take comfort from the fact that, even when we do not know how to pray as we should, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For our part, we continue to teach those entrusted to us to pray as Jesus taught us, confident that our prayer will find favor with our God. Amen.