July 24, 2016 sermon
Companion on a Journey
I learn a lot about American pop culture from movies and TV shows. One aspect of this culture, whether it’s only American, North American, or European, amuses me; I’m talking about the diverse, mostly children’s superstitions. There’s making birthday wishes on the cake (and how it won’t come true if you say it out loud), throwing coins in a wishing well, and of course, the fortune cookies. I think a lot of cultures have some sort of superstitions about how to get one’s wishes come true. For example, my ancestors came out to the yard in the middle of the night and prayed in front of a bowl of clean water (it probably had to be full moon). A lot of Korean Christians inherited the mentality that if we pray earnestly and sincerely enough, God will grant our wish, implying “whatever it is that we want”.
Today’s gospel text is about Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. Most religious groups have their own common prayers; they are used in the worship, and give their members a sense of belonging. For example, when we say the Lord’s Prayer together, we know that we belong to the Holy Catholic Church (not the Roman Catholic, but the Holy Universal Church). When we say the New Creed together, we know that we belong to the United Church of Canada (although creeds are not prayers). Now let’s take a look at what Jesus teaches his disciples when they ask him to teach them how to pray.
In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus teaches his disciples the prayer that we now call “the Lord’s Prayer”. Luke’s version is shorter but the essence is the same. The Lord’s Prayer is divided into two parts; the first part glorifies God and asks for God’s will. The second part asks for our needs. This is a model prayer for us. What do we pray when we pray? Praise God and ask for your needs. But even in asking for our needs, we ask for God’s will to be done. Luke’s version doesn’t have “thy will be done as it is in heaven”, but it is implied in “thy kingdom come”. God’s kingdom (or reign) is a community of disciples where its’ members work hard to live by God’s teachings, so even when we ask for our needs, they are not driven by greed. We ask for “our daily bread” as a symbol of our needs; we don’t ask for a 12 ounce juicy whatever steak or a lobster meal, even when we do have a steak or lobster meal. Because God’s kingdom is the focus of our prayer, we should not see the Lord’s Prayer as a list of petitions, as in “give us this, this, and that”. Praising God and asking for our needs, including for forgiveness of sin, are connected. It is one big prayer that asks for God’s kingdom in which God’s name is praised and all have what they need.
Now, the parable after the Lord’s Prayer is a commentary on this prayer, and serves as a clue to understanding the Lord’s Prayer. The headline in the NRSV that we read says “perseverance of prayer”, but this is misleading. This is why a lot of Christians believe that if we pray persistently enough, we can get all our wishes come true. But if you take a closer look at the story, it’s not about a man badgering a friend for bread; it’s about a man badgering a friend for bread for another friend. The plea was not for the man; it was on behalf of someone else. This parable is about intercessory prayer; pleading for someone else’s needs. God’s kingdom is about taking care of others as much as ourselves. If you look at the ending of today’s story, Jesus says they will be given “the Holy Spirit”, not “good things” like in Matthew. The lesson we learn from today’s gospel text is that when we pray for our needs, the Holy Spirit will provide for us according to God’s will, not ours. When we ask God for something, sometimes God will say “yes, your wish is granted”, sometimes, “it’s not the right time yet”, or “no, you won’t have it but I’ll give you something else”. All these are answers to our prayers, so we cannot say things like “God didn’t answer my prayer”. “No” is also an answer but not everyone is mature enough to accept no as a valid answer.
Speaking of prayers, today is Terry’s last day with us, and God knows we prayed for him to stay. At least, the choir and I prayed. God’s answer came very quickly; it was a clear no. But fortunately for us, we are mature. God said no to Terry staying, but instead we are getting someone new. Besides, I realized that some less fortunate church will be benefiting from Terry’s talent. We are Christians and we are supposed to share with the less fortunate. This is how God allows all of us to experience changes, which is a good and healthy thing. Because God said no to our plea, we get to work with a new person, Terry and Agnes get to experience a new life, and a less fortunate church will benefit from Terry’s talent; win, win, and win. So we can give thanks to God, although a little grudgingly, for saying no, so all of us can experience growth.
Today’s lesson about prayer is really a lesson that God and we are in a relationship. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we listen to God talk, and even when God says no to our pleas, our relationship continues. What matters is the relationship and the journey together. Life is a journey, faith is a journey, and we go on this journey with God; talking, comforting and helping, and sometimes fighting like in every other relationships. In the perspective of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, prayer is a relationship and journey of the kingdom of God. Whatever we get or not get out of it is not important; it’s the journey and the relationship that matter. It’s about the journey of establishing God’s reign among us and being driven by the love of God and love for each other. That is why we can thank God for the journey we have taken with Terry, gracefully accept his departure, and trust that God will guide us into another direction. For both us and Terry, another chapter of our life and faith journey is starting. Let us bless each other as we part ways, which doesn’t mean the end of our relationship, and remember that God is always with us, walking with us in our journey. Let us trust God and pray, “Your kingdom come”, and as it says in Matthew’s version, “your will be done” in everything we do, and everything we go through in life.
Rev. Sunny Kim