Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-13
Two of this morning’s Scriptures speak powerfully to the subject of prayer. They invite us to orient our prayer life around some questions: Who do we believe God is? How do we engage God around the things we care about? Genesis shows Abraham bargaining with God to save Sodom & Gomorrah. Abraham’s prayer challenged the view of his contemporaries that god who would punish an entire city, despite the presence of innocent victims. Then, in the Gospel, Jesus taught the disciples how to pray in a way that didn’t require bargaining. Something happened between Abraham and Jesus. Clearly, there are different answers to the question of who God is in the Scriptures.
Whether we consider ourselves people of prayer or not, most of us have some idea of a power outside us we need to approach about what matters to us. Sometimes we bargain with that god by promising to do something in exchange for what we want; or we engage in superstitious practices to move an invisible hand in the direction we want; or we beg that power to give us what we think is needed. We pray in those ways because we view god as one who does not start out being on our side. We must convince this god either that we deserve to be rescued or that we will at pay back the favor. Once we engage god like this, it becomes natural to pray for this god to be on our side against our enemy when someone opposes us.
Jesus revealed a different view of God and taught and modeled another view of prayer. Joan Chittester, a Benedictine nun who has written extensively on spirituality, contrasts these two views, and expresses Jesus’ views in modern terminology: “We live and breathe, grow and develop in the womb of God. And yet we are forever seeking God elsewhere—in defined places, in special ways, on mountaintops and in caves, on specific days & with special ceremonies. But the truth is that God is not over there, God is here for the taking. The only question is how. The answer is an ancient one, an image from one of the desert ancestors, Abba Poemen. "The nature of water is yielding, and that of a stone is hard. Yet if you hang a bottle filled with water above the stone so that the water drips drop by drop, it will wear a hole in the stone. In the same way the word of God is tender, and our hearts are hard. So when people hear the word of God, frequently their hearts are opened to the presence of God."
That is a picture of what prayer does. The traditional definition of prayer misrepresents God. The old definition said that prayer was a matter of raising of our hearts and minds to God, as if God were some distant judge. But scientists now know that matter and spirit are two forms of the same thing: sometimes particles/sometimes energy. So God isn’t out there on a cloud, imperious and suspicious. God is the very energy that animates us; the spirit that leads and drives us on. God is the voice within us calling us to life, the reality trying to come to fullness within us, individually and together. It is to that cosmic personal, inner, enkindling God that we pray.”
Who are the false gods you have worshipped and prayed to? Identify them. The god I had to outgrow was an exasperated god –barely tolerating my behavior and lack of growth; dividing the world into saved and unsaved. I used to approach god as one who saw me as almost, but not quite, acceptable. It took me years to outgrow that god. Along the way I came to question a god who divided the world between those headed for destruction and those who responded the right way to Jesus Christ.
Like Abraham, I could no longer accept that god. I realized the view I had been taught no longer worked for me. It was a crisis of faith that lasted for years. I felt like the people the Apostle Paul described in his sermon at the Areopagus: “they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God – though indeed God is not far from each one of us.”
Jesus offers a different approach in the prayer he teaches the disciples. When we view Abraham’s prayer through Jesus’ prayer we learn that the god who supposedly destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was a false god of people’s own making – not the God Jesus revealed to us. The god Abraham was protesting was an angry god who violently judges and destroys places like Sodom and Gomorrah; who rains down judgment on wicked people. But that is not the true God. That’s an ancient understanding that still dwells in the primitive part of our brain. Maybe Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t destroyed after all.
The Risen Jesus teaches us to ask what really happened there. Were they destroyed by God's justice? Or were they destroyed by human hands, fire from human armies? That’s an especially interesting question as we approach the anniversary of the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the first city completely destroyed by fire. We know that Hiroshima was destroyed by human fire, not divine fire. We also know that many lives are being destroyed today by human fire. This should make us ask if all of this is not part of a destructive and dangerous view of God we must leave behind in both our prayer and in our action.
How do we build up the will in ourselves to take the risky steps toward Jesus’ view of God? How do we learn to humanize the enemy and to pray more vulnerably?
First then, how do we humanize the enemy? By getting close enough to see their faces and listening to their stories. Kosuke Koyama was a Japanese American who stood in Tokyo in 1945 when it had been devastated by U.S. bombing. He read the story of Abraham’s prayer through that experience. It occurred to him to ask if leaving a condemned city is the only option. He wonders if an even deeper sense of salvation is revealed by the righteous who stay in Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to reform them from inside. The Scriptures tell us Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back on the burning city. Koyama cited a beautiful image from an Indian theologian named Stanley Samartha, who imagines the thoughts of Lot’s wife: Why did I look back? Because my neighbors were out there. When, during the birth of my first child, I cried out in pain, the women were there. They held my hands, wiped my brow, gave me water to drink. And when the baby was born, they bathed it and put it to my breast. Koyama concludes, “One cannot reform and renew a community unless one is identified with the destiny of the community. Lot’s wife had more ground to engage in moral discourse than her husband, who ran away to save his own life.”
Back in 2007 there were two movies about Iwo Jima in one year. Flags of our Fathers told the story from the point of view of U.S. soldiers. Letters from Iwo Jima told it from the Japanese point of view. The movie brought healing to many Japanese – even those too young to have lived through it. The author Nora Gallagher tells of Tomo, age 28, who used to cut her hair in New York. She had tried to engage Tomo in conversation about Japan and the war. He never seemed very interested. But after seeing Letters from Iwo Jima that changed. He said it is the first movie, that tells the story from the Japanese point of view. "And when I saw it, I cry." "And what about the bomb," I asked. "Tomo, what do you say about Hiroshima?" He said very softly: “It was a war crime.” Nora Gallagher describes that as a transforming moment for her. She had studied Hiroshima and written a book about it. But her encounter with Tomo helped her to humanize the enemy in a way that opened her to discover the true God.
Hiroshima may seem too far away to help you make a similar move this morning. To bring this a bit closer to home we need to recognize that worshiping false gods goes much deeper than wanting to literally rain down fire on our enemies heads. It can begin as simply coming to church as good people and then comparing ourselves to others in order to justify our way. “God loves people like me and hates people like them.” Then we may torch our neighbors with our fiery tongues, with gossip that makes me an insider and those I gossip against made an outsider. How often do we play such games? How often do we create such gods in our own image? How often do we manufacture a justice that declares ourselves just and leaves another out in the cold? These questions can help us move toward a more liberating view of God.
Another tool for moving toward a more accurate view of God is prayer. Luke's version of the Lord’s Prayer ends with And do not bring us to the time of trial. Jesus came to know about that prayer intimately. He prayed in Gethsemane on the night he stood on trial that he would not be put to trial; but he also prayed that God's will be done, God's Kindom come, on earth as it is in heaven. He didn’t prayed to a false god, a Judge who justifies violence; he prayed to the true, merciful God who is like our heavenly parent, who forgives those who judged and crucified Jesus - Forgive them for they know not what they do, says Jesus from the cross - so that we might also break the terrible cycles of violence by forgiving others. And so we continue to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." To pray in Jesus' name means to pray as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, praying that we don't have to be brought to trial like Jesus was, but ready to submit to the will of God, to be part of the coming Kingdom of God's new justice of mercy and love.
So the Good News is that we don’t need bargaining power with God. God is already on our side. And that doesn’t mean God has to be against anyone else. So if we can risk taking steps toward the one we consider our enemy we may discover common fears and common longings. The risks are high stakes. Jesus didn’t escape the trials he asked God to save him from. But resurrection offered a new beginning. That’s the path of God. Let’s learn to pray to that God.