My heart sank slightly when I looked at the reading for today. I find it challenging at the best of times, and at a time when we’re seeing so much violence and bloodshed in the world around us, it seems well nigh impossible to take seriously. Of course people suffer and die every day, and people suffer and die in ways that we know nothing about. But in recent weeks the violence in our media has been almost overwhelming. Orlando, Nice, Baghdad, Aleppo, Birstall, and now Munich: there is so much tragedy in the world that it’s very difficult for us not to be able to read this passage and wonder not how to pray, but why pray at all.
All of us here will have had moments when life feels overwhelming if not unbearable, when God feels incredibly far away, when we ask what on earth we’re doing turning up on a Sunday morning at all, and if we pray, why we bother.
I can’t offer any real answers to this, but these questions are, I think, what both passages this morning are about. Is prayer the means by which I might change the mind of God? Is it some sort of negotiation with God? Does prayer make things happen, or change my perception of how things might be?
In the Genesis reading, Abraham is praying to God. There has been talk of Sodom and Gomorrah’s ‘great sin’. This may well be a lack of hospitality and violence to those seeking refuge, but this is beside the point. God is going to investigate these cities and determine a course of action. The question is whether there is anything redeemable in these communities, or whether the cleansing wrath of God is imminent.
Abraham begins a series of negotiations that seek to save even the smallest possible remnant of these cities. We don’t know why he has such compassion for them, but he seems determined, even desperate, to encounter a God of mercy and grace. And so he prays, and his prayer is one that asks more of God --- more patience, more mercy, more grace. We might think this is a tall order, but the persistence of Abraham’s prayer is receive, and he bargains the number of righteous people needed in the cities down from fifty to ten.
In my view this is a very strange image of God. This is a God who needs to be talked into things, who is vengeful, who will destroy the whole city. There is no image in Jesus of a God destroying people he doesn’t love. Perhaps in these two readings we see an evolution of understanding about the meaning of prayer. Jesus will constantly ignore, deny and reject passages from his own scriptures that are punitive and seek control of other people. In Genesis, while we all might feel glad that Abraham bargains the number of righteous people needed down to ten, still it seems that we have a God who punishes or destroys, a God who we should be afraid of. There is no evidence of that God in Jesus.
When we look at the gospel reading, Jesus says that we should call God Father. While of course ‘father’ may not always be an easy or straight-forward image for God, a father is someone we should be able to trust and to love. He tells us to pray and prayer that of course we now know as a version of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a prayer to a God that will take care of us, and give us daily bread, who will forgive our mistakes, and the only prerequisite for forgiveness is that you have to have forgive other people.
This is, however, still told in the context of story that says God can be talked into things. If you stay with you prayer you will be heard. Persistence, it seems, can provoke God to action. There is a great danger here that we read into this that our prayers are deficient. We all have needs that are great and real, and so does the world, and shaming ourselves with any suggestion that our prayers go unheard is no way to build ourselves up, or the image of God up.
And so, I wonder if staying with a prayer will convince us rather than God; will convince us of what we really want, need, desire. The promise seems to be that anyone who stays with the deepest level of seeking, desiring and knocking will get there. But the seeking may be in the finding, the seeking may be in itself the act of opening heart and mind. If we stay with the seeking for long enough, it starts to change us. Prayer may not change God, but it will change us. It takes a while to know what we really want and need. God is already there, but it may take us a while to get there.
Persistent prayer may not change the outcome, but it will change ourselves, which may radically affect where we go with the outcome.
The biggest clue to this passage comes in the last line. The answer to every prayer is always the same – God’s gift is always that of the Holy Spirit. Rather than offering outcomes that meet or defeat our expectations, persistent prayer invites us into transformative relationship with God. What God will give is always over and beyond what we ask for. This isn’t something we will always understand or welcome. The very life, death and resurrection of Jesus are referenced in the prayer ‘your will be done’. Jesus himself prays this prayer from the shadow of the valley of death, and in the same voice, prays like Abraham before him that mercy might be given to those who show none.
Persistent prayer seems to mean appealing to the heart of God in response to the heart of God appealing to us, longing to read out to us, longing to draw us in, longing to love us. It’s a messy and complicated gospel one that dwells on the cross and in the empty tomb, and is in all the most painful areas of the world and of our own lives.
Prayer is, and remains a mystery, what it is, how it works, whether it works. But it is the invitation that draws me in. When you pray, name God as your God; yearn for God’s reign; ask for that which sustains you; ask for what is difficult, painful, impossible.
Quentin will be baptised in a few moments, and we will make a sign of the Holy Spirit upon him, of God’s presence with him always. Baptism will not change whether God loves him or not; prayer will not change whether God loves us. But in being a part of a church community Quentin may himself be changed. And when we pray we can expect to be blessed, challenged and changed by the Holy Spirit, and held in the greatest love that there is.