"What to pray for"
Originally composed for Preston Hollow United Methodist Church, Dallas TX
Prophets: Joel 2.23-32; Psalm 65; Epistle: 2 Timothy 4.6-8; Gospel: Luke 18.9-14 (Proper 25, RCL Year C)

Note: this page uses the SP Ionic font. If you do not have this font installed, you will see odd characters instead of Greek letters at points in the text.

Children's time

The only two present were a twin brother and sister, we talked about their new pets, and how their parents have given them chores and responsibility to take care of the new pets. We then talked about how the pets respond.

This is an image of how God watches over us, and how we respond to God. Especially, we are thankful that God cares about us and takes care of us.

After the children have left

Once upon a time (a story from Manson),
a Sunday School teacher taught the children about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector,
teaching them that God hears the prayers of even sinner and of the humble,
and that it does no good to boast to God.
When she finished with the lesson, she closed by saying,
"Now children, let's all pray and thank God that we aren't like that Pharisee.”

I think that the teacher missed the point here–
and that perhaps Mark Twain ran across one of this teacher’s students.
In his “Letter to the Earth,”
a coal dealer named Abner in 1890's America receives a reply from heaven about his prayers.
It seems there is some confusion in heaven.

Among other things, Abner has prayed in private for cold weather,
so that he will make more money
(to which he adds “which will then satisfy” him–
the reply notes that this caused a great amount of mirth in heaven);
for unemployment so he can cut his workers’s wages;
and for “some form of violent death” to the person who threw a brick at his noisy cat.

The angel who writes this letter points out that in public,
Abner has prayed for better weather and relief for the poor.
He has also prayed that God would be merciful to “all who would do us offense.”
The angel, noting the conflict, asks him to withdraw some or modify his prayers.

The angel is, however, pleased to note that one of his prayers can be granted outright:
“that the clouds may continue to perform their office, and the sun his.”

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” –
it’s risky to say this, but it’s easy for all of us to see this man’s problem –
just as it’s easy to see the Pharisee’s problem.

And as we follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, we already have a good idea of what’s coming.
Luke records how Jesus has repeatedly chided the Pharisees,
a group whose name was rooted in standing apart,
being those who maintained religious purity and obeyed every detail of the law.

He has noted how they tithed every last speck of income, going beyond what the Law required
- - but - -
neglected “justice and love of God” –
for both are important (Luke 11.42, cf Matthew 23.23).

And by this point in Luke it likewise hardly surprises us to hear
that the lowly, ridiculed, despised tax collector will do the right thing.

And Jesus does tell us that one man’s prayer will not be answered.
On the surface, the problem is obvious.
One man is trapped by his pride.
Like Mark Twain’s coal dealer and the Sunday school teacher,
he/she sees himself as a pretty nice person.

Now, I can't speak for anyone else,
but in my own experience,
there is a human tendency to be like this Pharisee.

And Jesus has, if you will, a trick up his sleeve –
something else that shouldn’t surprise us by now, either.
It isn't just about finding myself to be faultlessly righteous and those unlike me to be evil.
For certainly we remember, as Paul says,
that everyone has sinned and none of us are righteous (Romans 3.23),
and God loves both of these characters and us.

There is a question here of
To whom do we pray, and for what do we pray?
The Pharisee speaks as if he’s directed his prayer to a deity,

but what god?
In the same way, Mark Twain’s coal dealer seems to pray to two different gods,
so the angel must ask what kind of God he has in mind for his prayers.

As some of you will remember,
one of the things we did in my first year of graduate school
was to examine everything.
How do you know you are real?
Does God exist?
and then, what is God?
And one of the answers is
that God is whatever is most important in your life.

The Pharisee’s prayer shows that his universe is centered around himself
and his prayer is really directed to himself.

How then shall we pray?

How do we let God be God,
and avoid the confusion of identifying God with something or someone else?

As we should also perhaps expect by now from Luke,
it’s only after this that he throws us the punch line.
Read: Luke 18.15-17 (cf Mark 10.13-16).

If you’ve ever watched someone running for office on the news,
you know what’s going on.
Luke is careful to tell us that people bring their bre/foj
(new-born babies or infants) so he can kiss and touch them.
The disciples, like a good set of bodyguards, try to keep him away from the rabble
But Jesus says No, let the paidi/on
(young children up to 7)
come: for even the youngest are part of God’s family and have a lesson for us.
Those who are humble (like the children, depending on others for care) will be exalted (Luke 18.14),
for we must receive God like a child:
it certainly reverses the standards of the world.

In Joel’s vision of God pouring out the spirit on all,
he sees a world where human standards are also reversed:
sons and daughters prophesy
("prophesy" means speak the word; and is a male adult activity),
old men dream (old men are wise voices, young men are dreamers),
and it reaches even to slaves –
people conquered, who do not know God.

In Acts 2.17,
amidst the bewildering sound and noise of people from all over the world hearing the message of the Gospel,
Peter cites this passage from Joel as a sign that the Messiah had come.
These are the people who, like the children, have nothing but God.
They are as unlikely as the tax collector to receive God’s grace, at least by human standards.
They are despised by the Pharisee and turned away by the disciples.
But Jesus watches over them all, and calls them to him.

Martin Luther, the great Reformer,
had a gift of practical devotion and spiritual outlook.
He once said that sparrows are theologians and nightingales preachers.
Because they must trust their existence to God, and only to God.
They would understand the tax collector who had no prayer but “forgive me”;
and the children who had no call but “let them come.”
God watches even those sparrows,
and forgets none of them (Luke 12.6),
for even they find a home with God (Psalm 84.3).

May God alone always be our prayer, our home, and an open door to all.

Mark Twain, “Letter to the Earth” in Letters from the Earth, 117-121.