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Ask and You Will Receive

Homily preached at Good Shepherd Church, July 25, 2010

Ask and you will receive.

The simplicity of this statement is astounding. And yet it is at the same time so full of meaning that we have spent 2,000 years trying to understand it.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, great teachers of prayer: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and so many others. We travel prayerful roads with them and with others we know in our own lives as we unravel the mystery of prayer. We learn, we practice, we seek, and yet the wonders of prayer are never exhausted.

Still, there is the stark simplicity of Jesus’ words: “Ask and you will receive.” But what do we receive? Ah, there is the mystery.

But before we tackle that, let’s take a look at some of the basics of prayer we can learn from today’s Gospel.

We have this beautiful account of how we received the Lord’s Prayer from Jesus. Most of us know this prayer from our earliest childhood days. We learned to recite it without really entirely understanding what it means, as any number of cute emails about children making mistakes in reciting it can attest.

But recall what the disciples asked for: “Lord, teach us to pray.” They didn’t ask “Lord, give us a prayer we can memorize and use without thinking to get what we want.”

The Lord’s Prayer has been called the model of all prayer. By understanding it, we learn to pray in our own words. It is Jesus’ response to a request to learn how to pray. And one of the most significant lessons we learn from the Lord’s Prayer is that the words “me” and “I” are nowhere to be found in it.

He didn’t teach us to pray to “My Father,” but to “Our Father.” This is the first lesson of this prayer; that we do not pray only for ourselves.

The great spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen wrote:

Through prayer we can carry in our heart all human pain and sorrow, all conflicts and agonies, all torture and war, all hunger, loneliness, and misery, not because of some great psychological or emotional capacity, but because God’s heart has become one with ours.

We enter into the heart of God first, for there is boundless compassion and mercy. Not all prayer is asking for something; there is also prayer that is thankful, prayer that is praise, and prayer that is just enjoying the presence of God.

So the first part of the Lord’s Prayer does not deal with our needs, but simply the wonder of God. Your kingdom come. Your will be done. Even in the midst of his greatest period of distress, in the Garden of Gethsemani, recall that Jesus said “Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass by me.” God’s will comes first.

The reason for that, of course, is that God desires what is best for us. We might see a stone, think it’s bread, and ask God for it. But God will not give us the stone. When it is curled up, a scorpion looks like an egg, and we might say “Lord, give me that egg.” But God will not give us the scorpion. A snake looks like a type of eel found in the Sea of Galilee, and we might see the snake and say “Give me that fish.” But God, knowing it is a snake, will not give it to us.

In our ignorance of what will make us happy we often make very specific requests of God, and we can become confused, or discouraged, or angry when we don’t receive what we ask for. How can God deny me? Why does God not listen? Does God even answer prayer?

And as we ask these questions, we look back to the Lord’s Prayer to learn again. And we notice that in it we are taught to ask for our daily bread; those things we need today, not what we want for tomorrow.

And this brings us back to that timeless question. Jesus says “Ask and you will receive.” But what will we receive?

There’s a hint in the very last line of the Gospel reading today:

If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

Amid all those things we ask for—many of which we later learn we do not need, or that would have harmed us—there’s someone we seem to have overlooked: The Holy Spirit. That is how we will enter into the heart of God. That is how we will be able to carry so much of the world’s pain.

And if we ask for the Holy Spirit, we will come to a realization: that prayer is conversation with God. That too often we make prayer into a monologue without allowing God to answer us. And his answer might be a question.

Suppose you decided to have a conversation a with your spouse or parents, or friend about the idea of buying a new TV. You say, “You know, I think we should get a new TV.” Is the only possible response of your spouse or parent or friend to immediately run out and buy the TV for you? That’s not a conversation. That’s an order.

So why do we think that the only way God can answer prayer is to deliver something? Do we listen for God’s response to our desires? We see in so many Gospel stories that when Jesus is asked a direct question he often responds with a question or a story. Do you think God might have something to offer, in conversation?

Because like any good father, God is not there to solve every problem, but to help us to learn how to solve them. And that requires that we listen to his questions. So many times we hear people complain that they stormed God with prayer and received no answer. But did they ever stop to think that they might receive a question in return?

It’s clear that even today, we are still pleading, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Sometimes we hear prayer treated as a way to conform God to our desires, as though it were a way for us to prove our faith with mastery over God.

People propose that we “pray harder,” or offer a magical prayer that “has never been known to fail.” They may say that the key is in repetition.

Sometimes the story from today’s Gospel about the neighbor asking for bread at night is even used to say that God will just give in to whatever we want out of exasperation. But a careful reading of this story shows that is not the case. Jesus is saying that God answers prayer in an entirely different way than the man who gives in to his neighbor’s persistence.

So what do we receive in prayer? Whatever we need.

And what we need may not always be clear to us, because sometimes we’re not listening.

We might pray for strength, when what we really need is to be more vulnerable.

We might pray for relief of pain, when what we really need is to learn to relieve the pain of others.

We might pray for an answer, and receive a question.

Prayer is a conversation. Conversations are two-way communication. If we don’t let God answer our prayer, then are we really praying?

What should we pray for? What will we receive?

Ask, and you will receive.

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