"What's in a name?" We've all probably heard that phrase used many times. Or maybe we've heard, "Who's your family?" In other words, where do you come from and who do you belong to? In the city of Philadelphia, if you ask Roman Catholics where they're from, 90% of the time the answer you get isn't the part of the city they're from, but their parish. Lots of times, it's not even the full name of the parish. For instance, people from the Kingsessing area would say "MBS," and everybody, even the non-Roman Catholics, would know that stands for Most Blessed Sacrament. People from the Frankford area might say they were from "the Arc"--really St. Joan of Arc, 36th and Frankford Avenue.
Folks not from Philadelphia find this strange custom often confusing and usually funny, but the natives know exactly what it means. Now, at face value this custom is a regional expression, but deep down it's more than that. These people are claiming a place in a particular group, an extended family. It's a way they explain a part of who they are, and very often it also says something about how they behave, or ought to behave.
It's the same no matter what part of the country you're from. There are ways of claiming how you belong and of explaining how you act by just saying where you're from.
But what does talking about being part of a particular family have to do with today's Gospel? If we look at the Gospel only literally--probably not much. If we look at it only literally, we'll be tempted to say that this Gospel gives us two things. It gives us the exact words of a prayer to say, and then it tells us that all we have to do is pray hard enough and long enough and we can get God to give us what we want. Reading those few verses of this Gospel literally can lead to real frustration and heartbreak when we come up against hard things in this life. "I asked, but I didn't receive what I wanted. I knocked but that door wasn't opened."
But we have to realize that this reading isn't a "how-to" reading. It's not intended to give us a recipe of sayings that we can call on when we want or need something. We need to look deeper, to take a look at these few verses in the context of this whole section of Luke's Gospel, and then we'll see that we're getting a whole lot more.
These few verses are part of a whole picture given to us in this Gospel, a picture that tells us something very important about what it means to be a part of God's family, to be the people of God. Remember the last two Sundays' Gospels? First, we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. That story reminded us that it's through our actions, our works, the way we treat others, that we show we understand we're living in the kingdom of God. We do things in a certain way because we understand the lessons Jesus taught about how those who claim to be his followers ought to act.
Then last week we heard again the story of Martha and Mary. Jesus was not putting one sister above the other. He was reminding us that we must support our actions by prayer. We must also constantly renew and strengthen ourselves to do God's will by listening to God's word and sharing together in prayer, just as we're doing right now.
In today's Gospel, Jesus is continuing his teaching on what it means to be his disciples. These disciples have heard Jesus teach others; they may have heard him speak to Martha and Mary. Now they want Jesus to teach them to pray, too. Here's where things get interesting. Our English translation says, "When you pray, say . . .. " But remember that what we read this morning is a translation of the original Greek text. If we go back to it, we find that this verse could be translated, "When you pray, you are saying . . .. " That gives us something more to think about.
Remember that Jesus was talking to Jews, to his own people. The prayer that we have come to call "the Lord's Prayer" is not an exclusively Christian prayer. It's certainly not a "me-and-Jesus" prayer. Any devout Jew could pray these same words today, and many did pray exactly this way in Jesus' time. Jesus was reminding his listeners that they already knew how to pray; they'd been doing it all their lives. He was making them conscious again of the outline or the form of a prayer that maybe had become too familiar.
Then he went on to give them an example of how prayer ought to affect us. We mustn't make the mistake of turning the story of the neighbor and the bread into an allegory. We can't make God the neighbor and us the person who needs some food in the middle of the night. That's not the point of the story. The point is that, if we are members of God's family, we're bound to act in a certain way.
Take a good look at the verses we've turned into contemporary hymns. The Gospel says, "Ask and it will be given to you." Ask whom? "Seek, and you will find." Seek where? "Knock and it will be opened." Knock where? Too often we say blithely, "God is the answer," and then we try to set things up as a me-and-Jesus vertical line.
What would it be like if we all realized that we have to be a part of this prayer, that if we're part of this family then we need to be the ones who are asked, and we are going to be the ones who are sought out by the needy, and we are the ones who must open our doors. What would it be like if we really opened our hearts and our doors not only to people in need outside the church, but to each other, inside the church, giving and receiving the same kind of love Jesus modeled for us? If we can say that this really is who we are, then we're working out what this Gospel means for us as people of God who happen to be Christians, who happen to be Episcopalians, living and working in this place.
So this Gospel may be doing for you what it was doing for Jesus' hearers. It may be reminding you that yes, this is how we pray. We don't need to be doing anything outlandish or extraordinary. But we do need to keep our prayer in front of our eyes, as it were. We need to remember that God is the holy One. That means that we need to remember that, while God does provide for us, we need to reach out to others and mirror God to them. We need to forgive and be forgiven. We need to remember that, however good we are, we still fail, we are still sinners, all of us, but that God forgives us. If God forgives us, and we are God's people, then oughtn't we to forgive each other? When we are open to the unconditional forgiveness of God, then we will come to be known as a group of people who welcome the stranger and the sinner.
So it's exciting, really! We belong to the whole of the Gospel of Luke. We might see ourselves sometimes as Samaritans, sometimes as Marthas or Marys, even sometimes as priests and Levites, but above all we should see that we're a community of faith. We're people of prayer living in the kingdom of God.
This kingdom, as Jesus constantly taught, is here--now. By our baptism, we've promised to live a different life--the type of life God would live, the kind of life God did live in Jesus. A life that looks to God through praying together and reading the Scriptures, through our Book of Common Prayer, and through our sharing in the Eucharist. It's not an easy life, but as Paul said in Colossians, "As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving."