Talking with God (sermon 7/28/13)

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Genesis 18:20-33

Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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I’ve mentioned a couple of movies in the past few weeks. Here’s another one. Maybe you’ve seen the movie “Bruce Almighty.” Without getting into all the details of the movie, Jim Carrey plays Bruce, a cocky TV news reporter who’s having a really bad run of luck. And in the midst of all his problems, he thinks that he could do a much better job of being God than God is apparently doing, at least from his viewpoint. So, as can only happen in Hollywood, God shows up, in the form of Morgan Freeman, and gives him his chance – Bruce is now God, and the real God is going to take a long-overdue vacation. One of the first dilemmas Bruce faces is dealing with all the prayers that he’s constantly hearing in his head, prayers for all sorts of things. With his God-powers, he quickly converts the prayers in his head to a sort of heavenly prayer email system on his computer, but he gets inundated with millions and millions of prayers that pile up faster than he can answer them.  

Have you ever wondered how God keeps track of all the prayer requests? I have. How does God find a way to reply to each and every prayer, even prayers that ask for contradictory, opposite things? With all the prayers from people starving to death, or dying of some dread disease, or having some other life-threatening crisis, do you think God gets annoyed about prayers that some sports team would win their game, or for a politician to win an election, or for a promotion at work, or to just be able to lose ten pounds before the upcoming high school reunion? I don’t know the mind of God, but personally, if I were God, I think I’d get pretty ticked off about those kinds of prayers that would just seem to be clogging up the system.

Both of today’s scripture readings deal with prayer, or at least people talking with God. Prayer is the central, primary way that God uses to commune with us, and to transform us, to make us more fully agents of the reign of God in the world. In the gospel text, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, as if they hadn’t already been praying their whole lives, and Jesus offers them Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Simple, to the point: pray for your daily sustenance, ask for forgiveness for your shortcomings, and to be saved from the time of trial. Life’s basics. And Jesus assures them that God will indeed hear and answer our prayers. All through the gospels, and especially in Luke, we read about Jesus’ prayer life. How he would regularly go off by himself, alone, to some secluded and quiet place, to meditate, and pray, and commune with God the Father. As busy as Jesus was, he made the time to get away and pray. It wasn’t in place of the communal worship that he still did in the Temple or in the synagogues, as a good, devout Jew. And it wasn’t in place of his studying of the scriptures, in order for him to teach and preach. This was in addition to the rest of that. This was time for him to connect with God, to let God hear his deepest thoughts, and to hear God’s guidance in return. Jesus taught his disciples that this kind of meditating on God, and praying to God, was absolutely essential to their relationship with God. And this deliberate, intentional setting aside of time on a routine basis to mediate and pray and be in this kind of communion with God is essential to each of our lives of faith, too. The early church fathers called this time “holy leisure” – a time set aside from the rest of the day’s activities, something that creates a sense of balance in our lives. It’s a way to be at peace, and to learn more about God by appreciating the intricacy and beauty of creation and of our human relationships. Jesus teaches us that we need to have these times of “holy leisure.”

But that isn’t realistic, is it? I mean, we all have busy lives. We all have work commitments, and family commitments, all kinds of things that keep our daily calendars completely filled. We can’t just tell people that we can’t do this or that thing, or take on that commitment or another, because we have to carve out an hour a day to just sit in contemplation and prayer. Plus, it just sounds kind of weird. We’re all just too busy; we can’t do that. Can we? In light of the terrible damage caused to us by our constantly busy lifestyles, the psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that “Hurry is not *of* the Devil; it *is* the Devil.” And maybe he was right.

The next time we’re upset, feeling like we’ve been praying for something and God hasn’t answered our prayer, maybe we should ask ourselves if maybe God’s been answering us all along, but we just haven’t placed ourselves in a position spiritually to hear that answer. Maybe we haven’t drawn off to that quiet place away from all the surrounding noise, where we can hear God’s voice speaking to us. Maybe we haven’t allowed ourselves to be open and willing to accept the changes within ourselves that God’s answers might actually require. So it’s like we’re a television that’s only hooked up to basic cable, and God’s answers to our prayers are that great movie showing on HBO that we can’t get. It’s really right there, all around us, it’s just on a frequency that we aren’t set to receive. And then we get discouraged and say that God hasn’t answered our prayers. We have to pay attention to our dedication, and our discipline, of taking time out for meditation and prayer, and just as importantly, being willing to hear God’s answers and accepting whatever change in ourselves those answered prayers will require.

The idea that God most definitely hears us, and is willing to grant us what we ask – that God is even willing to change his mind in order to grant what we ask – is seen in the passage we read from Genesis today. Abraham and God and the two angels are sitting together, communing with one another in the shade of a grove of oak trees, when God and the angels have to leave. They’ve got work to do; God has decided to destroy the city of Sodom due to its great wickedness and sinfulness. What exactly was that sin; that wickedness? We’re never really told in the actual account in Genesis, but we’re told in Ezekiel 16 that their sin was that they were prideful. They lived lives of great prosperity. They had abundant food and other material things, but they didn’t use them to help the poor and the needy in their midst. The sin of Sodom that had caused God’s anger against them was that the people were self-centered and greedy; they didn’t extend compassion to those in need.

And of course, it’s in this passage where we find the great story of Abraham’s bargaining, haggling with God in order to save the city. Abraham makes his case to God, playing on God’s sense of fairness. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the good along with the bad. Would you bring an end to the city if there were 50 good and righteous people within it? If there were 45 left? If there were 40 left? And he keeps bargaining God all the way down to God agreeing not to bring an end to the city even if there were only ten good and righteous people left within its walls. God answered Abraham’s plea. And God answers our pleas, too.

But we know the rest of the story here; the part beyond what we read today. We know that God’s answer came with a twist that Abraham hadn’t really expected. God agreed not to bring an end to the city if there were any good and righteous people left within it – so God’s angels went to the city and told all the good people to leave, to get out of the city – and then the city, emptied of its good people, was brought down. And just as God’s answer to Abraham came with an unexpected twist, often times the answer to our prayers come with unexpected twists, too.

And following God’s direction had to be scary for Lot and his family. Put yourself in their place: God called them all away from the only way of life that most of them had ever known. A good, prosperous life, a happy life, a familiar life. And now, they were being told to leave it all behind and set off in a new direction, and fast, before it was too late. Don’t pack up the silverware or Grandma’s dishes; no time to grab the wedding album or the shoebox full of family photos. Just go. Everything they knew and valued and cherished had to be left behind. No looking back; no idolizing the past; Lot’s wife was our warning not to do that, I suppose. The places they worked, and shopped. The home they’d lived in, and the place they worshiped God since they were children, all gone now, with God leading them away from that past and into a new, uncharted, unfamiliar future. It had to be terrifying for them, to be sure. But because they allowed themselves to be open to God’s voice, and because they accepted the changes that God’s word required of them, they were able to respond to God’s call, and they were saved. They survived, even if the city didn’t.

Accepting that kind of challenge was scary for Lot, and facing that kind of challenge from God is scary for us to face, too. But we can be confident that if we do make that time in our daily schedules to sit and meditate and pray and commune with God, we already have within us all that it takes to be faithful, and open, to hear whatever God’s answer to our prayer is, and to be strong enough to accept whatever changes that answer might require within us. We were given all that we need to do these things in our baptism. We have been given the strength and the boldness of God’s own Holy Spirit, working within us and making us able to do those difficult things. We don’t have to be superhuman; we don’t have to have any great willpower. Just the opposite, actually. We just have to set aside our own pride, and humbly allow God’s Spirit to work within us.

In the midst of “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce ends up losing his girlfriend – who, with all the subtlety of a brick, is named Grace. He wanted to get Grace back, and he was clinging onto all sorts of wrong-headed ideas of his own to get Grace back in his life by way of exercising his Godly superpowers. But in the end, all his efforts were a failure. And he finally set his own agenda and his own selfishness aside, and he came to the understanding that he loved her so much that his prayer to God was that all he wanted was for her to be happy and to have a good life, with or without him. Whether it looked like his picture of the way things should be or not. Whether it worked out to his personal benefit or not. And *that*, God told him, was a real prayer. Of course, since this is a movie out of Hollywood, as soon as Bruce has this epiphany everything is set right. His life turns completely around for the better, and he gets Grace back. But as far removed from Hollywood as our own lives are, if we open ourselves up through meditation and prayer and communion with God, if we humble ourselves and we’re willing to open ourselves up to the unexpected twists in God’s answers to us, if we’re willing to accept the changes that it might require of us, then we really will hear the answer to our prayers. We really will hear the voice of God speaking to us. And just like Bruce, we’ll have grace in our lives, too.

 Thanks be to God.

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