Prayer is Weird.

(sermon 7/28/19)

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Luke 11:1-13

Jesus 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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Prayer is weird. Can we all just admit that? I mean, really, no matter how close you might feel with God, the whole idea of prayer can seem a little strange and farfetched – this idea that any time we want, all we have to do is close our eyes, or not, and have instant one-on-one access with the all-powerful, transcendent Source of All Being and Creator of the Multiverse. To have a deep, intimate conversation with God, any time we want, and for any length of time we want, without having to fill out any forms; or wait on hold listening to The Girl from Ipanema repeating twenty times and being told to be patient, your call is very important to God; or having our topic of discussion pre-screened by some heavenly personal assistant. To have that kind of access with God… it’s just a weird concept.

It’s also weird when we try to nail down just how, or even if, prayer works. Trying to understand the mechanics of it all. Does God really want to weigh in with advice on whether we should buy Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes in the grocery store, or the Honda or the Chevy, or the house on Walnut Street of Columbus Avenue? Or, can we really get God to do something, or change something, just because we ask for it? I mean, prayer is an important part of our ministry here; we pray for one another every Sunday, we have people committed to praying as part of the prayer chain throughout the week, and our Pastoral Care Team has prayer every week, too, so is it right that we can have that kind of influence with God?  And if that’s the case, if God’s mind can be changed like that, does that mean that God is just somehow bumbling through eternity making mistakes, until being corrected by us from time to time, or that God is like some weak or unprincipled politician who decides what to do based on whatever the last person he heard from wants, or whoever flatters him the most? And there’s the question of why some people’s prayers seem to be answered while others’ aren’t – we’ve all seen someone being interviewed after some tragedy, maybe a tornado or another mass shooting, and the person says that they were praying, and they were so grateful that God answered their prayers and saved them, but wasn’t God with those other people too, and weren’t they praying just as much? Or maybe a more basic question would be whether we’re really just deluding ourselves thinking that we have that kind of access at all. Instead of reaching the heights of heaven, do all of our words actually just stop at the drywall of our bedroom ceilings?

In the face of those kinds of questions, we have stories from scripture like the one we heard today from Luke. There, we heard Jesus telling his disciples that they should most definitely pray, that they do have that kind of direct access with God, and he offers them a sample framework for prayer that we’ve come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. And then he goes further, encouraging them that when they pray, to not be meek or mealy-mouthed in their prayer, but to pray specifically, and to be bold, audacious even, and to be confident that God will hear them.

And maybe that’s where our biggest difficulty with prayer comes in, because we’ve all prayed for something and not received it – and I don’t mean superficial things, but really important things. Let me get that job. Help save my child’s marriage. Make the abuse stop; make the cancer disappear. But it doesn’t. And that seems to contradict what Jesus told his disciples. And  we come up with explanations for that, with sayings like “God answers all prayers; it’s just that sometimes, the answer is no,” they all end up sounding lame and weak, and not much more than a bit of rhetoric to help us say we believe something is true when deep down in our hearts, it doesn’t really seem true at all.

Or even worse, we might see that unanswered prayer as a sign of our own moral or spiritual failing, because we all know that Jesus said if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could ask God to move mountains and it would happen. So if it doesn’t happen, there must be something wrong with our faith, doesn’t there?

He was a hospital chaplain working the overnight shift yet again, when he was called to a patient’s room sometime around two in the morning to offer pastoral care to a family whose elderly father was near death. When he got to the room, he saw the man in bed, motionless; his jaw hanging open, his forearms drawn up close to his chest, that involuntary reflex to conserve body heat that’s a sign that the body is in the process of shutting down. The family asked the chaplain to lead them in prayer, to ask God to miraculously heal the man and keep him alive. The chaplain felt real compassion for them; his heart went out to them; but he started to tell them the same thing he’d told many other families in many other hospital rooms, that it would probably be more appropriate to pray for comfort and peace for their father; and for God’s will to be done; and to give God thanks for a life well-lived, and to give thanks that their father would soon be in God’s loving arms. The chaplain only got about half of that advice out, though, before the family started yelling at him, telling him that he had brought a spirit of antichrist and faithlessness and evil into the room, and that his presence would prevent God from healing their father. Together, the family members physically shoved him out of the room, and then they formed a circle around the man’s bed, praying and thinking God for the miraculous healing that they were sure God was about to perform.

The chaplain left the floor. He stopped by the cafeteria and had a dried-out cheeseburger that had been under the heat lamps for far too long, and a cup of mediocre coffee. Shortly after he’d finished it, he was paged back to the same room, to work with the same family, now to fill out all the paperwork that was necessary in the wake of the old man’s death; and to offer pastoral care to the family regarding the loss of their father; but now also regarding their crisis of faith – they were mortified that apparently, their faith wasn’t sufficient; that God had examined their hearts and found them wanting; that supposedly, they weren’t good enough or pure enough for God to give them the miracle they’d expected.

The family had definitely gotten that part of their beliefs wrong; the man’s death wasn’t the result of any lack of purity or faithfulness on their part. But maybe they had one thing right. They weren’t afraid to be bold, audacious, with their prayer, making very clear to God what their real hopes and aspirations were, regardless of what they were. That’s actually very much what Jesus told his disciples to do in today’s gospel text.

The truth is, other than Jesus telling us that God wants us to pray, and that God hears our prayers, I really don’t know much about it. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, and I don’t know the answers to all those sticky questions about it. Like everyone else, I’ve offered prayers and been disappointed. And like everyone else, I’ve offered other prayers that seemed to be fulfilled. And even though I consider myself to be a person of deep faith, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t really know for sure if the outcomes in either case were the result of the hand of God, or coincidence, or just fat dumb chance. But what I do know is that praying, not what we’re expected to say, not what the “right thing” is to say, but praying what I actually felt and thought, just laying it all out there, shamelessly and without any theological jargon, has helped me sense God in the midst of things. Telling the truth to God and myself through prayer has helped me to hear God in the thing, and to be reassured that whatever it was that was going on in my life, God was in the thick of it with me.

And yes, while there have been many times when I’ve prayed and felt alone in the exercise, there have also been times when I’ve prayed, and usually when I’m in the deepest of grief or anxiety, I’ve felt in some inexplicable way, surrounded by warmth, and acceptance, and assurance, and a feeling that I can only describe as “liquid love, flowing down and completely enveloping me, and I had absolutely no doubt that in that moment, I was in the very presence of God – that in that moment, I was in true communion with the divine, the holy of holies of all eternity. And my spirit was lifted. I was transformed. And because of that, I know that no matter how many questions I might have about prayer, and how many times I might intellectually think prayer works this way or another, or doesn’t work this way or another, I know that prayer is important, and that it is real connection between us and God.

So from start to finish, prayer is something that we won’t ever really understand. But then again, part of the good news in all of this for us is that Jesus never said we had to completely understand it; he only said that God wants us to do it – and to do it boldly, audaciously, shamelessly, honestly. And maybe that is weird. But if it is weird, it’s God’s kind of weird, and that’s the kind of weirdness that I’m okay with.

Thanks be to God.

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.