Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.
My wife shared this poem with me several years ago and I would like to share it with you today:
What I love about this poem is its whimsical nature and almost cavalier approach to prayer.
Prayer is a major theme that appears in today’s readings.
We see it first in Abraham’s conversation with God about the fate of the city of Sodom. God declares that the city must be destroyed, on account of the wickedness of the people who live there. But Abraham, in an act of haggling worthy of a used car salesperson, manages to talk God down from total destruction to sparing the city if even ten righteous people could be found in it.
There are plenty of theological issues I could raise from this passage: What was so bad about Sodom that made God want to destroy it? What kind of God goes around destroying cities, anyway? These are great questions that deserve answers, but I’m not going to address them in this sermon today.
What I want to focus on is the conversation that takes place between God and Abraham. That’s all that prayer is, really: a conversation between God and people. And in this conversation, the main thing we observe is that God says Yes to Abraham, without fail, every time he asks. God says Yes.
I put it to you this morning that God says the same thing to you in prayer. God says Yes to you. Always.
I admit that this is a pretty bold claim to make, especially since there is no one among us who cannot remember an instance when we prayed fervently for something or someone, only to be disappointed as the situation did not turn out as we had hoped.
And we ask ourselves, “What happened? Did I not pray correctly? Why did God say No? Does God simply not exist?” All of these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask in the wake of disappointment, especially when it feels like God let us down at a time when we really, desperately needed help.
For me, that kind of deep disappointment with God came early in early 2010, when my wife and I co-officiated at a funeral for a three-week-old baby named Madalyn. Her parents were good friends and dedicated church members. She was born several months too early, weighing a little over two pounds. Despite an extended stay in the NICU, her prognosis was good. My wife and I were visiting the hospital and checking in with the parents regularly. The whole church was praying fervently and Madalyn showed steady improvement. Then, in the middle of night, the hospital called the parents, saying that Madalyn wasn’t doing very well and they should get there immediately. They rushed over as fast as they could, and ran in to discover that their baby had died mere moments before they arrived.
Madalyn’s death got me asking all kinds of uncomfortable questions about God, faith, and prayer. I had to go back and rethink much of the theology I had learned in seminary. Specifically, I had to ask myself, “What is the purpose of prayer?”
It occurs to me that many people these days have one of two misconceptions about prayer.
On the one hand, there are many devout people of faith who regard prayer as a form of magic. They think that if we pray long enough, hard enough, or in the right way, we will receive the results we want. In the Christian tradition, we see this idea most commonly among the adherents of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” I commend these believers for their conviction that faith can make a tangible difference in this world. However, there are not a few of them who resort to “blaming the victim” when situations don’t pan out as hoped. They say that the victims of tragedy must not have sufficient faith, or that they have some kind of hidden sin in their lives that calls for divine judgment in the form of ill-fortune. Adherents of the Prosperity Gospel are quick to cite numerous Bible verses in support of their ideology, but they often ignore the broader narrative of Scripture, in which God is working in Christ to reconcile the whole cosmos to Godself, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Moreover, they fail to notice that there is not one instance in the four gospels when Jesus turns away from a sick person in need because they are a “sinner” or “don’t have enough faith.” To the contrary, Jesus regularly enters into relationship with sinners and even heals the epileptic son of a father who openly admits his struggle with faith.
On the other hand, there are many secular people who assume that prayer is simply a psychological trick that religious people use to help themselves feel better in moments of crisis. I find this reductionist view equally unsatisfying. First of all, prayer often doesn’t work as a psychological placebo. There are times when I pray about a situation and don’t feel any better for it. Inner peace, it seems, is just as fleeting as circumstantial happiness. A cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals a prayer life that is intimately familiar with suffering. Sometimes, the psalmist praises God for deliverance from the problems of life, but sometimes, they cry out from the midst of the storm. Sometimes, the very act of crying out leads the psalmist to greater peace and faith, but sometimes, as in Psalm 88, the psalmist ends with the words, “Darkness is my only companion.” If prayer is nothing more than a psychological trick to conjure up inner tranquility, it is a lousy one. Why then have people the world over continued to offer prayer in good times and bad?
The purpose of prayer, as I have come to understand it, is this: Prayer brings us into a deeper relationship with God.
People, religious and secular alike, naturally share their joys and concerns with each other. This is how friendships are made. Intimacy requires trust, vulnerability, and non-judgmental love between friends.
In the Church, we do this sharing in the context of worship because we believe there is a third party present in the conversation, beyond the one who speaks and those who listen, and that is God. We share our lives with God, not to obtain any specific results or special favors, but so that our relationship with God might grow over time. Conversely, there is also a time in our service when God gets to share God’s joys and concerns with us: in the reading of the Scriptures and the proclamation of the Word. In this part of the liturgy, we stop talking and listen to what God has to say. In this way, our worship becomes a kind of back-and-forth conversation in which our relationship with God can grow.
The purpose of prayer is to deepen our relationship with God. And it is this kind of prayer that God always answers with a resounding YES.
In today’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. After teaching them the now-famous words of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says to them, “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.”
There is an interesting detail in what Jesus says here, but it is lost to those of us who read the passage in English. In Greek, the language in which this gospel was written, the grammatical form of the verbs Ask, Search, and Knock is not that of a one-time event, but of a continual process. It would be more accurate to translate these words as “keep asking,” “keep searching,” and “keep knocking.” And the end-result of this process is that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In other words, Jesus invites his followers, through prayer, to enter into an ongoing relationship with God, the end of which is the gift of the Holy Spirit: God’s own self, dwelling within us. This, my friends, is why we pray.
God is eager to be in a relationship with each of us. The act of prayer is nothing more or less than us reciprocating God’s desire. We bring to God the joys and concerns of our lives because they matter to us, and we matter to God. We bring to God the bigger problems of the world because the world matters to God, therefore it should matter to us as well. We pray because we want to grow closer in our relationship with God.
For those who would like to pray, but have trouble getting started, I can think of no better place to begin than with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in this passage. Sandy Lipsey and I noticed a couple of years ago that the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most universal elements of Christian worship. Not every church accepts the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, nor do they celebrate Baptism or the Eucharist in the same way. Not every church likes the same hymns or translations of the Bible, but every church looks at the Lord’s Prayer and says, “Yep. That’s a good one.”
If you want to start praying, start with that, at least once a day. You can also take a minute to name your personal joys and concerns of that day. For an expanded spiritual diet, try reading a psalm and a passage from the Bible. And, when all else is said and done, don’t be afraid to just sit in silence. One of the true marks of close friends is when they can just be together, enjoying each other’s company without a word being said. It is no different in the friendship between us and God.