Sermon for July 29 2019
This past week, I watched a movie called Breakthrough. It is the real life story of a fifteen year-old boy, John Smith, who fell through the ice. He was under water for more than 15 minutes when the paramedics finally found him. The paramedics didn’t feel a heartbeat the entire time he was on his way to the hospital. The emergency room doctor tried to start his heart and get a pulse but was unable to do so for 40 minutes. When his mother arrived at the hospital, the doctors had given up. The mother stood over the boy and prayed that God would save her son and suddenly his heart started beating. The danger was far from over. The doctors didn’t think he would survive the night. But somehow he did. The doctors thought he would have permanent brain damage. But, amazingly enough, the boy revived totally and ended up as normal as anyone could possibly be. The doctors had no explanation for how the boy survived and returned to normal. It is a beautiful story of a prayer that was answered. Sometimes, I find movies like this a little too dramatic for my taste. As I read about the true story, I found that the important parts of the story are exactly as they are shown in the movie but that some things were staged differently than they actually happened. The mother’s prayer was heard and the boy was healed. It fits with the words we hear in today’s gospel, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door shall be opened for you”.
Our prayer life is not always so successful, is it? I appreciated a question that came up in the movie about why God saves certain people and not others. It turns out that no one knows. After the boy returned to health, people struggled to deal with what had happened. Classmates in school didn’t know what to say to him. A teacher asked why he was saved and her husband had died of cancer not long before. His best friends kidded him about how special he was. The boy didn’t know what to say or do. He thought he was just a normal person and wanted to be treated that way. He had no answer for why he survived.
I think that is the way for many of us. We don’t know why God hears certain prayers while others appear to go unanswered. We continually ask God for what we want, knowing that we are really praying that God will do what is God’s will. We live in the mystery of how God works in this world. I wonder if we don’t measure the success of a prayer on the “big” requests and pass by how God may have responded or how many of our prayers are clearly answered. The result of some prayers encourages us to continue asking God. I always find the outcome of prayer to be one of peace. I know that I have done everything I could and then I turn it over to God. I find peace in God’s presence.
The movie Breakthrough is inspirational but it brings up some tough questions. The readings we have for today are also inspirational but they have some difficult pieces to them. Today’s Scriptural readings are about praying to God. I actually smile when I think about how Abraham negotiated with God in the first reading. His prayer is just like a discussion. I think Abraham was praying to save his nephew, Lot, from the destruction of the entire city for he continued to ask God if he would save any person who is faithful and true. Abraham was persistent and determined to ask God for what he wanted. And we must say that Abraham was always respectful, asking God to do what God might wish to do on his own. It reminds us that we can just talk with God, we don’t have to use some form of a fixed prayer.
Abraham diplomatically questions the justice of God in allowing the innocent to be punished with the guilty. God answered the prayer but not in the way Abraham asked. God took Lot out of the city before it was destroyed.
Prayer takes so many forms. The Psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; we are thankful because, When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me and though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe” Another example of a prayer answered.
In the gospel, the disciples asked Jesus how to pray. He responded by teaching them the Our Father. The version of the Our Father that we hear in Luke is a little shorter than the one we find in the gospel of Matthew. But rather than spend time on the prayer which we know by heart, let’s instead focus on the encouragement Jesus gave us about prayer.
In Luke’s parable about prayer, a man has some unexpected visitors who arrive at his house late at night. He has no food to give them so he bangs on his neighbor’s door asking for help. The message Jesus seems to give us is that we should be persistent and demanding in our prayers to God. We should knock on the door at all times, realizing that God pays attention to the squeaky wheel. That God will finally succumb under the constant pressure of our prayers. It seems to fit with something Benjamin Franklin wrote many years ago, “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow”.
Certainly, we should pray without ceasing. I just don’t think that God responds because we complain. Consider how Jesus prayed. He often went away from the crowds and prayed to the one he called Father. But when we read about Jesus praying to God, it doesn’t seem as if he demanded an answer. The prayers of Jesus seemed to be intimate, to be familial, to be conversational. I find the Our Father to be a good example of a prayer to someone who is close to us, someone whom we love intimately. Even when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his death, Jesus asked God to take away his cross but he also prayed that he would do the will of God. It doesn’t sound like Jesus demanded God to help him.
My perspective is that God is always open to our prayers; that God is waiting for us to pray. Why then does Jesus express this opinion, one that seems consistent with the prayer offered by Abraham that we have to negotiate with God or that we must be like hard headed children who just want our own way and that we should demand it from God? One answer is that ask and it shall be given to you doesn’t say that God will give us exactly what we ask for. No, it says we will receive. God will answer our prayers.
One explanation can be found in the difficulty translators have finding an English word to describe exactly what Jesus said. In verse 8 we read “at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs”. Instead of persistence, it has been translated as audacity, shamelessness and even a word we don’t use any more, importunity. When we think of the requestor as shameless in his prayers, then we realize that the sleeping man answered his prayer in a way that brought honor to both of them. He honored the situation by responding to his need.
Many of us have been awakened in the night by a phone call. I have received wrong number calls but if it is someone we know and it is important, we would never reject the request. We wouldn’t say “don’t bother me”. We would help. In the Mid Eastern culture the request for food was an important part of hospitality. God honors our prayer requests regardless of how we pray. God honors prayers when we bargain with God, when we act selfishly or when we demand that God does what we ask.
In the Book of Common Prayer, we learn that prayer is a response to God. That is, God is waiting for us to call upon Him in prayer. I like to say that God is patiently persistent. God is always there for us. Yes, God is the persistent one, more persistent than we can possibly be. I believe that God accepts our prayers any way that they come. So, God listens to our prayers whether they are offered quietly or as a demand. I believe God treats us honorable however we pray.
I think that our prayer with God is a reflection of our understanding of how God works in the world and is impacted by the situation that we find ourselves in. So, I encourage you to pray to God in a way that feels best for you. However you pray, I am certain that God listens and responds. Let us then pray without ceasing because we always want to experience God’s love in our lives. Amen.
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