“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 22, 2013

Scriptures:  Luke 11:1-13; Romans 8:22-27

 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.

Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if Janis Joplin were right?

Wouldn’t it be nice if prayer worked that way?

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were as simple as that?

Wouldn’t it be nice if, on one of those mornings when you’re late leaving the house, and your coffee cup spills in your lap as you got into the car, and the traffic is backed up because they’re doing road work, and your gas tank is almost empty—wouldn’t it be nice if you could just say a little prayer and all the lights would turn green, and a parking spot would open up right by the door, and you’d walk into work looking fresh and clean and put together?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get down on your knees and fold your hands and close your eyes and say Amen, and find that the dishes were done and the lawn had mowed itself?

Wouldn’t it be nice if replacing your old jalopy were as simple as asking God for a new Mercedes, or whatever your preferred make and model might be?

 

In today’s reading from Luke, the disciples watch Jesus praying, and when he has finished, they say to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  They have seen him at prayer in a number of settings.  In fact, the author of Luke seems particularly interested in Jesus’ prayer practices.  Luke describes Jesus praying at a riverside where people are being baptized,[1] and in deserted places far from the crowds who followed him,[2] and out on a mountain where he stayed overnight,[3] and alone with his disciples,[4] and on the Mount of Olives the night before he died,[5] and even from the cross.[6]  He prayed before he chose the disciples; he prayed before he fed the 5,000; he prayed everywhere and anywhere and all the time.

The disciples watched Jesus pray, and they could see how important it was, how powerful it was, so they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  And Jesus did.  He gave them a version of what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father—the prayer we pray every week, along with Christians in every time and place, speaking every language imaginable, praying in churches and hospitals and prisons and schools and homes, all over the world.

Jesus gave them a prayer to pray, and then he proceeded to say more about the nature of prayer.  He talked of pounding on a neighbor’s door to ask for help providing for a visiting friend.  He talked of a loving parent who would not give a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg, but instead gives good gifts to her child.  He said, as we sang just a few minutes ago, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  It makes it sound like maybe Janis Joplin was right, doesn’t it?  It makes it sound like God is a sort of vending machine, and prayer is the currency—like if we drop our coins in the slot and shake the machine a few times and whack it on the side for good measure… if we only find the right words, and say them in the right place, at the right time, in the right tone of voice, to the right listener… if we only pray hard enough, or for long enough, or with enough others praying on our behalf… then we will get what we have prayed for.

But you and I both know that’s not how it works.  On those mornings when you’re running late, no matter how hard you pray, the light stays infuriatingly red, and the guy directing traffic through the construction zone turns his sign from SLOW to STOP right when it’s your turn, and the parking lot is full except a tiny, narrow little space at the far side, and as you’re running for the door, shirttails flying, it starts to rain.  And no matter how hard you pray, when you get home, the dishes are still piled in the sink, and the lawn is still looking scruffy…

So how are we to understand the times when our prayers go unanswered?  Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  Jesus described God as even more generous than a generous parent.  If Jesus was right, then how are we to understand these unanswered requests?

If this were an easy question, someone would have figured it out a long, long time ago, for it is a question that has been asked for as long as people have been praying, and people have tried to answer it in a wide variety of ways.

One possible answer is that sometimes what we ask for is not really what we need.  When I was a child, I would have been very happy to eat dessert for every meal.  But no matter how many times I asked for brownies or ice cream or pie, my parents persisted in feeding me vegetables—because they knew that what I wanted was not, in fact, what would give me a healthy life.

So, maybe the Rolling Stones had a better handle on it than Janis Joplin.  Maybe it’s more like this:

 

You can’t always get what you want,

You can’t always get what you want,

You can’t always get what you want,

But if you try sometimes, you just might find,

You get what you need.

 

Most parenting advice does not include giving your children what they want all the time, right?  So perhaps God follows that strategy.  Perhaps God is like a wise parent who looks out for the best interests of the child, even when that means denying something that the child wants in the moment for the sake of future health and well-being.  Surely there are times when what we think we want would not actually be the best thing for us, and God’s perspective is broader than our own.

But this answer is not entirely satisfactory.  What about the times when our prayers seem like they should be no-brainers for God?  What about the prayers that seem entirely aligned with what we know of God’s will?  When we pray for wellness for a child with cancer, for instance, it’s hard to see how that could be something that’s “not good for us.”  After all, the Bible promises a time to come when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more, when God will wipe the tears from every eye.[7]

When we pray for an end to hunger and poverty, it’s hard to see how that could be different from God’s own prayer for the world.  After all, the Bible promises a time when everyone who thirsts can come to the waters, and everyone who is hungry can come and eat, without money and without price.[8]

When we pray for peace in Kenya, or Syria, or Egypt, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or any number of other places, it’s hard to see how that could be something God wouldn’t support.  After all, the Bible promises a time when swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war any more.[9]  And Jesus himself is known to us as the Prince of Peace.

So what about those prayers?

 

If this were an easy question, someone would have figured it out a long, long time ago, for it is a question that has been asked for as long as people have been praying.  This is one of those spots where we can very easily get ourselves into trouble by trying to say more than we can really say.  This is one of those times when the most powerful thing we can do is acknowledge that we do not fully understand.  The truth is, we don’t know—I don’t know—how to explain why some prayers seem to go unanswered.

Here’s what I do know.  It is NOT because we didn’t pray well enough, or often enough, or fervently enough.  That is dangerous theology, because it turns prayer into something we have to achieve, something we have to be good at, something we think we can control.

Here’s what I do know.  It is NOT because these things—cancer, warfare, hunger, suffering—it is NOT because these things are God’s will.  God can and does show up even in the midst of them, and God can and does work for good, even there—but God does not cause us to suffer.

Here’s what I do know.  When we pray about these things, even though our prayers may not be answered in a way that we can see, God is nevertheless at work.  And one of the ways God works is that through the prayers we pray, our hearts are changed and we become a part of the answer.  We become peacemakers, starting within our own lives and growing upward and outward from there.  We find ways to alleviate hunger and poverty, starting in our own communities and growing from there.  We dedicate ourselves to creating programs to support kids with cancer, or doing research that will eventually find a cure, or funding those programs or that research.  When we pray about these things, even if we see no discernable sign that anything has changed, God is at work changing us.

Because here’s the thing about prayer.  Ultimately, it is not a means by which to achieve the ends we desire, but rather, it is an end in itself.  The value of prayer lies not only in its results, but in the relationship we develop with God.  Just as a relationship between spouses, or between siblings, or between friends requires time and effort, so, too, does our relationship with God.  A friend and mentor of mine describes prayer as “hanging out with God,” spending time together as you might do with a longtime friend, without any particular agenda other than enjoying one another’s company.

It’s not all about results; it’s not all about what you say or what response you get.  It’s about intentionally opening ourselves to God’s Spirit.  It’s about sharing the deepest yearnings of our hearts with God.  It’s about returning over and over again to the One who is the source of our being, the One who sustains us in every moment, the One who loves us beyond all loving, the One whose word is trustworthy and true—not because we will necessarily get what we want right away, but because in the process, we will assuredly get what we need:  the breath-taking, world-changing, life-saving love of God that is for each of us and all of us, now and forever.

Lord, teach us to pray.

 



[1] Luke 3:21

[2] Luke 5:16

[3] Luke 6:12

[4] Luke 9:18

[5] Luke 22:39-46

[6] Luke 23:34, 46

[7] Revelation 21:4

[8] Isaiah 55:1

[9] Isaiah 2:4