God Is Not a Short-Order Cook

Passage: Luke 11:1-13
Date: July 28, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

In preparing for the Women’s Retreat this fall, I’ve been doing some pretty interesting reading and have been thinking about the things that shape us. Growing up, our next-door neighbor had this thing in her kitchen that you stood on and as you twisted, it swiveled, all in pursuit of a tiny waist. Do you remember those machines from the fifties – a stand with a belt that you put around your waist or hips that then shook, as if to shake all the pounds off? Or subscribe to just about any men’s magazine, and you’ll learn how to sculpt the perfect six pack of abdominal muscles.

Media shapes us too. We see advertisements that extol how stunning we can look if we buy a certain product, or how fun and elegant our lives can be if we partake in the latest of snake oils. Life experience shapes us too – while sitting in the passenger seat of whatever car anyone is driving, I will automatically brake when approaching the car ahead of us, the result of a few too many bumper benders experienced when my older sister started to drive.

All of this leads me to the question: does prayer shape us? Does opening ourselves up to the Almighty, praising or confessing or asking, somehow affect what we do and how we live? I think the answer is yes, though I’m pretty sure I could not show you how I got from the question to the answer. Sometimes it feels like there is an alchemy to prayer, something hidden or beyond our grasp that makes prayer real and effective. 

We don’t know what was behind the disciples’ request of Jesus in today’s lesson. “Lord, teach us to pray.” Maybe the disciples were earnestly seeking a more God-shaped life. Or even more basic, maybe they were asking Jesus for help in understanding God. Is God a remote omnipotent being, unconcerned with their cares? Is God an exacting school marm, who needs things to be done in the right way in order to earn a response? Is God a loving parent, a Father or Mother, who cares for the disciples with the devotion the best parents feel for their children? Maybe in asking Jesus to teach them how to pray, the disciples are also asking Jesus to tell them who God is, and to tell them who they are in relationship to God.

Remember that the disciples lived a culture that was in many ways so different from our own. They had a sense of hierarchy – indeed for them all men (and women) were not created equal. Some were better than others, or to be more accurate, some were more honorable and some were more shameful. Some people had wealth and prestige and power, and if they had the right amount of those things, they were to be treated deferentially by those with less wealth and prestige and power.

Friendship required reciprocity – if you did something for a friend, that friend must reciprocate and do something for you. And no matter who you were, hospitality was a must. Guests – be they friends or strangers – must be welcomed, watered, and fed. Those were the cultural norms of the Jews, but Jesus was undoing those norms. Jesus was undoing all that honor/shame stuff; everyone had equal value to God. So what did that mean in terms of the disciples’ relationship with God and with each other? 

In that question, Jesus tells a little parable. “Suppose someone drops by your house in the middle of the night, and your cupboard is bare and the wine jugs are empty. You would go to your neighbors – even though it’s the middle of the night – and you would pound on the door and insist that they help you out. And while your neighbors might be your friends, the rules of friendship do not require that they get out of bed and put together a bag of food. But, the rules of honor and shame do require that your neighbors get out of bed, and give you food and drink to give to your guests so that you do not lose your honor.”

Jesus seems to be telling them that God is the friend whose door they pound upon in the middle of the night. God is not put off by their shameless knocking; God is not put off by our relentless prayers. God honors our humanity.

But then Jesus says some of the most confounding words to be found in the Bible: ask, and you shall receive.

Confounding because they aren’t true. I imagine every one of us here in the sanctuary has experienced unanswered prayer. It’s crushing, to pray and to pray and to pray and to hear nothing but crickets in response.

Did we not say the prayer in the right way? Were our words not mellifluous for God? Did we use too many words? Did God sense our doubt in the prayer?

My first big experience of unanswered prayer came when my dear friend Joanna fell into a coma. I prayed fervently for her – that God would bring her out of her coma, that she would be healed. I bargained – if, God, she lives, then I will…. I don’t remember what bargaining chip I offered. Not that it mattered. After ten days on life support in a coma, and another ten days off life support, in that same coma, she died. I could not believe God didn’t answer my honest, desperate, selfless prayer.

That was not the first time my prayer went unanswered and not the last, and sometimes when I don’t get what I want, I do some Olympic-level rationalizing. And sometimes I shrug my shoulders and say, oh well. And sometimes I get really, really mad at God who evidently does not solve the world’s problems the way I would like.

Because really, can’t God do anything? Doesn’t Jesus imply that with “ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be answered”? What are we to assume about our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us, when our honest, sincere, selfless prayers go unanswered?

God’s kingdom still has not come.God’s will still is not done on earth. People still go without the meagerest portion of bread too often. We don’t practice forgiveness. Nevertheless, we keep saying these things, and saying them shapes us.

I believe there is a deep mystery that undergirds this thing we call prayer. You might say that prayer is a conversation with God; some say that prayer is communion, at-one-ness, with God. So however you think about it, it’s an expressed relationship between two parties who are not equal. There’s the likes of you and me – frail, mortal, an odd mix of good and bad. Then there’s God – all powerful, all knowing, judging, and forgiving.

Rationally speaking, it makes no sense that the omnipotent God would care about the feeble human. It’s like the sun caring about a dandelion. The dandelion cannot live without the sun but the sun has no need of the dandelion. And yet the dandelion grows, and turns to the warmth of that light, and blooms.

Jesus prays, and teaches the disciples to pray, because whatever prayer is, it’s more than a conversation between unequal parties. The deepest human emotions are at play in prayer, as is all the trust and hope we put onto God. A desire, usually for a better outcome, is expressed. Faith is present – desperate or solid as it may be.

Maybe more important in the act of prayer than what we ask is the act of prayer itself, that desire to have God enter into our lives or our world and make them a little more God-like. Maybe in the scheme of things God’s answering our prayers is not as important as our asking for them.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on prayer in this way. “I used to think that prayer was like the quarter you put into God’s vending machine so he would release the gumball you wanted. Like prayer is handing God some kind of wish list of everything you want, and if you’re a good little boy or girl, then Santa, I mean, God, will make sure you get the presents. But now in my life, I mostly pray for my friends and family. And I pray for the pain and violence in this world. And I pray to not be [a jerk]. I can’t say I’m good at it. But I do what I can.

“Even though I’m not always sure how prayer works, I know that when someone says they’re praying for me, it matters in some way. So I’ve started to think that our prayer is less how we get what we want and more how God gets what God wants because prayer isn’t an individual sport. If anything, it’s more of a relay race. It’s what we do for each other and what we do for the world. When we pray, we hold ourselves and our loved ones and the world up to God. And then we pass it off for the next person to do the same.

“… When we pray on another’s behalf, we become connected to that person through God. And we become connected to God through that person because maybe these silken threads of prayer which connect us to God and to one another and even to our enemies are how God is stitching our broken humanity back together.”
(www.makers.com; God Doesn’t Have A Vending Machine | Have A Little Faith with Nadia Bolz-Weber)

This makes sense, if indeed the prayer that Jesus taught is our example of how to pray. It’s right there in the first word of the prayer – our Father. Not my Father, give me my daily bread, forgive my sins, lead me not into temptation. No! The prayer is plural. When Jesus prays it, he is praying it with us. When we pray it, we are praying it with each other.

For a while I engaged in the spiritual practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer imagining that someone I was having a hard time with was saying it with me. I found that a pretty effective way to start thinking about compassion and forgiveness. So you might give that a whirl, or imagine yourself praying it with someone who is suffering, or better yet, in real life praying it with someone else.

Because we all know the world is so very broken, and people are so very broken, and maybe most of us here this morning are broken in one way or another – broken hearted; bodies breaking down; broken relationships; shattered dreams. So maybe we join God in the great act of stitching humanity back together, to use Nadia Bolz-Weber’s phrase, by praying.

By acknowledging that God is great and so different from us;
By begging God to make our world a little more heaven-like;
By asking that everyone has enough to eat;
By practicing what it means to forgive someone else and practicing what it means to accept someone else’s forgiveness;
By pleading that we not be distracted and lured by all the things that are so ungodly;
By expressing our desire not to suffer injustice or pain.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples said.And he did.