Unanswered Prayers

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Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
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Sermon

                                                                                               “Unanswered Prayers”
                                                                                               Rev. David Hutchinson
                                                                                               Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
                                                                                               Sunday, March 29, 2009

    In his book, God on Mute, Peter Greig writes, “It’s precisely because we believe so passionately in the power of prayer - that we must also make sense of unanswered prayer”.  It’s a contradiction - wrapped in a paradox wrapped in what may be the most beautiful mystery of our faith:  we believe so passionately in the power of prayer, and yet - so many prayers seem to go unanswered.  What - is - up - with that?
    People who aren’t even religious - pray - we are told, in HUGE numbers.  We as humans - can almost NOT help it.  And yet - nearly everyone - I would guess - has at least one story - of an unanswered prayer.  We have stories about times when we longed for healing.  We know that we did our best to try for something, and for once we didn’t sin too much along the way, and precisely then God seems to say no.  Or even to just be silent.  Mute.  And so we begin to wonder.  Maybe we DID sin more than we thought.  OR maybe there is something wrong with us - or HOW we prayed.  Or maybe there is something wrong - - with God…?
    Do you see why we have to make some sort of sense of this if we are going to be faithful?
    I agree with Greig, and to quote him again, “It’s precisely because we believe so passionately in the power of prayer - that we must also make sense of unanswered prayer”. 
    What I can tell you from my own life is this: I know what unanswered prayers feel like.
        Many of you already know this of course.
            There really is such a thing as an unanswered prayer.
    And I can tell you that I DO believe – passionately – in the power of prayer.
    I’m the very embodiment of the contradiction Greig is pointing to.
        Yippee.
        And I know I’m not alone.
            Am I ???
    So how do you make sense of it?
        Do you?
        Would you like to spend a few minutes – today – trying to?
    I phrase this as a question because – I also know – that there is a point at which we are just not ready to make sense of our experience.  The experience itself is about all we can bear.  And sense and logic are not even a viable option. 
    But then there is another space – in which we DO try to make some sense.
        That’s the space I’m in today.
    And having been in the other place myself, I can only say, if you are there today, I hope you will bear with me.  And at the end of the day, I probably won’t have answered all the questions anyway.  But I have had a few glimmers - which have helped me. 
    By the way, Jesus prayed a prayer that went unanswered.
    So we’re not alone.
    It’s the scripture reading for today.     Sort of.
    Today’s reading is from John’s gospel.  And John rewrote the story, changing the way it was told in Matthew and Mark.  Some of you have taken the classes these past few weeks by Dick Rohrbaugh.  He has shown us how the Gospels are not factual historical accounts, so much as they are Gospels.  Which is to say, they try to communicate “good news”.  They are PREACHING more than they are history.  And preachers do not all preach in the same way. 
Preachers change the story as they tell it - in order to emphasize one point or another.  And that’s not a bad thing to do.  At least I don’t think so.  But it is important to understand it.   
    Not how tall was Jesus, but WHO was Jesus, and how do we experience God in him?
    So the preacher Mark records Jesus’ unanswered prayer this way, in the garden of Gethsemene, “Abba, Father - - Daddy, all things are possible for you, remove this cup from me….[pause]…yet not what I want, but what you want”.
    Up until the word “yet”, Jesus prayer is not answered.
    The cross IS an unanswered prayer.
        In which God is present.
        It is, in fact, HOW God is present, it seems.
    But the preacher John, is not as comfortable with the mystery as Mark.  And so John tells the story in a more confident way.  John seems almost to erase the tension.  The unanswered prayer is barely a blip.  Listen again to John’s version:
    “And what shall I say?  Father, save me from this hour?  NO!  For this purpose I have come to this hour”.
    And so whether the cross is described as a bitter cup t drink…..as in Mark…
    Or whether the cross is the hour of reckoning…..as in John…
    There is some sense that we want to reject it.
    We have a faith which is centered on an experience that we abhor.
    The cross.
    But God seems to urge us to look - right where we don’t want to look.
    As Greig says in his book, “God’s best has somehow been drawn from the worst pain we could ever have imagined”
    God’s best.
    God’s deepest and most abiding love.
    God’s greatest good for your life.
    And your pain.
    And the cross.
    And the pain of the world.
    It seems when we resist the pain we resist the grace.
    So shall we pray, “God save me from your deepest and most abiding love”???
    Shall we pray, “God save me from your best”???
    Turns out the best and the worst are connected!
        Who knew?
        Not us it seems – because we pray to avoid it.
            And God – is mute.
        Is it any wonder?
    In a poem titled engaging the silence comes the line:
            silence
            may be the presence
            muted
    If you were God – how would you answer – you ??
        If you knew what God knew?
    It’s something of a mystery.
    And I think a HUGE part of making sense of all this - is - about mystery.
    Some people are more comfortable with mystery than others.
    A nineteen year old named “Captian” who was immensely positive about life, and pretty much nuts, a beloved, enthusiastic, optimistic man, had something to say about his struggle with serious back pain, and his experience of unanswered prayer, when asked if he had been healed.  He said he HAD been healed of serious back pain, and then added with complete seriousness:  “It’s just the symptoms I can’t seem to get rid of”
    It seems that Captain had a big capacity for embracing mystery.
    I struggle with this from time to time.  And I think we all do.  We want a more logical approach, maybe.  Maybe something more like the old tale about the Chinese farmer who kept saying “who knows?”
    This particular Chinese farmer lost a horse he used to till his fields, and his neighbors said, “too bad”.  And he responded, ‘Who knows?”
    A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses.  The neighbors congratulated the farmer, “Good job – what excellent luck”   He said, ‘Who knows?”
    His son then broke his leg – trying to tame one of the wild horses.
    The neighbors said, “Oh how awful”
    He said, ‘Who knows”
    The next month, the army drafted every able-bodied young man to fight a bloody war.  Because of his son’s broken leg, they let him stay home. 
    The neighbors all talked about how fortunate he was.
    The old farmer just said, ‘Who knows”
    Could it be that the phrase “Who knows” is more confident than it first sounds?
    Could it be that this response is evidence of a confidence in God’s working through all things, in the midst of mystery, and pain, and silence?
    There is a book called the Worst Case Scenerio Survival Handbook.  It contains, among others, the following chapters: How to escape from quicksand; How to deal with a downed power line; How to escape from a sinking car; How to fend off a shark; How to perform an emergency tracheotomy; How to deliver a baby in a taxi cab; What to do when lost in the desert; and finally…..(any guesses?)….When your parachute - doesn’t open. 
    The introduction to the book contains the following warning: “DO NOT attempt to undertake any of the activities described in this book yourself.  All the information contained in this book comes directly from experts…but we do not guarantee that the information contained herein is complete, safe, nor accurate”.
    That being said, they recommend carrying the book in your glove compartment anyway!
    Times of crisis.   Worst cases.
    Jesus in the garden, and the coming cross.
    And our prayers in the midst of these sorts of experiences.
    And God’s mystery…..
    It seems that even the experts don’t offer any guarantees about life.
    But the book does have a little nugget of wisdom.
    “Don’t undertake any of the activities described in this book by yourself”
    Could it be that God’s silence, really is, God’s PRESENCE, on mute – and that we are NOT by ourselves - - - EVER??
    What I can tell you is that I have experienced God’s presence in the midst of unanswered prayers.  And it has not always been cozy.  I have not always prayed well. 
    And yet…..
        And yet, here I am….
            And here YOU are….
    Maybe it is this: that to proclaim the glory of God in the face of ANSEWRED prayers and blessings is not all that interesting, rather it is obvious.  BUT – to proclaim the glory of God in the face of UNanswered prayers, and challenges - - THAT is at the heart of faith.
    To proclaim the glory of God in the face of the cross.
    Isn’t that what the gospel is all about.   
    The gospel is NOT all about US.
    It is not about our comfort.     It is about the glory of God.
        God overcoming death.     Resurrection.
            That’s the mystery.
    The Old Testament reading is about the covenant.
    And it refers to the New Covenant.
    Luke has called Jesus the New Covenant too.
    The covenant between ourselves and God.  Which we broke over and over again, but which God kept.  God’s desire to be in relationship with us.  Which we keep rejecting.
    And God still – remaining faithful.
    Could it be that the covenant is – God’s unanswered prayer…..?
    Could it be that God prays about us all the time?
        And could it be that we too are silent in response to those prayers?
    Could it be that our continual prayers – answered or not – are our act of faith in the face of all the evidence to the contrary?  Our attempt to be faithful to the covenant? 
    Maybe unanswered prayers are our best shot – at bringing glory to God.
                 Amen.