"What Are We Really Saying?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/26/1998
Colossians 2:4-10; Luke 11:1-13
As we listened to our lesson being read, we heard how the disciples watched Jesus pray. They came to him wanting to know more about it. They asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray." From that request Jesus taught them the prayer that all of us recite every Sunday morning. I used the word "recite" intentionally because we can say the words of The Lord's Prayer without thinking about them.
Throughout Church history, prayer has frequently meant the recitation of words written by others. Talking to God was exclusively the privilege of the trained priesthood. Even today many clergy and some congregations would not think of talking to God in a worship setting without their prayer book or missal in front of them. If we have not grown up with people who role modeled spontaneous prayer for us, we may find talking to God somewhat awkward.
Ministers frequently find people coming to them for prayers. Parishioners will ask, "Would you please talk to the Man upstairs. My lines of communication have grown a bit rusty." My response is, "Yes, I will speak with Her." Or, they will say, "I would feel better if you prayed. I am embarrassed going to God only when I have troubles."
Some of us may feel guilty because we have stayed away from church, we have not spoken to God in years or our lifestyle has made us feel unworthy to approach God. The truth is that love does not see unworthiness. We will not truly know love until we understand this.
Some of us act as if God will greet us with arms folded and say,
So, you only want me in your life when circumstances become complicated and unmanageable? Now you want me to perform a miracle. Why should I? You have never spoken to me at any other time. You have seldom helped with the lives of people who are different from you. You have never tithed your income even though I have given you all the talents you have used to earn your livelihood. You have never thanked me for anything. In fact, you are one of those people who honestly believe that your accomplishments were managed by you alone.
Would love ever reveal such an attitude? Was this the kind of God Jesus disclosed? Were these the qualities of the Father of the prodigal son when the young man wanted his share of the inheritance immediately? Quite the contrary. Jesus taught us that God always radiates loving energy that has no limits. He taught that we can receive God's love immediately when our spirit opens itself to being loved.
Perhaps our effectiveness of sharing with God could be better understood if we thought about what we are saying to God. Prayer is nothing more than sharing with God exactly what is in our mind. What is in our mind? Pretend for a moment that you are God listening to the requests of your children.
Wise parents know that not all requests from children need a response. Some requests may be accompanied by the crying, the pleading from a "wounded spirit" and the display "that absolutely no body loves me and no body understands me!" Wise parents understand that life is a process that will extend well beyond the need to gratify immediately most "emergencies" of the moment.
For example, think about the kinds of requests we made as children and about the kinds of requests we now hear as parents. "I want an ice cream cone now." "Please pick me up and carry me. I'm tired!" "I don't want to go to school today." "Do I have to eat all my vegetables?" "I don't care if I'm only 15, why can't I go to Ocean City with my friends? Jimmy's Dad is going. He'll watch the 15 of us. Please, Mom, it's only for a week. I'll be responsible. I promise! How will I ever prove to you that I am trustworthy if you never give me the chance?" Such requests all have the same message, "I want favorable results to my request right now."
Such requests are just like prayers only in this instance they are coming from children to their parents. In fact the posturing is quite similar to what we do when we talk to God about something that represents a crisis for us: the sincere spirit, the folded hands, the bargaining and the pleading. Think about this: How many of our crises are emergencies to God, when God clearly understands the big picture and knows exactly how our lives have the opportunity to develop in order to grow and blossom?
Wise parents know that nearly everything that their children want will come to them if their desire for it persists. There is no rush even though younger people honestly believe that there is. The pleading for permission to run while the infant still crawls is frequently what God must lovingly experience with many of our prayers. What does God really do with such requests?
Our lesson holds the answer. Initially Jesus' illustration seemed to suggest that persistence will eventually motivate and inspire God to grant our requests. He told the experience of a man who was surprised by the arrival of an unexpected guest. He had no food to serve him so he went to the home of a nearby neighbor. That neighbor had already retired for the evening and told his friend to go away. Jesus said that the sleeping neighbor will get out of bed and give the man everything he needs because of the man's persistence in knocking on his neighbor's door.
To clarify his meaning Jesus taught with words that are well known to most of us. He said, "Ask and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For those who ask will receive, and those who seek will find, and the door will be opened to anyone who knocks."
To continue building the foundation for the truth he was about to teach Jesus asked his listeners, "Would any of you who are fathers give your son a snake when he asks for fish? Would you give your daughter a scorpion when she asks for an egg?" He went on to teach that if we know how to give good things to our children, how much more does God know how to love us.
Prayer for us often breaks down at the level of our expectation unless we learn and understand what God's will is for our lives. Such an understanding is not as difficult as we might first believe. Every moment of our lives God wills for our awakening and growth. God's love would not will anything else. Our understanding of God's will, however, is frequently clouded because of our insistence on translating that will to conform to our needs.
It may come as a surprise to some of us that our lesson suggests that God's will is absolutely the same for all of us. There is nothing specific about God's will, i.e., God does not engage in a continual manipulation of the material world in order to suit the outcome of our prayer requests. This may provide one of the reasons why some prayers remain unanswered. God is a wise parent and knows better.
What Jesus taught about prayer was quite specific and communicated volumes. Jesus said, "As uninformed as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more then will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" Please notice that the same answer is given by God to all prayers. God wills that every circumstance has the potential to mold our spirits into ones that become holy.
How can we learn how to tie our shoes if Mommy constantly ties them for us or Daddy buys us shoes with Velcro fasteners? How can we learn to manage in times of uncertainty if someone always intervenes and removes the causes of our apprehension? And yet frequently our prayers make such requests. Our bodies become stronger when we exercise. Our spirits mature in much the same way as we learn to navigate through one challenging experience after another.
When we came to St. Matthew's, Lois and I faced enormous changes in our lives. We responded to those changes with feelings of uncertainty. We had never before purchased a home. We were never in a setting where the congregation had well over a thousand members. In my three former parishes I had never taught a Bible Study. There were always excellent professional teachers of faith who could do that for me. I had never preached a sermon without a manuscript. The summer garden service was created partially because I wanted to learn how to do that. Some of you who have visited that service may still question if I can. BUT I'm learning. Lois and I will always be learning.
Coming into any new experience how does one pray? Our fears will give us one menu and our trust in God will give us another. This is where our faith is either lived or will remain theoretical. If we are trusting that our lives are unfolding exactly as they should, that each experience has the potential to bring out everything we need to live creatively, and that God created us to manage well every experience, our prayers will be ones of thanksgiving and gratitude.
When we ask God to manipulate aspects of the material world to conform with some desire we have, we are doing so either from fear or from a desire that our drama conclude with a particular ending of our design. For example, we want our children to graduate. We want our children to marry people who will enhance their happiness. We want a loved one to survive a delicate surgical procedure. We want safety for someone stationed in Bosnia. When we pray for such things we are communicating from a fear that God may not understand what is best for us and others.
With only partial knowledge of anything, we have to confess that we do not know what is best for ourselves or for anyone else. Children not graduating or a couple divorcing may find these experiences the most significant, life-enhancing moments of their lives. Many of our most character- defining lessons have been learned through times of uncertainty and struggle. Yet our love for others and our desire for their happiness causes us to pray with specific requests for just the opposite.
We must remember that God's creation was established with one goal in mind. That goal is to offer opportunities for our spirits to become holy, i.e., more loving, peaceful, aware, generous, and filled with understanding and grace. Even painful experiences have this potential within them. How then should we pray?
When we pray, we should ask for light and peace to enter all people around us, particularly those whose responses and lifestyles are filled with calls for love. We should thank God for every experience. We should communicate trust and remain confident that God is working in the lives of others in ways we could not possibly understand. Such trust in God will make praying an experience of joy. Reaching out and touching our Creator with our thoughts will enrich the quality of all our lives. In time, we learn that our Creator reaches back in ways that we readily understand.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever-present God, what a joy it is to come to you in thought and in prayer. Praying without ceasing is like maintaining the dwellings where we live. Praying without ceasing causes us to remain open for the hearing of your word. We are grateful that you created us to trust that our lives are unfolding as they should. Our walks through the valleys cause us to lift our eyes to the hills. Our losses teach us the importance of treasuring our loved ones while we have them. Every blind alley teaches us that only one possession is necessary -- our relationship with you. As we release our grasp on the every changing "treasures" of this world, may we grow more into your likeness each day. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever faithful God, it is such an incredible experience to enter a period of quiet, to move away from all that wants to siphon our peaceful thoughts, and to remain still. Aloneness is such a wonderful gift, O God.
There were times when we have been the only ones who have seen a rainbow and it has reminded us of your promises. There were times when we have been alone as a deer darted across a field, and we silently gave thanks for the innocence of animals. We have found moments in a bookstore when our eyes became engaged with the printed words of another -- and those words seemed to have come at just the right time bringing an insight we needed to have. There have been moments in our cars where all the traffic was stopped, and we have used those moments to reflect on so many wonderful aspects of our lives that we feel we have not deserved.
We thank you for the small experiences that make us smile at ourselves, for the laughter of children, for the delight of good neighbors and friend, for the gift of having a sense of humor, and for the opportunity to continue learning and growing in our faith.
As we worship, may our presence here cause us to recognize who you created us to be. May we be inspired to further develop our generosity, our kindness, our encouragement of others, and our grace to allow others to grow at their own pace. Bless our spirits now with peace, as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to say...