"The Prayer That Always Works"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/12/2000

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10


     Today we find ourselves in the first Sunday in Lent, a time when we are invited to enter a period of self-reflection. How are we really doing? What sharp edges are still present in our attitudes? How stubborn are we when faced with the challenge of change? How are we responding these days to the inconsiderate nature of others? In a day when anger outcrops with the least provocation in so many people, we need to ask ourselves these questions.

     Lent is not a time to wallow in self-pity nor is it a time to browbeat ourselves by rehearsing our failures. It is a time when we are challenged to look into one area of our lives, an area that is the same for all of us. That area encompasses all the places where we feel we cannot or choose not to change. It would be wonderful if all of us understood ourselves as students whose task it is to change constantly as we allow challenges to refine our abilities. Not all of us understand life this way.

     As many of you know, Lois and I recently returned from a vacation in Arizona. During our flight to the state of many climates, we found ourselves sitting next to a Southwest pilot. As we were about to land at Sky Harbor, I said to him, "Tell me, do pilots feel extra pressure when they know there is another pilot on board?" He said, "Absolutely! We are a very competitive group. During every minute of flight our skills are on display."

     As we were talking, our pilot directed the flight attendants to find their seats as we made our final approach. We could feel the rumble of the landing gear as it came down. The descent was very rough because of weather conditions. About ten seconds before touchdown, our aircraft was hit with a powerful wind burst that caused the plane to rise abruptly to the left. The pilot landed on the wheels on the left side of the 737 before he compensated. The pilot sitting next to me volunteered, "Now on a scale from one to ten, that landing was a two." But the pilot explained what happened. "The pilot was blindsided with an unexpected wind shear. Dealing with such things on a regular basis helps us become better pilots. Under the circumstances, he did very well."

     How many of us approach life with the spirit of competing with ourselves? How many of us examine what is coming toward us as an opportunity to test our patience, to erode our stubbornness, to practice our listening skills, or to expand our desire to be helpful in all circumstances?

     Lent intentionally helps us focus on the areas of our deficits. We are directed not only to own them, but also to decide what we intend to do about them. The thrust behind Lent is growth through self-examination. Are we content with who we are, or are we struggling like the caterpillar to break the fibers of the cocoons that attempt to prevent our flight? We need to be honest here in our self- examination.

     There was a time when Jesus went to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem where there is a pool surrounded by five porches. Sitting near the pool was a man who had been sick for 38 years. Jesus asked him a most curious question, "Do you want to get well?" Jesus knew that the man had built his life around his illness. Most of us know people who have done this. Jesus knew that if the man got well, he would be forced to take responsibility for himself in ways he was unaccustomed to doing. Jesus' question can be transferred to us. Do we really want to be healed of ancient hurts, of old fears, or of our wanting particular loved ones to conform to our standards and values? Most of us have no trouble identifying our faults and perhaps what caused them to develop.

     Once I developed a Youth Fellowship meeting around personal strengths and weaknesses. On writing down their personal strengths, the kids acted as if they were lost. They sat there, thinking with all their might, but their pencils never moved. When it came time to write about their failures, they wrote effortlessly, "I am not attractive. I am not very smart. I am not a leader. I am easily hurt. I am not talented. I am stubborn." Like the kids, most of us know where the buttons are that when pushed can poison our spirits. What are we doing about them?

     The Psalmist who wrote our insightful lesson has captured the frame of mind we need to have if constant growth is to become our steady diet. The writer approached God with a posture that will never fail anyone who uses it. Listen to the opening sentence again. "To you, O Lord, I offer my prayer; in you, my God, I trust."

     Immediately, the Psalmist has removed himself from making judgments, from analyzing his circumstances, and from setting up his own curriculum for growth. The writer's life is totally based on trusting God to supply everything necessary for growth. Listen to the writer's confidence in his choice, "Defeat does not come to those who trust in you." Listen to the one who is being trusted to guide life, "Teach me your ways; make them known to me." Listen how realistic the writer is, "Because the Lord is righteous and good, God teaches sinners the path they should follow."

     We must be clear that growth has to be desired. It is never automatic. After owning our deficiencies, we have to rely completely on God to resource us in ways that we cannot anticipate. The pilot sitting next to me had it right. Without unexpected events appearing in our lives, we will not be presented with opportunities, with new directions, and with increased challenges to move beyond where we are.

     The threshold-questions we need to ask ourselves are these: Are we courageous enough to give up control over our lives? Are we secure enough with ourselves to take the risk of trusting God, recognizing that what is coming in our direction is exactly what we need to propel us toward our destiny? Many of us pay a token-tribute to this trust. The truth is we will never discover God's trustworthiness until we embrace our relationship with God with everything we have.

     Everyone we love is going to die. We will all experience that. God is not cruel or insensitive because death is part of our experience. We all experience sudden changes in life, changes that are totally beyond our control. This does not mean that those responsible for such changes are evil, self-centered people. Indeed they may be, but that is not the point.

     So often we want to blame the messenger who is presenting us with an opportunity to increase our patience, improve our ability to forgive, or guide us beyond our pettiness. But rather than learn, we begin clamoring for fairness and justice. Students of life must forget fairness and justice because our life experiences are neither fair nor just. But like Joseph and Job, we can thrive in the midst of such experiences anyway. We can develop the ability to thrive by trusting God. Trust prevents us from taking every experience personally.

     We were coming out of Phoenix on Interstate 10, heading toward Tucson. I was driving 80 miles an hour. Now before you get excited about the numbers, you need to remember that speed is very relative in certain parts of the country. Route 10 is posted for 75 mph. I was traveling at 80 for a purpose. I wanted to see what a particular driver behind me would do so I stayed in the passing lane. He had been racing toward me for a number of miles. As I had anticipated, 80 was not fast enough for him. He came up very close to my rear bumper and predictably flashed his lights so I would move over. I did, and soon he was out of sight.

     I mention this not to invite you to develop thoughts about that driver. This experience presented me with the opportunity to be a witness or a competitor, to be one that was merely experiencing or a person who insists on being the judge and jury of someone. One of our biggest temptations is to insist that other people conform to our beliefs, our values, and our sense of appropriateness. When we feel violated, we defend and protest, thus becoming controlled by such people. Talk about letting someone ruin your day, this is the perfect recipe. Trust prevents that.

     When we trust God to teach and guide us, sinners that we are, we need to be open to the possibility that every experience that comes is bread for our journeyŚnot something that needs to be resisted, crushed or destroyed. If our only tool is a hammer, we tend to perceive everything that is different as a nail.

     Upon hearing this message, we automatically begin considering all the possibilities where such a truth cannot possibly apply to our circumstances. We say, "Yes, but suppose this happens?" We are always ready to say, "I trust God with all things." Yet when something violates our sense of appropriateness, threatens our sense of control, bothers our family, or is being built in our backyard, suddenly we politely talk to God and say, " Thank you God for guiding my life thus far, but I'll take it from here."

     Quite frankly there are a lot of circumstances where wars are perfectly justified. We have them raging in our heads almost every day. But the prayer that works every time does not offer conflict as an alternative. Jesus twisted his sword into a cross.

     Who knows what was traveling through Jesus' mind after he made a stand for righteousness by throwing the money changers out of the temple courtyard? What we do know is that it never happened again even though the money changers were back there the very next day engaging in a near century-old practice. Who knows what Jesus was thinking when he discovered Judas was involved in a scheme that would effectively end his ministry? We know that Judas prevailed.

     What helped Jesus become the person we love and respect had nothing to do with the right and wrong behavior of other people. It had to do with what Jesus did once he learned that his involvement in the ministry he loved was being challenged. There is no evidence that he took time to analyze his alternatives. He trusted God with what he could not see or understand.

     Jesus did not question his trust of God. For him it was either all or it was nothing. He had learned that there was no way to test trust's reliability ahead of time. That is why faith is required. We cannot know the outcome and also use such words as faith and trust. Life was not fair for Jesus but his trust gave us an empty tomb, an episode that has inspired our thinking ever since. To approach life the same way, we must be prepared to accept all outcomes without judgment.

     I will close with a fascinating story. We owe the quality of our material lives to a man history has long since forgotten. His name was Nikola Tesla, a Serbian investor. Tesla invented the induction motor, the alternating current system we use today, and he was the real "father" of the radio. History shows that Edison, Westinghouse and Marconi were the powerful figures who took advantage of him, attached their names to his creations and thus received the credit.

     The miracle is that Tesla's genius was not destroyed by bitterness and resentment. He kept creating and giving to the world even though his employers were taking credit for his accomplishments. Tesla's identity was not attached to any particular outcome. It did not matter who got the credit. Nikola Tesla has had very little visibility in written history, but his creations have benefitted all humankind to this day.

     We can spare ourselves a lot of struggling, when we earnestly pray the prayer that always works, "To you, O Lord, I offer my prayer; in you, my God, I trust." As we continue our journey into Lent, are we courageous enough to do that?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving God, so frequently we come into your midst unaware of what to expect. We do not know how to move ourselves beyond the cares that dominate us. Sometimes we forget to lay our burdens down so that our spirits might be more open to your presence. We confess that it is we who frequently fail to show up, even though our bodies are here. We confess that it is we who fault our worship experience for not inspiring us. Quiet our spirits, O God. Make silent all thoughts about decisions we must make, about tasks we have yet to do, and about relationships we feel the need to mend. We are now taking time to be with you. We are now taking time to dip our cups into the stream that longs to quench our thirst. We are now taking time to heal our haste, our hurts, and our hidden beliefs. Teach us how to grow in harmony with you and others. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Kind and merciful God, how wonderful it is to be gathered here and to have our spirits focused toward nourishing our spiritual roots. So often we treat our faith as if it were a spectator sport. We hold our beliefs with the utmost confidence without paying close attention to the words we use, to the attitudes we hold, or to the manner in which we conduct our lives. We laugh a lot and we enjoy ourselves, but we tend to gloss over the moments of our impatience, our selective hearing, and our uninvolvement in the lives of those our words claim we love.

     During this Lenten season may we stand in front of the mirror of all that appears to be challenging us, and listen to ourselves, observe ourselves, feel our impulses, experience our fears, and sense the level of our faith. Lead us to sense all of these things so that we thoroughly understand our need to confess and repent, our need to open our hearts to you more completely, and our need to take far more seriously the limited amount of time we have left on this earth to touch those around us in a meaningful way.

     Some of us need healing from the challenging experiences in recent days. Some of us thirst for new opportunities to feel accepted and loved. Some of us need to feel resourced in order to face the stress that has filled our days. We long for peace. We long for stillness. We long for a sense of control over our lives, allowing us to overcome the tyranny of so many little things. Nurture us now as we pray together the prayer Jesus taught us to say . . .