"We Still Ask How To Pray"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 25, 2004

Psalm 106:1-10; Luke 11:1-13

     Our Gospel lesson opens with these words, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”  After seeing his wondrous acts and listening to his words, Jesus’ intimate group of followers still wanted to know how to talk to God. 

     How many of us have this same desire?  We might make the identical request of Jesus were he standing in our midst.  Circumstances often come into our lives when Divine intervention would definitely offset our fears of abandonment. We want to know if God is there supporting us, particularly when our requests and pleas for help generate no response. 

     We believe we have the right to expect such results because of Jesus’ parable about the friend who asked his neighbor for bread even though it was very late at night.  His repeated requests apparently wore down that neighbor’s resistance, forcing him to get up and give him the bread.  Jesus also used several metaphors that indicated that no loving father would give his son a snake when he wanted a fish, nor give his daughter a scorpion when she wanted an egg.

     The crown jewel in this Gospel passage comes in the verse many of us have memorized, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”  Our problem is that we have tried this and it has not worked consistently. In fact, we may have used all the formulas for talking to God that we have been taught, and still the heavens are as silent as when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane asking that his pending arrest and crucifixion might pass from him.

     A number of people have made excuses for God.  For example, God hears every prayer but many of our requests are not in keeping with God’s will for us.  Or, God answers every prayer but God’s answers do not come in the form we want.  The simple fact stands – there is confusion about prayer, i.e., what can we honestly expect from engaging in it and how does it work?  

     We can easily become frustrated and conclude that nothing we say or think has the potential to change what we fear is coming. A number of people, however, vigorously defend prayer because of the resulting miracles they have witnessed.  Still others pray constantly because it helps them remain focused everyday on their relationship with God.  In other words, there are probably as many thoughts regarding prayer, as there are people.

     Many sermons on this Luke passage have been devoted to looking at the various statements in the Lord’s Prayer.  Today, however, we are going to be examining the spirit of prayer, not the specific topics or requests of God.  The verse we will focus on moves us in this direction.  Jesus said, “As uninformed as you are, you know how to give good things to your children.  How much more will God in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” 

     This is a significant teaching because it mentions the gift of God’s Spirit.  This understanding prevents us from thinking that God is an infinite cornucopia of wonderful things awaiting activation by our requests.  As crude as this may sound, we want God to become like some divine vending machine that begins answering our prayers because we made our requests in the name of Jesus -- another formula for praying successfully that we have been taught. 

     Such an understanding of God grows from a belief that we want God’s intervention the moment life becomes challenging, or when we are faced with mountains we fear we cannot climb or when we want someone healed.  When such prayers fail, we may wonder, “What’s the use?  After all, we asked and did not receive, we sought and did not find and we knocked and no door opened.”  The problem rests in our expectations of God and our lack of understanding for the purpose of our being born.  Walking with God as our daily companion is much different from thinking of God as a divine Santa Claus we turn to when we feel we are in crisis. 

     If we were here to evolve and develop spiritual skills, what would be the point for God to give us what we never took the time to develop?  For example, how will we learn to process grief if no one close to us ever died?  How would we learn to navigate around defeats if victories were all that we knew?  How would we learn to grow beyond hurt feelings if we have never known betrayal, or been the brunt of a cruel joke or been the recipient of a collective judgment by a society that was given incorrect information? 

     For example, try to imagine yourself being in the same position as that attorney in the northwest some months ago.  The FBI arrested him because his fingerprints were allegedly found on an unexploded bomb located among the rubble of a destroyed commuter train in Spain.  His arrest was featured on the front page of many prominent newspapers in our country.  While being completely exonerated from the charges that were based on a mistake made by the Bureau, he will have a cloud of suspicion follow him for the rest of his life.  Imagine that being you! 

     Life brings us specific tasks that must be mastered or we may conclude we are victims. Being a victim is a label we give to ourselves yet we pray for justice. Consider this:  a number of people who find themselves in very challenging circumstances can just as easily become our national heroes.  The thirteen-year-old poet, Mattie Stepanek, who recently died from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, was one of these.  He became a hero because no terminal disease was going to defeat his spirit.  He was correct; it did not. 

     There are times when events occur that are completely void of our understanding of justice.  They make no sense!  We may pray for deliverance and justice, but if they do not come, what then?  What is our alternative?  Before we declare ourselves a victim, we need to remember Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin.   Injustice for Jesus became the prelude to a sequence of events that has shaped human history. 

     Jesus never taught that God was a vending machine or a loving Father whose desire is to remove the mountains our fears have created.  Jesus never taught exactly what anyone would receive when they asked, or what they would find when they started seeking or what circumstances would lie behind an opened door.  Jesus taught that God would give the Holy Spirit to those who asked. 

     Understanding this gift of spirit will put our prayer life on an entirely different level of understanding.  We cease viewing God as a life raft, or the healer of all wounds and the creator of all miraculous events. God becomes the giver of every good and perfect gift, gifts which may not be our heart’s desire at the moment.  However, God’s gifts become part of a maturing spirit that motivates us to keep on giving, caring and loving.  We become the miracle because of how we shine in our circumstances, as did Mattie Stepanek.  

     There is an engaging song that was written by Garth Brooks called, “Unanswered Prayer”.  Here are the words to the chorus; “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Remember when you talkin’ to the man upstairs.  Just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care.  Cause some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” 

     Years ago I had a very memorable exchange with a woman whose husband died.  He was my first childhood dentist as well as a neighbor who lived next to us.  He and his wife were virtually inseparable.  He developed cancer.  Every night she prayed on her knees begging God to spare the life of her beloved partner.  In spite of her best efforts, he died.  

     She struggled with learning how to pay the bills and how to maintain the car.  She had to learn about their investments. All during this period she was angry with God and angry with her husband for leaving her.  While she understood that such feelings had no merit or logic to them, they reflected accurately how she felt. 

     She moved to Florida and in time she met a widower who came into her life quite by accident.  The last time I saw Olga Kane she was the happiest I had ever seen her.  She said, “I could not have dreamed what the rest of my life would be like once George died. Right now my life is full, exciting and filled with love.  My kids love him.  I would not have gotten here without having gone through a chapter of my life that tested my faith.  I am now at a different place, but I got here by learning that hanging on to my questioning faith is how I arrived.”  

     The challenge of “hanging on” becomes the gift of the Holy Spirit when perhaps what we wanted was a miracle.  “Hanging on” changes us! Miracles are frequently responded to with moments of profound praise and thanksgiving after which we can easily revert to business as usual.  

     For example, it is not uncommon to find people in church every Sunday while they are face to face with a personal crisis. We had over 700 people here on the Sunday after 9/11.  When their feelings of anxiety quieted, a number of them went back to their accustomed habit of including church in their lives on Christmas and Easter.  This is why miracles are often not the answer to prayer.  Jesus wanted people to change how they understood life rather than turning to him for instant gratification the moment life’s storms pushed them beyond their comfort zones.  

     The gift of the Holy Spirit is one that puts us into the same realm as our Creator, a Being who radiates, i.e., who gives away loving energy.  When God gives us this spirit, it means that we too will be looking for ways to be kind rather than dwelling on our need to receive kindness, ways to be helpful rather than looking for people to befriend us and ways to make a difference rather than expecting others to rescue us from some unpleasant circumstance. 

     This spirit also gives us the ability to trust God, that what comes up for us is our opportunity to make visible the faith we claim.  Yes, there could be pain and disappointment, there could be frustration and defeat and there could be thoughts of loneliness and abandonment.  We want God to intervene and remove these experiences that threaten us. 

     What if God is telling us, “These are my answers to your prayers.  These are my gifts.”?  God is revealing to us the areas in our lives where we need a lot of inner work.  Repeated failures become steps toward mastery.  Do we think Lance Armstrong had no initial failures when he began cycling over long distances? 

     For example, being able to forgive someone does not fall from the sky the moment we accept Jesus as our Savior.  Asking for the ability to forgive is when our homework begins. When we ask God for patience, watch out!  Almost immediately incidences will occur that will test our resolve for how badly we want that skill.  By giving away the responses of patience, kindness and forgiveness, we become what we give.  We cannot become like the image in which we were created by any other means.  God loves us, but who we become is up to us. 

     During the last supper, Philip reportedly asked Jesus to show them God. Jesus said,  “Philip, you must believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  The words I have spoken to you do not come from me.  The Father, who remains in me, does his own work.” (John 14:10f) 

     This is one of the ways God’s will is made known to others.  We become the channels of God’s grace.  We cannot be struggling with the question, “Why me, God?” and be demonstrating to others what faith and trust in God look like. 

     Prayer is a thought form that keeps us infinitely connected to the Vine.  Prayer allows us to cling to God as children do to their parents when life becomes frightening.  The presence of God does not always dispel our fears; prayer only helps us realize that we are walking with the Creator of the universe while we continue learning the ways of the Spirit.  It is much better to learn how to thrive in chaos than to be delivered from it, as we might prefer.   


    We thank you, Lord, that you created us in your image, a little lower than the angels.  We confess that so often we do not claim our heritage in the choices that we make.  Our prayers often ask you for what we have allowed to remain undeveloped within ourselves.  Too often we organize our lives around our doubts and fears.  We take risks only when the outcome appears assured.  We find that unexpected change often shakes our confidence even though our lips proclaim that our journey is guided by faith.  Help us to trust that the garden for our growth surrounds us, that our challenges will refine us, that our burdens will be light and that you will strengthen us for what we face.  May our spirits always be tuned to the leading of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.


    Eternal God, how grateful we are that our experiences in worship impact our lives in ways we cannot measure.  We do not know how many times our anger has been diluted and dispelled because your Son reminded us to turn the other cheek.  We cannot remember how many times our generosity has been kindled because Jesus said, "Give and do not count the cost" or "As you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me." There have been moments when we have felt betrayed, and we remembered the words of Jesus from a cross and we understood the meaning of "forgive 70 times 7." 

    We truly feel blessed, O God, that our lives together refine and define us in degrees that we seldom recognize. What a joy it is to realize that salvation is not something that we experience at the end of life, for we have come to understand that it is an energizing power that we have now.  Thank you for holding a mirror in front of us, inviting us to become all that you created us to be, and showing us how your answered prayers seldom came in the form we expected.   

    Oh God, it is in giving that we truly learn to live.  It is in smiling that we radiate our joy and confidence.  It is through fellowship that we learn about each other.  It is by helping that we invest ourselves in others, and it is through all such experiences that we learn the meaning of true discipleship.  Bless us as we continue our ministry together.  We ask these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .