"Prayer Is Not A Cosmic ATM"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 29, 2007

Psalm 85; Luke 11:1-1

     This morning I would like to talk about our prayer life.  Speaking to God is an activity that has appeared awkward throughout history.  If this were not so, why would Jesus’ disciples approach him with the request, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples”?  Why is talking to God such a difficult task?  For example, do we feel self-conscious when someone invites us to pray publicly? 

     In our own faith tradition, there was a time when people were directed to communicate to God only through their priests.  In Islam, there are memorized prayers that must be rendered at specific times during the day while facing in the direction of Mecca.  Christians have a similar arrangement with the Lord’s Prayer, portions of which appeared in our lesson today.  We feel safe because we repeat from memory.  Is that really like praying?    

     While in seminary, I literally was taught how to create prayers for a worship setting.  First, there should be a greeting of praise and humility as we enter God’s presence.  Secondly, we were taught to share gratitude for what we have.  Next we make our requests or petitions.  Finally, we were taught to close by evoking the name of Jesus.   

     To this day, I never understood the meaning of that instruction.  Who of us could imagine having someone coach us with such directives before we spoke to our mother or father?  Talking to a loved one should not be a chore, especially when we talk to God.  

     In our Scripture lesson today, Jesus appears to be providing his disciples with ways to make their prayer life work.  To illustrate, Jesus told a story.  A neighbor wanted to borrow three loaves of bread from a friend in his community.  It seems that an unexpected guest had arrived at a late hour.  After he knocked on the door, the friend said, “Go away!   The door is locked and my family and I are in bed.”  Jesus said, “In time he will get up and give his neighbor what he wants because the one in need keeps on asking.”  In other words, wear him down.  Was Jesus intending this to be our strategy with God?  Jesus followed this teaching with these words, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

     Jesus goes on to describe God’s nature.  “Would any of you give your son a snake if he asked for a fish?  Would you give a scorpion to your daughter if she asked for an egg?  As sinful as you people are, even you know how to give good things to your children.”

     Years ago, the Dean of Wesley Seminary, Dr. L. Harold DeWolf, was conducting a study on this very passage of Scripture in our theology class.  We seminarians were all over the landscape in our discussion.  No theological stone was left unturned.  Prayer chains were discussed.  For example, could an enormous number of sincerely offered prayers convince God to heal someone?  Thoughts concerning God’s Will were shared.  Does God choose to heal some people and allow others to die?  Our life experiences tell us that such appears to be the case.

     DeWolf told us that his wife of many years had contracted a serious illness.  He had hundreds of people praying for her recovery in scores of churches, and in seminary and university campuses where he had once been a member of the faculty.  In fact, DeWolf was so connected to such a wide spectrum of friends that he was the only Caucasian to participate in the memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His wife died in spite of everyone’s thoughtful prayers.   He grieved for a considerable time. 

     He told our class that he never asked God, “Why?”  “No outstanding answer,” he said, “would bring back my wife nor would it have quieted my spirit during the grieving process.   The temptation, of course, is go back to this passage of Scriptures and wonder about their meaning.  For example,  “Once Jesus taught, “I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that God’s glory will be shown through the Son.” (John 14:13)  Can this be true?

      I recall during my Sunday school days when my teacher suggested that God is good and answers all our prayers.   When I learned that God loves each of us very much, I tried praying for all kinds of things.  It did not work.  I even checked the Bible references and always remembered to close my prayers with, “in the name of Jesus.”   Then I waited.  Nothing even remotely connected to my desires ever materialized. 

     I always found Sunday school teachers trying to interpret God’s activities. They said, “God answers all prayers but those answers may not come in a form that matches our request.”  I would say to my teachers, “Well, if that is true, why didn’t Jesus teach that?”  Believe me, my poor Sunday school teachers were always glad when I moved on to the next level.       

     During our class, Professor DeWolf went on to tell us how following his wife’s death he became closer to God.  He pointed to the wording in the passage that was read for us today. Our Scripture contains a variable most of us in class had missed.  He opened his Bible and read, “As sinful as you are, you know how to give good things to your children.”   Then he added these words, “How much more, then, will the Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  

     Those words change everything.  Prayer does not become a cosmic ATM from which our every desire flows.  Rather it allows us to participate in God’s presence.  By taping into God’s spirit within us, we discover that we were given the ability to distinguish the physical from the spiritual, the temporary from what is infinite and the values we have developed from those that are timeless.  

     By developing this perspective, we can understand how it was that Jesus said, “Not my will but thine be done.”  He trusted God with his life, his circumstances and allowed himself to experience whatever was coming his way.   He did so knowing that he would always be safe in spite of the best efforts of others to put out his flame.  

     Think of how different our prayers would be if we were expressing words of gratitude for what we have, instead of asking God to meet us in the area of our greatest fear.   Think about how the quality of our prayers would change if we never asked God for anything because we understood that God had given us everything we need when we were born.  Perhaps this is the truth behind Jesus’ teaching, “If you drink the water I will give you, you will never be thirsty again.” (John 4:14)  Our neediness always grows from the fear that we are not loved, that we do not have enough or that God does not know what we need.  

     So many people have great expectations of God and they become disappointed when God does not deliver what they believe He promised.  When our life is going through fragile times and we fear nothing is working, we pray for more faith to see us through.   

     God would say, “You are not trusting me to be with you while you are going through this.  Even though you cannot see me, I am here. I am here.  I am here.”  What a difference this attitude would make in our relationship with God.  The assumption that our lives are unfolding as they should would take us into another level of awareness. 

     Just the other day, I heard a fascinating story.  Years ago, a high school girl was dating two guys, one of them fairly seriously.  This one, however, had a job at a lumberyard.  Lots of pressure was brought by her parents to marry the one that was going for his Ph.D.  She really loved the first one very much, but she was persuaded to marry the other one.  She did not follow her deepest desire and after the birth of two children the marriage did not last. 

     Several weeks ago as she was traveling in the town where she grew up, she stopped at a gasoline station for a fill up.  She inquired from patrons if anyone knew the whereabouts of her friend.  They said, “Yes, we know him very well.  He is our dentist and has a lovely home on a beautiful lake that is not too far from here.”   

     She found his home and drove up the driveway.  No one was home at the time, but she got out of her car and saw a scene that had been in her head since she was a young girl.  This was the house on the lake that she remembered dreaming about all her life.  Had she allowed her life to unfold in the direction of her authentic desire, this might have been her home.

     My point is that we do not know where our life experiences are leading us.  When we have confidence that our lives are unfolding as they should, we are participating in God’s presence.  When we begin to think, “I would be better off over there.”  Or, “I would be happier with another partner, or another job, or move to a new community,” we are trusting elements in the external world rather than God’s presence during every moment where we are.  What a difference God’s presence is when we participate in it rather than constantly ask God to make changes for us.

     I remember an incident that occurred in Florida a number of years ago where a man had been terminated from his position at the Post Office.  He came back to the building on the same day and used an AK-47 to kill 7 employees before he turned the rifle on himself.

     Suppose when he arrived in the next reality following his transition from this life, he met God.  As they communicated, the man was voicing his anger and why he felt justified in what he had done.  When it was God’s turn to respond God’s loving voice said, “You were so frustrated with that job.  Had you trusted me, another job was waiting for you three weeks from your termination date where you would have flourished.  But you made another decision that included violence and now you are here.”  We do not know where life is leading us.  What we have the opportunity to do is participate in God’s presence.

     Always there will be the clash of two Titans:  The one of trusting God and the other of trusting Self-interest.  Life brings us a series of tests.  What we pray for will demonstrate in which one we have placed our trust.   

     There are times we become extremely angry with God because God did not intervene in the way we had hoped.  Even though God remains by our side, such fear and doubt can erase God from our consciousness.   When God does not appear to be around anymore, guess who moved?  Recently, Lois and I were eyewitnesses to a perfect illustration of this.  

     When we received word late Tuesday afternoon that Lois’ Dad had a cardiac episode requiring quadruple by-pass surgery, we drove to Lancaster General Hospital to visit him.  On the way, we encountered one of these mini-dramas that makes driving these days so entertaining.

     As we approached the Baltimore Tunnel, we noticed that there was a sizeable back up at the tollbooths.  Only four green lights were on.  As the cars approached the booths many drivers headed for the lane on the far right because it appeared to be shorter.  However, when that line was not moving at the speed some drivers wanted, a number of them attempted to get into our lane.

     We watched as one of these drivers tried to nose in front of the driver directly in front of us.  As determined as he was to break into our line, the driver in front of us was equally determined that he would not succeed.  The drama unfolded.   The windows rolled down on both cars and the drivers began shouting obscenities at each other.  What made the display all the more colorful were the Christian symbols on the back of the car in front of us.  Suddenly the Christian driver abruptly turned into the lane to our left and the offending driver drove in front of us.  The drama was over.

     As we approached the tunnel, it became clear why there were only four tollbooths open.  Workers had closed one tunnel for cleaning and they did not want nine lines emptying cars into one lane of traffic.  As the original offender was now in front of us, Lois said, “I wonder what causes some people to feel that they have the right to break into another line where drivers like us have been patiently waiting their turn.”   That is the question, isn’t it?    

     Some of us become very emotionally charged over such insignificant things.   What will we do when something much larger enters the stage of our life?  When we participate in God’s presence, we find ourselves remembering a song from our childhood which held the most marvelous truth, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, life is but a dream.”   If we could only remember those lyrics, our lives would unfold so much more beautifully. 

     When God is in charge, why would anyone say, “Thank you, God, for everything you have done for me thus far; from now on I can take it from here”?  Participating with God is a lot more fulfilling than requesting anything special just for us.  Everything we want in the material world will one day change.  Even Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from the dead, had to die again.  When we talk to God, no formulas for communicating with Him are needed.  Try lovingly communing with God and God will fill our cups to overflowing. 


     Loving God, we are so grateful that Jesus came into our world to provide a clearer window through which we can understand your nature.  We search for the riches that can be found in his lessons on life.  We frequently find our own thoughts and attitudes in the stories he told.  Are we as generous as the widow that gave away her copper coins?  Can we forgive 70 times 7?  Can we pray for those who hurt us?  Are we able to greet with peace those whose values are very different from ours? Polish us, O God, so that Your Spirit easily communicates through us.  May we show up in every circumstance of life armed only with your presence to light our path.  Help us to mature in spirit so that we might become the people you created us to be.  Amen.


     God of mercy and love, many of us come to church out of habit.  We are never aware of what may happen to us as a result.  Our lives are often shaped by events, circumstances and relationships that we could have never planned.  It is as though life happens to us when we were busy doing something else.   Being in a worship experience often helps us regain a perspective that we may have misplaced. 

     Thank you, God, for creating us as you have.  We are able to give and receive love.  You have equipped us to be resilient in our losses and flexible during painful transitions.  We have all experienced the miracle of healing from the inside out.  We know what it is like to lay our painful memories at Jesus’ feet.  As we do, the freedom of forgiveness floods our spirits.  You created us to change as we attempt to live what we have learned.  As we mature in our discipleship, we delight in letting our light shine from within us.  When we combine our lives with others at St. Matthew’s, we experience what it means to be in community where love, acceptance and support flow as water through a peaceful brook. 

     Enable us to cease judging life when it is not as we would prefer.  This morning we celebrate the enormous powers you have given us to make meaningful and purposeful responses to everything we experience.  May others take their cues for living by what they see us do.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .