Saturday, October 16, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 20 - Year C

Prayer is problem for many people today. And perhaps rightly so. People ask some good questions. As Willimon asks, Does God answer prayer? Am I really talking to God or am I only talking to myself? If I pray to God for healing and I am healed, does that mean that God wouldn’t have healed me if I had not prayed? Or what about when I pray for healing or for guidance, or for a job, and an answer is not forthcoming, what does that say about my prayer? Or God?

The problem, says preacher Tom Long, is not only that we are uncertain about prayer, but we have the good sense to know that, when we pray, we are really putting our faith on the line. Is there a God or not? If there is a God, does God listen? Is there a God who hears and responds to us? When you get right down to it, these are terribly frightening questions. No wonder many people prefer to not even try to pray, rather than risk it. (Willimon, Pulpit Digest)

But Jesus says that we should “pray always and not lose heart.” I think it sounds easier than it is.

Tom Long says that the problem beneath all our problems is with prayer is the very problem that Jesus is addressing here. We simply lose heart.

Maybe we lose heart because we’ve all had the experience of pleading to God for ourselves or someone else and hearing nothing back but a cold stony silence. Maybe you’ve prayed for world peace and then another car bomb explodes in Jerusalem, killing 5 small children. Maybe you’ve held the hand of someone dying of cancer, pouring out your heart to God for healing, but a week later you’re sitting across the table from a funeral director. Maybe you’ve been praying earnestly for a job, anything to pay the bills, but after six months you find yourself waiting in line to pick up your first welfare cheques.

And Jesus says to “pray always and do not lose heart.” That’s easier said than done.

Just ask Baptist preacher Gordon Atkinson, known on the Internet as “Real Live Preacher.” Even though he grew up in a strong Christian household, he was fed to the teeth of “feel good faith” of the Christians that surrounded him,and he fell out of a relationship with sunny, smiling Christianity that offers easy answers to hard questions because he has a lot of them. He faced head on the emptiness and silence that so often follows prayer, because he realized that sooner or later, you have to stop dodging the doubt that parades itself as false piety.

“You see, people facing death don’t give a [rip] about your interpretation of II Timothy.” Atkinson says about when he was a student chaplain at hospital, “Some take the “bloodied, but unbowed” road, but most dying people want to pray with the chaplain. And they don’t want weak-ass prayers either. They don’t want you to pray that God’s will be done.

“Hell no. People want you to get down and dirty with them. They want you to call down angels and the powers of the Almighty. THEY ARE DYING and the whole world should stop.

“I threw myself into it. I prayed holding hands and cradling heads. I prayed with children and old men. I prayed with a man who lost his tongue to cancer. I lent him mine. I prayed my [butt] off. I had 50 variations of every prayer you could imagine, one hell of a repertoire.

“I started noticing something. When the doctors said someone was going to die, they did. When they said 10% chance of survival, about 9 out of 10 died. The odds ran pretty much as predicted by the doctors. I mean, is this praying doing ANYTHING?

“I’m sophisticated enough to understand the value of human contact, but prayer is supposed to affect the outcome, right?

“Then I met Jenny

“30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.

“Jenny had only one request. “I know I’m going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It's for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.”

“She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an “alphabet blocks and apples” kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.

“She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing - sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.

“I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed…this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

“A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

“As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

“Ping. The hammer fell and [my faith] came tumbling after.” [link]

When I hear Atkinson’s story, I think maybe it’s no wonder that we lose heart. We lose heart because prayer doesn’t always seem to work. We can’t call down the power of the Almighty as if it were our own personal power supply. Despite our best efforts, despite our most earnest prayer, a job still just around the corner; world peace is still just a dream; and people we love still die too early.

And Jesus says to “pray always and do not lose heart.” Pray always? At what point Jesus, do we stop? At what point do we stop believing? At what point do we throw up our hands and ask what’s the point?

I’m sure that’s a question that’s run through your head at times, because it certainly has run through mine. At what point do we stop praying? When should stop expecting an answer from God?

But Jesus says, “Pray always and do not lose heart.” Jesus, I know you mean well, but sometime this is just too hard.

But maybe Jesus is saying that to lose heart is to lose hope. To lose heart is to give away all your hope to the suffering and pain of the world. It’s admitting defeat. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather the world not have that kind of power over me.

Maybe persistence teaches us patience. But, of course us learning patience isn’t much help to Uncle Jack hooked up to tubes and wires. I don’t know why God seems to answer some prayers and not others. But often I wonder if prayer begins were human effort finds its limits. We may pray for peace but maybe God responds by asking us what we are doing to heal the world, in his name. We may pray for healing, but maybe God grieves with us because God sees that death is part of life in a fallen world, but also God sees that the joy of loving relationships is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like.

So we keep praying, we keep pestering God, perhaps even shaking our fist at the Almighty. But we don’t shake a fist at what we don’t believe exists. So maybe that’s the beginning of prayer: the desperate torrent of hope that someone, somewhere is listening.

But I’ve been reminded recently that Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. “For you [O God] all things are possible,” prayed so hard that it is said that beads of sweat dropped from his forehead. “Remove this cup from me.” Only when he opened his eyes the cup was still there. Did he lack faith? I don’t think so. The miracle was that he drank the cup of suffering, believing in the power of God even more. It’s always a miracle, isn’t it, when we understand that God is God and we are not? (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Problem With Miracles)

So maybe people keep praying because their hope is stronger than their pain, and their expectations are greater than their frustration. I’ve been amazed by people praying until the bitter end, on their knees until their joints hurt and muscles cramp, who will not stop or move until they’ve heard from God; people who storm the silence of heaven with shouts of praise and cries of anger, who won’t calm down even after they’ve confronted the hard reality of pain and suffering because they know there is a resurrection day and they want to see it NOW. So maybe faith is heart felt desperation, not a sunny, smiling confidence.

I don’t expect people will stop praying, and praying boldly. At least I hope not because the world needs all the prayers it can get. Every time you hear about prayer being answered, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is no simply formula for success, no one way to pray for instant answers. So we keep praying, we keep pestering God, then, with God’s help, we won’t lose heart, and we will become what we pray for: a people of peace, a people of healing, a people of new life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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