Rev. Carlton Weber
Sunday, July 29, 2001
When I became Executive Director of the Ohio Council of Churches in 1969, I decided that as a symbol of the church's oneness I would from henceforth use one of the suggested Bible readings from the Ecumenical Lectionary as a base for each Sunday's sermon. Thus the congregation I was in that week would be considering the same scripture as thousands of other congregations around Ohio, the nation and the world. Today's suggested Gospel lesson is from Luke 11: 1-13.
True to this earlier commitment, I decided to share with you some "Plain Talk About Prayer" coming from the event and teachings which Luke describes in these verses. We are not going to get too theological or complex in addressing this subject, but I hope we can share some practical insights into prayer as an important aspect of our devotional life.
The outline for this sermon is quite simple. I am going to offer three don'ts" regarding prayer and then three "do's" in a meaningful prayer life. Each of these six will have a short title, and I invite you to write them down and perhaps you can discuss them later on as to their relevance for your life.
The first of these six comments about prayer is Don't Educate God. Isn't it amazing how much of our prayer time is spent in getting God up to speed regarding the details which God, undoubtedly, already knows.
You have probably heard and even given these efforts to educate God. For instance, "God, I have been laid off from the Lucent Corp. since last Feb. I have gone to three employment agencies, two headhunters and read the employment ads daily and I am still looking. I'm at my wits end. My bills are piling up; my car payment is now due, and I haven't made my July mortgage payment. I'm worried, frustrated, and feeling defeated. What should I do?"
Isn't that an amazing prayer? We get into this orientation mode with a God who supposedly knows and cares for us. You may recall that when Jesus sends out the twelve disciples on their first missionary journey he gives them this advice to offset their fear. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows." (Matt.10:29-31)
Or again in the Sermon on the Mount "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." (Matt. 6: 26 and 32.)
We don't need to inform God. Sometimes we try to soften our boldness by saying, "as you know God" and then we go back to the same routine of redundancy.
Sometimes, we even do this when we pray in groups. You've heard it. We pray, "God bless Molly Smith in Peoria, IL., the second cousin of Milly Jones who has been a faithful member of this church. Her cousin is facing her third colon surgery in five years tomorrow."
Obviously, this description is for the benefit of the other pray-ers. But that's not the One to whom the prayer is addressed. Isn't it better to share the circumstances in conversation and then offer our prayers in full knowledge that Cousin Molly is already fully known to God!
There are two exceptions to this view. In confession, I think letting God know that we know what God already knows is appropriate. And also in times of deep agony, it is again appropriate to share with God our feelings, even though God already knows them. Most often it is presumptuous of us to try and fill in the details for God who constantly knows us, values us and cares for us. It is not an expression of faith to try and educate God, usually with all our biases, hunches and preferences.
#2. Don't try to manipulate God. How often each of us gets trapped into treating God like an errand boy whom we send out with our shopping list. We all know how tempting that is. "Will you please heal my Dad." "Will you please mend the relationship between my sister and brother-in-law." "Will you please give my Congressional representative a little common sense." "Can you please keep my kids from screwing up their lives."
And beyond these general instructions to God, we share what we believe to be the proper strategy to rectify the situation. Somehow if God could almost attach strings to someone's life and make it all come out in the perfect way we visualize. Certainly we all rejoice when things turn out exactly as we had prayed. But none of us can get down in the pits when our desired outcome doesn't result and doesn't follow the blueprint which we thought best.
People die and we don't set the time or situation. People feel abandoned. People sin and our young people may make stupid choices and our older people may become self-indulgent and couples may clash to the point of destruction. But that does not mean God has forsaken us.
God loves each and every one of us in unshakable ways. God heals each of us in mysterious ways. God never abandons even though it sometimes takes a long and rugged journey for us to understand that fact. We cannot manipulate God to do our will.
#3. Don't negotiate with God. Haven't we all heard and sometimes get caught in the game of "Let's make a deal." "Listen God, if you'll do this for me, I'll never again do such and such."
You heard such a negotiation in the Old Testament lesson this morning. Abraham tries to get God to save the city of Sodom from destruction. God knows what's going on in that city and the full extent of its corruption. But God lets Abraham do his almost comical bargaining. He finally gets down to ten righteous people, but it turns out there are only four -- Lot, his wife and two daughters -- not even the son-in-laws. Even of these four, Lot's wife turns back longing for the city's life and the daughters get their father drunk to have children by him. The whole culture was rotten and Abraham couldn't succeed in saving the city.
God is all knowing, all understanding, and will not be detoured by our attempts to negotiate.
Well, that the three don'ts.
Don't try to educate God.
Don't try to manipulate God.
Don't negotiate with God.
Now let's consider three positive attitudes in the process of a wholesome prayer life.
#1. Be trustful of God. How we talk with God in prayer reveals a great deal about what we think of God and how God relates to us. I like the rhetorical questions that Jesus asks in his little sermonette. "Is there any one among you who, if your child asks for a fish will give a snake instead? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Isn't that the key to a meaningful prayer life? We know God cares for us; we know God loves us. Is that relationship so thin that when the going gets tough we abandon our attitudes of trust?
Remember Paul's insights in Romans 8? "Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness , or peril or sword? No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord."
You see no matter what our plight is, nothing can separate us from the consistent, unfailing, fully-understanding, hope-filled love which God has for us.
I am convinced that all of us will be tested. We get to the end of our
rope; we curse God and abandon God. But that's our problem! The separation is never in the attitude God has toward us. Be trustful of God.
#2. Be open to God. Somehow in our culture we have come to believe we are able to solve all things, especially if God will give us a little assist. Therefore, we develop logical plans; we put things in our right order; we grease the skids because we have the right solution, if only God and others will listen and agree. Right?
But our challenge is to be open to God's initiatives and perspectives. We tend, too often, to misread verses 9 and 10 in our gospel lesson. Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and everyone who searches, finds; and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."
Asking, searching, knocking are ways we open ourselves to God and letting God respond. We do not have a book of blank checks so that whenever we want we can write out a withdrawal from the storehouse of God. These are really Jesus' plea for our openness. Let God know we are aware of who we are and what our situation is, and be ready for God's response. You and I have a powerful relationship with God. We have pledged ourselves to be open to the challenges that God lays before us.
Oh I love those disciples who when Jesus called them were open enough to leave their boats and become fishers of men, women and children. Oh how I love those women on Easter morn who went out to the tomb to embalm their loved one, but who were open to hear a new message, and they returned with that glorious good news--He's not in the tomb; Christ is risen. We, too, must approach life and the avenues of prayer with that kind of openness.
#3. Be grateful. I confess that I don't really know how to open my conversations with God except by words of thanksgiving. God has so loved me, forgiven me, guided me, cared for me, how can I open conversation with God except with words of gratitude?
No matter what may transpire in life, I go through them with the assurance that there is a covenant between God and myself, and which, at least from God's side will never be broken. Paint life in its darkest colors and you cannot paint God out of the picture.
If in our tradition as a congregation or denomination, we had the practice of giving testimonials as a part of our worship service, this is when I would take a mike and pass among you and you could each tell us of the way God has acted in your life and how grateful you are. You could tell us how in your deepest moment of your despair or at the heighth of your celebrations you could hear the still small voice of God showing concern and love and new hope, and you could only whisper. "Thank you God."
These are the three "dos" of prayer. Be trustful; be open; be grateful.
At the beginning of our worship this morning I had us read the first three verses of Psalm 138 as our call to worship. I'd like to conclude with the last three verses of this classical prayer.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
You preserve me against the wrath of
You stretch out your hand and your
right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose
Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures
Do not forsake the work of your
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