God is Not a Cosmic Vending Machine

The following is a restatement of a sermon I preached at the 8 AM service at Trinity, Menlo Park, on July 25, 2010.  It is a “restatement” because I am recreating it after the fact, since I seldom preach with notes.  It is based on two biblical passages:  Genesis 18:20-32 and Luke 11:1-13.

Whenever I hear that passage from Luke’s Gospel where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, I think of the ups and downs of my own prayer life, and I think of a woman I knew several years ago in the first congregation I served.  She had had her children relatively later in her life, and as is usually the case with new mothers, having children changed her perspective on life in many ways.  One the ways her perspective changed is that she became very sensitive to the problems of the larger world.  She found it almost impossible to watch the news, with its unending string of dismal stories about terrible happenings around the globe.   So troubled was she by the idea of her children growing up in such a troubled world, she was led ultimately into a kind of crisis of faith.  She invited me to lunch one day, and told me that she was very disturbed by the whole business of intercessory prayer.  It was clear to her that when people who were sick, for example, were prayed for, sometimes they did indeed get better, but sometimes they did not.  It seemed to her that this either meant that God was not there, or that God was rather capricious and arbitrary about which prayers were answered and which were not, since there was no discernible criteria that seemed to indicate which prayers God would grant and which prayers God would not grant.   And it was not very satisfactory to simply say that God’s ways were inscrutable, and that therefore, it was not for us to know why these things were the way they were.

I’m sure that none of you have ever had these problems!  I’m sure that all of this has always been perfectly clear to you!

Of course, these questions related to prayer are questions we have all had and perhaps continue to have.  Because the truth is that when it comes to getting results from prayer, it does seem that God either is not there or is acting in a very arbitrary manner.  And it does not satisfy any of us to simply say that God’s ways are mysterious.

I think, however, if we look carefully at today’s Gospel, we might find a way forward, an insight into what prayer is really all about.   Jesus does not tell the disciples that they should ask God for whatever they want and – poof! – they will get it.  He doesn’t promise them that God will be their go-to source for whatever their hearts desire.   What does he tell them, when he says that if they ask, they shall receive; if they seek, they shall find; if they knock, the door shall be opened to them?  He says that God will give them what they need.   And what is it that they most need?   It is, he says, the Holy Spirit.  “If you, then…, 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!”   That is the only thing Jesus promises, and it is, he says, the only thing that we truly need.   And what is the Holy Spirit?  It is our connection to God, it is the presence of God in our lives, it is a sign of God’s friendship with us.  And it is this friendship that is meant to accompany us through our lives, during the happy times we cherish and those times when we struggle and suffer and wish that life were different than it is.  That is what we need:  God’s friendship.

This same principle is really also operating in the story from Genesis for this morning, one of my favorites.  I love hearing Abraham bargaining with God over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “Well, what if there are 40 righteous people, will you do it then?”  “No, I won’t do it if there are 40 righteous people.”  “Well, then, what if there are 30? or 20? or 10?”  It’s interesting that Abraham stops at 10 — that’s the number of Jewish men required in the tradition of that time in order to have a valid prayer gathering.  And I can imagine God’s exasperation with Abraham during this whole bargaining process.  But what Abraham and the Bible are reminding us about through this story, is the importance which is attached to being a friend of God.  For what is a righteous person, if not someone who actively cultivates friendship with God?  The heart of this story is this righteousness – this friendship – and its infinite value not only to us, but also to God.  In the story, Abraham clearly believes that this friendship is the one thing that the residents of these two famously evil cities need.

So, when Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, he makes it clear that God is not to be approached as some kind of cosmic vending machine, into which we can expect to deposit our prayer and out of which will come the thing that we seek, whether that be success or health or whatever.   Prayer is not about magic, it is not about making our life something other than it is.  God is not a wizard with a magic wand, waiting to wave it over the worthy and withhold its power from the unworthy.  Life is not just about the happy parts that we relish.  It’s also about the struggle and the suffering and the hard parts, all of which contribute to our growth as human beings and the deepening of the soul, whether we like it or not.  What we need, Jesus teaches us, is not to have these struggles magically brought to an end.  What we need is the friendship of God.

And that is where faith comes in.  It’s not so much about having faith in God’s existence, but having faith in God’s friendship as the one thing that we truly need to make it through all of what life is about.   That’s the faith that we are challenged to have:  the faith that God’s friendship is truly enough, truly the one necessary thing.

Finding God at the Auto Parts Store

On the first day of my recently concluded vacation, I set out with children and camper in tow from Menlo Park toward Salt Lake City, whence I was to rendezvous with my spouse, who had been spending more than a week meditating on her ancestors among the Mormons.    We made a stop just outside Tahoe for some needed refreshment, and having had our hunger and thirst quenched, returned to our caravan to continue eastward.  I decided to check the hook-up between the truck and the camper, just to make sure that everything was in order, and I discovered that at some point in our journey, the cable that connects the camper’s lights to the truck (thus giving them power and making them operational) had come out of its plug just below the back bumper.  It had clearly dragged along the ground for a while, for the little metal fingers that allowed the cable to meet the plug had been sheered off.  It would be unsafe to continue in this condition — I needed to find a new cable.  Pondering this new reality, I lifted up my head and, behold, like a beacon on the hill just above where I stood, there was an auto supply store.   With joy in my heart, I made the short journey up the hill and inquired at the store whether they had a replacement cable of the kind I needed.  They did indeed!  Initially, it did not seem to want to plug into the truck, however, and I ended up back in the store befuddled.  One of the men working there came out with me to see if he could do better, and discovered what I had suspected:  that the rubber bumper around the metal fingers on the new cable were causing a problem.  He supplied me with a razor blade, and I was able to cut off the rubber bumper, plug in the cable, and resume my journey after perhaps a half hour’s delay.  As I maneuvered back onto the highway, I felt grateful that there had been an auto parts store so close at hand, and the problem had been so easily fixed.   Somewhere in my brain, a little voice said, “See, God does provide…..”

Now, calm down.  I’m not suggesting that God spoke to me just then (I’m quite sure I was speaking to myself — which may be a source of concern, but let’s save that for another time).  Nor do I think that God arranged for an auto parts store to be close at hand at precisely the moment I needed it.  Although, it was a very convenient coincidence, and someone (I know not who) once said that “for people of faith, there is no such thing as a coincidence.”

What I’m getting at here, of course, is the deep and perhaps unsolvable mystery of what God has to do with any of us at any particular time or moment in our lives.  It is tragically and painfully true that God does not conveniently provide an auto parts store close at hand every time someone needs it, nor does God provide a cure every time someone gets sick.   God does not prevent bad things happening to good people, nor good things happening to bad people.  Life happens, and I have faith that God is in the midst of it, but I must admit that I don’t always know how.

At the same time, when I look at how my life has unfolded to date, there does seem to be a certain shape to it.  Certain patterns seem to run across it and through it.   I can point to an amazing number of “convenient coincidences” that have led me to who and what and where I am today.  And in that shape, those patterns and the many convenient coincidences, I perceive the presence of God — and that perception brings forth a sense of gratitude.  If I am very honest, I will admit that that sense of gratitude is held alongside of a sense of “but, gee, I wish THAT hadn’t happened” which could be applied to the many mistakes, missteps and wrong turns that are also a part of my personal history.  But the gratitude is greater — most of the time, anyway.

What am I grateful for, exactly?  I am grateful, I guess, for the mystery of life, which includes the mystery of God and of the mysterious ways in which my life and God’s life seem to intersect.  I can’t look directly at those intersections, but I catch glimpses of them out of the corner of my eye.

So a conveniently placed auto parts store elicits from me a sense of gratitude for whoever put it there and however it came to be that my need for an auto part and the presence of that store came together.  And I am grateful for the fact that one of the employees of that store was kind enough to go above and beyond the call of duty to help make things work out.  Whether you wish to think of it as the Miracle of the Auto Parts or the Gee, Matthew Was Lucky event, you have to marvel at the mystery of life — and give thanks that there is any mystery at all.