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.