The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
Tell us what we need to hear, O God, and show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
But, is it true? Does God really answer all your prayers? Did Jesus really mean to suggest that God will give us whatever we want?
Well, I think you will agree with me that these words seem too good to be true—everything we’ve asked for? This surely must be the best news since Aladdin’s Lamp. Only this time we don’t have to rub the lamp in order for the genie to come out and give us our heart’s desires. All we have to do is ask! Anything! Anytime! Anyplace!
Is that what the Scriptures are teaching us, or is it our modern spin on a series of Biblical teachings about prayer, a spin that confirms our culture’s ever-increasing appetite for more, bigger, greater, better? Part of our discerning, then, what is the purpose of prayer, is to properly identify what God does and what God does not do.
Consider, if you will, the issue of parking spaces. There is a sort of debate going on among people of faith, especially Christians, on whether or not God provides a parking space when you need it. Now, you visitors to Washington think this is a trivial matter. But Washingtonians know this is a very grave matter. This is almost life and death, and it is the ultimate test of the truth of divine providence. So some people say if you pray, God will indeed provide that parking space. It’s an image, a measure of God’s immeasurable love for you even for the smallest details. Other Christians say that God does not. Surely, the Creator of the Universe has more important things to do than to give you a parking space when there is a world of trouble going on. And then some others say that actually God sometimes does that, if you really need the space. In fact, if you need the space a few minutes before the morning liturgy, and you’re rushing in the vest for the Eucharist on Easter Sunday. I’m not speaking from experience. I just hear that that may be the case.
But yet, it does point out to us, although that parking issue may be trivial, it exposes the real issue for us, which is the purpose of prayer: Why do we pray? What is it all about? If prayer were synonymous with giving God our wish list of desires, and God faithfully giving us whatever we ask, then everyone would be praying.
I recall several years ago some comics in the New Yorker Magazine, the best comics in the world. There were a series of comics that showed a wealthy man on his knees at night in his pajamas, praying at his bedside. And in one of them the man is saying, “Well, Lord, we really would like to have you on board for the AT&T deal.” And then, in a later comic he’s just praying, “I want it all.”
Well, more commonly, our prayers kind of go like this: You’re facing the final exam, and you haven’t had the opportunity due to other extra curricular pursuits to spend the amount of time on that exam studying that you wanted, so you pray. You pray hard. You need this exam. Or it’s back home, facing the parents. But then the professor grading the exam knows that you’re prayers were not answered. Where was God?
Or a church prays for the full recovery of a beloved member suffering severe injuries from an automobile accident. It doesn’t look good, but sure enough, a few weeks later, the person makes a complete recovery! The doctors call it a miracle. Was it prayer? Why did God do it?
Or a father prays hard that he keeps his job in this next series of layoffs so that he can pay the family’s bills. But sure enough some weeks later, he does get the pink slip. He’s out of a job. And some months later the banks come and foreclose on the mortgage. Where was God? What about his prayer?
Our experience of prayer is more like those examples. And let us tell the truth. We simply have no idea what God will do as a result of our praying. Prayer does not seem to normally change the course of events, the natural order of things. So, why do it?
I want to make two statements about prayer this morning.
The first statement is that prayer is not a so-called spiritual exercise of presenting to God a laundry list of desires, of perceived needs. But it is, in fact, about cultivating a relationship, a satisfying, intimate relationship with our Creator. That’s the first thing.
The second is this. Prayer is not essentially about begging God, bargaining with God, bending the will of God, toward our will. But it is in fact the opposite. It is molding us to conform to the adventurous joy of living in God’s will.
If those two things are true, that prayer is not essentially about telling God what we want God to do, but it is about a relationship; and it is about bending our desires and wills to conform with God’s—then we can say that prayer is not an easy thing. It is, in fact, difficult.
Abraham Heschel once observed that prayer requires education, training, reflection, and contemplation. It is not enough to join others. It is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instance of meditation, moments of devotion.
It took most of a century to build this Cathedral. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to build the Cathedral within in your own soul. But that is not an easy thing to do. It requires and assumes a relationship in which you invite God, that Holy Other, Holy Divine, Awe-filled, All-full God, to enter the very center of your person, to speak there, to touch the sensitive core of your being, to see things that you would prefer to remain hidden from view.
And therein lies the difficulty. Who wants to do that? When are you really prepared to be so open, so vulnerable, so bare before this powerful Other that you would submit your entire life to this God, whom you’re not sure perhaps even exists. And if you’re sure that he exists, you don’t trust this God to really provide for you. When are you prepared to open up everything?
Perhaps you would open the door enough, just enough to allow this God to say something, or to touch something. Perhaps you’d open the door enough to just come to a worship service, or participate in a Eucharist, or engage with the family prayer. Just enough.
But to let God into that place where your life gets its form, well that’s dangerous. That’s a danger to all that you’ve imagined your life to be. It’s a danger to the illusions that you have of what you need in order to have a good life.
And so we defend ourselves. That’s right. Even people of faith. We defend ourselves against God. And our first line of defense? We can’t pray. We don’t know how to pray. We don’t have time to pray. We’ve refused to pray.
Is it any wonder then that mid-way through his earthly ministry, the Disciples who had been with Jesus for a couple of years said, “Lord, teach us to pray. We’ve seen you pray, and we know, as a result of your praying, what God is able to do through you. But we’re scared. We can’t do that. We think it will require more changes of us than we are able to do. We are just not at that place where you are, Lord. You better teach us to pray, because we can’t do it.”
And so our Lord answered them, “When you pray say, ‘Our Father in heaven, or Loving Mother (it makes no difference), may your name be held in awe. Hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come. Your will be done in me, in my family, in my marriage, in my house, in my neighborhood, my city, in this country, one earth, as it is in heaven. Give us, all of us, the bread that we need, just what we need today. And forgive all those wrongs that we do. Help us to forgive all the others who have wronged us. Save us in times of trial, in times of great difficulty. Deliver us from every evil.” And later the Church added, “for yours in the kingdom, O God, not ours, yours is the power, not ours. Yours is the glory, not us. Now and forever. Amen.”
Charlotte felt very alone in that hospital room. She was in pain. It wasn’t just the physical pain. It was the pain of life. How could it be that she in her thirties would be so ill that she is to leave three young kids? The reports came back, not good. The chemotherapy has not reduced the tumor. The cancer has spread. She was angry. She was lost. So afraid, she’s never known fear like that, at any time in her life. And it’s almost in her anger as she’s told this story; it’s almost in the midst of it when she gave maybe the first heart-felt prayer of her life. And it wasn’t good: “O God, how could you? It’s so unfair. I don’t want this.” And in the midst of her anger she reports that somewhere in that prayer she felt a presence. It was a divine presence. She couldn’t describe it, other than the fact that it seemed like the very arms of God began to enfold her. She railed against it. She did not want God to hold her like that. She wanted to be angry with God. She was like my oldest son at a certain point where he didn’t want to be held by his dad in public, or even in private any more. When they get to that age, he just didn’t want it. But he wanted it. If I had answered his prayer to go away from him, it would not have answered his prayer. Charlotte felt the arms of God enfold her, holding her, hugging her. And she melted. She gave herself over to the arms of God. She gave all. Her prayer then went behind her thoughts, behind her emotions, beyond her desires. She only wanted to be in that presence, and when she found the presence, she knew that her life had meaning. And just as assuredly, her death would have meaning. And she knew that our Lord would be with her, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who tasted death would die with her. And just as he was raised to new life, he would raise her to new life.
Deep prayer gets us there. In deep prayer, the prayer of contemplation, centering prayer, we give all. And, yes, you can pray that prayer. You, too, can learn to pray, just as the Disciples learned to pray.
Jesus said, “Ask, with all your heart, and what you are searching for will be given to you. Seek, go on a search, step out on faith, you will find what you are looking for. Knock, and that door will be opened.” My prayer is that your prayer may flow from the heart of God through your own heart, but not stop there, throughout the whole world, so that all may come to know the transforming love of God.
To Him be all glory and praise and honor. Amen.