Richard R. Crocker
Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-13
You may have heard this joke. Forgive me if you have.
A man was driving down the street in a sweat because he had an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking place. Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, please help me find a parking place. If you do, I’ll go to church every Sunday and I‘ll give up alcohol, I promise. Suddenly, a parking place appeared. The man looked up again and said, “Never mind. I found one.”
This sermon is about prayer. Prayer is something that all of us know about and that many of us practice. Yet there is a great deal of confusion among religious people about the efficacy of prayer, about its purpose and its practice. I hope this sermon will help you think about prayer more clearly and perhaps value it more dearly.
Today’s scripture lessons provide two stories – two models, if you will, of prayer. The Old Testament lesson describes Abraham’s conversation with God, in which Abraham essentially argues with God and convinces God to change his mind. God intends to destroy the wicked city of Sodom. Abraham challenges God, saying that God should not do such a thing – God should not destroy both the righteous and the sinful together. So Abraham essentially bargains, getting God to agree to spare the city if 50 righteous people can be found in it, and slowly increasing the pressure until God agrees to spare the whole city if only ten righteous people can be found in it. Now we may not at first think of this story as a story about prayer – but it is. Indeed, there is no more direct definition of prayer than conversation with God – and this story is one of the most dramatic conversations with God recorded in scripture.
The New Testament lesson presents a different model. Responding to his disciples’ request that Jesus teach them to pray, as he does, he offers the words, the guide, that we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. But Jesus immediately follows those words with two parables – one about the importunate man, who, suddenly needing bread in the middle of the night goes to his neighbor and bangs on the door until the neighbor gets up and answers his request. Then he follows that with another parable, also centering on asking: which of you will give your child a snake instead of food? And Jesus comments that if we human beings, sinful as we are, know how to give good things to our children, how much more does our heavenly Father give his own Holy Spirit to those who ask.
Now, to any thoughtful person, these passages are problematic. They raise some very basic questions, among which are these:
Can anyone actually speak to God and get an answer, almost have a conversation, as Abraham did?
Why does God need to be told what to do, or persuaded? Is Abraham more compassionate than God? Doesn’t this contradict the view of the heavenly father who Jesus says knows far better than we do what is good for us?
Indeed, why do we need to ask at all? And certainly – why do we have to cajole? Why do we have to keep bargaining with God, or keep banging on the door? Is that the model of prayer that we really need? Isn’t asking once enough?
And what is this promise about asking and getting, seeking and finding, knocking and having it opened to us? Doesn’t that contradict everyone’s experience of asking and not getting, seeking and not finding, knocking and not having the door opened?
As you see, there are many questions that arise – more than I can answer. But it is important to try to answer them. Otherwise, the practice of prayer may seem confusing, or empty, or even foolish. A friend of mine, who is not particularly religious, decided his young son needed some religious training and took him to Sunday School. Because the boy was young, and this was his first time, his father sat in the class with him. The teacher told them to close their eyes, and she said a prayer. The little boy opened his eyes, looked around and asked his father, “Who are we talking to?” That is a good question, and it is one we people who pray should be prepared to try to answer.
It’s not only important, but essential. Prayer is not an optional part of Christian practice. It is essential. Indeed, William James concluded in his monumental study of the Variety of Religious Experience that “prayer … is the very soul and essence of religion.” (464) indeed, he says, “Religion is nothing if it be not the vital act by which the entire mind seeks to save itself by clinging to the principle from which it draws its life. This act is prayer”
Since it is so important, let me make some general statements about prayer, which will not answer all the questions we have raised, but which will perhaps shed light on some of them.
First, prayer is not just one thing. There are many different kinds of prayer and many different kinds of pray-ers. Some people take a very narrow, even a simplistic, view of prayer. For them, it is asking God for what they want or need. While most of us would consider such prayer limited or immature, it is certainly an element of prayer to which many people bear testimony. Indeed, if we take the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern, it certainly is asking: asking for God’s kingdom to come, asking for daily bread, asking for forgiveness. The scripture is clear that prayer involves asking: asking the neighbor to wake up; a child asking for food; Abraham asking God to have mercy. But most of us, through experience, gain perspective on what we need and what we should ask for. Have you ever witnessed a parent in a grocery store with a small child who is asking for everything in sight? I want this, I want that – perhaps squalling and throwing a tantrum when the parent says no. I’m sure all of us have seen this behavior in other people’s children. It’s a difficult job for a parent to teach a child to restrain its own desires. It’s a lesson that some of us never learn. But contrast that with another style of child-rearing, one I have also observed, in which the parent says to the young child, “If you ever ask for anything, you will not get it. Do not ever ask. I will give you something if I want you to have it, but if you ask for it, you will never get it.” You don’t believe that happens? Yes it does. Which is better: to demand everything, or to be afraid to ask for anything? One type of prayer is asking. But we grow in wisdom about what we ask for as we learn what is truly good and needful and desirable.
But what about asking for things we truly want and need and desire, and not receiving them? All of us pray for our children’s health and happiness; sometimes they are not healthy and happy. We pray for violence to end; sometimes it does not. We pray for healing and for relief from pain. Sometimes it does not happen. But sometimes it does. Often it does. At such times, we remember the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane – when he prayed that he would not have to be crucified. Nevertheless, he said, not my will, but thine be done. There are situations in life that we must endure and get through. In such situations, we pray for strength. And it has been my experience that when I have prayed for strength it has always been given.
It is true, as William James says, that we believe that something happens in prayer. It is not just idle chatter. Rather, he says, “Through prayer, religion insists, things which cannot be realized in any other manner come about: energy which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part … of the world of facts.” (466) Or, as the popular slogan goes, prayer changes things. Can prayer really change things? Yes, it can. That is what the story of Abraham we read today insists. By praying for the people of Sodom, by imploring God’s mercy, we are told that God’s mercy was shown. Now, of course, this story of Abraham’s bargaining with God is not intended to show the goodness of Abraham: it is intended to show the goodness of God, and to show we can cooperate with God’s mercy. Often it is true in this world that God’s work depends upon us. If we ignore a friend in need, we cannot criticize God for failing to show mercy. If we respond to need, then we are showing God’s mercy, even if we think we are showing our own righteousness. Prayer, opening ourselves up to God and to the world, changes things and changes us. As James says, it unleashes energy. It is part of a pattern of energy so complex that we can scarcely understand it.
But though prayer can change us, and change things, it cannot change everything. For example, prayer cannot change what has happened in the past. I can only change our attitude toward it, and the consequences from it.
A series of experiments a few years ago about the effect of prayer on healing produced startling results and later much controversy. Severely ill patients were divided into two groups. Half of them were prayed for; the other half not. The ones who were prayed for were not aware of the prayers. Yet their rate of healing was faster and more complete than those who were not prayed for. Now this seems like a highly unethical experiment. And its results have been disputed. And it raises troubling questions about those who were prayed for but who did not get well. But this experiment, and others like it, does seem to suggest that what pray-ers have always known is somehow true – prayer changes things; it has effects on us, on other people, on the world. (Larry Dossey: Healing Words and the Power of Prayer is one book that summarizes and discusses some of these controversial experiments.)
I said before that there are many types of prayer. One is asking for things. But the greatest kind of prayer is the kind of prayer that is all-pervasive gratitude. It is the kind of prayer that sees God present in all things, at work in all things, redeeming all things – even those things which are apparently unredeemable. It is a prayer of gratitude that enlists us, in all our energies, to be peace-makers, lovers, teachers, forgivers - to be instruments of God’s goodness and mercy.
And prayer, though it transcends our words, nonetheless requires them. We Protestants have often been disdainful of “empty ritual” – as perhaps we should be. Yet there is something worthy in being taught to pray. The prayer of gratitude at meals is a protestant custom in danger of loss. If my friend had taught his son “God is great” at home, from the beginning, then the boy would have known who they were talking to. At times we need the words of memory – the Lord’s Prayer, a ritual blessing. But, as it grows in us, prayer becomes synonymous with breathing, acknowledging God in every breath, in joy and sorrow, and, in faith, when our last breath is drawn. Amen.