Sermon preached March 27, 2011
Texts: James 5:13-18; Philippians 4:6-7; Matthew 7:7-11
So help me complete the phrase – “Like a good neighbor…. (State Farm is there).” Here is today’s trivia fact – this song was written by Barry Manilow in 1971. So how many of you have seen the recent State Farm commercials? You sing the song and, abracadabra, there is your State Farm agent, or a sandwich, or the girl from 4c, or Bob Barker with a new car.
I am guessing many of us would like God and prayer to work that way. Marjorie Suchocki in In God’s Presence identifies this kind of thinking. We sometimes seem to imagine God as equivalent to the great genie in Aladdin’s bottle, with prayer as the magic rubbing that draws the genie forth to do our bidding (16). She says we may also “hold an attitude toward God and prayer that seemingly casts us in the role of dictating our memo for the day to our divine secretary, who is then to translate the memo from words to action” (16).
We would like God to be our genie in the bottle or our personal secretary. We would pray the James Brown prayer – Please, please, please. Praying like that we may instead imagine God as the “divine egoist,” another Marjorie Suchocki phrase. We imagine God already knows what we need, but God likes to be asked. It is as if the divine ego needs to be stroked in a particularly pleasing way for God to respond to the petitioner’s request…. If we use the correct formula, the right adjectives, then God will be pleased and will answer us. (16)
Is this really who God is and how God works? God is a good neighbor, and God is there, but God is not like the State Farm commercials. At least that is not my experience of God. Neither is this “God as genie” very theologically astute or biblically accurate. I think Marjorie Suchocki says it better. God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes the way the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation. (18-19)
Prayer changes the world – not magically, not like a genie in a bottle. God meets the world where it is. God works with the world as it is, with its own power. God seeks to persuade the world in the direction of its own good. At the heart of prayer is transformation.
At the heart of prayer is also relationship. God bids us to pray, invites us to pray, inspires us to pray…. Prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character. (Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 28-29). Marjorie Suchocki again, and her words will appear here a lot today as we are reading her book together. There are still plenty of copies available and I encourage you to buy and read this book.
The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation, a deepening relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, and being transformed by God’s love. The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation and asking and interceding are important in that.
When we pray “asking” prayers we confront our deepest hopes, hurts, needs, fears, sorrows, joys, and dreams. When we ask and intercede, we identify places in the world where we want to see change – healing, well-being, justice, reconciliation, peace. So we pray. So we ask.
The Bible certainly encourages prayers of asking and intercession. Jesus encourages: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you…. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?... How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Paul, in Philippians, writes to encourage as well. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Yet a third New Testament writer, the author of James, offers advice for when a person is hurting or ill. Are there any among you suffering? They should pray…. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…. The prayer of faith will save the sick…. Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. There are images here which suggest God the genie or divine secretary, but we know that prayer is not like that – not like the genie or a vending machine. Jesus says that God will give good things, but what is best in complex situations is often difficult to determine. God offers the highest good in every situation, but there is no guarantee we will respond to God’s persuasive power. Paul encourages prayer, and then says that peace will be the end result – not necessarily getting just what we want. James says the prayer of faith will save the sick, and while I believe prayers for healing are important, they also take place in a human context and one fact about human life is that it will end for each of us at some time. Some prayer for healing will finally fail, or better, will be answered with a healing on the other side of this life.
Still, we are encouraged to pray. So we pray. So we ask.
We pray for our own lives. Among the important prayers for our lives are prayers for forgiveness and prayers for transforming grace. Using the prayer of Jesus as our model, a prayer we pray every week, we ask for forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We often pray, “Forgive us the wrong we have done, As we forgive those who have wronged us.” A few years ago, I began, with some regularity, to use the language of “sin” in my praying of the prayer that Jesus taught. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” It helped me grasp more adequately the hurt that I sometimes cause, even without intending it. It helped me grab hold of the hurt I sometimes feel. The need for forgiveness is real. The need to forgive is important. Marjorie Suchocki: Impulses toward confession are God’s way of leading one past the block of one’s sin toward a richer and deeper self lived within communal interdependence…. Confession… unblocks us, opening us up for our good (73).
Another important prayer for my life, a prayer for transforming grace, is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. It is really misnamed. It is not a prayer for serenity; it is a prayer for grace, at least as Niebuhr first penned it in 1943. God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, front piece). I pray for God’s grace, and in that grace serenity in the face of things that cannot be changed. I pray for God’s grace, and in that grace courage to change things that should be changed – in myself and in the world. I pray for grace, and in that grace wisdom.
We pray for others. We pray for their well-being. Marjorie Suchocki: In God we meet…. Praying for another’s well-being allows God to weave us into that other’s well-being. In this manner we become part of those for whom we pray, and they become part of us. (46, 47) We pray for their healing, even as we know that something will end life for each of us. Still we pray for healing, pray prayers of healing right to the end. We even pray for others who may not be our favorite people. We pray for enemies. I appreciate Marjorie Suchocki’s honest way of praying for those we may not love praying for. Oh God, I wish they would rot in hell, but I pray for their well-being anyway, and ask you to forgive my own evil wishes even though I prefer to keep on wishing them; God help us both. Amen. (54)
We pray for our church. I hope this is a significant part of each of our praying. Our prayers for our church make possible new things for our life together. God works with our church as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the church is, and therefore changes the way the church can be. Prayer opens the church to its own transformation. In The United Methodist Book of Worship (504), there is a prayer for the church that I am particularly fond of, a prayer composed by the twentieth-century social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Though he died in 1918, this prayer, in its beginning, feels very contemporary. O God of all times and places, we pray for your Church, which is set today amid the perplexities of a changing order, and face to face with new tasks. Baptize her afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. We would do well to pray for our church regularly, that God would baptize our congregation afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.
We pray for our world. The world as it is is not where we would like it to be. Too many go hungry. Too many resort to violence and too many suffer violence. Human resources don’t seem enough ordered toward a common good. The resources of the planet are not being well-managed. We pray for our world. We pray for peace, justice, reconciliation, care of the planet. We pray for courage to change the things that should be changed. We take this kind of praying seriously. Marjorie Suchocki warns: Be careful for what you pray, for God may use you in addressing those things for which you pray…. Prayer creates a channel in the world through which God can unleash God’s will toward well-being. Prayer puts you in the way of that channel, and you will become part of God’s rolling waters. (52)
The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation. Prayer as asking - asking for our lives, for others, for church and world - can deepen our relationships to God and to others. Prayer as asking changes us and changes the world. There is one final thing I want to say about prayer as asking, and again use Marjorie Suchocki to help me say it. When we pray, we release our prayers to God, and that is important. We trust that God prompts the prayer for purposes that are deeper than we can know. Thus we release each prayer to the God who receives it…. Released prayer is more like breathing, it takes the same depth of one’s heart’s concern to God, offering it and releasing it, offering it and releasing it. To release prayer is to count on the fact that it is God who receives and deals with this prayer, not oneself. To release our prayers is to recognize that we do not control what God does with our prayers. (35)
In everything pray. It is like our spiritual breathing. In the end, because we pray, our world will be different. Our lives will be different. We will know a peace that goes beyond our comprehension. If we hear a “please, please, please” in prayer, perhaps it is not just our own asking. Perhaps it is also God’s invitation to prayer. Amen.