"Cosmic Vending Machine?"
Calvary - St. George's Church
A couple years ago I played in a co-ed flag football tournament on the Gettysburg battlefield. Me and seminarians from all over the East Coast came together at Gettysburg Lutheran to compete in the ‘Luther Bowl.’ Over the course of that day, I caught the eye of cute seminarian from Princeton Theological Seminary. (Well, not really. It was the other way around, but whatever!) Having played her team in the championship game, I worked myself up to ask for her number. I knew that at the end of the tournament all of the teams would gather for drinks. This would be my chance. It’d be time to cash in. Time to deliver. Only, when it was time to come together the Princeton Seminary kids never showed up. They’d peaced out early. My opportunity stripped away.
But that did little to deter my younger self. Arriving back in Pittsburgh it was midterms week, but instead of studying I was on the internet trying to find the girl whose name I’d never asked for. My friend said it would be impossible. That only strengthened my resolve. And after hours and hours of stalking, I mean searching, I found her. (Don’t ask me how. I remember being ready to give up only moments earlier, but I had done the impossible.) I had to send her a message now. So I put something together. Tried to follow all the rules: be funny, brief, and direct-ish. And pressed send. And then waited. And waited. And waited... What was I expecting? This girl hadn’t even noticed me, and this was all so creepy.
But then, days later, lo and behold, a red notification box appeared at the top right of my Facebook window. It was a message. It was from her. My shameless persistence had paid off!
In this morning’s Gospel Lesson, we see another picture of shameless persistence. (Yes, that is my transition. Shameless, get it?) But, no really, in today’s reading, we see another instance of troublesome persistence. Jesus is inviting his disciples to petition God with boldness. The author of Luke is encouraging us to pray unrelentingly. Why? Because--as this text makes clear--God indeed responds to the prayers of his children.
Now, this is not the first time I’ve read this passage. It’s not even the first time I’ve preached on it. So I’ve known about it’s message for quite some time now. Nevertheless, I still don’t pray as often as I should. And never mind should. I still don't even pray as much as I’d like to.
In an interview with the Paris Review, the memoirist Mary Karr talked about her own experience of prayer. She said that “Prayer lessens fear. It reduces self-consciousness, [and when I] attend [to it] I kind of forget myself. It’s strange though,” she continued, “I know [that] praying a steady hour a day would make me a happier human unit, but I don’t do it. Do you know why?” “No,” said the interviewer. “Me neither.”
Now I don't know about you, but I deeply resonate with that sentiment. And, especially after reading passages of Scripture like today’s, I too wonder why I don’t force myself to pray more. Undoubtedly, it’s lack in my life has a lot to do with laziness. Distraction too. My slavish need to be productive (or a busybody) in order to matter also has something to do with it. But still there are also moments when I’ve had my coffee, I’m focused, content, and not even at all bored by the prospect, and I still don't do it.
I used to think this lack of prayer suggested a lack of faith-and it’s not not that-but I’ve also come to believe that one of the main reasons that I don’t pray like I want to, is that I’m afraid to get myself all worked up to receive something only to be disappointed. I fear getting myself all excited, only to be left hanging.
Admittedly my fear of being disappointed in prayer stems from a faulty understanding of how it works. I think that I’m probably not alone in unconsciously believing that God is like a cosmic vending machine. You know you put in enough quarters, out pops the Snicker’s bar. I put in enough prayers, I get what I prayed for.
But, in my defence, you can see why passages like the one that we just read might reinforce this kind of thinking. Check out the beginning of our reading’s third paragraph, "So I say to you,” says Jesus, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Boom. There it is, if I keep putting in my prayer dollars eventually I'll get the Coca-Cola.
Now, trust me, I am by no means trying to be flippant or to belittle Scripture. I'm well aware that we late-modern Westerners would do well to err a bit more toward the divine in-breaking side of the open/closed universe spectrum (a spectrum I just made up). And, it’s true, the primary purpose of this passage is to encourage us to petition God boldly and unrelentingly, but this still doesn't mean that we get everything that we want if we just pester him enough. How do we know this? Well, even sidelining human experience for minute, we’ve got to keep in mind that this passage isn’t the only word on prayer in the Bible. There are many words. You see the Scriptures talk to each other. This passage is in interaction with other passages. Biblical theologians call this a dialectic. Earlier in the Scriptures we saw Job denied his request for deliverance from suffering, later we’ll read about St. Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ not taken away despite his numerous petitions. And, just a few chapters later, in this very same book where we hear that if you ask you’ll receive, we’ll see Jesus’ request for ‘this cup to be taken away from me’ denied.
Now I'm sure that, for many times in my life, most of my prayers weren’t answered because nine-tenths of them were petty, selfish, and/or ultimately not good for me in the long run. And when I say nine-tenths I don't just mean prayers from when I was ten years-old, but 90% of my (like) today prayers too.
But other times I've prayed for good things. Things for others even. Things that I'm pretty sure were in line with God’s will. You know ‘not my will but yours be done.’ And yet, nothing.
But before I go on any further I have to pause and admit that I’m a glass half empty kind of guy. (So, full disclosure.) This despite the fact that I've lived a pretty good life, and the larger reality that there have been fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world for quite some time and we’re still here. (See, depressing.) Now maybe you're a glass half full kind of person, and you don't understand what the heck I'm talking about… Bless you. I need you... But, and you already know what I'm going to say, but at the same time, there are a lot of unanswered prayers out there. One need not look far, just look at the tragedies that have taken place over the last few weeks. Just look at the oppressive systems that have been in place for decades.
So what does it mean when Luke tells us to ask, seek, and knock, and that if we do so we’ll receive, find, and be let in? What does it mean when the good things that we pray for, you know those prayers we pray ten percent of the time--that appear to be what God says he wants for us and our neighbor--and they aren't provided?
(Now I trust that none of you believe the lies often told on TV that unanswered prayer merely reveals a lack of faith. Bogus. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” was also a prayer that Jesus answered.)
But if we can't point to a ready answer for unanswered prayer, what can we do? What can we say? Well, you guessed it: I most certainly don't have easy answers. But our best theologians, who all say that it's ultimately an unanswerable question, still think we can say a word or two on the matter. For, as they point out, the problem of unanswered prayer seems to reveal that the powers of Sin and Death that Christ defeated at the Cross have been allowed to remain at large reeking their havoc. They also say that some prayer left unanswered is consistent with the fact that God does let us go it our own way if we’d like. He's no puppeteer of humans, after all.
Nevertheless, today’s reading and the overall witness of Scripture reveal that the all-powerful God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ wants us to pray. This all-knowing God of the universe may know what we are going to pray before we say it, but He has decided that he is going to work out his purposes through what we decide to pray. [#Mindblown--“time is a flat circle” stuff right there.]... Origen, one of the great early church theologians of the Christian East, put it this way: “God has chosen that your prayer is going to be a part of a set of causes that makes things happen. So, you’d better get on with it.”
And while you might be tempted to take that line of reasoning too far and become anxious and debilitated because you know you don’t pray enough, Origen isn’t trying to take us there. He’s merely inviting you and me to what Jesus was inviting his disciples to do: to be troublesomely persistent in our engagement with God.
For all of this talk about persistence with our heavenly Father ultimately betrays a much larger truth about prayer. For, you see, prayer is about much more than getting the things that we want. It’s even about more than receiving what we need (or having troublesome situations taken away). Our passage talks about persistence so much because prayer is ultimately about connecting with God. It’s about entering into communion with a being, with a person, (not a cosmic vending machine, a person) who is not far off and removed but is always right here. What’s more, he’s completely sufficient in himself and has no need of relationship, but desires it anyway with you and with me.
And our most persistent men and women of prayer tell us that when we are persistent, that when we attend to our relationship with God, fear is lessened, self-consciousness is reduced, and, in the words of Martin Luther, we’re equipped to attend to the business of the day.
Maybe some of this strikes a chord in you, but you’re still hesitant to get back into prayer. Maybe there was something, or someone, that you really wanted, something good, and you prayed and prayed, and it didn’t happen. Or maybe you prayed for someone that you loved, but they did not get better. Or maybe you’ve been more recently turned off to prayer by those who so readily offer their ‘thoughts and prayers’ after national tragedies, but aren’t interested in anything else.
Fair enough. Valid hesitations. But don’t cut yourself off from the One who’s always there. Don’t cut yourself off from the One who, in the words of the black church during the Civil Rights Movement, continues to make a way out of no way. Don’t cut yourself off from the One whose own prayer was left unanswered in Gethsemane for your sake and mine. From the the One who understands. From the One who knows what it’s like to bear a Cross.
And so, may the same Lord who invites us to be troublesomely persistent with him, break down our valid hesitations (and our laziness, boredom, and distractions) and create in us willing hearts to get on with it.