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Sermon for May 25, 2014

Did You Really Mean Anything?
John 14:1-11

A number of years ago, the Associated Press ran a story about prayer. Unanswered prayer, really. People walking the Jersey Shore beaches began finding unopened letters bobbing in the surf. About 300 letters in all were sent to a New Jersey minister and ended up dumped in the ocean, most of them unopened. The minister had since died. Some of the letters dated back to 1973. According to several of the letters, they were intended to be placed on a church's altar and prayed over by the minister and the congregation.

These letters represented hundreds of lives with lots of struggle washed up on the beach. Half of the letters were too damaged to be legible. A few could still be read. For instance, there was one that said, “I'm still praying to hit the lottery twice: first the $50,000," one man wrote. "Then after some changes have taken place let me hit the millionaire." Another letter told on someone cheating on his wife, complete with dates, times and locations.

Many more were written by anguished spouses, children or widows, asking for help with relatives who were using drugs, hooked on gambling or being abused. One man wrote from prison, saying he was innocent and wanted to come back home to his family. A woman wrote that her boyfriend was closing the door to her daughter's bedroom each night when it used to stay open, and wondered why. A teenager poured out her heart on yellow-lined paper, begging God to forgive her. "There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about the mistake I made."

The entire collection of letters was eventually sold on eBay.

Prayer is like that for some people. For some, prayer is like pouring your heart out to God, only to find that the letters of your life were ignored or tossed aside, treated like trash or sold off to the highest bidder.  Many cry out to God with all their heart. They are truly suffering. Bad health, dashed hopes, struggles with work, distressed relationships, diminishing money – or all the above – we carry so much pain, suffering, and misery. The weight of it all can crush us. Why doesn’t God answer, help, or alleviate the suffering?

But then there are people who always get their prayers answered. Chris and I knew a praying couple – Doris and Jim. God and Doris and Jim chatted regularly, and God seemed to give Doris everything she asked for. I mean everything. I remember when Doris and Jim’s worn out Grand Marquis stopped running after 150,000 miles of wear and tear. Doris prayed for a buyer. The next day, while Jim and Doris were going about their daily routine, someone knocked on the door, asked if the car was for sale, and paid with cash. Now that their wheels were gone, Doris began praying for a new car. Not just for any car. She wanted another Grand Marquis. And it had to be red so she could find it in parking lots. Two days later, out of nowhere, someone offered them another newer Grand Marquis. Low mileage, and for the same amount they received from the old car . . .and it was red.

Prayer doesn’t seem to work like that for me. My prayers involve struggle. Sometimes when I pray, it doesn’t feel like God is listening or doing anything. Why doesn’t God answer all of my prayers?

The question is enough to make some people lose their faith. Ted Turner the media mogul, once received an award by the American Humanist Association for his work on behalf of the environment and world peace. At the banquet, Turner said he had a strict Christian upbringing and at one time considered becoming a missionary. Turner said he was saved seven or eight times, but he became let down with Christianity after his sister died, despite his prayers. Turner said the more he strayed from his faith, the better he felt.

My prayers aren’t always answered, either. When I was 9 years old, my hero was Spiderman. I wanted to Spiderman I grew up. I wanted to swing on webs that shot out of my wrists, and climb on walls, and fight bad guys. I would have settled for Batman. But I really, really wanted to be Spiderman. I would pray at night, “God, I want to be Spiderman. Please make me Spiderman.” To this day, I have received no radioactive, super spider bites.

But consider this. When I was in high school and preparing for college, wouldn’t it have been weird if my mother said, “Now you want to go to college?!? What are you talking about? When you were nine, you said you wanted to be a Spiderman! Your father and I spent all of our family’s money to buy that fancy red and blue spider suit, and the web-shooting contraption with all the special web fluid refills, and the videos on how to engage in wisecracking repartee with evil geniuses. We don’t have money for college.” I would have answered, “Mother, why did you do that? I was just a little kid when I said those things! You didn't really take me seriously, did you?” The good news is that my parents didn’t give me what I thought I wanted when I was 9 years old. They knew they could help me achieve what I really wanted — and needed — when I got older.

Jesus says something amazing in John 14. It’s downright unbelievable. He says, “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Do you mean that, Jesus? Do you really mean anything? Are you saying if I ask for something, and ask for it in your name, I’ll get it no matter what? If that’s correct, then why don’t my dreams become true? Why am I not a jet-setting billionaire by day and a web-slinging superhero by night? God, do you really mean anything? If you answer prayers, why didn’t you heal my loved ones when they were suffering with cancer? Why didn’t my grandmother make it through her open-heart surgery?

I hear it all the time. People don’t understand why their heartfelt prayers have gone unanswered -- people whose hearts have been broken, people whose trust has been shattered by Jesus' failure to keep his promise. And I hear two or three reasons – excuses really – that well-meaning preachers some up with to explain why. I’ve heard some ministers blame unsuccessful prayer for not being fully in Jesus' name. I’ve also heard preachers say that the unanswered prayer was not in accord with Jesus' will, or there was an element of doubt, or impatience or inability to see the real answer. These all may be accurate, but not helpful.

Is there is room in this relationship for honest acknowledgement of our confusion, our lack of power, our frustration when our prayers seem to go unheard?

Have you listened to a child pray recently? Most kids repeat what they are taught at church or at home — the Lord’s Prayer, or “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” , or “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Children learn by repeating what they hear. A woman invited some people to dinner. At the table she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” “I wouldn’t know what to say,” the little girl replied. “Just say what you hear Mommy say,” the mother replied. The little girl bowed her head and said, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Most childhood prayers are filled with thanks and blessings for all those in our families, and of course our many requests of God. They are simple, honest, and full of our trust in God. How many of you have heard a child bless everyone he or she can think of just to be able to stay up a little later each night? God bless mommy and daddy, grandma, the sun, my pet goldfish . . . I would go on and on!

In youth, some of our prayers changed to one-sided monologues. They expressed our needs, our desires, our demands! Give me this O God! Please make me skinnier, more popular, faster, smarter - O God, make him call today -God, convince mom and dad to buy me that car! You know the prayers I’m talking about. The prayer of my youth was a one-way street, a way of letting God know how I felt and what I wanted. God was someone I went to with my needs and fears, my hopes and hopelessness. I prayed because I wanted reassurance that I was not alone. The difficulty is that some of us stay in the stages of childhood or youth in our praying and never move into adult prayer, prayer that becomes not just something we do, but something we engage in, a dialogue with God.

Scripture expresses this relationship by encouraging us to pray in "Jesus’ name.” In Bible times, a person’s name was an expression of what that person was all about. When Jesus says to pray in his name, he doesn’t just mean we should mention the word “Jesus” here and there. He means that our prayers should represent what Jesus was all about — salvation, love and justice. Praying in Christ’s name means we try to understand what Jesus wants. We feel with his emotions. We want the things he wants. Praying in the name of Jesus means prayer in alignment with God’s desires. Praying in Jesus’ name assumes that we aren’t making requests about the petty things of life. We are aligning ourselves with God in such a way that what we pray for will bring glory to God when they are answered.

I guess that’s why God won’t turn me into Spiderman, or let my teams win sport events, or instantly shed 30 pounds from my body. God is not a genie in lamp. Prayer is not bargaining.  Prayer is not a vending machine where, if you put the right combination of words together, you can get just exactly the outcome you want.  Prayer is not the grocery list that we give to God in order to get what we want. We can't expect our prayers to be answered if they aren’t in harmony with what God wants to do in us and through us.

Prayer is communion with God.  If we want God to answer our prayers, we begin by aligning ourselves with what we know about God’s will and spirit. Prayer is a relationship in which we work hard to become more loving, more generous, more attentive and more compassionate. Prayer connects us with the heart of Christ – and God’s love for the least and the lowest.  As Process Theologian Marjorie Suchocki puts it, “God invites us to pray as willing partners in a great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character.”

There are some prayers that I think God always answers. If you feel like some of your prayers are not being heard, try one of these and see what happens:
God, bring me into contact with someone who needs to know your love
God, give me a desire to spend time with someone who is different than me.
God, use me to make life better for someone who is poor, or hungry, or naked, or thirsty, or sick, or in prison, or an enemy.
God, give us the ability to see human inequality and justice, and make us bold to do something about it.

You see, I think God prays, too. We call upon God. And God calls upon us. Human prayer reflects the innermost thoughts and desires of each person. In the same way, God’s prayer is an expression of divine will. What does God truly want? Maybe God wants us to know and live out the Spirit’s aims for the world. We can only get there in communion – in community – with God – in communication where we talk and pray together. So pray. Open yourself to a conversation with God. You just might find that you become the answer to God’s prayers for the world.

Sources:
http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prayer_unanswered.htm
Tony Camplo, http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/syatp/features/why.html
 “A Faith Worth Believing” - Why Pray?” A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Joan Withers Priest, First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT. http://fpcnc.org/08_15_04.html
Raymond Brown, “The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI,” AB, 636.
http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=930
http://www.sptimes.com/2006/11/03/Worldandnation/300_unanswered_prayer.shtml

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