Sunday, July 25, 2010

Text of Sunday Sermon

Luke 11:1-13
Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me…
James Sledge                              --                                July 25, 2010

When we were down in South Carolina a couple of weeks ago for my mother-in-law’s birthday, I hit the scan button on the radio to find a local station.  The pickings were a bit slim, so when I heard a Beatles song, I stopped it there. 
Sometime later, they played a song I haven’t heard in years.  It was Janis Joplin singing a cappella, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?  My friends all drive Porches, I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”  A second verse asks for a color TV, but I think I like the third verse best.  “Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?  I'm counting on you, Lord, please don't let me down. Prove that you love me and buy the next round, Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?”
We laugh at the lyrics because the requests are so patently absurd, and yet they are not so unlike some of my own prayers. 
Who among us hasn’t, at some point, prayed to win the lottery, or, if like me you’ve never actually gotten around to buying a lottery ticket, prayed to come into a big chunk of change by some other means? 
What sort of things do you pray for?  Do you expect God to meet your requests?  What does it mean if God doesn’t do as you ask?
When I was growing up, I somehow got the notion that getting what you prayed for was a good measure of your faith.  If you believed in Jesus, really believed and didn’t doubt, it would happen.  Which of course meant that failed prayers could be traced back to your doubt or lack of faith.
My childhood notions of faith and prayer had a nice parallel in Santa Claus.  You asked Santa to bring you stuff, and getting that stuff was contingent on you believing in Santa Claus.  A failure to do so could jeopardize you Christmas morning haul.  There was also that business about being good.  Santa is apparently a pretty lenient judge, but being bad could also interfere with getting your Christmas list filled.
Now at first glance Santa Claus looks to be a pretty powerful and influential dude.  He has all kinds of magical powers and abilities, and he can influence the behavior of millions of children.  But it occurs to me that Santa isn’t actually in charge of very much.  There’s a formula or contract that he’s a part of, and if children work the system right, he has to run himself ragged doing what they want.  In this whole Santa Claus business, Santa isn’t really the one in charge.  It’d the kids.
I think that our notions about prayer sometimes reveal a similar sort of Christian faith, one where we are in charge and God is under contract to us.  As long as we meet the terms of the contract, God has no choice but to give us the goodies.
And that brings me back to what we pray for and how we expect God to respond.  Our prayers say a great deal about our image of God and of ourselves.  They give some pretty good clue as to what lies at the very core of our faith.
When you ask Christians about the core of their faith, most folks will give answers that in some way place God or Jesus at the center.  But when you ask questions about prayer, it gets a lot more varied.  And our answers to questions on prayer sometimes describe a faith where we are at the center, and God, like Santa Claus, is supposed to do our bidding.
Now it is true that Jesus says faith no bigger than a mustard seed would allow us to move mountains.  Faith can accomplish tremendous things.  But I don’t think Jesus means that having enough faith turns God into a cosmic Santa.  And today’s reading helps Jesus’ followers understand what sort of tremendous things to pray for.
When we are at the center of faith everything is measured by how it impacts us.  Am I happy?  Do I have enough?  Am I going to heaven?  Is my life fulfilled and meaningful?  The questions tend to be different in different times and cultures because they are our questions and our notions of happiness and fulfillment shape them. 
But when his followers ask Jesus for prayer lessons, the model prayer he gives them doesn’t function this way.  It starts by praising God.  Then it asks that things on earth be set right.  That’s what “Your kingdom come” means.  It is asking that things on earth conform to God’s will.  And when this prayer finally gets to the wish list part, the requests are very modest, enough for the day, God’s forgiveness contingent on our forgiveness to those who have hurt us, and protection from temptation or judgment.  There are no sports cars, no color TVs, no “the good life.”  Rather it is a prayer for a simple life where God provides all we need and our world is reshaped to become the sort of place God intends it to be.
Jesus gone on to encourage us to be persistent in prayer, saying that if we know how to give good things to our children how much more God can be counted on to give good things to us.  But if God is the parent and we are the children, that would seem to presume that God gets to decide what is best for us.
I have known the occasional parents who seem to think that their children get to decide what is best for them and the parents’ job is simply to provide whatever it takes to keep them happy.  Such parents are usually perpetually frustrated by the impossibility of this task.  Their children tend to make everyone around them miserable.  And the children themselves are usually frustrated and unhappy to boot.
It turns out that children rarely know what will actually make them happy.  They rarely can perceive what is actually best for them.  We adults are often only marginally better, and we engage in all sorts of self destructive activity that we hope will make us happy.  And yet I still make judgments about God based on how well God responds to what I think is best for me, on whether or not God responds to me in the way I would like. 
I saw an article the other day that suggested that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray they weren’t looking for a better prayer technique or pose.  What motivated the disciples’ request was seeing the intimacy Jesus had with God.  They were asking, in essence, “Lord, teach us how to love and trust the Father the way you do, that our prayer lives would increase in fullness and honesty.”[1]
You know, we church people are often a funny sort.  We are drawn to God.  We feel a genuine pull to connect with God.  Yet we often seem frightened of getting too close.  We want to enlist God in our lives and our causes, but we resist turning our lives over to God.  We resist the very thing the disciples saw in Jesus and wanted for themselves.  Often churches have abetted this problem, failing to demonstrate a faith that would prompt anyone to notice our intimacy with God and say, “Teach us to love and trust God the way you do.”
I love the Church.  But from time to time, the Church might do well stop worrying about doctrines, rules, worship styles, and politics, and get back to Jesus, to gaze lovingly and longingly on the person of Jesus.  What if we set aside all notions of what faith and Church are about?  What if we let go of all our images and expectations of God and simply gazed on the face of God in this 1st Century, Palestinian Jew?  What if we dwelled there long enough that like those first disciples, we started to long for the same sort of trust and intimacy with God?  Might we be able to say with them, “Oh Lord, teach us to love and trust the Father as you do, that our prayer lives would increase in fullness and honesty, that your presence and love would become so palpable here that others would long to become more like us.”
Make it so, God; make it so.

[1] Peter W. Marty, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, July 13, 2010, Vol. 127, No. 14, p. 21

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