Does God really answer prayer?

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1 Does God really answer prayer? By the Rev. Lillian Daniel General Synod, July 14, 2003 Minneapolis, Minn. This sermon today is for the real world, for those 95 percent of us who struggle with what it means to live as faithful followers of Jesus, and get it right about 5 percent of the time. For those of us who trust that God is still speaking... but stumble at the part where we're still supposed to be listening. This word is for all of us who look for love in the wrong places, fall for get-rich-quick schemes, put more trust in doctors than in God and live in a world where health care is lavished on the rich and denied to the working poor. This word is for the broken people... and here we are gathered today. Can you get what you want? To this group on this day, Jesus is still saying, "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." For us God? For me? We could have whatever we want? Could that really be true? "Yes," someone is saying in this room. "I've had times in my life where prayer has been answered in ways that amazed me and that's why I'm here today. There I was in the tiny little hospital chapel. And there I was so wrung out with waiting rooms, so exhausted from watching the IV drip that I fell on my knees and just cried and begged God to rally all the angels around the hands of that surgeon, to bathe the bodies of the healers in Holy Spirit fire, and all of a sudden I felt the breath of Jesus on my heart telling me we would all go home together again, and so we did. "Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. That day I asked God and it was done." But somewhere else in this great big room, someone else is saying: "I don't buy it. I love the Lord but I've asked for many things that have not come to pass. "The time three years ago I had a job I liked at a company I thought I would retire from. Then, suddenly, the economy is

2 tanking, my unit gets bought out. My prayers to save my career have landed me in networking workshops and an early retirement where I'm eating too much, drinking too much and there are days when I think that if I disappeared tomorrow people would be more relieved than anything else. "But God, I'm still here to worship, but surely you can understand if on this text, about asking and getting what you want, about being filled with joy well, call me a skeptic." And then somewhere in any church there's someone working between these two extremes, someone staking out a more moderate position, taking a tiny step closer to God. "You can ask for things in prayer," this person might say, "but the things you ask for they must be admirable lofty, generic, worldencompassing things. "You can ask God for world peace, the communion of the saints, and the end of hunger. "But do not ask God for your own husband to quit cheating, do not ask God for your own cholesterol to go down or do not get too specific about who you think God should put into elected office so that world hunger and world peace might be accomplished." In other words, this one contends, pray for big things you don't actually believe God can fix, and leave the stuff you actually care about to someone more capable. Someone more capable than God? Looking for love in the wrong places "Come to me," tell me what you want, Jesus says over and over again. But still some of us hold back, like jilted lovers circling the same old haunts, afraid of being hurt again, looking for love instead in all the wrong places. As a Christian living in a broken world, you've got to see it all around you. Images and words from the checkout line that tell us we are less than God's children. Books at airports that promise you that happiness is something we can possess rather than be blessed by. False teaching telling us that a t-shirt made by children overseas will make us beautiful.

3 Liars telling us we don't need God, that we can do it ourselves, so that when one purchase falls through, we'll just turn to the next thing being marketed like drunken drones putting quarters in a slot machine, just hoping that somewhere along the line we'll get a payoff. No wonder we have to remind ourselves that God is still speaking. The other voices are so loud. But let me tell you about the best Madison Avenue blasphemy I've seen of late. It really lays out the tension between being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and a citizen of the world. It's a television commercial for a new perfume by LancÙme. In the ad, the serenely beautiful model stands on a hill top in the middle of verdant green fields as orchestral music swirls around her. She stands tall in a long, flowing skirt with milky, sleepy eyes that seem tearfully overwhelmed by the natural beauty that surrounds her, as she proceeds to watch a perfect sun rise. As the light falls over her long flowing hair and the sun kissed natural scene, we see what LancÙme's product is. It is a perfume called "Miracle." Ah, the viewer thinks. The sun rise is a miracle, and a miracle comes from God, and so everyday beauties like the sun rise, or even the woman herself, are miracles. Perhaps this perfume will, in its beauty, remind us of all the other beauties so far, and so the call to buy it is a spiritual one. It's a bit tawdry, but okay, there's a hole called hope in our hearts and they've found a way to market to our longing for the holy in our lives. But then comes the kicker. "Miracle," the screen proclaims over the sun rise. "You make it happen." You make it happen? Miracles? Last I checked that fell under God's job description, but now, apparently, we human beings are in charge over even that. If we are the ones making miracles these days, no wonder we resist asking God for help. And into that strange position comes this crashing passage. "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." Abide with me, Jesus keeps saying. Talk to me. Take the risk. Why do we resist those words? Maybe we think we could do it better on our own.

4 One day I saw a woman driving a van with her kids. She turned onto the busy road by our church. She didn't see an enormous SUV careening down the road and it almost rear-ended her. The man jumped out of what looked like the latest and most expensive model and banged on the window of the van driver. "What are you, crazy?" he yelled. "You almost caused a wreck." And then gesturing not toward the young human life crying from the carseat in her van but pointing instead toward his vehicle, he screamed, as he pounded on her car, "Do you know how much that thing is costing me?" As a Christian, I think I do know how much that car is costing him. It's costing him his soul, and those heavy lease payments didn't bring him the happiness he desired. Buying into blasphemy does have a cost, and we see pain and rage like that all around us. There has to be a better way. We really don't do a very good job pursuing joy on our own. And after all, Jesus says, "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." What do we have to do to get there? Abide in him. What does abide mean? "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." Some people translate it as, "If you remain in me, and my words remain in you..." When you remain somewhere you stay there. You're not just visiting. You're not dabbling in Jesus. Notice the scripture does not read, "If you abide with me for an hour on Sundays and my words abide in you for an hour on Sundays, ask for whatever you want"." No, you're living there, grounded there, a citizen of the kingdom way before you're a citizen of the world. What's another way we use the word "abide?" How about this one?

5 I can't abide that smell! I can't abide that behavior. In other words, I can't stand it. Or I can't put up with it. Listen to the text this way. Jesus says to his followers, "If you put up with me, and I put up with you " ask for whatever you wish." In other words, this abiding thing, it's going to be a relationship. It's not always going to be smooth between human beings and Jesus. Sometimes we'll be living together like newlyweds, other times we'll be putting up with each other, because the life of faith is not easy. Sometimes there will be sacrifices as we abide together. Jesus told us that on the cross. But the point here is that we are to be close to one another. We are to tell each other what we need. Which means yes, on the one hand, we can tell Jesus what we want. But he's telling us what he wants too. "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love," he says, as if to remind us that this intimacy will not come cheap. You're going to have to enter into a long relationship not just with me, but with a community that has boundaries, that has practices, that has a beautiful form. That's very counter-cultural, of course. Out there in the world, intimacy is getting cheaper and cheaper by the day. These days we just live together, or hook up or hang out, but only for as long as it makes you happy, and then you move on. These days we have more tools for communication than ever before but I swear, we're no better at it. So we keep intimacy easy. Here's the secular opposite of abiding with someone. It's the that tells you just how very much you mean to

6 someone. And then you see it has been sent to everybody on their list. And then you realize that you don't recognize the name of the person who sent it to you. That kind of cheap intimacy of like eating Cool Whip Lite for lunch. And so we, in the church of Jesus Christ, gather for a more satisfying meal. So from one church member to another, I say thank you for abiding both in the sense of living in the church but also in the sense of putting up with it. But I also trust that you are not here to be thanked. I trust you and all of us are here because we know a little something about the joy Jesus promises. As different as we may all be, we've all been called here for the same reason: To abide with the one who has abided with us since that day outside of time and space when each one of us was knit together in our mother's womb and marked with the seal of God's image and told: you are loved. "For I tell you this," Jesus says, "so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. My commandment is this: love one another just as I have loved you." Abide. "You" in the plural For in the end, when Jesus uses the word "you" here, while I've certainly felt this passage speak to me as an individual, I suspect he also meant it as a big, wide, communal, plural "you." Be the beloved community, we are told, abiding in my words and one another, and then come to me with what "you" want. It may look different. I've seen this "you" expand with people, who somehow in the

7 midst of a terrible illness manage to move deeper into their faith, until finally they are spending more time praying for others than they are for themselves. And soon the people from church, who are visiting them at the hospital to offer comfort, are receiving more comfort from the one in pain. Ever met somebody like this? There is this noticeable spiritual shift that you can almost feel taking place in these people where suddenly the one you thought you were ministering to is ministering to you instead, and suddenly the boundaries that separate the needs and desires of one individual from another's seem to melt away, and all our desires seem to be one, not just with one another but with the God who created us. And suddenly time has disappeared and we're not just abiding with one another or with God but in God. And then your heart's desire becomes something so big, so powerful, so much larger than anything any one person could dream up until suddenly you realize... My God, you have already made this happen. There is nothing I can ask for that has not already been accomplished in Christ Jesus. In his victory on the cross. Not for one but for many. So what does life look like then? Perhaps for a moment you'll get that gift, where your will might be so beautifully aligned with that of God, And God's purpose for you, That the very thing you would ask God for is already happening in your life. And rather than grieving over the past, or fearing the future, you're just right abiding in God in the present moment. Joy. And for all the other minutes of our lives, that vastly outnumber

8 that one, we have each other. We have the church and the people in it, who abide with us even when we have forgotten how to do it ourselves. I remember how that happened for me one time. My mother, after being one of those people who somehow made dying into a ministry to others, finally but too early left this world to abide with Jesus in a way we can only imagine. And I remember sitting numb at her funeral service, barely able to hear her minister recite words that I should have known by heart myself. So when the minister called for speakers, the first person to speak was not a family member or a friend, but the senior deacon from my church in New Haven, Conn., who had made the trip to Washington, D.C., to say: "I did not really know Carobel. But I stand here today to bring greetings in the name of the Church of the Redeemer, United Church of Christ, in New Haven where Carobel's daughter is our minister." One person stood to represent an entire church because that's they way we Christians do it. One member of the body represents the whole. We were abiding with one another. But finally it was the music that broke through, for the voices that sang were familiar to me. A group of choir members from my own church had made the trip from Connecticut to Washington and I think it was only their voices I could have beared to hear sing, "Sing me to heaven." Because that's what we do in the church, isn't it? Our time on earth is brief, and while we know it is not the final chapter, we want our lives to have meaning. And so we've been given this gift of the church. And the instructions. Abide in my love. Sing each other to heaven. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.

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