SERMON 7/28/19 Pentecost 7C Proper 12 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
A 21stCentury Lesson on Prayer
“Lord teach us to pray.” The movie, “Bruce Almighty” is a comedy about “Bruce Nolan, a television reporter who is ungrateful and unhappy despite his TV popularity and the love of his girlfriend Grace . At the end of a bad day, Bruce angrily rages against God and then, God (played by Morgan Freeman) appears in human form and endows Bruce with divine powers, and challenges Bruce to take on the big job to see if he can do it any better.” (4)
It goes well until Bruce learns about prayer. He awakens one night to multiple voices in his head, which are the prayers of billions of people. Overwhelmed by the many requests and the needs of so many, Bruce decided to answer all the prayers simply with either yes or no, with no thought or consideration. Eventually, he relented and said, “Yes to all” the prayers. It did not turn out well, because the entire balance of creation tilted. For instance, everybody who prayed to win the lottery won all at once, so each winner only received $17. Chaos ensued and Bruce’s self-centered attempts at playing God wreaked havoc all over the globe.
The movie offers comedic insight about prayer, a subject we may have misunderstood our entire lives. Prayer for some of us may be limited to a mere exercise in asking for what we want, and experiencing disappointment when we do not get it. Prayer is more than a vending machine, a transaction-based interaction in which, we put coins in the slot, select the product we need, want or desire and out comes the product. With a vending machine, the only acceptable outcome is receiving what it is we requested. Any other outcome means we either did not put the coins in correctly, or it is the machine’s fault. If our prayers are merely transactional entreaties to God, there is no room for relational response, for holy teaching, and for God’s loving alternative input. It’s just, “I want … you give.” Prayer is much more than that because prayer is a holy conversation in which, we can be changed and transformed.
Abraham: Let’s make a deal
In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear a snippet of Abraham’s prayer life, more specifically about his conversation with God, regarding God’s intent for Sodom and Gomorrah. God said to Abraham, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” Nowhere in this statement does God say he will destroy the two cities, but Abraham made that assumption, and so do we. As a matter of fact, God wanted to do what was right and just.
He confirms that when he said of Abraham, “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” God always does what is right and just, and desires the same for the two towns. So, if destruction was not the original plan, what is God’s justice, how does that relate to prayer, and why was Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed anyway?
James Bruckner defines God’s justice as “intelligent, loving reflection, and action that restores health and well-being to communities and individuals.” (2) In other words, God’s justice is not about mandatory retribution for wrong doings, but God’s work to restore the original intent for creation in the first place, through God’s grace and mercy. Bruckner says, that God’s justice “blesses and protects families and communities so that children and the weak may thrive.” (2) Maybe what was happening in this prayer conversation between Abraham and God was not so much Abraham’s effort to change God’s mind about destroying the cities, but God was inviting Abraham to dialogue through his own transformation.
Abraham seemed to be negotiating with God to save the cities, if 50, 45, 30, 20, and eventually 10 righteous people were found. God played along and said he would spare the city if ten righteous ones were found. In his holy conversation with God, it was Abraham whose mind was changed not God’s. God lovingly taught Abraham how to have his heart aligned with God’s. However, Abraham did not do anything with what he learned. He just went home and took no action to save the two cities, and inevitably destruction befell Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes, Abraham prayed, but that is as far as he went. Prayer is more than dialogue, it is supposed to change us, and so we might change the circumstances around us, as are result of God’s change in us. We have a part!
Prayer Changes things
We live in a world where we are free, self-determining creatures that act and live with the consequences of our abused freedom. Our failure to accept our freedom to love God and our neighbors, and to see all creatures as sisters and brothers is why we abuse of our freedom. Yet, God does not sit idly by and just watch the creation unravel, God invites us to take action alongside the Creator. God acts directly in our lives to bring about our sanctification, so we might thwart the consequences of abused freedom, thus foiling injustice and indignity in the world.
Prayer is not merely a spiritual act that “makes us feel better,” there is a real incarnational/physical power in prayer. Our relational conversation in prayer is a physical and spiritual action in which we ask, we seek, we knock and as a result, we join the act with God who directly, physically, and powerfully shows up in love. Prayer is an intimate dance that draws both us, and God into conversation and mutual mission.
God answers Prayers
SO we must pray daily, often, and unceasing. Jesus commands, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Stephanie Frey writes, “Jesus encouragesus to be annoying (in prayer). Jesus invites, even commands, us to be as shameless and irritating in our prayers as that noisy neighbor at midnight or that toddler on a hot summer afternoon.” (3) She adds, If we remain in active dialogue with our Creator, “then we will never come away empty-handed from prayer, because even if we wind up with none of the things we thought we needed, we will always wind up with God listening, attending and answering our prayers in ways we hadn’t imagined.” (3)
God answers prayers because when our prayer aligns with God’s heart and we ask, seek, and knock for our hearts to be changed, then we will begin to see others as God sees them, circumstances as God sees them, and even tragedy as God sees it. God answers prayers because when we act with God, together we bring about God’s justice for all. God answers prayers.
In one of the last scenes in the movie “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce and God have a conversation Bruce confesses his “missing the mark” in his life. God forgave Bruce and reminded him, “Bruce, you have the divine spark, you have the gift for bringing joy and laughter to the world. I know, I created you.” Bruce then asks, “What do you want me to do.” God hands him a set of small prayer beads and said, “I want you to pray son, go ahead.”
Bruce said, “Lord, feed the hungry. and bring peace to all of mankind.” Bruce asked, “How’s that.” God said, “That’s great if you want to be Miss America. Bruce, now what do you really care about?” Bruce said, “Grace.” Although he was talking about his beloved girlfriend, I think you understand the metaphor here.
Bruce then prayed, “Lord, I want (Grace) to be happy no matter what that means, that she will find someone, who will give her all the love she deserved from me, and that person will see her as I do now, through your eyes.” In other words, Bruce’s intention in prayer was directed not merely toward himself, but toward another asking for God’s grace, abundant, undeserving, grace, to benefit others, “It’s good, now that’s a prayer.” From that point forward, Bruce was forever changed, and he lived his life differently and began acting with grace for love to abound with all whom he met.
How to Pray
“So Fr. Eric, how do I pray,” you may ask. It is so easy. Just be open, honest, and tell God what is on your heart, what you need. Share your struggles, joys, and fears. Pray with persistence, when all is going well, when all seems hopeless, and even when you have no words. Pray when the answers come as anticipated, and when the answers you expect do not come at all.
Pray for God’s justice for families to no longer be separated because of unjust policies. Pray for immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community, the homeless, the under-employed, and all who suffer might find relief and dignity. Pray that we as a nation will once again shine a beacon of hope in the world, for peace among families, for reconciliation between parents and children, and for peace among nations, and for those suffering from famine and war. In other words, pray for your own needs and for those of others.
So, give it a shot today! In our liturgy, at the end of the “Prayers of the People” the leader will say, “Let us pray for our own needs and those of others,” Pray, and pray aloud. Offer your prayers of intercession and thanksgiving and pray aloud for what you really care about.
Let me caution you though, when you begin to pray consistently and persistently about what you really care about, expect first that your heart will be changed. Your intentions will be changed, and you will have no choice then, but to act. When that happens, not only your, but others’ prayers will be answered and the world will be changed around us. When we begin to see people and circumstances as God sees things, through God’s eyes, justice, dignity, and joy will abound because we will act. So how do you pray? Let me show you how, just as Jesus showed us.Our Father who art in heaven ….
(2) Bruckner, James K. “Justice in Scripture.” Ex Auditu, vol. 22, 2006, pp. 1–9.
(3) Frey, Stephanie. “On God’s Case.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 14, July 2004, p. 17.