Sarah had been in a car accident. She was driving down the highway after getting coffee when someone pulled into traffic without looking, and although she’d survived and walked out of the hospital, she didn’t seem to be getting better. She was having trouble walking; her back and her hips hurt. Physical therapy and medication weren’t making things any better.
She and her husband had already had a trip to Rome scheduled, and they decided to go–when would they have a chance to go to Rome again?–but Sarah spent the trip in massive pain, often in their hotel room rather than even seeing any of the city.
And then one day they were out, walking around, when they met two priests. They offered to pray for Sarah, and you know, sure, more prayer is always nice. The two priests prayed–prayed specifically, for her back and her hips and for everything to align again. And Sarah felt things moving back into place, felt her pain slipping away, and when she returned home and her doctors did X-rays everything was back in place.
Our gospel reading today is about prayer. What is prayer, it asks, and how do we pray? When we think about prayer, I often think of stories like the one I just shared, where prayer is answered dramatically and completely and obviously. I mean, in between wondering if the story is real, of course, I start measuring my own prayers against these stories: Why didn’t this person get a miraculous healing too, why is that prayer still unanswered, why did they only get a small part of their prayer answered?
When one of Jesus’ disciples asks Him to teach them all how to pray, Jesus only sort of answers the question. Of course He does. He teaches them the Lord’s prayer, or an early version of it. Which… okay, I guess. Should this be the only prayer we ever pray? Is this a model of what prayer should look like?
And then Jesus tells a series of parables: Imagine you go to your friend’s house in search of food. It is the middle of the night, because you’ve had an unexpected guest and you have nothing to feed him, and so your friend says, ‘I am safely and cozily in bed. Please go away!’ But, Jesus says, if you bang on the door enough, your friend will get out of bed–to shut you up and stop you banging on the door, if not because of your friendship.
“Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
Imagine your child asks you for an egg. Only a truly terrible parent would give their child a scorpion instead. “If you then,” Jesus says, “who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In other words: persistence. Keep praying: keep pounding on that door, keep searching, keep asking. God is our heavenly father, who wants to give us good things.
Which is all well and good, but many of us have had this experience, where it feels like we are banging and banging and banging at the door, begging for our prayer to be answered, and nothing happens. Whatever Jesus may say, it feels like God isn’t listening, and nothing is happening, and does God even care at all?
What about the prayers that don’t get answered?
It’s important that Jesus concluded His teaching by pointing to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how God is with us, and who helps us pray–”with groans too deep for words,” Paul writes in Romans. God is with us everywhere. I always think of Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Everywhere we go, whether we’re trying to flee from God or we’re afraid God has fled from us, God is with us. God was with us before we were born, when we were being knitted together in our mother’s womb; God is with us every time we sit down. God is with us.
And that takes no effort on our part. We don’t have to do a single thing, and still God is with us.
In the same way, God is present when we pray, praying through us and with us and beside us. God takes our prayers, whether they’re wrong or right, angry jibes at our neighbor who’s always riding their motorcycle at 3 am or heart-felt prayers for our family member with cancer, and everything in between, and makes them what they need to be. God knows we’re doing our best, even when sometimes our best is terrible, and God takes our prayers and uses them.
More than that, though, prayer is participation in what God is doing here in the world. When we pray, we acknowledge that things are not perfect, that the world is full of hurt and pain and suffering as well as joy and laughter and new babies. Prayer is participation in God’s kingdom; it is one way we contribute to making the world as it’s meant to be. We are stepping into what is already true: that God is acting in the world, that God has a relationship with us and wants to hear from us, all the time, whenever we want to pray. And when we pray, we are making the world better, one prayer at a time.
The story I told at the beginning of this sermon was about Sarah Bessey, a Christian author. She tells it in her book Miracles and Other Reasonable Things. But I didn’t tell the whole story. She returned from Rome. Her back and hips were miraculously healed, but she still wasn’t physically at the same place she’d been before the accident. She was exhausted much more easily, by things that used to be easy. One of her feet still hurt. She still had trouble sleeping. She struggled with all the things prayer hadn’t solved, all the ways she still wasn’t okay. So the first half of the book is about her miracle in Rome, and the second half is about distinctly miracle-less every day life. It is about going to physical therapy and trying medication and accepting the new reality of how her body was. It is about resting and needing another surgery and more physical therapy. It is about remembering that prayer is not magic, and that sometimes the good God wants for us is found in the midst of mess and pain and the ways that things will never be the same again, and that God is always, always with us.
Prayer is one way we take part in everything that God is doing in the world, all the ways God is healing and making new and killing what needs to die in all of us. And God prays with us, so that our prayers are good and full.
And so may we continue to pray as consistently as the widow. May we continue to seek God, even in the midst of mess and pain. And may we know with every fiber of our being that God is always, always with us.
Alleluia, and Amen.