Scripture: Job 23, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philippians 4:4-9, Luke 18:1-8
Today I’m going to continue answering questions that you have submitted. The question for today was about prayer–and who among us has never wondered what prayer does, or how to pray well, or why we pray at all? So before I get into the question itself, I’d like to spend some time with those questions, first. Rather than just telling you, though, I chose some Scripture about prayer, all different kinds of prayer.
In Philippians Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That is, prayer is a mixture of supplication–asking God for what we and others need–and thanksgiving–praising God and giving thanks. Paul tells his audience to bring all things to God in prayer, and says that prayer brings divine peace. This is a good foundation, and something we see throughout Scripture. The psalms themselves are a mixture of requests and praise; many of the prayers recorded in the Old Testament by prophets and kings are made up of the same mixture of requests for themselves or for Israel and praise to God as their savior and redeemer.
We often talk of prayer as something that we do for others; indeed, that’s how we most often experience it in church, with prayers of intercession said for the church, the world, and all those who are in need. And yet so often prayer is deeply personal. We may pray for others, but we also pray for ourselves. Or we come before God without even a request, just with an outpouring of emotions. We may not even be sure what we’re asking; we’re just crying out to our God because we are in pain. That is what we see in our reading from Job. Job was a rich and faithful man, one who had a large and happy family. And then God takes it all away from him: his flocks, his herds, and his children are destroyed all on the same day; then Job himself becomes ill. With all of this grief and confusion weighing on him, he cries out to God. He tells God how abandoned and alone and betrayed he’s been feeling. This, too, is prayer.
Our gospel, and Jesus’ parable, begins to express the complexity of prayer. Jesus tells this strange story, of a woman who persistently goes to a corrupt judge. This judge was the ancient equivalent of the average politician, apparently: he had a position of responsibility and service, not because he wanted to help people, but because he wanted to gather influence and riches for himself. And yet the woman of the story consistently and persistently goes to the judge, until he feels so battered that he throws up his hands and goes, “Fine! I’ll give you what you want so you’ll leave me alone!” And Jesus concludes by saying, “Even though God cares deeply and so wants to answer your prayers, you should still pray just as persistently as this woman.” And 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.
What about the prayers that don’t get answered?
This can go two ways, I think. Sometimes we are praying, not for what we need, but just stuff we’d really like. Praying for a Lamborghini is not really a need–but, closer to home, maybe that new purse or a perfect day or whatever else is also not something we need. God is not a vending machine; prayer is not magic. This isn’t a matter of doing it just right, and we’ll get whatever we want.
But so often that’s not what we’re praying for; we’re praying for things that are important: we’re praying for our friend with cancer, for our politicians, for everyone affected by Hurricane Dorian. We’re praying for our family member with depression and the family that lives across the street. What about when those prayers don’t get answered? What about when we’ve been pounding on the door with those prayers for months or years, and nothing has changed?
Our final Scripture for today isn’t about prayer in the same way as the others; instead of being about human prayer, it is about God’s continued, never-ending presence with us. God is with us everywhere, it celebrates–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 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.
And now, finally, we come to the actual question I was asked about prayer: We are called to pray for those we know who are sick or struggling, and we know that God hears us. But what about those who have no one to pray for them? And if God helps them, too, then why do we pray at all?
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.
Alleluia, and Amen.