This was from August 28, 1992, out of the file of old sermons St. John's gave me from their archives.
Once there was a minister in a struggling little church out in the country. Things at the church weren't going well. Attendance and offerings were down. The roof was leaking. The mortgage was late. The minister's salary was late.
So, one night, the minister got down on his knees for his evening prayers and this what he said to God: "Dear God, let me win the lottery. If you let me win the lottery , this will be the greatest little church you have. I'll fix the roof and pay off the mortgage and use the rest of the money to attract new members. So, Lord, let me win the lottery. You've never failed me yet."
"Dear God," the minister prayed the next week, "I know you are a busy God with lots to do, but to save my church, you have to let me win the lottery this week. Please, God...."
The next week, the minister knelt in prayer again. "Dear Lord, Creator of all things. I've asked twice and you've not heard me. Please, God, let me win the lottery this week so I can save this little church."
A strange light shined in the little room, like a burning bush and a voice spoke out of the light: "For goodness sake, preacher, I'm doing all I can, but you have to buy a lottery ticket!!!!"
Today, I want to talk about prayer.
The lessons from Genesis and Luke tell us something wonderful about prayer. Those two lessons tell us that God DOES LISTEN to our prayers and that GOD LONGS TO PROVIDE US WITH WHAT WE NEED.
That's awfully 'good news'. God is doing what God can. God listens and longs to answer our prayers.
When I was younger, I used to have lots more opinions than I have now. As I grow older, I have discovered that I believe more and more about less and less.
I used to have a very exalted, esoteric view of prayer.
Prayer, I thought, needed to be a practiced discipline--a serious and profound thing. Talking with God, I used to think, was too important to leave to amateurs!
Now I know better. There's no such thing as a 'bad prayer'. Praying is something we should all be doing as much as possible. And we don't need to be so solemn and serious about it. And it doesn't have to be pretty.
We Episcopalians are spoiled by the Book of Common Prayer. It is so beautiful and stately that we tend to think that's what a prayer needs to be like.
The Bible tells us a different story.
Today's lesson from Genesis is about prayer. God and Abraham are having a conversation about the horribly wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is intent on destroying the cities for their wickedness. Abraham wants God to have mercy of them. So Abraham bargains with God--he keeps lowering the odds for Sodom and Gomorrah.
"Would you spare the city for 50 righteous people" Abraham prays to God.
"Well, yes," God says, "for 50 righteous people I will spare it."
"How about 45?" Abraham asks.
And Abraham bargains God down to 10!
I used to think it was inappropriate to try to bargain with God. I wasn't giving God enough credit. I was being too polite.
Prayer doesn't have to be polite. The prophets of the Old Testament were always running up to the tops of hills and shaking their fists at God. God can take our anger and our bargaining. Anger should be a part of prayer. If we can't be angry with God--who loves us best of all--who can we share our pain and anger with?
So, when you are angry and hurt and confused--share it with God. Tell God about it. That's a kind of prayer we need to use more. We need to get our anger out and give it to God.
And we need to ask for help in our prayers. God knows how much help we need and God is waiting for us to ask.
God doesn't wait for us to ask like a test. God isn't into playing those kinds of games. It's just that God knows us better than we know ourselves and knows we human beings won't accept help until we're ready to ask for it.
Perhaps if we ask for help more, we'll become more able to accept help. Prayers for help are good prayers.
I grew up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church. We didn't have a Book of Common Prayer so we didn't know prayers were supposed to be beautiful. Most Pilgrim Holiness prayers were utterly simple. And one thing I remember about the free prayer in the Pilgrim Holiness church--most of it was giving thanks to God.
Some of the people in that church didn't have two dimes to rub together. Most of them were struggling all the time just to break even. And, yet, when they prayed, most of what they did was give thanks to God for all God had done for them.
When we pray, I don't hear much thanksgiving. We give thanks for birthdays and things like that, but mostly we don't say much about how thankful we are. A few weeks ago, when Sonja Osborn led the prayers, she included a whole prayer of thanksgiving. That felt right and really appropriate. I have so much to give thanks for. My prayer should ever and always be giving thanks to God.
Giving thanks is a very good kine of prayer.
And sometimes, prayer can be without words at all. It can just stopping for a moment and being present, just being there and paying attention to God. That doesn't need to be all solemn and holy either. It can be like taking a deep breath and breathing God in.
Prayer doeesn't have to be beautiful and sound like it comes from a book. It can be as simple as "thank you" or "help!" or "lead me, show me". Or just being there.
We don't have to be professional pray-ers. We don't have to be all devout and fussy about it. We can even be light hearted and playful when we pray.
There's no such thing as a bad prayer.
Just remember the good news of today's gospel lesson. Just remember what Jesus tells us.
"Ask, and it will be given you: search and you will find: knock and the door will be opened for you. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?
If you then...know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
Amen and Amen.
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