Sunday, July 24, 2016

Unanswered prayers? Pray anyway!

Genesis 18: 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13

I have always loved this story about Abraham arguing with God. What if, what if, what if. And God responds. OK, OK, OK.
Abraham is begging God to not destroy the city of Sodom, because his nephew Lot and his family live there. Some background may be helpful. Sodom is known to be a sinful place, yet Abraham believes that not everyone in town is bad.
Interpretations from ancient Hebrew sources suggest that the sinfulness of Sodom could include: Inhospitality. Greed. Theft. Deception. Disregard of the poor and the orphan. Inhumanity. Mercilessness. We see most of these sins on display in the story that follows today’s text.
Genesis 19 tells the story of Lot offering his daughters to the thugs who knock at his door. Lot himself is seen as an immigrant into the town – so he is open to harassment and violence. Yes, offering his daughters is a terrible thing to do. But Lot does this to protect the guests – who are the same men / angels who have recently visited Abraham and Sarah at their tent. Remember hospitality is a very high value in this time and place. And daughters are property, to be given and sold as the man of the house sees fit. The whole situation reeks of the sinfulness of the people in Sodom.
So, God promises Abraham to not destroy the whole city if there are only a handful of people in the city. As it turns out, the men / angels fight back by blinding the attackers and ordering Lot and his family out of town, because “The city is filled with injustice.” And then the city along with Gomorrah and the whole valley is destroyed by God’s messengers.
Can you imagine the prayers Lot and his family were saying as they left town?  Don’t destroy our home; keep us all safe; give us a new place to start over; comfort us from the loss of friends and family whom we had to leave behind; thank you for saving us; forgive us for looking back. Not all of these prayers were answered, but they continued praying anyway.
Can you imagine the prayers Abraham is saying? Thanksgiving that Lot and some of his family are safe; amazement at God’s power; and his continual prayer for a son, which was not answered for a long time. They continued to pray anyway.
Two thousand years later, Jesus’ disciples notice how often Jesus prays. Remembering that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray, they ask Jesus to teach them. Jesus offers this simple prayer. “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 
We notice that this version is shorter than the version we usually pray each day. It is simpler, and focuses on the daily needs of the disciples: God’s justice, enough food, forgiveness, and protection from the temptation to do evil.
The prayer begins by giving God the name “Father”. Today, I see two main reasons for naming God Father:  one: to help us realize that God is as aware of our needs as our human parents are, and as desirous of providing us with all we need as our human parents.
And two: to make God more approachable. Jesus’ prayer continues by glorifying God: Holy is your name. By this time in the story of the Jewish people, they no longer said the name of God. They refer to God by saying, “ha-Shem”, which means “The Name.” They believe: God is so holy, we do not say God’s name. But now, Jesus has just revised that whole practice by naming God, Father.
We are encouraged by Jesus, then, to pray to God just as we would turn to an earthly parent. Jesus tells a couple of stories about the promise of God to hear our prayers and respond to them. In reference to the good hospitality of the day, the sleeping neighbor was behaving badly by trying to refuse to get up and give a loaf of bread to the one who requested it.
And of course, no parent would give their children things that would harm them.  Jesus then makes the connection that if human parents only give their children good gifts, then we can trust that God our heavenly parent will give us only good gifts as well. 
Mostly, we recognize that God gives us good things every day. God wakes us up, makes the sun shine and the rain fall. There is usually enough food in our cupboards and refrigerators. We can usually find meaningful work. We usually have loving relationships with our family members, and plenty of opportunities to worship and serve God whenever and wherever we want to. We are usually healthy. There is peace in our lives and in most of the world. We give God thanks for providing for us and answering our prayers.
But we have all had experiences of times when it seems our prayers went unanswered. The weather turned against us and there was too much rain, or not enough rain, and we dealt with floods or drought. We or loved ones could not find work and went hungry. People were not healed and they died. There is violence everywhere it seems, and injustice.
Why should we bother praying if God will not answer our prayers!? One easy answer is that God did answer. God says, yes, no, and wait a while. We don’t want to hear it, but sometimes the answer to prayer is no. Last week I shared the story of my cousin who is praying for healing for her grandson. Each day the family recognizes that the answer from God could be, “no.”
Another answer to the question, “why pray?” is because prayer is more for us than for God. God wants us to pray, and pray often, because when we pray, we are changed. Our relationship with God can become deeper, more trusting in God, no matter what. We learn to see that God is present with us, enduring with us, weeping and also rejoicing with us.
So, this week, pray. Even if your prayers aren’t being answered the way you want. Because ‘yes’ is not always the answer. But the presence of God with you is always the answer.  
Look around for the angels who are God’s messengers, encouraging you, comforting you, challenging you, warning you, just as the men / angels did who visited Abraham and Sarah and Lot and his family. Look for the peacemakers. Look around for the provision of God the Father through the Spirit and the gift of the Son, just as Jesus promised the disciples then and still today.

Please pray with me. God our Father and Mother, you give us good gifts every day. Teach us to look for them and to be grateful for them. Lead us to see you in those around us, to see angels we may not be aware of in the friends and casual encounters we have daily. Help us to trust in you more and more as each day passes. In your holy name. Amen