Sunday, March 8, 2015

Whatever You Ask For In Prayer

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 11:22-25:

A Pastor had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and was afraid to come down. The Pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc.  nothing worked---the kitty wouldn't come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so the Pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and drove away so that the tree bent down, he could reach up and get the kitten. That's what he did, all the while checking the progress of his car. He then figured if he went just a bit further, the tree would be bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But, as he moved the car forward, the rope broke. The tree went "boing!!!" and the kitten instantly sailed through the air---out of sight. The Pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking people if they'd seen a little kitten. No. Nobody had seen a stray kitten. So he prayed, "Lord, I just commit this kitten to your keeping," then went about his business.  Later that day he was at the grocery store and met one of his church members. He happened to look in her shopping cart and was amazed to see cat food. This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it so he asked her, "Why are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much??" She replied, "You won't believe this," and told him how her little girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing. Then, a few days earlier, the child had begged again, so she finally told her little girl, "Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it." She told the Pastor, "I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her knees, and ask for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out of the blue sky, with its paws outspread....and landed right in front of her!!!"  Never underestimate the Power of God and His unique sense of humor.

Today in our series on the spiritual disciplines, we look at prayer.  Although prayer is a spiritual discipline in and of itself, it also plays a role in nearly all of the other disciplines as well.  When we looked at fasting two weeks ago, I said that while you could pray without fasting, that you cannot fast without including prayer.  It’s integral to that process, at least to be fasting for spiritual reasons.  In confession, which we covered last week, it too involves prayer.  It can be part of a prayer, which is certainly what we do when we say the Lord’s Prayer, but even if we are making a confession that is not part of a prayer, that confession should be bathed in prayer, both before and after the prayer is made.

I believe that prayer is the foundation upon which a deepening spiritual life is based.   When Jesus uses the metaphor of someone building their house on sand or on rock, and the difference it makes when the waters come, we could say that prayer forms that solid bedrock to our faith, it is what roots us and grounds us, it is what connects us more deeply with God and with God’s will for our lives.  The membership vows for the United Methodist church say we are going to support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  I don’t think it’s a mistake that prayer is the first listed there, even before your attendance at worship, because prayer is what brings us into relationship with God, and God into relationship with us.  It is our phone call, our texting and tweeting and instant messaging and Facebooking and instagramming with God, which involves two things.  The first is that it requires our involvement, and second it requires us to stop talking and typing and taking time to shut-up and listen for a while as well.  The Dutch theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that the more he prayed the more he realized that praying wasn’t really about talking, that it was just as much, or more about listening, and to listen we have to be silent.  Perhaps there is a reason why those words have exactly the same letters.  We have to be silent in order to listen for God, and I know that for some people that’s really hard, but it is part of the process.

So what does prayer do and how does it work?  Well the first thing about prayer is that we have to actually believe that it’s going to work, which impacts the idea of who God is for us and how God works in the world.  If we believe that everything is already planned and that everything happens for a reason and that everything is a part of God’s plan, then there is no reason for prayer.  If everything is set and cannot be changed, then why pray?  If God and world cannot change, then anything we pray for that would be different would be an attempt to thwart God’s plans.  But we aren’t Calvinists who believe in predestination, as Methodists we are Arminians and Wesleyans who believe that we participate with God in the world.  Indeed, John Wesley said that “God does nothing without prayer and everything with it.”  Scripture also doesn’t give us this indication, as even Jesus prayed for things to be different, and Paul says that we are “co-laborers with God.”  When we come to accept this reality, Richard Foster says, it comes with “genuine liberation” for some but also “sets a tremendous responsibility before us.” Because, he says, “We are working with God to determine the future.”

So the responsibility that then gets laid upon us is to be co-laborers with God, and thus being open to God, open to change and open to being changed.  To believe that prayer can and will be transformative for us, for others and for the world.  And to truly believe that.  Now does that mean that if we begin to pray for a new car or to win the lottery that those things will actually happen?  I don’t think those are really effective prayers, I mean I’ve been praying to be rich, buff and handsome for a long time and it’s never worked yet.  But those requests are not seeking God’s will for the world.  When Jesus says in today’s passage that if anyone asks for a mountain to be moved that if they truly believe and have no doubt in their heart that it will come to pass, does that mean that the Sandias are still there only because all of us have a little doubt in our hearts?  Possibly.  It’s also more likely that Jesus was speaking metaphorically here, about the power of prayer and the power of belief.

Jesus says “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  Now does that passage actually say that we will receive everything that we ask for in prayer?  No, it doesn’t.  What it says is believe that you have received it and it will be yours.  I believe this is a statement about our attitude and how we approach the world.  So for example, I am often called on to pray for healing for people, but I believe that we can have healing without actually receive a cure, that is the disease is still there but our attitude or perception have been healed.  It’s about how we approach the world.  Believe that you have been healed, and it will be yours.  Have you ever noticed how people who have really negative attitudes and expect bad things to happen all the time always seem to have bad things happen?  I do think that there is something to them creating their own reality, as when we say if you believe that you can’t do something you will be right.  Whereas people who have positive attitudes who expect and want good things, it’s not that they don’t have bad things happen to them, because they certainly do, but their attitudes towards those events is radically different.  They create the world they envision.

I think that’s one of the things that Jesus is telling us here, is that if we want the world to be changed, that we have to be willing to change it, and to believe that it can and will be changed, and to live our lives out that way.  We can’t pray for the end of war, unless we are willing to work for peace.  We can’t be praying for the end of hunger unless we are going to work on feeding people.  We can’t be praying for the end of strife in politics unless we are going to do something about it.  We can’t pray for healing, unless we are going to be healers.  Whatever it is that we are praying for, we have to be working towards it, and beliving that we have already received it.  But, it’s about more than just belief.  In my interactions with some members of the Pentecostal church, one of them said something to me, that has sort of stuck.  They said that not only do they believe in miracles, but that they put themselves in the path of miracles and so are not amazed when one happens, because they expected it.  And because they expected it, they see miracles happening all the time, both large and small, because they are looking for them.  If we aren’t looking for miracles, aren’t putting ourselves in the path of them, then we won’t see them, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.  When we believe that our prayers will be answered, when we live our lives as if we have received what we have prayed for, when we put ourselves in the paths of answered prayers, then amazing things can happen.

But again, it’s what are we praying for.  Don’t pray to God that God will catch you if you jump off a building and then believe it’s going to happen and jump.  As Jesus said to the devil when told to jump off the temple, do not tempt the Lord your God.  Are we praying for things that are for us, or are we praying for things for God and for the world.  A prayer to win the lottery, even if you say you’ll give money to the church is not about God’s will, it’s about our will.  But we must also believe that God is big enough to deliver.  I think that’s where we sometimes get caught up is that we don’t believe God can do it, or that God is big enough to do it.  So be specific in your prayers.  When Hank and Deb Humiston gave their testimony about prayer in January, I believe it was Hank who said someone told him if you were going to pray for a car, to pray for the color of car you wanted.  I’m not sure about the car part, but there is something to that.  I have found here in the church in our prayer groups, especially for our prayer partners who pray for the church and its leaders, then when we have prayed for a specific thing, that it has happened.  I prayed for 31 people to join that group, and I got exactly 31.  They were praying for 12 people to join the disciple class, and we got 12 people.  They have been praying diligently for 60 people in each of our worship services, as have I, and while we haven’t gotten there yet, we have come very close, and more importantly they believe that it is going to happen, and we live as if we are going to receive it.  (Visualize it, imagine it, watch it happening, Tiger Woods putting)

When you put yourself in the path of miracles and of answered prayers, then miracles and answered prayers will come our way.  Does that mean that everything we pray for will be answered.  No, because the most fervent prayers ever given are for those who are critically ill and for those on their death bed, and yet death still comes.  But, perhaps, those prayers are answered as well.

In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner recounts the story of a woman came into his office after her husband had died of cancer, leaving her and their young children. “She told me that while he was terminally ill, she prayed for his recovery,” he says.  “Her parents, her in-laws, and her neighbors all prayed.  A protestant neighbor invoked the prayer circle of her church, and a Catholic neighbor sought the intercession of  St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.  Every variety, language, and idiom of prayer was mustered on his behalf, and none of them worked.  He died right on schedule, leaving her and her young children bereft of a husband and father.  After all that, she said to me, how can anyone be expected to take prayer seriously?

Is it really true, I asked her, that your prayers were not answered?  Your husband died; there was no miraculous cure for his illness.  But what did happen?  Your friends and relatives prayed; Jews, Catholics, and Protestant prayed.  At a time when you felt so desperately alone, you found out that you were not alone at all.  You found out how many other people were hurting for you and with you, and that is no small thing…. They were trying to tell you that your husband’s life meant a lot to them too, … and that whatever happened to him, you would not be totally alone.  That is what their prayers were saying, and I suspect that it made a difference.

And what about your prayers?, I asked her.  Were they left unanswered?  You faced a situation that could have easily broken your spirit.... [Yet] somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken.  You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things….  You faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were.  In your desperation, you opened your heart, to prayer, and what happened?  You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy.  But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy.  I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.”

“So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”  Stand in the way of miracles, stand in the way of answered prayers, and you may just encounter them, but more importantly live your life as if they have been answered, and what you will ultimately discover is that every prayer is answered, because when we pray, Jesus tells us, we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive God into our lives, and we receive the assurance that God hears us, loves us and is walking this journey with us, and that is an answered prayer.  Amen.

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