By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
August 22, 2021
Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/226414696084439
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
Somehow, somewhere between childhood and adulthood, I picked up the idea that there is something wrong with asking for what we want in prayer. I developed this habit of thinking, “You know, with everything else going on in the world, it’s pretty selfish to ask God to help with my relatively small problems.” Because our problems can always be small compared to someone else’s, right? We can always find someone who might be suffering more than we are.
Has anyone ever felt or does anyone ever feel that way about asking for things for yourself in prayer? Like you kind of shouldn’t do it?
Well, we are not the only ones. I’m using Fr. James Martin’s book Learning to Pray for this sermon series, and he is (among other things) a spiritual director. That means he talks with people about their prayer lives a lot. He shares in his book that it is common for people to think that prayer asking God for help for themselves is some kind of “lower” form or prayer. It’s not as good or holy or mature as other kinds of prayer. But Fr. Martin always encourages his directees to pray for what they desire.
He says, it is right for us to pray for “anything that is manifestly good.” In other words, we should not pray for something terrible to happen to someone. Remember, Jesus told us to pray FOR our enemies not against them. But any good desire of your heart, Fr. Martin says you should pray for.
In defense of this, Fr. Martin points us to the scripture. The Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) is filled with examples of people praying to God for help. Moses, Hannah, King David, heck, much of the entire book of Psalms are prayers of supplication or asking or begging for help.
Beyond the Hebrew Bible, Fr. Martin points to what Jesus said and did. Even Jesus asked for help in prayer in the New Testament. The parable we heard in our scripture today is just one example of Jesus encouraging his followers to ask for what they want, what they desire, what they need, in prayer. In this parable, the woman asking the judge for help, doesn’t just ask once. She’s downright annoying. She keeps going back to the judge again and again to plead her case. The judge, even though he is a bad man essentially, eventually gives in and hears the woman’s complaint. Jesus says that God who is good is even more ready to hear and answer our prayers than this judge who is not good.
In fact, there is a beautiful line in a prayer that is part of our Methodist funeral liturgy that says this: “O God, you are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.” I love that. “You are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.”
That makes me think about a story from my life that I’d like to share with you this morning. My dad is a big part of it, so as usual, I asked him if I could share. He said yes.
It was about 13 years ago, and my dad was having open heart surgery. I had traveled home to Wisconsin to be there because, open heart surgery, while fairly common, is still a big deal.
I’m not sure how many hours into the surgery it was when a nurse came out with some disturbing news. In the midst of all the quadruple bypassing that was going on, my Dad’s aorta had ruptured, and the surgeon was at that moment unable to stop the bleeding. They were trying, but it was not going well. I’m not sure how many subsequent members of the surgery team came out in the following hours to give us updates, but it was quite a few. Everyone had the same message, “We are trying. But we can’t stop the bleeding.”
As some point, a chaplain came in, and since my dad is Catholic, we decided to see if my Uncle’s priest from a nearby parish could come and be with us. We were expecting the worst.
This might be a good time to mention that I was not a Catholic at the time. In fact, I was not a Christian. I definitely would have described myself as agnostic. I had most recently attended a Unitarian church, but I had been disconnected from that faith community for awhile by that point in my life.
I think it was somewhere between talking to the chaplain and waiting for the priest that I decided to pray. I’m sure my prayer was something like, “Look, God. I’m not sure I even believe in you, but I am really, really scared. Please. Please help my dad. Please, please let the bleeding stop. Please, please help us.”
Not too long after that, the priest showed up: Father Gerald Falk. Same first name as my dad.
Then the craziest thing happened. The surgeon invited Father Falk to gown up and pray for my dad in the operating room. I’m not sure I can overemphasize how incredibly unusual that is. I’d be willing to bet that Fr. Falk had never been invited into an operating room before, and that I will never be invited into an operating room during my entire career as a pastor.
I will admit that I don’t know exactly what happened in that operating room. I don’t know if the presence of the priest steadied the hand of the surgeon. I don’t know if the spirit of Wisdom (or desperation) guided the surgeon to use a procedure which he later admitted to us he had never tried but only read about. But I do know that the team was able to stop the bleeding. I also know that God was there. In the operating room. In the waiting room. In the daughter who was praying to a God she wasn’t even sure she believed in.
“You are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.”
Our Methodist faith speaks of something called prevenient grace. It’s the knowledge of and longing for God that is in us though we may know nothing of it, and I think our desire to pray is one expression of that prevenient grace. Our desire to pray to God in our need is a desire planted in us by God. Sometimes we have to be in a place of utter helplessness before we humble ourselves to cry out for help.
That is not wrong, and it is not selfish. It is not wrong because encountering God in a moment of fear and desperation can be the start of a life spent in the service of God and God’s beloved people. When one really encounters God in the depth of one’s need, it doesn’t produce selfishness. It produces love. It produces empathy. It produces awareness that we all are human and needful and broken, and it causes us to want to help God alleviate the suffering of others. Prayer is how God works in us and through us.
God is ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.
Thanks be to God.