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“Not a Vending Machine”

Date: June 3, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

June 2, 2024

Not a Vending Machine

John 15:1-7

I know I don’t have to stand up here and tell you that you should pray.  It goes without saying that if you’re a Christian, you pray.  It’s just part of what it means to be a Christian.  I also don’t want anybody thinking there’s only one right way to pray.

One of the books I’ve been consulting in preparation for these sermons on spiritual disciplines is called Ragged:  Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted.  The author, Gretchen Ronnevik, talks about how, in different seasons of her life, she has prayed in a variety of ways.  She talks about formula prayers, like the organization of prayer around the acronym ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.  She talks about praying the Lord’s Prayer, or using it as a template for our own prayers.  She mentions keeping a prayer journal, praying in groups, laying on of hands, praying the prayers of the saints—like St. Francis’ prayer, which is in the Chalice Hymnal at #468.

She admits that sometimes she has prayed and wondered if she was just talking to herself, and that sometimes she has gone out to a deserted place where she could yell at God.  (That reminds me of the scene from The West Wing where the president, after his administrative assistant was killed in a car accident right after she had just picked up the first new car she ever owned, is in National Cathedral.  The funeral is over and the congregation has filed out; and he has his staff and Secret Service detail leave, too, so he can be alone with his thoughts and with God; and he pours out his grief and anger, alternating between English and Latin, and at one point calling God a “feckless thug.”  We might be shocked by that, but the reality is that God can handle whatever emotions we bring to our prayers, even if what we are is angry with God.)

There is no right or wrong way to pray.

Sometimes we think we have to use certain words to pray, lots of “thee” and “thou”[1] and churchy language, and there’s a place for that kind of prayer; but it’s not the only way to pray. 

A gentleman who served on my internship committee when I was in seminary was a fairly new Christian, so he hadn’t grown up immersed in all that churchy language.  When he was called on to pray at a meeting or a class, he usually began with, “Good morning, God.”  Then he’d talk to God just like he’d talk to anybody.

I found it quite refreshing.

And contrary to popular belief, there’s no right or wrong time to pray.

Many people insist that we must begin our day with Scripture and prayer.  And I agree that that’s a good thing to do.  But some of us—and if you’ve been on the livestream and watch me yawn through Morning Prayer, you know I’m one of them—are not worth much early in the morning.

If a person is less than functional first thing in the morning, then they might want to save their serious praying for a bit later in the day; but there are other ways to pray that don’t require us to be totally alert, like praying set prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of St. Francis, or some other one.  These prayers can also get us through times when we’re so overwhelmed with grief that we can’t formulate our own prayers.

After listing all the different ways she’s prayed over the years, Gretchen Ronnevik said something quite encouraging to those of us who struggle with prayer:  “There are many methods of prayer, but what astonishes me more than any of them, is that the Holy Spirit interprets my groans.  I can groan, and God not only hears me, but understands me.”  Paul tells us that in Romans 8.

We might also have heard, and taught our children, that we should end our days with prayer.  In another era children were taught a little prayer that went,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

My parents didn’t teach me that prayer, but I found it in a book I was reading and for a time I made it my own.  And there were an awful lot of nights when that “if I should die before I wake” line left me tossing and turning in terror.

I know I am not the only one who’s had that problem, because someone rewrote those last two lines:

“Guide me safely through the night,
and wake me with the morning light.”

Bedtime prayers can be helpful.  Monastic communities end their days with a prayer office called Compline, which means “completion.”  The day is ended; whatever happened during it, for good or ill, is now done, and tomorrow we begin anew.

The prayers that are traditionally part of the Compline service include Psalm 4, which ends with, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety”; Psalm 91, the great psalm of trust in God’s protection from all kinds of calamity; and Psalm 134, a short one that calls on those “who stand by night in the house of the Lord” to bless God with lifted hands, and then ends with a priestly blessing on those gathered for the evening prayer.  I love that one, because I can picture the people whose task was to keep vigil in the Temple through the night.

These days my evening prayers start with a short Compline service an Anglican priest posts to YouTube on a channel called “Ninja Vicar.”  Then I have a series of set prayers—including the Lord’s Prayer—that I’ve picked up one place and another, including the Nunc Dimittis, the prayer Simeon prayed in Luke 2 when he encountered the baby Jesus with his parents in the Temple.

That seems to work for me, and it might be something that works for others; but I won’t suggest that’s something everybody has to do.

So yes, it goes without say that Christians pray.  It’s in the job description.  But there are lots of ways to do it.  If what you’re doing works for you, then more power to you.  But if you’d like to try something different, there’s an insert in the bulletin with a bunch of suggestions.

Now, John 15 has something to say about prayer that has been misinterpreted by people through the years.

Fred Craddock told a story about a church where he had preached at one point.  This church had a prayer group, and they were getting ready to have a celebration in honor of having reached a major milestone.  Whenever they gathered for prayer, they would write down the things they prayed for, and they would make a note when those prayers were answered.  The party was for their one thousandth answered prayer.

So Fred asked what kinds of things they prayed for, and they named the usual things, like for people who were sick to get well; but they also talked about new cars, high-paying jobs, fur coats, expensive audio systems, and the like.  When Fred questioned this, their reply was, “Well, you know, Jesus said whatever we ask God for we’ll get it; it’s in the Book.”  He said he didn’t quite know what to say to that.

Technically they’re right; it’s in our Scripture reading for today.  But there’s an important qualification there.

John 15:7, the verse on which they were leaning, says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  I think, and I’m not the only one, that the first half of the verse is critical.

Jesus doesn’t say that God is duty-bound to give us whatever we ask for, just because we ask for it.  God is not the great vending machine in the sky, and I don’t think this verse means God is required to give us whatever we ask for, even when what we’re asking for is materialistic or just plain silly.

Yet this verse does say that we can ask God for anything and we will get it—if we abide in Jesus and Jesus’ words abide in us. 

I think Jesus might mean that, as we pray and practice other spiritual disciplines to deepen our relationship with him, our will and God’s will become aligned, and then we will ask for things that God will be delighted to give us.  That’s the key—we have to abide in Jesus, and let Jesus’ words and Jesus’ teaching take root in our hearts and minds.  As we abide in him we’ll find out that the words of James are true:  “The prayer of the faithful is powerful and effective.”

[1] Once upon a time, English had different second-person pronouns depending on whether a person was addressing an equal or someone of higher status.  The King James Bible deliberately chose to address God with the pronouns used when talking to an equal, which were “thee” and “thou,” “thy” and “thine.”  People used “you” when speaking to lords and ladies and kings, as a sign of respect. The Revised Standard Version, published in the early 1950s, retained these pronouns, which were by then an anachronism; English has changed over the years, and other than in church we’ve lost the “thee” and “thou” pronouns.  Now we tend to see those as more respectful ways to address God, which is the opposite of their original usage.