“Why did we pray and nothing happened?” “We prayed for healing, but there was none. I don’t understand.” “Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others?” “What good is praying?”
I have been asked all those questions many times, and have asked all of them myself. I will confess they are not questions that I like to answer, largely because I do not have an easy answer for them.
What did Jesus think? What did Jesus teach about prayer? This is a good Sunday to ask the question, because we have two parables about prayer from Jesus this morning, and they are from Luke, which is sometimes called the Gospel of Prayer, because of teachings like this that only appear in Luke’s Gospel and the fact that Luke is always telling us that Jesus is praying.
So now you would think that if anyone had prayer down to a science it was Jesus. Yet that is not exactly the evidence. There is the well-known scene in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death when Jesus struggles deeply and even painfully with what to pray for, and then in Mark and Matthew’s Gospel there is Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” to which he receives no reply. This is so hard to contemplate that Luke and John ignore Jesus’ helplessness on the cross and have him, respectively, dispensing forgiveness and decreeing for himself when it is finished.
And then there are these two parables, particularly the first one, which we read last week, but I saved for this week. What do they have to tell us about prayer?
It’s important to know the context. Jesus has just given his warnings about the chaos at the end of the world, and they would have been enough to set the disciples’ teeth on edge. It was not good news, or, at least, it did not sound like any good news they had ever heard before.
“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it,” Jesus had said, “but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” The disciples asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
And immediately the text says,
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
Of course he did, lest the image of the corpse-gathered buzzards haunt their dreams, or even their attempts to pray.
It occurs to me that Jesus would not have taken the time to encourage us not to lose heart if he did not know just how easy that would be, to lose heart, that is. And it is easy. We usually use the image of a “broken” heart. I think I like this image better, a “lost” heart, a heart that cannot find home.
Most, if not all, of us have been there, if for no other reason than the loss of someone we have dearly loved.
When I was eleven years old my beloved grandmother died of colon cancer at the age of 49. I know I have told the story of our last meeting through the screen of a hospital window. I may very well have told you this part also. If so, forgive me. A day or two later she died. My parents came home and my father sat my seven year-old sister and me down on the couch and said, “You know in heaven where God is? Well that is where your grandmother is now.”
I remember those words, clear as a bell, but I do not at all remember how I felt or what I thought about them. I do know that I did not find them particularly comforting. I spent the next few years not thinking about God much. I had no real reason to do so. When I did I did not particularly care if he existed or not. If he did, he was certainly no friend of mine.
I think we underestimate how many people get to that place and get stuck there, and never come out.
Now I know that I have told my “conversion” story before, how quite serendipitously I got involved when I was a junior in high school with the musical Godspell. I learned the story of Jesus then, and I liked it in the form I was hearing and telling, but I could not in my heart or mind make the connection to my grandmother.
In the end the connection was made for me. On the last night of the performance, I was carried by several of my cast mates through the auditorium crowd, lying on my back with my arms drooped toward the ground. I was the dead Jesus. At one point, someone, I have never known who, reached out and squeezed my hand. It is odd how a simple touch like that can sometimes make the synapses in your brain fire in ways they could not before.
As I said, I did not know who it was, but I was absolutely sure it was my grandmother, and the message could not have been clearer to me: in Jesus’ death she was alive. I was not delusional. I knew I could not see her and would not see her, but I also knew that she had not been taken away from me, she was not in some far away place called heaven that I could never get to, and that although she was not healed in the way that I wanted her to be healed, she was, in Jesus’ death, alive.
Now I know that is not much of a story about prayer, at least in the technical sense, but it is a story about how I found my heart after having lost it. In one sense, Jesus’ advice was not complicated at all. If you lose your heart, keep looking until you find it. Be stubborn, insistent, even angry and demanding if you have to be. But don’t give up the fight.
And don’t, he goes on to say, try to fix things by papering over your lostness with religion. We do this all the time. We are not as arrogant as this Pharisee, but, then, he is supposed to be a caricature. But we do this often when someone else is hurting and we try to paper it over with religion, and we inevitably say too much, and it sounds helpful, and we mean well, but it only puts more distance between the hurting person and God, not less.
Someone asks us, “Why?” And we pretend we know the answer. “God needed him.” “It was her time.” I actually believe that God does not really want us to answer for him. I think it is actually more comforting to say, “I don’t know.” But do not stop there. “I don’t know, but I do know we will get through this, because if I know anything about God it is that he gets us through things, and I even think he has gotten your grandmother, your friend, your sister, through death.”
What does this say about prayer? It says to me that when we pray for
Julian of Norwich wrote,
God did not say, “You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.” But our God said, “You shall not be overcome.”
Which is the ultimate answer to every prayer that has ever been made.