Unanswered Prayer? A Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

“One of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” (From Luke 11:1-13, Proper 12C.)

Coke MachineAs I recall my own life of prayer, prayers I have heard, and conversations I have had about prayer I can’t help but wonder if the coke machine isn’t our primary teacher of prayer. Think about it. We put in the correct change, make our selection, and get what we want. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” So we offer the coins of our wants and needs, our beliefs, and our good behavior. We tell God what we want and expect to get what we asked for.

All that works fine until it doesn’t. Coke machines are great until they take your money but give you nothing or give you a Big Red when you selected a Diet Coke. Look how we respond when that happens. We get mad. We push the button again and again. We hit or kick the machine. We tip it side to side. We did our part and expect it to do its. It’s not so different with prayer. Some will get angry. Some will feel hurt or betrayed, lose faith, even leave the church.

I don’t have a lot of people coming to ask me, “Why was my prayer answered? Why did I receive exactly what I asked for?” I know prayer is answered. Sometimes we ask and receive, search and find, knock and the door opens, but that is not their concern. They want to know why they asked but did not receive, why they searched but did not find, why they knocked but the door never opened. We all do.

I prayed hard that Thursday night as we drove. I prayed with words, silence, and tears. With each phone call and update my prayer became more desperate. More coins. Push the button again. “Please, please, please Father.” When we got there they told us Brandon had died. “Ask and it will be given you. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you.” That’s not just my story. It’s your story too. It’s the story of everyone who has ever prayed. We’ve all lost our money at least once.

I don’t know why some prayers seem to be answered and others seem to go unanswered. I don’t have any good answers or explanations but I have heard some really bad ones. “You didn’t pray hard enough.” “You didn’t have enough faith.” “You were asking for the wrong thing.” “It’s all a mystery and someday we’ll understand.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Something better is coming.” I can neither believe nor accept any of that. That is nothing but an attempt to bolster a coke machine understanding of prayer. We’ve got to let that go. It’s wrong. It hurts people and it perverts who and how God is.

When I hear those kind of answers and explanations I can’t help but remember another man praying on a Thursday night. He prayed with words, sweat, and blood. “Please, please, please Father.” They crucified him the following afternoon. Ask. Search. Knock.

I don’t understand how prayer works but I know this. It is not about the coins. It is not a mechanical process. It is not a transaction. It is not the transmission of information to God.

In the midst of not knowing or understanding maybe the most and the best we can do is to echo that disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We are always beginners, always learning to pray. Jesus’ response is not an explanation of prayer or how it works. He does not offer a formula or magic words. He does not give us the correct change for the coke machine. Instead Jesus teaches about who and how God is. “When you pray, say:

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.”

God is holy and we are his divine children, holy sons and daughters. That’s a given, a reality, before we even open our mouths and before we ever offer our coins or make a selection. The relationship already exists. That’s how Jesus begins his teaching. Prayer is about relationship and presence. We’re not telling God something that God does not know. We are reminding ourselves of what already is, always has been, and always will be.

That relationship means that our life, our existence, our very being, comes from our Father. Jesus speaks of that as daily bread. We are too often convinced that we are or must be independent and self-sufficient. Prayer reminds us that we are “unselfsufficient.” We ask each day for our daily bread. That does not mean we are deficient but that our sufficiency comes not from ourselves but from God. It means that God sustains and nourishes our life. That’s another way of talking about relationship and presence. Those lines about forgiveness, ours and others? Again, that’s about relationship and presence, with God and each other.

If prayer, as Jesus teaches it, really is all about relationship and presence then there is only one answer to every prayer. God. I don’t just mean God answers our prayer but that God is the answer; God’s presence, life, love, beauty, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom, justice, mercy. God gives God’s self as the answer to our every prayer. Jesus tells us that. If you, he says, know how to give your kids good things “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit.”

Perhaps the greatest difficulty of prayer is that sometimes we just want to offer our coins and push the button. We don’t want God. We want something from God. We want God to change our circumstances.

While God can and sometimes does change circumstances, I am increasingly convinced that God, more often than not, changes us. God’s self-giving sustains, nourishes, strengthens, empowers, emboldens, and enables us to face the circumstances of life. We do so, sometimes with joy and gratitude, other times with pain and loss, but always with God. On my better days I know this and that’s enough. On those other days? It’s “Lord, teach me to pray.”

18 thoughts on “Unanswered Prayer? A Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

  1. This came to me on the 1 year anniversary of the birth/death of my great grand-baby. Her parents are in such pain. My trust in God, I know she is where she was to be. She touched so many lives in so many ways. God does know best. I am praying for her, her parents, and all of my family. Thank you God for teaching us to pray, for prayer is so comforting and thank you for reminding me of that. God bless you.

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    • Lois, I am sorry for your loss. I know how difficult the anniversaries can be. I hope the sermon was helpful and that God’s presence and love sustains you and your family.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  2. Thank you Mike. I think we have all had the same experience. What a beautiful explanation of such a hard thing to understand at times.
    Peace, Janice

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  3. Your analogy is inspired, but what does God mean when the coins are returned? Sometime the answer to my prayer is “No answer” — the coins are returned. God knows exactly how to deal with my often selfish, self-centered prayer. When I have the coins of His realm, God causes a response. Thanks be to God.

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    • Duane, all analogies break down at some point and this one is no exception. Having said that I don’t see the returned coins as a rejection or denial but simply a statement that they were never necessary to begin with. I see prayer more as relationship with God rather than a transaction. In some ways the sermon is less an exposition about prayer and more a sharing of my own struggle and practice.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  4. Pingback: For all readers who have lost someone dear | Solid gold creativity

  5. Thanks for this insightful post on prayer and the wanting of God rather than what can I get from God. I look forward to following your posts about your experience on this journey!

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  6. *** I don’t just mean God answers our prayer but that God is the answer; God’s presence, life, love, beauty, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom, justice, mercy.***

    I have been so angry with HIM, but I have come to realize that without HIM, I couldn’t have survived the last 3 years. And that’s the whole truth.

    Sending you love from Minnesota. Xx

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    • I continue to discover how grief and loss set before us so many contradictions and paradoxes. I think that is where God lives. I am so sorry for your loss and pray God’s peace, love, and healing continue to fill and sustain you.

      Mike+

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  7. Thank you, Fr. Mike, for this message. I so appreciate the depth and honesty of your reflections!
    I’ve heard people say that we ask too little of The Holy One; I guess putting a coin in & expecting to get what we ask us an example of asking too little.

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    • Jan, your comment reminds me of the collect from Morning and Evening Prayer (based on Ephesians 3): “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

      Peace,
      Mike+

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