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Why Pray?
a sermon based on Luke 11:1-13
by Rev. Heather McCance

It is probably not a surprise to you that people often tell me about their troubles. It's part of being a priest, and it's something that I take very seriously, and that humbles me every time it happens.

And sometimes, when people tell you their troubles, they just want someone to talk to, they're not looking for answers. Sometimes, they are looking for answers. Sometimes, they just need to talk through what they're going through to understand it better themselves.

But every once in a while, when someone is telling me their troubles, I ask a question. "Have you prayed about it?" And, despite the fact that they know I am a priest, most people are surprised that I ask. And not all of them can honestly say that they do pray about the things in their lives that are troubling them.

What is prayer all about, anyway? What's the point of prayer? Why do we pray?

Even if you believe in God, you might not believe in prayer. After all, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why bother with prayer? God can know what we need and desire, and God has the power to change the situation should God choose to do that. We even say in one of our prayers that God knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking. So why bother asking?

Besides, for every person asking God for one thing, there's surely another asking for the opposite. I always laugh when I hear of sports teams praying for God to help them win. I hate to say it, but I don't think that the Almighty truly cares all that much whether the Jays beat the Yankees (even if they need all the help they can get!).

Well, the disciples gave Jesus the chance to say all that. If anyone would know whether prayer is worth while, it would be him, right? He could have said, Oh, don't bother praying. God knows what you need and desire, so just leave it in the divine hands and get on with dedicating your whole lives to building the kingdom. But he didn't say that. Instead, he gave us a prayer we still say together every week, and that many of us say at least once a day. He told us that prayer is important.

For whatever reason, God wants our prayers. If we are to have a true, living relationship with God, we must stay in touch. I have spoken with parents whose children do not talk to them anymore, for whatever reason. The parent, who still loves the child, longs for a word. And so God longs to hear from us.

But, to return to the person who is facing a difficult situation and prays about it, all too often the situation does not change. By now, I suspect that we have all heard about the scientific studies that show that those who are prayed for heal faster than those who are not, regardless of whether they know they are prayed for. And that's wonderful, and that by itself would be a good reason to pray. But what about those who are not healed, for whom the situation doesn't get better, those who die? How many of us have asked the Lord for a fish, and been handed a snake?

Let's think about praying for a few minutes, then. Why do we do it? When C.S. Lewis married his wife Joy, their happiness was short-lived when they discovered that she had cancer. Lewis prayed. A friend, a fellow university professor, asked why he prayed. And Lewis answered that he simply had to pray, that he could not do anything but pray. In his helplessness, praying brought him some peace. His prayers, he said, did not change God. But they did change him.

Prayers changing the pray-er. I can understand that. I remember the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed. He was in trouble. He asked that the cup of suffering that he was about to taste be taken from him. But he ended his prayer with, "Not what I will, but what you will." And when the soldiers arrived with Judas to arrest him, he seemed to be reconciled to what must happen for God's purpose to be accomplished. His fear and sadness were changed by his prayers into strength and determination to see things through to the bitter end.

Thy will be done. We say it, sure. But how often do we want to say, "Thy will be changed." How often I hope that God's will for a certain situation is the same as mine. I've prayed like that. "Please God, let this be the way you want things to be, so that everything can turn out the way I want it to."

Not that I believe for an instant that God's will is ever for us to suffer. I do not. God loves us infinitely , and God wants us to be happy, to be at peace. But God's kingdom has not yet been fulfilled, and in this world there is suffering and there is pain and there is death.

So, knowing all this, why did Jesus tell us to ask, to seek, to knock at the door? Why on earth did he talk about asking for an egg and not being given a scorpion, when he knew, perhaps better than anyone, just how for this world has fallen from God's purpose? Was he raising false hopes? Was he trying to be a Pollyanna, only seeing the good in every situation?

I don't think so. Look again at how the reading ends. "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask." We may be praying for an end to wars in the world, we may be praying for healing for someone who is terminally ill, we may be praying for the safe return of a loved one who is traveling, we may be asking that it's not me who will be laid off in the latest round of "right-sizing" at work.

But what God ultimately gives to God's people is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God's presence with us. In this world, there is evil and suffering and death. But we are gifted with the Spirit of God to help us get through all of that.

And God's Spirit, given to us as we pray, does change us. We cannot truly pray for peace in the world without then going out into the world and acting peaceably. We cannot truly pray for justice and then buy our clothes from a company known to use child labour. We cannot truly pray for peace in our families and then provoke a fight. We cannot truly pray for the environment and then waste the resources we have been given. We cannot truly pray for governments to do God's will and then vote without taking our faith into account as we do so, or not bother to vote at all.

Prayer gifts us with God's Spirit. God's Spirit living in us strengthens us through the trials of our lives, and makes us more deeply aware of the blessings we have been given. God's spirit living in us prompts us to live out God's kingdom in the world. And God's Spirit living in us helps us to pray, with truer hearts, Thy will be done. Amen.