The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - July 24, 2016
Scripture Reading: Luke 11:1-13
Sermon Title:

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     Since I started seminary I have become the official “prayer person.”  This not a title I wanted, but has been thrust upon me in almost every situation where food is present.  Family meals, meals with friends.  It does not seem to matter if prayers are normally said before eating or not, even in groups where I don’t know many people, it is like a word is spread “We have a guy who is studying to be a minister, or is a minister.  Since he is here, have to pray before we eat, and we will ask him.” 

     I always get a little chuckle at my monthly meeting of interim ministers.  There are anywhere between 8 and 20 of us who get together once a month and talk about the churches we are serving, what is going well, what we are having trouble with and offer each other praise, suggestions, advice and support.  We are all ministers, so we start and end each meeting with prayer.  Since it is not an official committee we don’t have a chair, but a person who convenes each meeting.  Carolyn always explains the pattern for our meeting, and then says “Who would like to open us in prayer.”  If you have been there a few times, you know that you pick up a pen and open up a notebook when she is explaining the pattern of the meeting so as soon as she says “Who would like to open us in prayer?” you can quickly drop your head, you pen is ready and you are writing down something so important that you cannot even say “I will do it.”  This leaves the newer people, or anyone who forgot to prepare looking around at each other. 

     Now often this is not “I don’t want to pray.”  I think there are a few things going on in a group of ministers, the first is to be polite, you don’t want to jump in and say “I will pray” if someone else really wants to do it.  Some ministers really like to pray, and they are ready to go at any moment.  They open with some deep statement, go on to ask for blessing on the reason we are gathered, ask for blessings on each of us and the burdens we are carrying in our hearts, address all the world’s problems… 20 minutes later they are still going strong. 

     The other reason that many of us drop our heads and write something is that we don’t think we are very good at praying.  That may sound a bit strange to some of you.  “You are a minister, you talk to God all the time, you have some kind of direct line to God” or my favorite “You went to God School and have a master’s degree in God stuff.” 

     Truth is that we didn’t even have a class in seminary about prayer.  It did confuse me a little bit on my first day of seminary.  Dr. Bracke’s Old Testament class.  Required class for all first year students.  Even though none of you were in that class, you know how it was.  Dr. Bracke had been around Eden seminary for a long time, the rumor floating around campus was that he arrived just after Jesus had graduated from Eden Seminary.  Even if that was a bit of an exaggeration, he had been teaching Old Testament for at least 100 years.  He had written books, and knew the whole Bible forward and backward.  First day of class, we all arrive 10-15 minutes before the class starts.  Dr. Bracke walks in says “Welcome to our first class of Old Testament, lets open with prayer.”  And he prays, but I didn’t hear a word he said.  I went to public schools, and then the University of Maine.  Separation of church and state, I know that you cannot pray before starting to teach a class.  Oh, this is a private school, designed to prepare us for the ministry, I guess it makes total sense to pray before class starts, just totally caught me off guard.

     I imagine that the disciples were in a similar boat.  Jesus prayed, we think, but you expect that from Jesus.  The disciples had seen plenty of people in the synagogue praying, but more likely it was the priests who were offering prayers.  As a strict Jew, you are required to pray at meals, specific prayers for each part of the meal.  Blessings on the grain used to make this bread, and then when the meat is served, a prayer on the meat that has been provided.  So probably the Jewish followers of Jesus were familiar with those prayers, but were looking for something more.

     I find it interesting that Jesus gives them words, that we still use today, but also tells them to ask for what they want.  And not just ask and be done, but be persistent.  Just like in the story, you don’t ask your neighbor for a loaf of bread and if he says “no” go back to your house.  You keep knocking and asking, and eventually you will get it. 

     There is pretty good scientific evidence that prayer is good for you.  Study after study show that those believers recover from breast cancer quicker than non-believers, have better outcomes from coronary disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and are less likely to have children with meningitis.  One of the most striking studies for me is out of California, where 393 cardiac patients were looked at.  Half of them had their name given to people who would pray for them.  They didn’t know they were being prayed for, and the person praying only had their name.  Those patients had fewer complications, fewer cases of pneumonia, and needed less drug treatment. They also got better quicker and left the hospital earlier.

But there is a problem with this.  I am sure that all of us have prayed for something that we wanted.  A sunny day on a day where we have to be outside, rain because our grass is dying, or safe journeys for something or someone.  But we also know that some of our prayers are not answered.  That day you are praying for sun turns out to be a downpour.  The grass is totally dead before any rain comes.  Or someone leaves on a journey and a deer jumps out in front of them, totaling their car. 

     But there are more serious things that we pray for that don’t turn out how we would like.  Most of us have prayed for healing for a loved one. Maybe prayed for someone to find a better job so they can bring their family out of a hard situation.  Maybe prayed for a situation where people are dying, like a famine, or natural disaster.  And we all know that sometimes those prayers don’t work out like we think they should.  The healing does not come, and the person dies, the person does not get that job, and continues to struggle, or the natural disaster where, although we prayed, people still died. 

     And I wish I could give you some reason why some prayers are answered and some are not.  If we can  show that some prayers work, we should be able to figure out why some of them do not work.   Of course there are some who will suggest that you didn’t pray hard enough.  I don’t accept that. There is nobody who knows how hard you pray except for God.  But I don’t believe that God has a scorebook, says that only this many people prayed this many total hours for this person, not worth answering this prayer.  Others will suggest that it is God’s will.  I have a problem with that also.  Does God want children to suffer?  Does God want some people to die an early or painful death?  I don’t accept that either.  There are books upon books written about this, but I have not come up with the best answer yet.  I don’t think that sermons should answer all your questions, so I leave that one unanswered, perhaps because there is no perfect answer.

     I would like to suggest this morning that we accept that prayer does in fact work.  I don’t know how or why, but there is something shown over and over that happens when people pray for them.  And I believe that.  When I was working in Michigan we came up with a neat little exercise.  One of the first nights of staff training everyone had to make 20 little beads out of Femo, that clay that you can cook in the oven and it makes it really hard.  We then took those beads and each staff member got a string of beads, one made by each staff member.  We encouraged the staff to wear these, or leave them by their bed, or do something so that they saw them at least once a day.  We took one of everyone bead and put it onto a poster with everyone’s name.  So as you went through your string of beads you could pray for each staff member by name while holding their bead.  And lastly we sent the last 3 beads of each staff member to different churches in the area.  If the staff member was a member of a church, one of their beads went to that church, and we just divided up the others and mailed them along with a letter explaining that these beads were to remind us to pray for each other, and we ask that for the next 8 or 9 weeks, you lift up these staff members in prayer in whatever way works for your church.  Some had prayer trees, some had prayer lines, some sent out lists of people to keep in your prayers, much like we do here, many listed them in their bulletins. 

     So everyone on staff, including me, knew that there were at least 19 people praying for us by name.  This did not mean that we didn’t have any problems on our staff those summers, but in some ways things went smoother.  Things that could have been big problems seemed smaller, and even staff disagreements seemed to be settled faster.  It is hard to be angry with someone and pray for them, so often disagreements were settled after just a day or two. 

     This morning we are going to commission Zoey, Evie and I to go to National Youth Event, and I am going to ask that you pray for us this week.  As I was looking at the schedule I found that Tuesday morning we have to be at the airport in Manchester about 4:00 am.  We will arrive in Florida, get settled, have worship, after hours activities, and the suggested curfew is 11:00 that night, about 20 hours after we got up that morning.  The next morning, we have to be in the dining room, dressed, and ready to load a bus by 6:00 am.  So we will be all working on less sleep than we are used to.  We also will be sharing this experience with about 3,000 other participants.  So I would like to ask you each to pray for us by name over these next few days, for safe travels, for wonderful experiences, for learning and growing in our faith.  I would also like you to add Glenn, my son, to your prayers as he will also be a participant in this event. 

     I would also like to try something else, and that is to keep each other in our prayers.  Many of us get the prayer list sent to us by email on Monday morning, so certainly those people, but also would like us to pray, by name, for those in our church.  Not only those we know are having issues that need our prayer, but also for those need prayer for issues we don’t know about.  I find it helpful to use a church directory, and just go through and pray for each person in there.  I have not even met some of them.  I also use an older directory, as it is important to remember the families of those who have passed away since it was published.  But I would invite you to join me over the next few weeks of taking time to pray for each member of this church.  If you find time to do it every day, that is great.  If you do it once a week, that is great.  Even if you only find time to do it once, I would invite you to join us. 

     Jesus teaches us how to pray, and Jesus understands how important it is for us to do it.  Lets see what amazing things can happen when we hold each other in prayer.