First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kate Dalton

February 10, 2019

Scripture: Luke 11:5-13; Isaiah 62:6-9

       In his book entitled Prayer, Philip Yancey writes this:

…I interviewed ordinary people about prayer.  Typically the results went like this: Is prayer important to you?  Oh yes. How often do you pray? Every day. Approximately how long?  Five minutes-maybe seven. Do you find prayer satisfying?  Not really. Do you sense the presence of God when your pray? Occasionally, not often. Many of those I talked to experienced prayer more as a burden than as a pleasure.  They regarded it as important, even paramount, and felt guilty about their failure, blaming themselves.

I would dare say that most of us would name prayer as a standard practice of Christian faith.  And yet, prayer is one of those things that can be so confusing – hence Yancey’s finding that most people don’t find prayer, satisfying.  What is the purpose of prayer?

When you google the word prayer, the first definition that appears is this:

a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.[1] 

Based on that definition it’s no wonder so many people don’t find prayer satisfying.  How often is it that we pray for something and it seems like it makes no difference at all.  I have a hard time with the scripture when Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  That has not been my experience.  I have asked and it hasn’t always been given to me. 

And this notion about Ask and you shall receive can cause a huge crisis in faith.  You might wonder why haven’t my prayers been answered?  Why am I not receiving what I asked for?  Sometimes people think they aren’t praying correctly or enough.  Sometimes people think the response or lack of response to prayer reflects God’s judgement on them.

Commentator David Lose takes a different approach to the purpose of asking God for things in prayer.  He says:

Why do I think asking is so central to prayer? Because it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. God has given us many, many gifts, yet we never stray far from our original condition of ultimate dependence on God’s mercy, goodness, and provision. When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God’s goodness. [2]

I like this idea, prayer helps us remember our relationship to the world and to God.  In fact, what if we thought of prayer as conversation with God that builds relationship. 

The University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center offers these suggestions with regards to building healthy relationships:

Build.  Build a foundation of appreciation and respect….say “thank you”

       Explore.  Explore each other’s interests.

Establish.  Establish a pattern of apologizing.  [It’s important to say] “I’m sorry.”[3]

When you think about it, the patterns we learn for prayer follow this format. Lets start with build and establish. We build when we give thanks for God’s work and presence  We build when we recognize and name blessings and dwell on the gifts that we have been given. And we establish when we confess.  When we apologize for where we have gone wrong in our relationship with God.  Confession forces us to recognize how we have strayed from the relationship that God wants and allows us to grow and try again.

The benefits of building and establishing a relationship with God are almost tangible.  Giving thanks puts us in a better frame of mind to engage with the world and confessing allows us to grow.  Exploring our relationship with God though is where I think it becomes hard.  It often feels like there is no tangible return on the investment.  And yet, when you look at it, the Lord’s prayer is all about exploring our relationship with God.  It reminds us of God’s interests.  And when we share our petitions with God, our worries, our requests, we share with God our interests.  We build relationship.  In the same way we would build relationship with another person.  We share what’s important to us.  We don’t expect the other person to be able to fix something we’re worried about or be able to cure someone who is ill – but we share anyway.  The speaking and the listening are important.  They bind us together. 

Listen again to the words of David Lose,

The second thing I believe is that God listens to our prayer. There is nothing more important to God than being in relationship with us, and so when we speak we can count on God’s attention. When my first child was born, I was overwhelmed by how much I loved him. I couldn’t get over how strong in the very first moments of his life was my desire to love, protect, and provide for him. In those initial moments, I looked forward to a lifetime of relationship, a lifetime of listening and talking, of laughing and even crying, together. If so with us, Jesus asks, how much more so with God (11:13).2

When I teach about prayer in confirmation class, I sometimes feel at a loss.  I wish I could be more definitive about how prayer works.  Instead, all I can do is assert that prayer is a mystery.  I don’t know why it seems like some prayers are answered and others are not.  But, like David Lose, I do believe that prayer is important.  Our scripture tells us so.  My own experience tells me so.  Even if there are no guarantees when I ask God for something, I feel better having shared.  I feel better feeling connected with something larger than myself.  I am comforted by the confidence that God listens.

And so we pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. The words that connect us with the heart of the divine.  The words that build, explore, and establish our relationship with God such that our lives will reflect that relationship. 

Our God, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. 

May it be so. 


[1] https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&ei=MsRdXLriHoK3ggfm4ZqQCg&q=definition+of+prayer&oq=definition+of+prayer&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0l4j0i67j0l5.8920.12749..12944…0.0..3.127.2746.10j16……0….1..gws-wiz…..0..0i71j0i131.1V_ElP-TTB0

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1570

[3] https://www.cmhc.utexas.edu/vav/vav_healthyrelationships.html

Sermon for February 10

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