Home-baked communion bread, Holy Week 2016.
When I was growing up Southern Baptist in Alabama, I became acquainted with what I have come to call the “Jesus Weejus” prayer. It’s a combination of the words, “Jesus, we just…” but Southerners can blend their words in some unique ways, and in this particular case “Weejus” sounds like one word. I swear I almost thought that Weejus was Jesus’ last name for the first five years of my life.
“Jesus Weejus come to you, and Jesus Weejus want to say that we love you…”
There was a lot of repetition in prayer when I was growing up, and we said God’s name a lot. It always drove me crazy but I could never put my finger on why, until someone pointed out that if we talked to each other like that, it would be ridiculous.
For example, if I asked for things like this: “Gail I just come to you Gail and Gail I just want to thank you Gail for all the work on the service you did this week, Gail…”
Awkward, huh? But we talked – and talk – to God this way all the time.
All of these experiences, along with the guilt that often comes with the conservative evangelical Christian lifestyle, led me to feel a lot of anxiety about prayer. I worry that I don’t pray enough. I worry that I don’t pray correctly. I feel anxious when my prayers aren’t answered. I counsel people over and over who want to know why their prayers weren’t answered.
You don’t expect pastors to struggle with prayer, but the truth is that literally everyone struggles with prayer. And so typically, when you ask me about prayer and put me on the spot, you might get some insight or you might just get a lot of nervous laughter. But today’s Gospel passage points us right to prayer, so… [chuckles nervously]
If you read it just right, maybe cocking your head to the side a little, the last part of today’s Gospel passage is sort of hilarious and sarcastic on Jesus’ part.
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?”
“…Is there anyone among you?”
Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Of course not, we think. Of course good parents, or even average parents, don’t deliberately give their children things that will harm them when they ask for things they need.
And then Jesus goes on to add that if we, who are pretty depraved and evil and honestly not always that smart, know how to give good things to our children, how much more will God give us the Holy Spirit to those who ask?
Before that, he said, in a manner of speaking, that if we are persistent, we will get what we pray for.
But we can all immediately think of times when we prayed and nothing happened. I can think of times like that myself. Even worse, there was the time that I was called to an ICU unit in the middle of the night after a patient began to code. He coded all night and eventually died in the morning. The man’s daughter, in her grief, wanted to talk to me, the chaplain. Her response wasn’t surprising: “I don’t understand why God doesn’t hear me, Pastor, I prayed all night!”
As she cried, as I sat and held her hand, she repeated the words, “I prayed all night, I prayed all night, I prayed all night…”
What we have to work with is times when we feel as if prayers have been answered miraculously and times when we pray for someone over and over for healing and they aren’t healed.
Jesus gives us a metaphor for prayer today and says that it’s like when you have a neighbor from whom you need something in the middle of the night — even, he says, if their door is locked and they tell you to go away (because, you know, it’s the middle of the night), if you’re persistent, they’ll answer, if only to make you go away.
How often have we all prayed and felt like we were banging against a locked door in the middle of the night? How often have we continued to knock, like the man’s daughter, and pray all night, only to have our prayers go unanswered?
Last week, Debbie sent me a video of a talk by Rob Bell, author and theologian, talking about prayer. He talks about these very topics — what about when God doesn’t answer prayer.
He’s remarkably honest, as I will be with you today: he doesn’t know. I don’t know.
But he points out that in three of the Gospels, Jesus asks before his crucifixion that this cup pass from him.
I had never thought of it this way before, but — that was, in a sense, an unanswered prayer. The cup did not pass from him. He still suffered. He still died.
He followed that prayer up with, “Not my will but yours be done.”
I don’t know why there is suffering in the world. I don’t know why, when we pray for people who are sick or injured, that some die and some make miraculous recoveries. But I do know that prayer for someone has changed me. I know that being prayed for has helped me to not feel so alone. Prayer has constantly reminded me that we are walking this road of life together. And I know that even — no, especially — when we suffer, we are closest to Christ. Martin Luther said that nowhere is God closer to us and our suffering than on the cross. God knows pain. God knows death. God knows the pain that so many around the world today know all too well — the pain of losing a child to violence.
I don’t know why we and others suffer even when we pray. But I do know that the promise of resurrection says that someday, someday, even this — even terrorist attacks, even cancer, even the deaths of children — shall be swallowed up in victory. I believe that because it’s what gets me up in the morning. I believe that because I have to. There is too much suffering in the world for me to believe otherwise.
And I do know that prayer brings us closer to one another. I know that prayer brings us closer to God.
When I was reading back over this passage this week, I got to the end and I was thinking about all of this — about how we don’t always get what we pray for. As the Rolling Stones so famously say, “You can’t always get what you want.”
My memory was that Jesus says at the very end of this passage that we’ll get whatever we pray for, because after all, what kind of bad parent would give a kid a stone when they asked for bread?
But this passage doesn’t end with the promise that we get what we pray for. It ends with the promise of the Holy Spirit, given to everyone who asks. We are accompanied by God. Even when we don’t feel like we are. No one who asks for the Holy Spirit doesn’t get it, because God is a good parent.
How many churches have doled out stones when the people asked for bread? How many have searched the Scriptures for stones to throw, at times when people are hurting the most?
God gives bread, not stone.
When I was in seminary, one of my mentors, Atlanta United Methodist pastor Beth LaRocca-Pitts, preached on this passage and invited us to look into the Bible and flip through its pages. Again and again, she said, you can hear the whisper: “God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. Those who have heard differently have heard incorrectly.” (2)
I do not know why our prayers are not always answered in the way that we would like. But I do know that “whosoever” is a real sentiment. I do know that here, at this table, Jesus gives us bread, not stone, and that bread is his very self, poured out from his own body in the midst of a suffering world.
God gives bread, not stone.
I’ve come a long way since growing up Southern Baptist in Alabama. Occasionally, you can still catch me giving a Jesus Weejus prayer. Occasionally, you can still catch me feeling guilty about how much I’m not praying. Occasionally, you can even find me chewing on stones handed to me from Scripture when I was young.
And sometimes I don’t think I know much more about prayer than I did when I was younger.
But what I have learned is that prayer is not only a solo venture. We pray here, together, and that matters. What I have learned is that I am not alone, and neither are you. And what I have learned is that Jesus gives bread, not stone — here, at this table, in the midst of the pain of this world — Jesus gives his very self to us.
I want to end with “A Prayer for Baton Rouge,” written this week by ACPE, a program which trains and equips pastors to deal with the suffering in the world and God’s place in it. It is not so much a prayer as a benediction, a statement, a promise of hope. It goes like this.
“May the peace of all that gives life and longs for joy to reign supreme throughout all of creation upend the violence of this world so radically that hope swallows us whole.”
(1) Title respectfully borrowed from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s 1985 landmark work of feminist biblical interpretation, Bread Not Stone.
(2) the Rev. Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts, Sermon, St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, c. 2010.
(3) “A Prayer for Baton Rouge,” Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), 2016.