FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Pastor,” said the apprehensive voice on the other end of the line, “please pray for my Dad. He’s had a heart attack and he’s in the hospital.” This from a woman who had told me only a few days before how she believed that “God has a plan for everyone’s life. He decides when you are born and when you die.” That belief, she told me, brought her great comfort and confidence. “Nothing can happen that God has not already planned,” she told me. I wondered, then, why bother to pray? If everything in the life of this woman’s father has been foreordained, then there is no point in praying. If this was to be his time, he would die. If not, he would recover. No amount of prayer could possibly change anything.
Of course, I told my friend that I would both pray for and visit her father in the hospital. Now was not the time to start a discussion probing the theological fault lines in her faith. Still, I wondered how it was possible to hold these two seemingly contradictory beliefs in common: 1) God foreordains everything in a believer’s life; 2) God answers prayer.
Our lesson from Exodus fully supports the second proposition, namely, that God is influenced by prayer. Indeed, God’s mind can be changed by prayer. God seems to have been determined to make an end of Israel once and for all following their idolatrous worship of the golden calf. If the miracle of the Exodus could not inspire faith in God’s promises and demonstrate the futility of trusting idols like the gods of Egypt, what would? What more could God do to win the hearts of God’s people? What was left other than to scrap the whole project and start again from scratch? But then Moses lifts up the covenant God made with Abraham, Sarah and the other matriarchs and patriarchs. Moses appeals to God’s faithfulness, God’s compassion and the importance of God’s completing with Israel what was started so long ago. God then changes God’s mind and changes course. Moses’ prayer was efficacious.
But there is also scriptural support for the first proposition, namely, that God ordains the outcome of all things and that God’s will invariably prevails. Consider these verses from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfil my intention’,
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man for my purpose from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have planned, and I will do it. Isaiah 46:9-11.
Or these words from Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139: 1-4;16
So, too, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians states that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Ephesians 1:4. Thus, the paradox residing in my friend’s faith is actually rooted in the scriptures. How, then, do we make sense out of the seeming contradiction between the omnipotent sovereignty of God and the efficaciousness of prayer?
If there is any resolution, it lies in the Triune nature of God whose essence is love: love between the Father and the Son embodied by the Spirit. Genuine love is necessarily open to the influence of its object. It is hard to imagine how a parent can love a child without being shaped, influenced and, more than occasionally, made to change course by that child’s needs, requests and opinions. In one sense, you could say that God ceased to be almighty the moment God spoke the words, “Let there be.” For once these words were spoken, something else, something that was not God existed. In the words of one of our hymns, the Trinity “in love and hope made room within their dance” for another partner. “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 412. Like a child, the universe must have freedom, within certain protective parameters, to grow and develop into maturity. The creation is not the Creator’s still life painting. It is a complex, living, dynamic organism ever capable of mutating, for better or worse, into a new thing with different needs, unanticipated potential and a wealth of possibilities.
In what sense, then, can it be said (if at all) that God foreordains all things? Again, the answer must be grounded in God’s nature as Trinitarian love. As St. Paul reminds us, “love is patient…love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13: 4; 7-8. We are accustomed to thinking of power as the ability to control outcomes by way of coercion. Powerful people are those who can “get things done” by means of persuasion, threats or, if necessary, brute force. But in Christ Jesus God manifests a qualitatively different kind of power-the power of infinite patience, the power of infinite perseverance, the power of infinite commitment to recovering all that has been lost and weaving it into the fabric of a new creation.
To be sure, God’s reign can be resisted, frustrated and, in the short run, defeated. But God is not deterred by setbacks and failure. God, who has all eternity to work with, takes whatever the world throws up and works with it. Taking into Godself our accomplishments, failures, acts of compassion, acts of pure meanness and, yes, our prayers, God performs the work of reconciling all things in Christ Jesus. God will continue so doing until our stubborn resistance is finally worn down by God’s never ending Trinitarian love. Our petitions of thanksgiving, intercession and lamentation are important parts of the stuff God makes use of in redeeming creation.
I think Martin Luther said it best in our Small Catechism: “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” God does not need our prayers or anything else from us to establish God’s reign. But God loves us too much to allow us to be passive observers. God invites us to be active participants in God’s gracious reign so that it becomes not a distant hope, but a present reality in the midst of a troubled world. Prayer takes us into the heart of God’s struggle to overcome the world’s hostility through Christ’s ministry of seeking the lost. While prayer cannot be used to manipulate God into giving us the results we want, it clearly influences God’s faithful and redemptive work in our lives and in our world.
Prayer has a transformative power, particularly when employed on behalf of the marginalized, the persecuted, the forgotten and the lost. Our gospel lesson comes from a chapter in Luke heavily focusing on the lost: lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, lost sinners who many people feel aren’t worth looking for and righteous people too blind to realize they are lost. Below is a poem by Scott Cairns purporting to be God’s answer to our prayers. It points out how self-centered and how limited in scope our prayers often are. Yet it challenges us to deepen our prayer life and harmonize it with God’s own zeal for recovering “the lost.”
Possible Answers to Prayer
Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
Source: Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. (c. 2002 by Scott Cairns, pub. by Zoo Press). Scott Cairns (b. 1954) is an American poet and essayist. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, one collection of translations of Christian mystics, one spiritual memoir, a book-length essay on suffering and was co-author of an anthology of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Cairns has served on the faculties of Kansas State University, Westminster College, University of North Texas where he was editor of the American Literary Review and Old Dominion University. He was the founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, an annual four week workshop on the island of Thasos. He is currently on the poetry faculty of Seattle Pacific University. You can find out more about Scott Cairns and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.