God Is Not A Vending Machine

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This past Sunday, we considered the role of prayer in our lives. Rev. Joann Lee reflected on the words of Jesus regarding prayer and how God might answer our prayers.  Perhaps Mother Theresa was right when she said, “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 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? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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What do you think the very first vending machine in recorded history dispensed?

Well, the very first vending machine was created by Hero of Alexandria in the first century. He created them for the Egyptian temples. And they dispensed Holy Water. [1]

The water was probably used for ritual cleansing before entering the temple. You would put a coin in, and out would come a small amount of holy water from the faucet, the world’s first vending machine.

Vending machines have come a long way since then.  Today, you’d be hard pressed to find any that dispense holy water, just sugar water in the form of juice and soda.

But vending machines sell much more than just the standard candy, chips, and drinks these days.

You can get all kinds of things from a vending machine: a baguette in France, live crab in China, caviar in LA, guitar strings in Portland, and in Japan you can get anything from rice, to bananas, to eggs, to instant noodles.[2] But it all began with holy water, with a desire to prepare oneself for prayer and for worship.

In today’s scripture lesson, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. It was common for teachers and rabbis to instruct their disciples on how to pray.  And no doubt, Jesus’ disciples would’ve witnessed his own deep prayer life and wondered, “What is he saying in his prayers?” “What does he do when he goes away to pray for such long periods of time?” and “What does prayer mean to Jesus; what is the point of it all?”

These are questions we still wonder and ask today as modern-day disciples of Jesus.

Now, I think it an important caveat to lift up that no sermon or class can ever fully teach us about prayer. Prayer is best learned through practice, through experience.

To be honest, prayer is really all too powerful and mysterious for me or any one person to be able to do it justice in a sermon. But Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and we can learn from his words still today.

Far too often, rather than uphold the mystery and depth of prayer, the church and its leaders provide teachings on prayer that are much too simplistic, teachings that end up treating God more like a vending machine than the creator of the universe and a loving parent who wants to be in relationship with us.

These teachings make it seem as tough if we pray hard enough, long enough, sincerely enough, and then behave “good” enough, then everything we ask for will simply come to pass. Unfortunately, sometimes biblical passages like today’s are used to proof text these misguided understandings of prayer.

But if we read scripture carefully, and quite frankly, if we live life honestly, we know that that’s just not how our prayers work. As the choir so beautifully reminded us, we can’t always get what we want.

And sitting in this beautiful sanctuary this morning are people who’ve lost loved ones despite our earnest prayers; people who are still struggling with illness despite persistent prayers for healing; people who have prayed hard enough, long enough, and sincerely enough but still haven’t got what they’ve asked for. Among us, and perhaps you yourself, are those who have felt the pain of prayers that seemingly went unanswered or answered in ways we wouldn’t want.

Overly-simplistic explanations for prayer fall short in moments like these.

If we expect God to be our own personal, all-powerful vending machine who simply doles out whatever we ask, we will be sorely disappointed with the results of our prayers. But perhaps that’s not who God is, and that’s not the purpose of prayer.

Nicolas Senz, Director of Religious Education at (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) a Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA, says this:

“God is not a [vending] machine; [God] is a communion of persons. Prayer is not a form of payment, but the language of a relationship. That relationship, between ourselves and God, is not one of master to machine, but one between persons. It is a relationship of love and not of servility.”

Our prayers are not just a to-do list for God.  They’re not simply our requests for God, though sometimes that may be appropriate. But ultimately, prayer is a conversation, a relationship with God, an honest accounting of the state of our soul.

Sometimes, when I talk about prayer, people wonder, why do we even have to pray?

Doesn’t God already know everything anyway, so what’s the point?

God does indeed know everything already, but, recently, I’ve thought of it this way.

I now have a very verbal two-year-old.  And I hear from his teachers how his day went at daycare. They tell me how he behaved, what he enjoyed, what he ate, if he napped. I know what’s happened in his life.

But there’s nothing like hearing from his own mouth his account for the day. At this age, he’s not even always right; he gets some of the facts or names confused; he tells me about the “owie” he got a week ago. But it is absolutely delightful to hear this kid tell me about his day. I love hearing from him and from his own perspective.

Even if I don’t agree or even if I know he’s got it wrong, I want to hear from him.

And I think perhaps God may feel similarly, sheer delight in hearing from us and how we’re processed our day and the significant moments in our lives, even if we’re not quite getting it all right, even if that’s not how God might understand or see the situation. God still wants to hear from us.

Sometimes, that will include the deepest desires of our hearts; sometimes that conversation begins with a list of things we really want for and from life. But it shouldn’t end there.

Our prayers are not to be simply deposited and expected to come true; rather it is the beginning of being honest with God because then and only then can we have a true relationship with God.

Verse 8 of our scripture uses the Greek word ἀναίδειαν (ANAIDAYAN) in reference to prayer. Our pew Bible translates that to “persistence.” But it also has the connotation of being shameless, an unembarrassed boldness to our petitions. God wants us to come before God shameless, unembarrassed of who we are and what we desire. Because God love us fully and wholly for who we are, we can be honest about what we want.

A devotion app that I use called d365 said this, “…when you pray, what you are doing is asking God to be part of the solution for your life.” Whether that means through answered prayer or through providing the strength and courage to endure when prayers aren’t answered the way we’d like them to be, we invite God to take part in our life.

So prayer is relationship.

But it’s more than just that, too. Prayer is being molded and transformed to God’s will.

Anne Lamott say this, and I think she essentially means the same thing: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Prayer is like that. God meets us where we are. But if prayer is truly a relationship, then it does not leave us where it found us, but carries us towards God.

The gospel of Matthew’s version of this scripture passage includes the line, “thy will be done.” My colleague, John Weems preached eloquently on this a few months ago, and you can find that sermon on line.

But today’s version from Luke doesn’t include that. I think that’s because when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, all of the requests made in this version of The Lord’s Prayer, presupposes that God’s will be done.

What should we be asking for when we pray? And what does God actually promise us in response?

First, Jesus says to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, that love, peace, and justice might rule here on earth as it does in God’s realm.

Second, Jesus says to pray for daily bread; that our basic needs may be granted us, so that we may not hunger or thirst but may focus our energy and work towards something greater than just survival.

Third, Jesus says to pray for forgiveness; that we might be reconciled to God and in right relationship with God and with one another.

And finally, Jesus says to pray that we might be delivered from a time of trial; that we might not be overwhelmed by hopelessness or cynicism, that our faith and hope might endure even the hardest and darkest and most trying of times.

These four requests are what Jesus instructs us to make to God in prayer.

All the other requests are important because they are important to us, but these four requests are the ones where if we ask it shall be given to us, if we seek, we shall find, if we knock, the door shall be opened.

These are the prayers made according to the will of God.  These are the promises. As for the rest of our needs and our desires, we can certainly bring them to God, but there is no knowing what may come.

God is not some divine chess master that controls every part of our lives. Our free-will, the trajectory of science, the natural laws of creation, they all play a part in our lives.

So where is God if not fixing everything that’s going wrong?

The answer is God is with us, walking with us, weeping with us, holding us and carrying us through.

Today’s passage ends with this “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

The answer to our prayers is the gift the Holy Spirit, the presence of the divine comforter and peace-maker, the one who gives us strength and courage. God’s presence through the Holy Spirit is one way that God answers our prayers.

Meda Stamper says, “The point of prayer is not to change God’s mind but to shape ours, to make us fit for the kingdom, ready to live the only life possible in God’s household: one of love.”

So our minds, lives, hearts, and wills can be shaped by our prayers, and the presence of the Holy Spirit helps with that as an answer to our prayer.

So prayer is relationship.  Prayer is being molded and transformed to God’s will. And finally, prayer is a call to action.

Once we are in relationship with God; once the Holy Spirit is present with us, we cannot help but then be moved to pray not just with our hearts and with our words but with our hands and with our feet.  Jesus says to ask, but also to search and to knock, to actively participate in our praying.

Two Catholic leaders whom I admire agree that actions are a necessary component of prayer.

Pope Francis has said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”

Similarly, Mother Teresa once said, “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”

We are called to take part in the answering of prayer.

God may not need us, but God chooses to use us, broken and imperfect as we are, to do God’s work in this world. You may be an answer to prayer, your own or someone else’s. Your love, your gifts, your presence, your kindness may be an answer to the deepest prayers of someone’s heart.

How will you act upon that? What might you do today to be an answer to prayer?

If you are praying for healing, perhaps you might give to institutions that do research or provide free care for those who are sick.

If you are praying for peace, perhaps you will go and meet your neighbors and reach out to those in your community that you do not know.

If you are praying for hope, perhaps you can offer some food or a beverage to those on the street who are hungry, sharing a bit of hope with our neighbors.

In the midst of prayer, it is all too common to feel connected to all those who are in need, and, if we are listening, for God to call us to action.

The Apostle Paul, nearly two thousand years ago wrote to the Thessalonians saying, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess 5:17). With the ways we traditionally understand prayer, this seems impossible.

But we can be in relationship with God without ceasing. Tell God about your greatest hopes and your deepest fears, communicate regularly with the one who created you and loves you unconditionally.

We can be molded and transformed to God’s will without ceasing. Listen for God speaking to you; pay attention to God at work in your life and in the lives of others. Align your heart and your desires to model those of Christ daily, continually, again and again.

And we can be “love in action” without ceasing. Live out your prayers; be an answer to prayer; pray with your hands and feet by sharing God’s love and light in tangible and real ways.

Jesus teaches us to pray in this way. So let us be his disciples and pray as he taught us.

May it be so. Amen.


[1] Jaffe, Eric. “Old World, High Tech.” Smithsonian Magazine. December 2006.

[2] http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/bizarre-vending-machines/


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