The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Prayer and the Automatic Teller Machine

Is God an ATM?

by Karen Gibson

Psalm Reading: Psalm 17:1-7, 15

For Sunday, July 31, 2011: Year A—Ordinary 18

I was right. He was wrong. He went to bed. I let the dogs out into the back yard. I flopped in a chair and started to pray (it helps if you kind of pray the following to the tune of In The Still Of The Night).

In the still, still of the night, hear me O LORD, hear me right, hear me this night. I am so right, he is so wrong, I’m doing your will, and he’s being a big pill. You will listen, you always do, I’m seeking refuge, and I’ll find it in you. My man’s gotta pay, for all he had to say, when I wake in the morning, I’ll be OK (and he’ll see it my way!) Do wop, do wop, if he don’t!!!

Two Readings

Psalm 17 is a song/prayer too. After introductory verses 1-3, it displays a nice chiastic form. However, the lectionary folks whacked out some verses, so we’re looking at the whole psalm.  I’m going at this a couple of ways:  First Reading-what if Psalm 17 treated God like some kind of cosmic ATM that automatically responds on cue.  Second Reading–what if our ATM God doesn’t automatically respond as expected?

Just enter your PIN number (aka First Reading).

Lord I have my stuff together. Hear my prayer. I’m a good. I know you will hear my prayer. My lips are uber-clean. You know right from wrong, and I’m right. If you test me, I’ll pass. You know I’ve laid my evil ways aside. I’m a peaceable person. I follow you. You take care of me. You love those who seek refuge in you, especially those who are high-tailing it from their enemies.

Guard me. Hide me. Keep my enemies and freinenemies away. They are arrogant. They are tracking me like a hound dog. They are EVERYWHERE. They want to rip me to shreds. Stand up for me LORD. Whoop ‘em. We know they deserve it. You want me safe. Give them what they deserve. (We both know that’s what I want them to have what they deserve).

You take care of this for me, and I will be satisfied. I will keep on doing what I understand you want me to do.

This is the first reading, because it’s what we want to believe about God. How do I know this? I’ve prayed this prayer more than once (I’m human). It’s only natural that first-time readers of this psalm would hear something similar to what I’ve just paraphrased.

What if the PIN numbers don’t work (aka Second Reading)?

The second reading is pretty much the same as the first reading. But in the second reading take out the snarky sentence in the parenthesis (eisegesis). It basically insists that my ideas about deserving God’s favor are irrefutable.

It doesn’t help that at the very beginning of the prayer we read in the New Revised Standard Version, “Hear a just cause, O Lord….” The word “just” asserts some superior moral argument or definitive fact that would be all but impossible for God to deny. It’s like the PIN number that should automatically result in cash! However, the New International Version 1984 (which offers a better translation of the Hebrew rinnah) begins by saying, “Hear, O Lord, my righteous plea…” The trouble is that God’s sense of righteousness can be so confounding. At times God’s righteousness even seems to subvert the facts of justice.

The Hardest Question

Pleas and prayers aren’t automatic, I get that; but is making “righteous plea” really that much different than appealing on behalf of a “just cause?”

Rev. Karen N Gibson is the transition pastor at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Lexington, SC.  She’s been told more than once, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of grandmomma or a pastor because neither – sport tats, cuss, want their daughter to dye a blue streak in her hair, and want another motorcycle.  The loves of her life are her husband, her family, her dogs, books, a quiet beach, driving, and serving God (but not always in that order).


  1. Jennifer Johnson says:

    Maybe true contentment is making peace when I know I’m right and I still get the shaft. Maybe God will have a lot of explaining to do, about how injustice occurs in the presence of righteousness, but I am sure of this. I won’t be asking God to explain it to me. As long as God’s with me, I can deal with a lot of the muck of life. So far, that is. I hope forever.

  2. Karen Gibson says:

    Jennifer, I think you are right. Peace/joy does come when we can pray to God and say what’s on our mind even if we know that we might not ever get an explanation from anybody. One example of that for me is when a friend of mine’s teenage daughter was raped. On the way to meet them at the hospital, I saw someone pulled by a policeman. I prayed that they had caught the man. They didn’t that night or to this day. My prayers continued and God gave me peace that God is in control of justice and that God was at work in healing a family that suffered a tragedy that is hard to wrap my brain around. My first prayer was in some ways righteous asking for justice. My later prayers turned from what I wanted, which was right, to what God wanted for me and the family – peace and healing. In the later prayers God re-shaped all of us and moved us from being victims to a place of shalom which is what God really wants for us.

    May God’s peace always be with you wherever you may go. K

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