Sermon for July 28th, 2013
11He 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.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
5 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 7And 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.” 8I 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.
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!’
Lord, Teach Us to Pray
When my 8-year old son, Grady, wants something, he'll warm up to it in a very clever, roundabout sort of way. He usually starts by quoting me. Dad, do you remember how you said it's important for kids to learn responsibility and hard work? You also talk a lot about how you want to exercise more and get in better shape. Well, I've been thinking (here it comes...). I think I've figured out a way we can accomplish both at the same time. You see, taking care of a puppy would teach me responsibility, and you could walk him every day to get more exercise...
When my 5-year old daughter, Abby, wants something, she uses an entirely different approach, although it's just about as subtle. She'll wait until I'm sitting down, and then she'll crawl into my lap. I love you, my Daddy. Do you love me? I would be soooo happy, Daddy, (and here there's usually a dramatic sigh) if only I had a puppy-dog...
My favorite approach, however, is my one year old son, Jonah. He will come bursting into the room, running at me as fast as his little legs will allow, nearly knocking both of us over, and at the top of his lungs he will exlaim, "Dada! Doggie! Dada! Doggie! Dada! Doggie!" There is no subtlety whatsoever in a child that young. And when it comes to prayer, I think there's a lot we could learn from that example.
Writer and novelist Anne Lamott has said that there are really only two prayers: "Thank you, thank you" and "help me, help me, help me." Everything else is just a variation on those two. The "thank you, thank you" is a way of acknowledging God, acknowledging that God is in control, and that every good thing comes from God. To continue the analogy with my own children, this is why my oldest son quotes me first, why my daughter tells me she loves me, and in Jonah's request, it's all the enthusiasm in that first word, "Dada!" When we pray as Jesus taught his disciples in the gospel of Luke, the first words are "Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come." Thank you, thank you.
But notice how quickly the "help me, help me, help me" comes: 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.
One line for God, and then immediately three for us. Give us...Forgive us...Bring us. Not even a polite "please" in there. Just gimme, gimme, gimme. And yet...this is the way Jesus is telling us we should pray.
In Matthew, right before the same teaching on the Lord's prayer, Jesus says "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." In other words, keep it short, keep it simple. No frills and flourishes. Just get to the point. Thank you, thank you. Help me, help me, help me. Jesus' model prayer is 25% about God, and 75% about us. That may sound lopsided, but if God already knows what we need, chances are he also already knows who he is and what he's done, without us reading his own resume back to him at the beginning of a long-winded prayer. A simple acknowledgment will do. Thank you, thank you. Help me, help me, help me.
Right after the model prayer, Jesus gives two illustrations. The first is about persistence. Jesus tells the story of a friend who refuses to help you out in your hour of need...because that hour of need is at midnight. There's a difference between a middle-of-the-day friend and a middle-of-the-night friend, right? How many of you have ever had to be a middle-of-the-night friend? How about a 3-oclock-in the morning friend? That's a really good friend. The person in Jesus' story is not a middle-of-the-night friend. He says no, go back to bed, come again in the morning! But here's the twist--Jesus says that even if the love of friendship is not strong enough to open the door...persistence is. If you annoy your friend long enough, eventually he will open the door just to get you to shut up! The point of the illustration is this: If a lousy friend will eventually open the door in the face of your unrelenting persistence, how much more quickly would a good friend respond to your need? How much more quickly even than that will God--who loves you more than any friend ever could--how much more quickly and completely will God respond to your need?
The second illustration is similar: If your child asks for a fish, will you give her a snake instead? If your child asks for an egg, will you give him a scorpion? Of course not. If even young, imperfect, inexperienced parents know what to give their children (and what not to give their children), how much more does God know what his children need? How much more is God inclined to nourish and take care of us?
So far, so good. However...(and this is a big however)...in between those two illustrations, Jesus says something else. Something you've probably heard quoted many times; something that is enshrined in picture-frames and bumper stickers; something that entire books and movements have been based upon. I consider it to be one of the most dangerous passages in the entire bible.
Luke 11:9-10. "Ask, and it will be given to 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."
It's a beautiful verse, a wonderful promise. But too many times I've witnessed this one verse blown out of all proportion in two entirely different directions, no less. On one extreme you have those who use this verse to justify treating God like a personal vending machine: Just put the right prayer in the right slot, and God will reward you with candy, a luxury car, a five day cruise, or lots and lots of money. Whatever YOU want, you got it. Santa-Claus God.
On the other extreme are those who sincerely approach God with real, heartfelt and often desperate needs that seem to meet with nothing but divine silence. Lord, you said to ask and it will be given to you. I asked. Why did you still let my loved one die? I have known many people for whom this verse was a promise broken...and also the final step on a journey out of faith.
Like so many passages in the Bible, this one is most dangerous when it is taken out of context, isolated from the passages on either side of it. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. First of all, what is the "it" that will be given to you? Anything you want? Actually, in the original Greek of this passage, there is no "it." A closer translation would be "Ask and you will be given to, search and you will find, knock and you will be allowed in." What is given, what is found, and what is opened are not immediately specified. The closest we come to an answer is actually at the very end of the passage: If you "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!"
In the illustrations right before and right after this verse--the one about the midnight friend and the one about parents and children--the things "asked for" are all food staples: three loaves of bread, fish, and an egg. Notice also that in Jesus' prayer, what we are told to ask God for is "our daily bread." One of the most basic human needs is nourishment, to be fed. So perhaps when we ask, seek, and knock, what will be given to us is not whatever we want, but rather what we need to carry on.
But I think it's even more complicated than this, because if you ask my three children to distinguish between what they want and what they need...they have a hard time. "If your child asks for a fish, will you give him a snake? If your child asks for an egg, will you give him a scorpion?" My son would probably be the one asking for the snake, or asking for the scorpion--and if I gave him enough time, he could probably find a way to justify it as a need.
Despite our advanced intellect and years, I suspect most adults (especially in our culture) have similar difficulties distinguishing between wants and needs. In any case, in both illustrations, those who are asking don't get to decide what is needed. They decide what to ask for (and they are specific in their requests), but it is ultimately the one giving who decides what is needed. And that's a good thing, because the implication is that not only does God know what we need better than we do, God has the ability to give us things that are better than what we are asking for.
So. What about the mother who prays for bread for her starving child, and is answered with silence? We should not be so naive to think that no children ever die of hunger in our world, or that their parents don't beseech God on their knees, seeking a miracle. Is bread, in this case, a luxury and not a need? Is the mother not persistent enough in her prayers? I don't believe that. And to be truthful, I don't really have a good answer as to why such a prayer would be met with silence. We might take some small comfort in the fact that the God who offers us bread that is beyond earthly bread also offers to his beloved children life that is beyond this life, and better than this life. But that may not seem like much comfort in the face of tragic loss.
If our prayers seem to be met with silence, I do know that God is sometimes present in that silence, as he was to the prophet Elijah. If our prayers seem to be met with silence, I do know that we pray in solidarity with a savior who knows what is like to cry out to God in anguish from a cross...and be met with silence. And sometimes when prayers are met with silence, I think God is waiting for us to be present for each other in that silence--this is why Jesus tells us to pray "forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us." Perhaps to Anne Lamott's prayer we can add this: Thank you, thank you. Help me, help me, help me...to help those around me.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But he also taught them (and us) how to act.
So whether our prayers are met with silence or with the voice of God's spirit... Whether we find ourselves in times of plenty or in times of need, Whether we understand, or whether we are lost in the clouds of mystery, May this be our prayer and our answer to prayer as well:
To give generously to those who are in need; To walk hand in hand with those who are seeking until they find what they're looking for; And like a true midnight friend, to always open the door when a neighbor knocks.