Sunday, July 24, 2016
New Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, IL
Jesus 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!”
I love this image of God as a loving parent in this passage from Luke. God is generous and compassionate and eager to give good gifts to God’s children. And Jesus shows that not even the best and most devoted of human parents can come close to caring about their children as much as God, our heavenly Father, cares about us. All we have to do is ask, Jesus says, and it will be given to us. Search, and we will find.
Of course, in reading this text, we don’t want to reduce God to an ATM or some kind of magic genie. It’s not like God’s going to pop out and grant us three wishes if we rub the chalice or something. But God does hear us when we pray. And God is responsive to our prayers – like with Abraham, in our Old Testament reading – but it’s not always easy to understand or accept the responses our prayers receive.
I think a lot about my relationship with my own father – my ‘earthly’ father. My mother passed away when I was very young, so most of the burden of raising three kids fell on my dad. He was the one who was always there for us, supporting us. Like Jesus’ image of good parents, my dad was generous and knew how to give good gifts. I mean, I never got a single snake from him growing up – no scorpions either! He didn’t always give me exactly what I asked for, but he always made sure to give me what I needed. And there were times growing up that I struggled to understand that.
As I was studying this text, I was remembering my senior year of high school. (It was a little while ago). I was seventeen and madly in love with this boy I had met on a choir tour the summer before, and we had started dating. The only problem was that he lived in New Hampshire. We managed to keep up a long-distance relationship with phone calls and letters all throughout the school year. And I was determined that I was going to be his date to his senior prom… in New Hampshire.
My dad was not exactly thrilled about this prospect. His teenage daughter wanted to fly halfway across the country to be with a teenage boy and his family of perfect strangers. Dad was not having it. For weeks, I tried to convince him to relent and let me go. I was at least as persistent as the obnoxious neighbor in Jesus’ story. But Dad wouldn’t budge.
Finally, my then-boyfriend’s parents offered to pay for my plane ticket out to New Hampshire, and his grandmother offered me a spare room to stay in at her house so that there would be no worries about teenage shenanigans. Surely now, I thought, there’s no way that Dad can tell me no!
Dad still said no. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t going to cost him any money, and it wasn’t like I’d never traveled out of state before. Didn’t he trust me? Did he want me to be unhappy? Was he punishing me for something? I was furious. And hurt. And sad. I remember bursting into tears and locking myself in my room.
When I finally came out of my room, I found a letter with my name on it sitting on the kitchen counter. My dad, this stoic, conservative, German Lutheran, had poured out his heart in it, explaining why he couldn’t let me go to New Hampshire. He wrote about how much he loved me and my two siblings, how he saw our mother living on through us, and how he couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to me while I was hundreds of miles away from almost everyone I knew. My dad loved me too much to let me take that risk.
I was still angry. And it would be years before I really began to understand or appreciate the things my dad said in that letter. I had asked, but I didn’t receive what I wanted. I knocked with all my might, but the door stayed firmly shut in my face.
That’s why I thought about this story when I read this text. It’s a challenging text to read. I’m sure all of us can think of times that we prayed for something with all our might, but didn’t get what we asked for – and they are probably things much more serious than a teenager wanting to go to prom with her boyfriend. We pray that God will bring our loved ones with dementia back to us. We pray that the unexpected lump discovered at the doctor’s office will turn out to be benign. We pray to stay safe in a world that’s being ripped apart by hatred and violence. And we get frustrated and angry and hurt when it seems like God isn’t even listening.
But in this text, Jesus shows us the most faithful response any of us can have when it seems like God isn’t responding: persistence in prayer. And I’m not talking about hands folded, on your knees by the side of your bed, quiet kind of prayer. I’m talking about banging relentlessly on God’s door in the middle of the night, like Jesus’ neighbor kind of prayer. The most faithful response that we can have to our heavenly Father is not to hold back, but to take our frustration and anger and hurt to him in relentless prayer.
Because, through this kind of prayer, we actually build up relationship and trust with God. We grow deeper in understanding and wisdom about the heart of God and the way of God in the world. I would never have understood my dad’s refusal to let me travel if I had not persisted in asking him about it. Dad wanted to give me what I wanted, and perhaps, if it were a safer world for young women to travel alone, he would have let me go to New Hampshire. But there were dynamics beyond our relationship – beyond my understanding – that made it impossible for him to agree to that. But when I was persistent, he opened his heart to me, and over time, it made our relationship grow much stronger.
Like our parents, God doesn’t always give us the things that we ask for. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t listening, and it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as “father” – much more intimate than “Lord.” And he shows that God, our heavenly Father, wants to give us good gifts, even more than our earthly parents do.
In this life, we may never understand why violence and disease and tragedy are allowed to happen on God’s watch, despite our prayers. But we can be sure of God’s goodness and love. And that’s why we should also never let God off the hook for this stuff. We can follow the example of Abraham in unceasingly asking God for mercy and compassion. And we can also follow the example of Job in asking God why the world is so unjust. It is precisely because of the faith that Abraham and Job had in God’s mercy and goodness that they prayed in this way! The innocent suffering that they witnessed happening in the world did not match up with who they knew God to be – a gracious, loving, compassionate God. But instead of assuming that God just stopped caring about what was happening, they took it all to God in prayer, showing that they relied on God to be faithful and loving. They were able to pray in this way because of the deep, trusting, relationship they already had with God.
It’s worth noticing how Jesus arranges the model prayer that he teaches to his disciples. The very first word is “father.” Before all else, Jesus sets this prayer in the context of loving, trusting relationship. It isn’t even until the end of the prayer that he gets to the delivering us from evil part. He asks for the daily bread we need, for the kingdom we hope for, and for the forgiveness that makes us whole; but ultimately, he trusts all of these things to the care of our loving father.
As a way to close this sermon, I’d like to ask you all to join in praying with me as Jesus taught us…
Our father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
And deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
Now and forever.