7th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12C) - July 28, 2019
“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!””
When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about God at home all the time. We would pray before some meals. We went to church. But there wasn’t a lot of extra conversation about God or the Bible or Christianity in general. But there were a few situations when I could always expect the Bible to pop up.
If I were looking for something in the house, and I couldn’t find it, I would usually go ask my mother if she knew where it was. In hindsight, I did this a lot. I am not very good at looking for things (even to this day), and I give up pretty quickly after a quick scan of the room. Sometimes, my mom would help. Sometimes she would tell me she didn’t know where the thing was. But many times, she would reply to my question by quoting this morning’s Gospel passage from the King James Version: “Seek and ye shall find.” I didn’t memorize a lot of scripture but this one I always knew. Seek and ye shall find.
And it wasn’t until I got older that I started to think about this line from Jesus in its wider context. Jesus said, "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.”
What is Jesus talking about here? Was he talking about digging through piles of junk in my bedroom to find the charger cable for my Game Boy Advance? No, probably not. Was he talking about asking for and receiving a new car when the old one works just fine? No, I don’t think so. Was he talking about asking for anything we want and expecting God to give it to us like some sort of genie in a magic lamp? No, definitely not.
We could find some clues about what Jesus meant by looking at the rest of this passage. What are the examples Jesus gives of things people ask for? In the parable, the man comes knocking on his neighbor’s door asking for bread for an unexpected guest (11:5-6). In verses 11-12, Jesus compares our prayers to God with a child asking a parent for a fish or an egg. These things are some of the staple foods in Jesus’ time and place. Bread, fish, and eggs made up almost every meal, especially in the towns around the Sea of Galilee, where many people (including some of the Twelve Apostles) made their living as fishermen. So these kinds of prayers are not about luxuries. They are about having what we need to survive and thrive in this world. It’s not about feeding our greed or our gluttony. It’s about having the necessities of life that many people lack.
Now the promise of this passage starts to take a different shape: Ask [for what you need], and it will be given you; search [for what you need], and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. And that begs the question: What do we need? Yes, as Jesus points out, we need food. We can also add that we need water and air and some shelter from the elements of nature. We need community and family to support us through the ups and downs of life. We need dignified work to participate in the wider society. We need safety and security from violence and other dangers that surround us.
But what else does Jesus mention here, right at the end? “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” (11:13). We need the Holy Spirit. We need the presence of God to give us life and to sustain our lives. And we need the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts so that we live as lights to the world, spreading love, joy, and peace in a world that is ruled by sin and death.
So we have been clear that Jesus promises that God will give us what we need, both physically and spiritually. And yet, we all know that our good, honest prayers don’t always get answered. Many people suffer for lack of food and shelter. Many suffer from spiritual and psychological ailments that prevent them from sensing the joy of the Holy Spirit. Why does it seem like God doesn’t always give us what we need when we need it? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world. And, what does any of that have to do with our prayers? Remember this passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus how to pray.
I think the answer lies in hope and persistence. Jesus spoke to an audience that felt much the same way we do. He was a poor Jewish man, a religious and cultural minority within the oppressive political machine that was the Roman Empire. Jesus and his contemporaries were beaten down and oppressed by Rome. All they wished and prayed for was relief from the assaults of their bully overlords. They might have felt like children asking God for fish, only to receive a snake from Rome, desiring the sustenance of an egg, only to be stung by the scorpion of mistreatment, poverty, and dehumanization.
But Jesus teaches these oppressed people to pray with persistence. They are to keep asking and asking and hoping and praying, trusting that God is better than their selfish, sleepy neighbors and better than the abusive parents next door and better than their own deepest darkest sins within themselves. We might paraphrase the Lord’s words again: Keep asking and it will be given to you; keep searching and you will find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you.
In the face of poverty, in the face of racism, in the face of corrupt government and social systems, in the face of every indignity the world can throw our way, Jesus tells us to keep praying. God’s love and Power will overcome all of these woes. Even if we don’t see the end result of peace on earth and justice for all, Jesus says to keep praying.
Again this all started with the disciples asking, How do we pray? And Jesus’ answer is: A lot. It almost doesn’t matter what words you say. Just keep praying. Don’t be like me as a child and give up searching so quickly. Keep seeking freedom and equality for yourself and those you love. Keep asking for the things you need, for the justice you seek, and God will grant it. Amen.