Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shameless Persistence (Luke 11:1-13)

"Shameless Persistence"
Luke 11:1-13 (and Genesis 18:20-32)
Church of the Nativity Episcopal Church
July 28, 2013

I don’t pray as often as I should. After reading passages of Scripture like this morning’s Gospel lesson, I sometimes wonder why I don’t. I suspect that my own laziness has something to do with it. Some mornings I simply do not want to get out of bed in the morning until I absolutely have to. I also think that my love of distraction keeps me away from prayer. I don’t think I fully realized this until I got a smartphone. Whenever boredom threatens, I pull out my Android to fend off the boredom monster. Whenever I start to pray, whatever might be happening on the internet, Facebook, or Youtube suddenly becomes ten times more interesting. Finally, my propensity to be a busy-body also gets in the way of me and God. I’m always in so much of a rush running out the door in the morning, that I simply don’t take the time to have a conversation with God--to be still before the Lord.  

But there also times that I’m not lazy or bored, distracted or busy, and yet I’m still unwilling to set time aside to bring myself before the Savior. Over the course of this week I’ve wondered about this. Is my limited prayer life due to an implicit lack of faith? Is it that I don’t believe in the power or the efficacy of prayer? Unfortunately, I think the answer is often yes. To put it in the words of this this morning’s lesson, sometimes I simply do not trust that if I ask, I’ll receive, that if I search, I’ll find, that if I knock, the door will be opened to me.      

Well, if you couldn’t guess it from the opening, this morning’s Gospel lesson is about prayer. It is made up of three parts: (1) a model prayer (2) a parable on prayer (3) and some sayings on prayer.  I’m going to take a brief look at all three parts and hopefully we’ll find out more about the character of our God and just what exactly is his attitude toward the prayers of his beloved, namely you and me.

So, first, the model prayer. The prayer that Jesus provides at the beginning of today’s Gospel has become the most famous prayer of all time.  It is the prayer that both Christians and non-Christians alike seem to know my heart.  It is the Lord’s Prayer.  Now I could preach entire sermons on every line of the Lord’s Prayer, but today I’m only going to mention the opening address.  Jesus tells his disciples to address God in a very personal way.  The Son of God himself calls his followers to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--his Father--as their own Father.  Since many of us have been saying the Lord’s Prayer from before we can remember, it’s hard to understand just how radical this opening address truly is.  Referring to God as Father is something that other first century Palestinian Jews simply did not do.  It was too personal for them, too familial.  You didn’t talk to Almighty God this way.

Now I know that some of you in this room have not had very good experiences with your father. In fact, the very notion of referring to Almighty God in this way may be off-putting to you. But it might help you to know that what Jesus is trying to get across here is that God is not far removed from our everyday lives. In fact, quite the contrary, he loves as a good parent would--and more.  And not in some vague, amorphous, or hallmark card kind of way.  No, his love involves sweat, blood, suffering, and the ultimate self-sacrifice. The name Father (or abba) preserves reverence for God, while showing him to be ever-present, accessible, close-at-hand, ready to listen and to act for his beloved sons and daughters.

The author of Luke further unpacks God’s character as “Father” in the second part of the lesson. Immediately following this model prayer, Jesus tells a story about a man who had an unexpected guest arrive at his house at midnight. The man with the unexpected guest has no food to provide, so he goes to his neighbor’s house to get some. The text says that the neighbor has put his children to sleep in their one-room house and has gone to bed. Therefore, he refuses his friend’s request for bread.

But the friend with the unexpected guest does not give up so easily. Instead he shamelessly persists in asking for bread. Much like the widow who later in Luke receives justice only after persistently presenting her plea before a judge, so the man with the unexpected guest receives the food he requested only after his own shameless persistence.

So what is Jesus trying to tell us about God and prayer in this story? If we were too thick-headed to get it implicitly (and, I don’t know about you, but I can be about as thick-headed as they come) Luke makes it explicit immediately following this parable in the third part of today’s Gospel lesson. It reads:

“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.”

“Ask,” “search,” “knock.” So what does this passage say about God? It is saying that God desires that we shamelessly and persistently pester him. Much like Abraham in our Old Testament lesson this morning, he wants us to badger and barter and persist with him because he loves us and wants a relationship with us.  

And this brings us back to what I talked about at the beginning of the sermon.  Sometimes I don’t pray because I’m lazy. Other times I don’t pray because I’m busy. And occasionally I don’t pray because I simply do not believe in the power of prayer. I don’t believe that if I ask, it will be given, that if I search, I will find, and if I knock, that the door will be opened. And so I do not shamelessly and persistently pester him.  

Another big reason why I don’t pray very often, which is closely connected to my lack of faith in the power of prayer, is my fear of being disappointed. Having been disappointed by unanswered prayer in the past, I’m afraid to get my hopes up once again only to have them dashed. Maybe some of you have experienced the same disappointment. Maybe there are times that you’ve prayed intently for someone or something and nothing happened, or worse, the opposite of what you prayed for came about.

When talking about my own experience of unanswered prayer I have to preface my disappointment by saying that there are plenty of times that I’ve prayed for things that should not have been granted me. Some of the things I desperately wanted were not for my good or the good of others (hindsight makes sages of us all). But other times, I’ve prayed for good things, things most definitely in line with God’s will, but they did not come about. Instead the opposite, suffering, despair, and death won the day.  

Now I’d love to tell you that there is a simple answer to this problem, but you already know that life doesn’t work that way. The professor that I looked up to the most in college told me to “be wary of simple answers to life’s toughest questions.” He said this because pat answers rarely, if ever, alleviate pain. Easy answers do not help those who are suffering.  

So when it comes to the problem of unanswered prayer, all I can say with confidence is that we do have an an enemy--the powers of Sin and Death--that inhabit and seem to enslave this realm. And if you don’t believe me watch the ten o’clock news for ten minutes.

But whenever we talk about the powers of Sin and Death we must always remember that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ defeated these powers once and for all on a bloody cross two thousand years ago. Yes, these powers are permitted to continue roaming this realm creating chaos wherever they go, but their time of reeking havoc is limited. It will come to an end. Christ’s victory over Sin and Death will be fully realized and experienced when he comes again in glory. When, as the Scripture says, every tear will be wiped from our eyes and death, mourning, and pain will be forever undone.  

But until that great and glorious day, we live “down here,” so to speak. Where good and evil exist side-by-side--where joy and suffering take their turns. Instead of giving prayer up out of fear of disappointment, we told to persist all the more like the man from the parable who had the unexpected guest, like William Wilberforce who fought against the slave trade in England before it was cool, like Martin Luther King Jr. who went to his grave in search of his “dream,” for we have a Father in heaven who desires to give good gifts to his beloved children--namely, you and me.
For, as the concluding verses of the text make clear, “If you then, who are limited and mortal and often evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit (good gifts) to those who ask him.”

If the best of our earthly parents--with all their limitations--know how to take care of their children, how much more will the ultimate “Father”-in-heaven give to you and me. The same God who did not withhold his own Son for our sake proved that he is for us.  So we pray to our beloved Father, even when we do not get what we want. We continue to cast our cares upon him, even when bad things happen in spite of our prayers. We shamelessly persist in asking, searching, and knocking, much like the man from the parable with the unexpected guest, because God is not asleep and in bed like the other character in today’s parable. We, like Jacob from the Old Testament, wrestle with God and we do not let him go until he blesses us, because he wants to.  

We shamelessly badger God because he has revealed himself as a Father who does not withhold good gifts from his children, even the most important gift of all--the Holy Spirit himself. May our lack of faith in God and the power of prayer be undone. May we learn to hope and trust in the God who went the whole way to make us his sons and daughters.

In the name of the Father..

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