Series: November 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"Seek, Knock, Ask: Sermon on the Mount 10"
7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Seek, Knock, Ask: Sermon on the Mt. 9 of 10
This may be the most challenging passage in the Sermon on the Mount, which we are taking ten weeks to explore. Why? Because it doesn’t seem true. Ask and you shall receive. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be open. Say that to those who have asked and not received, spent their life in a lost in found of sorts, or found some doors unopenable. “Oh, but you just need more faith?” some will say, but Jesus includes no such qualifier, and by the way I know many of great faith who have had their prayers go unanswered.
I also know of strange prayers that seem to have been miraculously answered. Mike McHargue, known by the moniker “Science Mike” told this story about losing his faith, at least the faith in which he was raised. He described getting to the point that he just couldn’t reconcile the notion of a personal God. True to his nickname, Science Mike decided to do an experiment. He picked up a challenge famed atheist Richard Dawkins had once offered, to pray every day for three weeks to a milk jug for something you want. For three weeks Science Mike prayed dutifully to the milk jug that he would get a promotion he badly wanted at work. Remember, Science Mike had lost his faith. What he got, however, was the promotion.
It’s a great story. It might make some feel good, confirmed in their faith – God worked through the milk jug. That said, praying to something that isn’t God is the definition of idolatrous, so God shouldn’t have been pleased. Maybe God has a sense of humor and forgave the idolatry for the sake of a joke. Of course, the experiment didn’t prove anything, because as any good scientist knows correlation doesn’t mean causality. It’s just as reasonable to conclude, as Dawkins surely would, this was sheer coincidence. It may simply have been that Science Mike really wanted a promotion, had been working toward it, perhaps had even voiced it, so this was a natural result in the course of time.
There was a famous double blind study done—we’ve mentioned it in here before—that looked at the efficacy of praying for people with heart conditions in the hospital. It was put on by the Templeton Foundation which is interested in spirituality and science and is not a hostile group to religious faith. The study found that those who prayed for one another did experience a strengthened bond in their relationship. However, statistically significant were the findings that intercessory prayer did not improve the wellbeing of patients. What’s more, patients who knew they were being prayed for not only didn’t improve more than those in the control group, they got sicker, experiencing an increase in complications. The thinking is that those who knew they were being prayed for felt a pressure to get better and that stress negatively impacted their health.
Now maybe some are feeling their faith rattled. Praying for people, at least telling them about it, makes them worse!? Of course the study didn’t disprove anything. As the study itself points out, in the scriptures “both Moses (Deuteronomy 6:16) and Jesus (Luke 4:12) warn against putting ‘the Lord your God to the test.’”If you take those words to be true then by definition you can’t test God. It won’t work. Moreover, I know people, smart people, who are convinced they have experienced an answered prayer and I am not going to doubt the legitimacy of their experience.
Because of this conundrum, many people have become stifled in their prayer practice. They don’t know what they believe. They don’t know what they are supposed to pray about. Saying God will answer your prayers just not with the answer you expect doesn’t help them. So they stop praying, rather than evolving their prayer practice in the face of new data.
Let’s remember where we are. Jesus is offering this long teaching about how to be in the world. He talks about valuing peacemaking, meekness, justice, about forming relationships of kinship. He warns about materialism, money worship, and being hypocritical and judgmental. He speaks of recognizing light and being a light, of living a good, compassionate, generous, faithful life. He does not teach about how to get what you want. He teaches about the reign of heaven, which our deepest selves want, but this is no self-help book about being rich and successful. To internalize these teachings of Jesus and then turn round and pray to God as a cheap vending machine makes no sense.
If you read on in the passage, he uses an image that illustrates the point. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (7:8-9). We rush right to the answer to the prayer without noticing what is being asked for. What does the child ask for? Bread. What did Jesus teach us to pray for earlier in the sermon, in the Lord’s prayer, “our daily bread” (Mt. 6:11). The child knows what to ask for. What child would ask for a snake, which could hurt them, rather than a fish which could feed them? New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen puts it this way: “It is essential that the disciples know what should be asked for, what should be sought, and what door should be knocked at. Each of these open-ended prayerful activities has its own objective, and it is the judgment of each disciple to determine what form it should take.” By now Jesus assumes his followers know what to pray for.
Here’s the one sticking point – some good prayers still seem to go unheeded. Take healing for example. Isn’t asking for another’s healing a good thing, something Jesus did and empowered his followers to do? Wouldn’t that bring more people to faith? Why then do our healing prayers not work, at least as we would always like, leaving everyone to live a full life? Is it as simple as recognizing sometimes healing means curing and sometimes something else? I don’t know.
What I do know is the path of those who follow Jesus has never been confirmed to spare hardship or suffering. In fact, sometimes it leads to suffering for the benefit of others or integrity’s sake, which does benefit others. He instructed his followers to take up their crosses for goodness’ sake (Mt. 16:24), and only for goodness’ sake not to be a hero.
If you live by the values and way of heaven, the “good road” as our native siblings call it, this will at some point put you at odds with the values of the dominant norms of society. It will mean hardship and resistance. Meet violence with peacemaking. Meet the conditions of violence through justice. Meet wastefulness and gluttony with meekness. Meet transgression with forgiveness. Meet attempts to separate and dominate with a recognition that we are one.
As I have often said, the Bible, including Jesus, isn’t that helpful with “why questions.” It’s more about the “how.” Given this, how do I live? Given this, how do I love? Thomas Moore wrote, and I’ve lost where, that the language we often translate as “to heal” could just as easily be translated, “to nurse.” That shifts everything. It’s more in sync with what we know to be true, sometimes people don’t get better. At some point we all don’t get better. So, we nurse those who are sick or suffering, we attend to them.
When you ask, ask for the heart of Christ. Seek the kingdom, the way of Christ, the good road. Knock on the door of the kingdom that isn’t so big on walls or interested in conquest. Pray for good things, pray for whatever healing or outcome you think serves, but then also go and be the healing, be the good or join up with it because it’s already out there. We don’t own it and we didn’t invent it.
There are those who lose their faith, at least the faith of their youth. Science Mike lost that faith, but that’s only part of the story. The subtitle of his memoir is, “How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again Through Science.” Every time we lose a bit of our old faith, we have the opportunity to find a new faith. After having his thinking change about intercessory prayer, after continuing to explore the world scientifically, and after having a mystical experience of his own, Science Mike came to the point where he reflected, “Prayer became less about asking God for something and more about being in God’s presence.” That presence changes him for the better. That’s his answer. It doesn’t have to be yours.
The experiences of God’s presence is as diverse as we are. However you experience it, you will know it for it will change you for the better. Our tradition teaches that God is moved by our prayers and so we may hold onto the fact that God will answer them. May we also hold onto the hope that our prayers become not only about making God into who we want God to be, but that in praying to be in God presence, we allow God to make us into the world needs.
God can do amazing things through you, especially you plural. If God can maybe work miracles through a milk jug, just imagine what they can do through you.