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Jul 17, 2022

Ask, Search, Knock

Ask, Search, Knock

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Series: July 2022

 

Today's Sermon

 

"Ask, Search, Knock"

 

Luke 11:1-13
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.”
Jesus 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 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. 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!” 

One of my favorite authors once wrote this about her prayer life – “I have shelves full of prayer books and books on prayer.  I have file drawers full of notes from courses I have taught and taken on prayer. I have meditation benches I have used twice, prayer mantras I have intoned for as long as a week. I have invested a small fortune in icons, candles, and incense burners. 

I am a failure at prayer.  When people ask me about my prayer life … my mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem.  I start talking about other things I do that I hope will make me sound like a godly person.  I ask the other person to tell me about her prayer life, hoping she will not notice that I have changed the subject.  I would rather show someone my checkbook stubs than talk about my prayer life.  I would rather confess that I am a rotten godmother than confess that I am a prayer-weakling.”[i]

This is written by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, “An Altar in the World.”  Our Spiritual Life Book Group actually read it last year.  Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest, a seminary professor, an editor for a theological journal, and an author of over a dozen theological books. If she is a failure at prayer, is there any hope for the rest of us?  No wonder the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.  Prayer can be hard.

Jesus can sometimes be a little cagey when people ask him questions.  He often returns a question with a question.  In this case, however, he actually does as requested.  He offers an example prayer for the disciples to pray. What he offers likely sounds familiar, as it is the basis for the Lord’s Prayer that we pray every Sunday. Interestingly, though, he only spends about 3 lines of this 13 line story offering this example prayer.  In response to the disciples’ request to teach them how to pray, Jesus spends most of his time talking not about the mechanics of prayer, but about the one to whom we pray.  Jesus is much more concerned with teaching about the nature of God than about the nature of our specific prayers.  I read one commentary on this passage that noted Jesus seems more interested in invitation than explanation.  In his teaching about prayer, Jesus wants to invite us into a relationship with God who always hears and always responds to our prayers.  Jesus is quite focused on the who, rather than on the how, why, or when.

I appreciate this reminder of God’s presence with us always and of God’s unending love for all God’s children. Thank you, Jesus, for assuring us that God will hear and answer our prayers.  That when we ask it will be given, and when we search we will find, and when we knock the door will be opened.  This is good news!

Before we continue, though, I want to make sure that when we hear these statements, we don’t start to think of God as a magic genie who makes all our wishes come true.  Or as a vending machine where we simply stick in our prayers and then receive whatever we want.  That’s not what happens with prayer.

Hopefully we know that prayer does require work on our part.  I am aware that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become almost meaningless in our society today as politicians often offer thoughts and prayers following a tragedy – such as a mass shooting – but then don’t do the work to enact laws that would bring lasting change.  God is not a magic genie.  God is not a vending machine.  Simply saying “thoughts and prayers” will not bring change.  Praying is only part of a much larger equation.  An important part, but just a part. 

Mark Scandrette is an author of many books, including “Practicing the Way of Jesus.”  This book describes an experiment that he and several of his friends undertook to actually live the teachings of Jesus. He writes, “What if, instead of talking about prayer, we actually prayed; or what if, in addition to studying about God’s heart for justice, we took action to care for needs?”  In his book, Scandrette tells a story about Greg, an occasional visitor to his spiritual community.  He says that one day Greg came to him saying, “I’m in a real mess and I need you to pray for me.”  Greg went on to describe the anxiety and stress he was feeling about his mounting debts, including thousands of dollars owed to an ex-girlfriend.  “Please pray that God will free me from these bad habits,” Greg asked.

Scandrette says that he hesitated, knowing that Greg tended to look for magical solutions to his persistent problems.  He then gently asked Greg about his financial practices.  “Do you have a plan for how you are going to deal with your debts?” Greg replied, “anything that I can do to change will take months or years – I need a solution now!”  Scandrette told him, “I’m not going to pray for you in the way you are asking me to.”

He goes on to explain, “Of course, it would be great if we could pray and magically be changed, erasing the consequences of many years of our choices.”  Instead, “We begin to reimagine a new way first by considering what the old and tired patterns are that need to change.”[ii]

We certainly have all had those times when we have prayed for something to suddenly change when we haven’t actually done the work … God, please give me an A on this test that I haven’t studied for.  God, I’d really like this promotion that I’m not quite qualified for.  God, put me in a better financial position even though I don’t plan to change my spending habits.  God isn’t just waiting around to do the hard work for us that we don’t want to do.  It is not a complete surprise when prayers like that seem to go unanswered.

However, what about when we have done the work and our prayers still seem to go unanswered?  When we are perfectly qualified for a new job and offer great interviews and pray hard about it … but still don’t get it.  Or, when a loved one is sick and we pray for healing … and they don’t get better.  I’m asking, God.  Why am I not receiving? I’m knocking, God.  Why is the door not opening?

Those are not questions that I will be answering today.  Because I don’t know the answers.  No one does. I don’t know why some people recover from illness and some don’t.  I don’t know why bad things happen to good people.  I don’t know why some prayers are answered in exactly the way we would like, and some are not.  There are so many aspects of our faith that remain a mystery.

What I do, know, however, is that in this passage, Jesus is not necessarily promising that our prayers will be answered in exactly the way we expect.  He says, “Ask, and it will be given you.”  But what is it?  Listen to what Jesus says at the very end of this passage, “ … how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  Jesus is not promising health or wealth or success or vitality to those who pray.  Jesus is promising the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Search, and you shall find. What shall you find?  You shall find a God who is always with you … who will get up and open the door to love and grace and hope even if you are knocking in the middle of the night.  A God who will freely offer the blessings of the Spirit because God cares for us even more than an earthly parent.  That is what Jesus promises.

For those of you who have prayed hard for something and didn’t get the answer you expected, everything that I just said may ring hollow.  I get that. I have had so many conversations with people who have been devastated by seemingly unanswered prayers.  Grief or anger or frustration prevents them from asking anything except that why question … why were my prayers not answered? They are in no state to think about the who to whom Jesus points … the God who is, in fact, showering them with love, even if they don’t realize it.

If you are in that state right now, that’s OK.  God can take your anger, your questions, your confusion, your grief.  Just keep praying.  For that is a key piece of Jesus’ message here.  Persistence.  Keep knocking on that door.  Keep offering the good, the bad, and the ugly of who you are to God.  God will continue to answer with love.  Remember those words of the Psalmist – “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.”  Forever. Keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking.

I want to return to Barbara Brown Taylor.  In that same chapter on prayer, she writes, “Years ago now a brilliant friend of mine, a teacher in a big university, did everything in his power to ease the suffering of his lover, who was dying.  One afternoon near the end I listened to the rawness of his prayers – pleading with God to do something, to work a miracle that would save his partner’s life – and when the time was right I asked him to tell me about those prayers.

“You want to know whether I really believe God will intervene like that?” he asked me.  “You wonder if I am really that naïve?  Honestly, I don’t think it through, not now.  I tell God what I want.  I’m not smart enough or strong enough to do anything else, and besides, there’s no time.  So I tell God what I want and I trust God to sort it out.”

Brown concludes, “Maybe that is what Jesus meant about coming to God like a child.  The Ph.D. in prayer is optional.”

Taylor calls herself a failure at prayer, but that seems impossible to me.  No one needs a Ph.D. in prayer.  I think the only way to fail at prayer would perhaps be to never pray.  But prayer can be so many things.  A dialogue, a monologue, quiet listening, singing, breathing, walking, running, dancing, sitting still, throwing it against the wall and asking God to sort it out … the list goes on.  Jesus’ teachings assure us that prayer is effective not because we find the exact right words or do the exact right things, but it is effective because of God’s nature as our creator who loves us unconditionally and offers God’s Spirit to us always.

Unlike Barbara Brown Taylor, author Anne Lamott loves to pray.  Just a couple weeks ago, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times all about prayer. Maybe some of the many ways she prays will ring true for you.

“Prayer means talking to God, or to the great universal spirit, a.k.a. Gus, or to Not Me. Prayer connects us umbilically to a spirit both outside and within us, who hears and answers. Prayer says, I am tiny, helpless, needy, worried. I wake up praying. It helps me to not fixate on who I am, but on whose. I am God’s adorable, aging, self-centered, spaced-out beloved. I pray to be a good servant because I’ve learned that this is the path of happiness. It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others.

“Especially when I travel, I talk to so many people who are absolutely undone by all the miseries of the world, and I can’t do anything for them but listen, commiserate and offer to pray. In listening, by opening my heart to someone in trouble, I create with them more love, less of a grippy clench in our little corner of the universe. When I get onstage for a talk or an interview, I pray to say words that will help the people in the audience who feel most defeated. When I am at my most rattled or in victimized self-righteousness, I go for walks, another way to put my feet to prayer. I pray for help, and in some dimension outside of my mind or language, I relax. I can breathe again. A walk is a great prayer. To make eye contact and smile is a kind of prayer, and it changes you.

“I have the theological understanding of a bright 8-year-old, but Jesus says we need to approach life like children, not like cranky know-it-alls, crazily busy, clutching our to-do lists. One of my daily prayers is, ‘Slow me down, Girlfriend.’ The prayer changes me. It breaks the toxic trance. God says to Moses the first time they meet, ‘Take off your shoes.’ Be on the earth. Breathe with me a moment.”[iii]

Amen.

 

[i]An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor, pg. 175.

[ii]Practicing the Way of Jesus, by Mark Scandrette, pg. 58.

[iii]“The New York Times,” Op-Ed by Anne Lamott, July 8, 2022.