Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
The call could come at any time of the day. The call could originate from the bus station in town, a place open 24 hours. The call could come from fellow pastors in town. Or people would just show up at the church…sometimes they would attend a Sunday service and did not want to leave until they saw me. I am talking about men who wanted a meal or a place to stay for the night. They did not ask for money. Often enough I would see the same people more than once over the course of a year. When I got such a call or someone would just show up in church, I am ashamed to say, I was not pleasant. They disturbed my peace; they invaded my comfort zone. But grudgingly I would go to meet them and usually go to the restaurant. But as we would eat, and have conversation, my attitude changed. No longer was I mainly suspicious of the wandering stranger, but more understanding and gracious. When I would meet someone seeking assistance, see them face to face, I felt somewhat ashamed for my initial ornery reluctance to reach out. This little story from my life is similar to a story or parable Jesus told his disciples.
The disciples wanted Jesus to teach them to pray. Today’s gospel lesson gives us opportunity to be taught by Jesus too. Jesus actually gave words for us to say when we pray. We heard the familiar words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer, the words many of us have known since childhood. Jesus’ lesson on prayer was not so much learning the right words, but understanding the living and loving God. So Jesus told a parable about a man in bed hoping for a good night’s sleep. The kids are in bed and all is quiet in the house, until suddenly comes the shock of persistent knocking. The familiar voice of a friend calls out: “Lend me three loaves of bread.” The friend is in a fix: a guest has arrived late and he has nothing to give him to eat. There was no such thing as a 24 hour convenience store. It was against the community code of hospitality not to give a guest something to eat. So he rushes over to his friend and asks for bread. The friend in bed is reluctant. He doesn’t want to get out of bed. He doesn’t want to wake up the kids. He needs his rest and resents this ruckus. So he yells at this friend: “Don’t bother me. I am not going to give you anything. Go home.”
But Jesus’ story said the man did get up and supply the bread. The text said because of the persistent asking on the part of the neighbor. But there is also another way of looking at this situation. The man in bed got up and gave out the bread because he would be disgraced in the community if he did not. So the man felt ashamed for his initial refusal and cruel words “Don’t bother me”. I felt ashamed over my initial negative thoughts about helping those who called upon me. These little stories illustrate what God is not like: God is not reluctant to hear our prayers, but welcomes them. God would never think “Don’t bother me”. God’s comfort zone is far different from our narrow human ones. We get an idea of God’s comfort zone by reviewing the Psalm today. The rulers, the kings, the high and mighty, are called upon to sing and give glory to God. They praise God because “The Lord is high, yet cares for the lowly, perceiving the haughty from afar.” So often the poor and lowly are abandoned. They are not noticed because they often are powerless and penniless. Think, unfortunately, of our own politics: influence and reward are directly proportional to the amount of money you can give. This can be true even in the church, often tempted by worldly standards. God’s comfort zone is to do away with zones, and seek to listen to and comfort the lowly. The ones blessed with wealth and ease are warned that God does perceive the haughty from afar. We hear in the book of the prophet Isaiah the Lord say, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit…to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Those who may feel unnoticed not only by the world, but also by God are encouraged in the Psalm with the promise, “When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.”
There is an article in the latest Lutheran magazine called “Strength in Prayer”. It is about a congregation in Pennsylvania that has begun a cancer ministry. People who have been diagnosed gather to support one another, bear one another’s burdens, and pray for healing. One of the participants said she is now in remission. She spoke of a woman in chemo-therapy next to her who died from her disease. She said “She fought as hard as I did, but she died. I am not sure why things happen the way they do, but I am trying to stay positive and think about what God needs me to do with the time I have been given.” She honestly spoke about the disappointment many have felt about prayer. We fervently pray for loved ones, but they do not get well. People we care about deeply die. This may not sit well with our faith. It would be cruel to say to grieving people your prayer was not answered as you wished because your faith was not strong enough. Prayer is still to trust in the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. Yes, we do not know why things happen the way they do. But we trust God’s care for the lowly. So our prayers are deeper than our words. Even if we do not pray in terms of addressing God, God hears our silence, anger, and rebellion as prayers. Outcomes may not turn out as we hoped, but we can still pray and ask God to increase our strength within, so that when we walk in the midst of trouble, God will keep us safe, ever hold us with God’s hand of love so we are not alone to face what comes our way each day.
Jesus continues to teach prayer by saying “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 open.” Jesus explained that when your children ask for a fish, you don’t give a snake; or when they ask for an egg, you wouldn’t give a scorpion. Jesus then reminded us that we are all sinners by saying, “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 we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask for things like daily bread, the forgiveness of sins, and salvation from trial and trouble. Fundamentally, primarily, the Lord’s Prayer is asking for the Holy Spirit. Luther taught this when he commented in the Catechism about the petition “Your kingdom come”: “we pray for God’s kingdom to come to us, and this happens when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.” As we heard in the reading from Colossians, the Holy Spirit, using the Gospel word, creates faith, so our lives are rooted in Christ, established in his steadfast love and forgiveness. Faith is to be rooted in Jesus and what He has done for us: all sins forgiven, nailing to the cross and accusing record of guilt. Rooted in Christ Jesus, faith established in him, we have a living relationship with Jesus, comforted by his steadfast love, and encouraged by the peace of being with us always. Since faith is a living relationship with Jesus, we are invited to pray, to cast on him our every care, and never to be afraid to “ask, seek, and knock”.
While preparing this sermon I was annoyed by an ATV outside, driving around and around in circles—in the church parking lot. Don’t they know I must concentrate, so why drive that noisy thing around and around? But then I get up and look, and I think I understood what was going on, and I could relate it to the sermon theme of prayer. A child was driving, or learning to drive under the guidance of her father, and in the safety of the parking lot. So we are learning to drive, or to live the Christian way, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And the safety of the Christian is to pray for the strength within, faith for each day, trusting God to make good God’s purpose for us.
Each day demands can be placed upon us, and such demands have the understanding of ASAP: get to them “As soon as possible”. For the Christian ASAP stands for “always say a prayer”. Having a bad day, ASAP, always say a prayer and know Jesus is with you; in the midst of trouble, ASAP, always say a prayer, and seek guidance from God; feeling guilty, ASAP, always say a prayer, trusting Jesus to take away sin and guilt, and live in the joy of his grace. Whatever you situation, always say a prayer.