SERMON: 7 Pentecost C 7 28 19
I've been feeling bad about not having any funny stories to tell you in my sermons. I know it's not expected. But a laugh or even a mild chuckle is a pretty nice thing to enjoy on a Sunday morning. So here goes.
Timmy didn't want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him.
"You don't want that money, honey," she whispered in his ear. "Quick! Drop it in the plate. It's tainted!"
Horrified, the little boy obeyed. After a few seconds he whispered, "But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty?"
"Oh, no dear," she replied. "It's not really dirty. It just 'taint yours, and it 'taint mine," she replied. "It's God's."
A little later in Sunday School the following drama took place:
The Sunday School teacher was just finishing a lesson on honesty. "Do you know where children go if they don't put their money in the collection plate?" the teacher asked.
"Yes ma'am," a boy blurted out. "They go to the movies."
OK, so much for uplifting humor.
This week we have a truly stimulating Gospel reading that helps us engage our faith in all situations. It was preceded by a Collect that reminds us that God protects those who believe in God. That seems to be a really important ingredient in the process of making our prayers work. Because if we don't have or we're not working for a strong faith, then who or what are we praying to? And why, if we don't believe? So we have to start with a strong faith and that faith has to be joined to the belief that we receive answers even in silence. Ordinarily the clouds don't open and a voice from above doesn't say, "OK, have it your way." Ordinarily we make our petitions to God and we wait to see what unfolds.
Anyone who has an active prayer life knows that the act of praying is actually informing us of our desire, our willingness, and sometimes our need to reach out to God on matters that are important to us. God already knows what's on our minds. God knows what's on our minds even if we're praying for something different. But the goal of prayer is for us to recognize that communication is happening, to be engaged.
Both our Gospel and our Hebrew Bible reading address the issue of persistence in dealing with God. Abraham actually negotiates with God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, ultimately after rounds of back and forth Abraham convinces God that if ten righteous persons are found in the cities, God will not demolish them.
In our Gospel Jesus uses the metaphor of a friend who has already locked up his house and gone to sleep as a stand in for God. If one came to that friend's house and asked repeatedly for bread because a visitor had arrived unexpectedly, Jesus said, eventually that person would get up and give the friend bread.
Both the example of persistence with God and the circumstances of Abraham's negotiations with God include the incentive of hospitality. Unfortunately for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham's nephew Lot --who has shown hospitality to the same angels Abraham hosted last week-- is the only righteous man in the community.
Persistence is important, we understand; we should not give up. Perhaps if we give up easily, then what we were praying for isn't really that important to us. But persistence is only part of our Gospel lesson this morning.
In the opening of our Gospel reading Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord's Prayer. The phrase, "...forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us..." is one of the many traps in the Bible set for hypocrites. How many have begged to be forgiven, yet have not forgiven those who harmed them? And how many have gladly or greedily taken more than their share, then denied food or shelter for those in need?
What is especially interesting about this portion of the Lord's Prayer is that Jesus doesn't say this is God's expectation. Jesus says this is the way we should behave to be in relationship with God. Kind of like a youngster washing their face before going to see their grandmother.
Our relationship with God is not transactional, not matter how hard we might try to bargain. It is familial. We are part of God's family and our role is to engage and to give of ourselves. It is also to give thanks when we realize what good things have happened to us or come to us by way of God's great mercy.
The Lord's Prayer connects directly in this reading to what Jesus says about Seek, Ask, Knock. Jesus said, " 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."
If you just now closed your eyes and prayed for something outlandish and are surprised to find it didn't materialize, don't be. Because implicit in every prayer, in every thanksgiving and every intercession, is the requirement that we only pray for what conforms to God's will. My occasional remarks about Maseratis and yachts notwithstanding, we need to remember that we are seeking always for God's will to be done. When we pray for someone to heal or to get a job, or for something to work out one way or another, we add "if it be your will."
When we pray the Lord's Prayer we directly apply the prescription Jesus gave to seek, ask and knock. When we open the prayer we acknowledge that God is in heaven and, presumably, we realize we are not. We seek God, though distant, though perhaps not yet consciously brought into our presence. We ask that God's will be done, which definitely vetoes the Maserati and the yacht. It also requires that we align our request with what we think the will of God is.
You may remember some years ago Saturday Night Live had a very amusing bit about a preacher who using riffing on the language of the psalms would ask God to smite his enemies, to lift him up, and over all to frustrate any and everybody who got in his way. Well, that's not what prayer is for. Jesus has made that abundantly clear.
To seek God is to seek to know God, to align with God, to become one with God. That is called atonement, when we set aside everything else and are at one with God. Asking God is about letting ourselves know we've asked God to help us with something, whether it's a day that is overwhelmingly beautiful or a cranky friend or a nasty neighbor. It is to bring God into our consciousness as we work through what confronts us in our lives.
And when we knock it is on God's door, asking God to let us get closer, to discover God's ready proximity and the ever greater challenges of drawing ever nearer to the Almighty.
I was reflecting on this particular aspect of our Gospel this week and comparing it to a hymn we sang at Elisabeth' Gillon's celebration of Life, In the Garden. The phrase that was on my mind was "I come to the garden alone..." The opening line describes our spiritual dullness when we believe we are alone. We are never alone. Our Creator is always with us; we are occasionally deaf, blind, insensate and stupid.
Believe me, I wouldn't say that to Johnny Cash's face, but it is my belief. We can get so wrapped up in our ever so special business that we forget that God is around us all the time, incidentally, also being in heaven, as we pray in the Lord's Prayer. Accepting our invitation to ask, search and knock raises the stakes of our faith. Drawing closer and closer to our Creator is our ultimate objective, our joy.