Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lenten Sermon on Prayer (Luke 11:1-13)

A Hermit Praying in the Wilderness, Willem van Mieris
Luke 11:1-13: 
1 He 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.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: 
Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
3     Give us each day our daily bread.
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 
5 And he 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; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 
9 “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. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 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!”

A couple years ago, my wife Debbie and I got in a car accident on a highway in Virginia Beach. We were on the way to lead worship at a memorial service for a friend of ours. He was our age, and he died in a car accident.

We were hit by another car changing lanes. It was a hit and run, and we did a 180˚ and smacked into the guardrail. There was a second when I thought Debbie, who was sitting in the back-right passenger seat, might have been seriously injured.

Thankfully, she wasn’t, but the feeling I had coming that close to such a serious tragedy was one of the single most traumatic experiences I’ve ever had.

At the service a couple hours later, I couldn’t tell if I felt like I was attending Debbie’s funeral, or my own. As you can imagine, neither feeling was pleasant.

To this day, I get anxious in cars. But the most challenging outcome was the death anxiety it introduced, which has continued to be a regular visitor and bedfellow in my life since.

I think a lot about death. I am endlessly baffled by the paradox of the thought of it.

The problem is trying to figure it out. What happens when I die? Why can’t I know that? What if there is nothing afterwards? What does that mean? What does that make life mean?

Whatever it is, it’s not this. And the reality that hit me after the car accident was that it’s going to mean separation from Debbie. Death means saying goodbye, and I don’t want to say goodbye.

Following this train of thought, I usually get stuck in a cycle of worry. It is as if I have come upon a tall brick wall, enclosing some mysterious destination, to which I have no access.

I circle the enclosure again and again, but there is no way in. It is a barrier, full stop.

I knock on the wall, but there is no opening. I seek an entrance, but there is none. I ask questions to which there are no answers.

But then I read Jesus in Luke, saying, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Not only do I read these words, but I have to preach on them!

On the one hand, these words should be encouraging, as if they’re saying, “You are seeking, and don’t worry, you will find what you are looking for.”

On the other hand, they are somewhat discouraging. Am I not promised answers when I ask questions? Am I not promised an open door somewhere? Why have I not heard? Why have I not found?

Are Jesus’ words just another example of happy-go-lucky religion with its wishful thinking? Sigmund Freud said theism is wish-fulfillment. Humans want a benevolent father figure, and so they fabricate a god in their minds to be one. The heavenly Father referred to in Luke 11 is just a figment of your wishful imagination.

It’s escapism. Reality is too harsh, so we escape into a nicer world, one that has a nice god, one in which life has meaning and we have significance.

I actually believed that about Christianity for a while. But, in my experience, when I am caught in a web of my own questions, doubting everything, worrying to no end about my ultimate fate, racking my brain about death and the meaning of life, that is when I am farthest from the world.

I’ve had times when I’m sitting on my couch, staring into space, spiraling into anxiety, and meanwhile, my wife is near me, on the computer, in the kitchen, sitting next to me. I can hear her, feel her, but in my head it’s like she’s not even there.

Worry detaches you from the real world and places you into a world of fear, a world just made up of you and your questions.

So Jesus turns out to be quite down-to-earth and life-affirming when he says, as we read a few weeks ago, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life?” Do not worry, for your Father knows what you need. Instead, seek his kingdom, and what you need will be given to you (Lk. 12:25, 29–31).

This is not a worldview you can develop when you walk by sight and stick only to the earthly reality we see, as Freud would want you to.

Reading the news, for example, is a constant source of worry and fear. You get to thinking that evil and injustice make up the true nature of the world. They are so pervasive and constant that it comes to seem unlikely that things were ever any different.

We maybe even imagine an alternate creation story in which Satan is the primary mover.

“In the beginning Satan said, “Let there be evil,” and there was evil. And Satan saw that it was good. And there was morning and there was evening, the first day.”

Goodness, then, is a deviation from the natural order of things. We think, “We have to fight to keep the flame of goodness alive, or else it will be extinguished completely, swallowed up by injustice, the true substance of creation.”

With this pessimism, we begin to say things like, “It’ll never change,” “It’s hopeless,” “It’s too good to be true.”

When we read Jesus saying, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” there’s often a serpent who slithers out from a tree to whisper in your ear, “But probably not. It’s too good to be true.”

There’s always that voice of cynicism. And no matter how much I read, worship, pray, preach, live and breathe the gospel, this immediate sense of doubt keeps coming back.

“You’re not praying to anyone. No one is listening. You’re fooling yourself.”

These thoughts present themselves as self-evident. They just immediately seem truer than not somehow, as if just saying them is all you need to make them true. Negativity is thus primary, and cynicism is revelatory.

Jesus’ understanding of the world, however, is the inversion of this. For Jesus, evil and injustice and negativity are not necessary. They deviate from the true order of things, and their days are numbered.

It is because of this understanding that Jesus can speak so boldly about our asking and seeking, our knocking and searching.

He saw the heavenly Father as primary. It is not that we exist and we think up God and we choose whether or not we believe in God. For Jesus, it is rather that God exists and our life stems from God, and whatever we experience is secondary to the reality of God.

When you doubt God, you assume that your standpoint is the more the truthful one, and God’s truthfulness depends upon God’s ability to satisfy your standards for belief.

Jesus turns this right around. God is the Creator, not Satan. Goodness is the ultimate ruler, not evil. Righteousness and justice are never truly lost; they will never be swallowed up by injustice.

We may not perceive this or understand it, but we, Jesus says, are evil. He says, “You who are evil,” so casually, as if it’s just a given. We are evil. God is good. We are untruth. God is truth. To use Paul’s language, “Let God be true and every human being a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

We’re not accustomed to speaking this way about human beings. It isn’t hard to imagine how this thinking can have negative effects, possibly encouraging self-deprecation and a sense of worthlessness. So it’s not without good reason that many have dropped this language in favor of more positive statements about humanity.

But what I think Jesus means when he says, “you who are evil,” and what Paul means when he says, “every human being is a liar,” is that we cannot lean on our understanding, we cannot depend on ourselves for salvation.

And this is good news because it means you don’t have to make yourself better in order to receive help. Martin Luther even said, “Not despair but rather hope is preached when we are told that we are sinners.”

When I understand my own frailty, my doubt isn’t as decisive as I tend to think it is. I may look at the world and despair, but it is not my view that counts. That my perception is not decisive means that there is hope, and that hope comes from Jesus, who did not come for the healthy but for the sick (Luke 5:31).

But, still, we live in the world. The world we live in is evil, and we are wrapped up in it. We know not what we do. We know not what to do.

And it is not as if we can beam ourselves into a nicer, happier world where God’s kingdom is realized all the time. On the contrary, we are often left wondering, waiting, longing.

Even some of the earliest Christians felt this. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, many were under the impression that Jesus’ return to inaugurate the kingdom was going to happen within their lifetime. As time went on, and more and more of Jesus’ generation died, people started doubting if the kingdom was going to come at all.

At the time Luke’s Gospel was written, this had become a serious problem. How do we pray “Your kingdom come” when we don’t see signs of the kingdom anywhere?

Unfortunately, there is no scientific theory that can work out this problem in a way that will seem reasonable to us.

The disciples do not say, “Explain to me how you logically arrive at the coming kingdom of God. How do you deduce the kingdom’s coming from present observations?”

No, the disciples say, “Teach us how to pray.”

And Jesus does not lay out logically how and when the kingdom is going to come. He only promises that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find, and for everyone who knocks, the door will open.

We are told to pray and to pray persistently. Indeed, to make a life out of prayer.

What we are promised is the Holy Spirit when we pray. Prayer itself becomes a daily bread from which we can receive nourishment. The life of prayer, unlike the life of doubt and cynicism, promises good things.

Prayer pulls us back from the world of fear and reconnects us to the life that is happening in front of us. As Psalm 116 says, “Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. … I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (v.7, 9).

So, in my case, instead of confining myself to my doubts, withdrawing into isolated worrying, and spiraling into anxiety thinking about being separated from life and from Debbie, in prayer I am united with Debbie in an affirmation of life.

Here at St. Lydia’s, we are united in our prayer together. Amid our worry-laden lives, we gather to a place where Christ’s victory and coming kingdom are proclaimed, where, despite the liturgical calendar, it never stopped being Easter.

There are things that will be different when Pastor Emily leaves, but what certainly won’t be any different is the promise of the Holy Spirit in prayer. We will pray together, and the Holy Spirit will be among us, encouraging us, reinforcing our faith, breathing new life into us.

We are not told that prayer will bring us everything we want, bring our loved-ones back to us, stop people from leaving our lives, or keep bad things from happening.

We are not told that things will stay the same, that we will always have the same comforts, or the same home.

Nor are we told that prayer will satisfy our doubts, or solve our puzzles.

But, as it was said by a priest in the wonderful movie Jackie that came out last year,

“God in his infinite wisdom has made sure it is just enough for us.”

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