Luke 11:1-13 Promises, Politics, Pentecost, and the Lord’s Prayer
Below please find both the text of a sermon I preached on Sunday, July 28 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, and the link to the website on which you can find the audio version as well.
I hope this post finds you all well!
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Two confessions related to this very sermon based on this very passage from Luke.
Well, three, if you count what I wanted say to Pastor Lori when I realized that she’d stiffed me with this text.
First one: I am the world’s lousiest pray-er. Never been good at it. Positively awful about it, really. I’ve gone to workshops, spiritual directors, and, paradoxically, I’ve even tried praying about it, trying to improve my pray-er aptitude.
Didn’t work. Sometimes I wonder if I’m worse now than I was before.
Partly, it’s because I get lost in thought during the actual prayer.
I really do.
I’ve gone into so many other thought-lands that I can’t find my map back, let alone my way back. Truth is, sometimes I actually forget that I was praying.
In seminary, we all had to take a personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs. Some of you might be familiar with it. I came out (then) as an ENFP. One day, a classmate brought in a Prayer Profile based on the Myers-Briggs Eval. Under ENFP, the little cartoon had a stick person earnestly trying to pray, and the thought bubble went something like this: “Dear God, thank you for…Look! A bird!”
And it still goes like that. “Dear God, thank you for all that you have given our family: love, a home, food….wait: we need groceries. Where’s my list?” And so it goes.
I’ve even gotten to the point where I have stopped saying “You’re in my prayers,” because that optimistically suggests that I will pray. I want to pray. I should pray. But I don’t, unless I am absolutely positive that I can and will do it right then and there. I do say, however, “You are in my thoughts,” because that is undoubtably true.
Some have tried to console me by saying that there are different forms of prayer, and that thinking about someone, or fixing meals for those in need, or writing blogs, or reading theology, or teaching are all forms of prayer. I appreciate the thought, but it’s cheap grace. It’s not true. I just need to own that I am a terrible, lousy, pray-er.
That’s the first confession.
The second confession is that sometimes, Scripture makes me angry. I don’t mean that it makes me angry when I hear something in it that is too challenging, or uncomfortable. I mean that the words in Scripture seem so out of touch with reality, so insulting to our intelligence and experience, so simplistic, that it simply ticks me off.
You see, then, that these two confessions (these three of them, because I have no doubt that Lori knows that I cannot pray out of a paper bag and that Scripture irritates me) conflate in the very text I have as the springboard for my sermon.
One more thing: I learned in seminary that it is exactly the text you don’t want to preach on that you should, and that chances are, some or all of your objections are echoed by others in the congregation. And so, hoping that there is some truth to both of these claims, I rolled up my sleeves last week and wrestled with Jesus’ words about prayer.
Let me tell you the part that irked me about our passage today. It’s the verses 9-13. “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 find, 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?”
It was interesting to read the range of ways that theologians try to come to terms with these words, try to make some sense out of them.
Some commentators say that it is true. Pray hard enough and all that you ask for in God’s name will be true.
That take, my friends, can be a lie. It’s not necessarily true. It’s a set-up for disappointment and anger and feelings of being betrayed by God. How many of us have prayed to this God of resurrection for healing, for reconciliation, for hope, for faith, only to be answered with a deep and echo-ey silence, a silence that betrays the central essence of God? As bad, we might even “receive” the exact opposite of what we believe to be right and good in God’s name.
Others say that God does answer our prayers, but just not in the way that we expect or want.
That’s sophistry, an argument born out of a need to make sure that Scripture is literally true, more than a need to attend to the real and justified feelings of being abandoned by God in a moment, or several strung-together moments, of deep need.
It also is a thinly veiled way of suggesting that everything that happens must be because God wants it that way.
How many people prayed for Hitler to stop, for wars to end, for hunger to be sated, for hate to evaporate, and yet they persist, and grow?
Do we really want to say that God answered our prayers by letting Hitler and war and hunger and hate run rampant?
So no. It is not satisfactory to say that when we don’t get our prayers answered the way we want, what we get must be what God wants.
In fact, some say that the reference to snakes and scorpions gets exactly to that point: Fishermen sometimes could catch a sea snake instead of their needed fish, and a scorpion, when curled up, could look like an egg. It’s only a cruel joke to arrange it so that one gives something painfully other than the thing it was promised to be.
So no. God does not play these sorts of perverse games. It is not satisfactory to say that when we don’t get our prayers answered the way we want, what we get clearly must be what God wants.
Instead, hope for some sense-making comes in verse 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!”
Ah. Breakthrough coming.
The Holy Spirit.
Allow me to bust into some Pentecost for a moment.
There are all sorts of spirits: school spirit, Christmas spirit, mob spirit, community spirit, spooky spirit, and so forth. The adjective, the word before spirit, clarifies what sort of spirit we’re talking about. And so it would make no sense, for example, to have your school spirit on when hanging ornaments on your Christmas tree. You see?
The word “Holy” defines the kind of spirit Jesus has in mind. It’s the Holy Spirit, the set apart Spirit, the hallowed Spirit.
Remember that the whole context of this passage is that of the disciples wanting Jesus to teach them to pray. It was customary that each rabbi, which is what Jesus was, of course, a Jewish rabbi, it was customary that each rabbi had a defining prayer, a prayer that not only was unique to him, but was an encapsulation of this rabbi’s essential teachings, of who this rabbi was.
So when the disciples were asking Jesus to teach them to pray, they weren’t so much asking Jesus to teach them to pray in the way that I have (by taking classes and going to monasteries and enrolling in prayer workshops). They were asking Jesus to tell them who he was, and what his vision of God was, and what his vision of those who followed him was.
“Teach us to pray” could just as well have been a request to “Teach us to align ourselves with you.” Teach us who you, in the name of God, are.
With that in mind, then, we look both at the end of this passage, at verse 13, where Jesus promised that if we prayed for the Holy Spirit, it would be offered to us, and we look at the beginning of today’s passage, verses 1-4, where Jesus teaches us (a version of) the Lord’s prayer, differently.
We see that both have something to do with the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit has something to do with God, and that the Holy Spirit has to do with community, even the community of those whom we do not know and we do not like.
The prayer isn’t even about my wishes, but it is about God’s wishes for us. It’s a prayer in the plural. Give us. Forgive us as we forgive those indebted to us. Do not bring us into trial.
It’s a prayer for the community by the community to the God of community.
And notice, the in-between verses are about expansive hospitality, even hospitality that costs annoyance to people as it is brought into being.
And here is where my anger at this text abates. Some years ago I was invited to go to a Sioux Falls Professional Women’s Organization meal. The journalist Lisa Ling was the presenter there. Almost as an afterthought, at the very end of her speech, Ms. Ling told the audience that she was agnostic, but that she married a dedicated Christian. One day, after a particularly rough series of stories she had done on trauma and hardship and violence done to the Least of These across the globe, she said in exasperation, “I do not understand why this God of yours doesn’t do something about these situations!” And he looked at her and said, quietly, “God did. God sent us you.”
This prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and still teaches us, is a communal touchstone, a grounding point for aligning us with God’s vision, God’s agenda for the world. All should be fed. All should be forgiven, sins and debts. All should be protected.
It is a prayer that is powerfully political: God’s kingdom is not ours, and yet is, in fact, defined by our feeding, and our forgiving, and our protecting, and our welcoming.
Let that kingdom come.
That sort of inbreaking and action takes breath.
It takes Holy breath.
It takes Holy Spirit.
And so, Jesus seems to be saying at the very end of this passage, that when we pray that prayer, in effect, we are praying for the Holy Spirit to come to fill us, so that we can be ambassadors of feeding, and forgiving, and protecting, and welcoming.
And that when we pray it, God promises that the Holy Spirit will come.
Let us recall that the only reason that we are still paying attention to this prayer is because these very same disciples believed that Jesus is risen from the dead.
That means that life, not death, is God’s agenda.
That life is a mark of God’s reign.
And when we pray that prayer, we become disciples too; disciples of this sort of reign, this sort of agenda, this sort of vision.
Praying this prayer, then, is dangerous stuff. It is freeing stuff. It is powerful stuff. It is communal stuff, for those we know, and don’t know, and like, and don’t like.
You see, it invokes the Holy Spirit, which I don’t advise doing lightly.
And it’s wily strategy on Jesus’ part too.
For even I can remember the Lord’s Prayer, and follow it through all the way til the end.
I do see a bird occasionally, though, when I pray it. It looks remarkably like a dove.