God Must Not Love Me!?! Luke 11:1-13
Sermon Preached at Washington Plaza Baptist Church, July 25, 2010
Recently there have been a series of television commercials for a national bank seeking to re-brand itself. These commercials feature a middle-aged man who is a banker and a cast of the most adorable children interacting with the man all in the same room. Each commercial seeks to convey that this particular bank is going back to the basics and giving customers exactly what they want: the simplicity of good service which even children understand.
Consider a couple examples. There’s the commercial where an 8 year old boy is asked by a gentleman, “You want to have some fun?” And then the boy is given a brand new red monster truck, which the boy plays with happily. Then, after a couple of seconds, the man looks at his watch and takes the truck away from the boy.
To which the boy replies, “No, I want to play!!” And in response to the boy’s plea, the man pulls out of his coat pocket a truck drawn on a piece cardboard like this one. (Hold it up). After receiving the toy, the boy looks quite disappointed saying, “No, I want that truck!” And the man replies, “The real truck was a limited time offer only and your time is up, so I must take it back” The sadness on the face of the boy is almost too much to bear. He just doesn’t understand why he was given such a good gift only to have it taken away so suddenly and without explanation.
Then in another installment, we find a cute little seven year old girl with long curly brown hair in a room full of the newest toys on one side of the room. It’s so exciting that she can hardly stand it. The girl asks the man when she can play with all of the fun stuff.
Instead of answering her directly, he holds out a doll that looks exactly like him in a business suit. This is no ordinary doll, for when you push a button in its back it talks to her saying, “You’ve reached the 24 hour automated system. If you would like to speak with us directly to get any answers, you are going to have to call back between the hours of 8-5 pm Central time Monday- Friday, goodbye.” The little girl looks frustrated and confused. For, the man does not answer her pleas. Above all, she wonders why there are some perfectly good toys on the other side of the room and no one is telling her why she can’t play with them!
As we approach our scripture passage this morning, I propose that these scenarios are much like what many of us think about the topic of prayer.
We understand the basics about prayer: it’s talking to God and it is a worthwhile thing to do, maybe even good for us, but in practicing it, we like the children in the commercials, get very mixed messages from God. We ask for things and sometimes receive them like the little boy, but fear they will soon be taken away from us. And, we also ask for things like the little girl and don’t get what we want for no seemingly good reason. It seems that God is not listening to us.
Once I was talking to a 12 year old boy, Eddie after youth group, whose mother had recently passed away. Eddie was a good kid, a serious kid (as serious a 12 year old boy could be). He had been very concerned with spiritual things since childhood so it didn’t surprise me to learn that he’d prayed for his mom to get well every night from the time they found out she had breast cancer. He was sure that God would make her better.
Yet, in the end, his mom had suffered a long bout with cancer and had died much sooner than doctors or family members had expected. As Eddie sat in my office with tears rolling down his cheeks, he asked me over and over again, “Why, pastor, why?”
Eddie surprised me when he went on to quote pieces of our scripture for this morning, saying he’d learned this verse in Sunday School back in the 2nd grade: “Ask it shall be given unto you; seek and you will find.” “Why did God not answer my prayer and make my momma better? God must not love our family to do this mean thing to us. I prayed but God did not answer my prayers.”
And, I’m sure many of us have our own version of Eddie’s story in our own lives. There have been countless times when all of us have prayed for healing, for direction, for a sign about something important, only to receive the opposite of what we’ve prayed for. There has been no sign. And, we’ve watched suffering continue and pain enlarge to the point that we’ve found ourselves disillusioned and frustrated.
And, though it might not be a conscious verbal statement we make like Eddie did, we begin to feel that God must not love us either. Because if God loved us, why would he let so many crappy things happen in our lives and continue to happen when everyone else around seems to be getting along just fine?
For these reasons and many more, countless Christians throughout the ages have severely struggled with our lection from Luke this morning. After receiving the model prayer, Jesus’ words about prayer, though beautiful and poetic seems far from our experience. While there have been some times, yes, that our prayers have been answered in dramatic ways, most of time the “Ask, and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you” theology seems to have a bad track record (well unless you are Joel Osteen).
For isn’t one of the basic truths about God that God is love? Why would God tell us to pray and leave us to practice knowing that our results with it might leave us feeling unloved and uncared for at times?
To explore these questions a little further, maybe we might just need to uncover, then the holistic context of Jesus’ words on prayer.
Jesus’ teaching on this subject comes when the disciples ask him the simple question, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s one the few things that the disciples actually ask for instructions about, so Jesus proceeds to give them a model prayer, or what we commonly refer to as the Lord’s Prayer and say every week in our worship service.
To unfold the meaning of this particular prayer, Jesus then goes on to tack on two parables of explanation.
In the first parable, a man knocks on a friend’s door one evening asking for three loaves of bread, saying company has arrived without notice and there aren’t ingredients for bread making in his home. The friend makes many excuses as to why he can’t help. But, in the end, Jesus relays that the friend gives his neighbor what he needs because of his persistence.
The Greek word for “persistence” is anaidela which is better translated as “shameless.” The man who is in need of bread boldly inquires for exactly what he needs AND won’t leave till he receives it. And, because the two men are friends, out of the overflow of their trusting relationship, the man with the bread, gives what is needed probably saying something like, “Well, alright, if you really need it that badly, I’ll get out of bed in the middle of the night and make it for you.”
In the second parable, Jesus describes the interaction between a child and their parent saying, “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 him a scorpion?” Or translated in our modern day context, what parent at Christmas gives their child some coal in their stocking when they ask for candy? Parents just don’t do this . . .
In both cases, Jesus gives bold imagery about what happens in the exchange between those in loving relationships. Though we may un-intentionally make mistakes from time to time, when people love each other the concern of the other comes before one’s own.
When you are with your spouse and she really wants to go to this Italian restaurant for dinner more than anything, but you’d rather not because you had pizza for lunch, what does any good spouse do? You go to the Italian restaurant for dinner with a smile on your face. Why? Because you love her; and your happiness and desires are directly related to the desires of those in whom you love.
In the same way, I believe, Jesus is seeking to create a paradigm of prayer that is based on loving relationship. Because when to great friends, who have known each other well for a long time interact with one another, what happens?
There’s always room for the other to say whatever is on their mind, even if a story is repeated for the 10th time.
There’s never hesitation about saying exactly what you need to say because there’s no feared judgment of what the other will think.
There’s never the fear of silence— feeling the need to fill the air space with unnecessary words because you can walk together already having a good idea what is on the other’s mind.
There’s trust that when the other doesn’t call you back right away, it doesn’t mean that the friend suddenly hates you, but that the other is holding you in their heart even when life gets busy.
So, too, is the love relationship of prayer in which we are being called this day through this passage. We are being asked to address God on familial terms and we are invited through time and focused attention to begin to see the world the way God does. We are invited to come and get to know God’s heart: to see when God weeps, to see when God is disappointed, to see when God rests and to have our life’s rhythms shaped through this intimate friendship.
Roberta Bondi, professor of Christian History at Candler School of Theology says this about prayer, “We are so verbal, especially in the Protestant tradition, that it’s hard for us not to imagine prayer either as a monologue . . . or as a conversation in which I tell God thing and God answers back. [But] the verbal part is just one element. A lot of what we learn in prayer is to be quiet.”[i] Prayer boils down to a journey of relationship: it may have its ups and downs, but the learning and the connection is ongoing nonetheless.
Yet, you might be sitting there thinking this morning, that’s all well and good, Pastor but what about all those painful unanswered prayers I’ve had in my life and in the lives of my friends who aren’t in church today because they say “How can there be a God if my prayers aren’t answered?” How could you say that God loves us, when all of these bad things keep happening to me and those around me?
To which I answer, welcome to abiding with the great mysteries of life. I don’t know the answer to really good questions like this, but what I do know is that God wants us to pray even in spite of all of the unknowns.
Will Williamon, seasoned pastor and former dean of Duke Chapel in Durham, NC said this about how most churches practice prayer: “I notice that in every congregation [I now visit], the only concerns expressed are concerns for the people in the congregation who are going through various health crises. Prayer becomes what we refer to as the ‘Sick Call’ in the army.”[ii]
But, instead of our prayers being a laundry list of merely who is sick, thinking of prayer from the perspective of relationship means we are invited into conversation for all things of importance to us and also to God.
Talking about the things that really matter to us. . . . Asking for more of God’s glory to come to the earth, asking for our paths to be more on the good ways of God’s best, asking for others to be blessed just as we are. . . .
I also know that God listens to our prayers. Though we, like 12 year old, Eddie, might find the worst case scenarios answers to our prayers, the silence doesn’t mean that God does not hear us or care. Quite the contrary, God is the one who has never left our side, who is crying tears along with us, who is longing for joy to return to our spirits again. For God loves us, and loves us more than we could ever dream.[iii]
In another one of the bank commercials, there’s a young girl who sitting at a table with a man and asks for a horse. She immediately receives a horse, a toy horse. It puts a smile on her face. Then another young girl of the same age comes in the room and asks for a horse. She also receives a horse, but this time, it’s not a toy horse but a real pony. The first little girl in shock asks the man, “Why didn’t I get one of those?” And he replies “Because you didn’t ask.”
While the act of praying is not like going to a vending machine putting in your money and receiving the exact thing you ask for, what I do know is that we are called to ask for whatever out of the overflow of our relationship with Christ. We are asked to dream big dreams. We are asked to seek God’s plans which may seem like laughable requests to many. We are invited to share the fullness of our hearts with the one who loved so much that His very life was given for us. We are invited to sit with our Lord and ask for whatever we think we need.
So today, let’s claim our status as children of God. Let us then, be “shameless” in our prayers. Let us be those people who are growing in friendship with God who are not afraid to say what needs to be said, who respect the silence when things are murky and discouraging. Let us trust that even our deepest questions are heard and received by a God who does indeed love us.
What is on your heart today? What burdens are you carrying? What in you needs to find refuge in the Great Heavenly Parent who has your best interest at heart from the beginning of time to the end? Here’s your invitation: begin the conversation even right now!
May we not be like the girl who asks, “Why did I not receive such a gift?” with our Lord replying, “Because you did not ask!”
Roberta Bondi, “Learning to Pray: An Interview with Roberta C. Bondi.” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=302
[ii] William H. Williamon “Blogging Toward Sunday: July 23, 2007” theology.com
[iii] Concept further explained by David Thompson, “Shameless” Working Preacher 7/18/10 www.workingpreacher.org