July 28, 2019 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Whose door would you knock on at midnight if an unexpected guest showed up at your house and you had nothing to offer? Or, to contemporize Jesus’ analogy, whom would you call at two o’clock in the morning if your husband fell and you couldn’t get him back into bed? Whom would you call to come and watch your sleeping children if you had to take another child to the hospital? Whom would you wake up in the middle of the night if you needed someone to bail you out of jail?
Actually, it’s pretty hard to imagine a scenario in which I would call upon someone in the middle of the night, and I think that was Jesus’ point. Because the roads were dangerous, people didn’t travel after dark, so there really wasn’t any chance that out-of-town company would show up on your doorstep at midnight. But, in the extremely unlikely event that they did, whom would you ask for three loaves of bread so that you weren’t embarrassed to have nothing for your visitors?
Whoever it is, you had better be sure that they would say yes. The urgency of the request requires an affirmative response. You can’t afford to knock on a second door, and that’s not only because your guest is waiting. It’s also because you can’t afford for the neighborhood to know that you were up in the middle of the night, knocking on doors and asking for bread. If you were to wake someone up in the middle of the night to ask that person for a favor and she were to say no, how would your relationship survive it? In order to even ask, it has to be the sort of person whom you know will say yes. You wouldn’t have asked if you weren’t desperate, and, if you’re close enough to that person to knock on her door, the person on the other side must be gracious enough to grant your request. In other words, in this ridiculous scenario that Jesus imagines, when a person who is that desperate for help knocks on someone’s door, there never was a possibility that the answer would be no.
That’s what Jesus teaches us when he teaches us how to pray. He teaches us to know that, when we approach God, the answer will always be yes. That’s not because God is in the wish-granting business. It’s because God is our Father.
Jesus 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.” The words that followed are as familiar to us as they are bare. “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (It’s short enough not even to need a block quotation when typing it out into this sermon.)
The first thing Jesus teaches us is to call God “Father.” That’s where it starts, and everything else flows from that. For some of us, “Father” is a term laden with disappointment and frustration and hurt. For all of us, no matter how exemplary or neglectful our paternal role model was, the “Father” Jesus has in mind exceeds not only our experience but even our greatest hopes and our highest expectations. In the prayer Jesus taught us, what matters is not that we can imagine God in terms analogous to our earthly parents. What matters is that we can approach God as if God were as near and familiar to us as the one who raised us. For as long as there have been children, there have been parents whose children have asked to borrow the car, to borrow twenty dollars, to borrow a jacket. Like a little child who pulls on her mother’s skirt and reaches up with open arms, asking only for a hug, Jesus invites us to approach God as if God were the one whose loving “yes” was even more certain and more loving than that of the most wonderful parent on earth.
The rest of the prayer Jesus teaches us also hinges upon that parental understanding: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive others. Do not bring us to the time of trial.” Daily bread? Your kingdom come? Who would ask for such things? Those words are the truest prayer of the one who is a true child of God. To call God “Father” not only has implications for who God is but also for who we are as God’s children. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we put ourselves, as Rowan Williams wrote, in the place of Jesus. Just as Jesus’ relationship with God becomes our own, so, too, do the words that we say and the hopes that they contain.
Like a child who has inherited a parent’s physical features or mannerisms, we reflect in our lives and hopes and dreams the fact that we belong to God as God’s children. Every time we say, “Our Father,” the practice of rehearsing that relationship in prayer further shapes us, drawing us more and more deeply into the divine presence, aligning our heart’s desire with that of the heart of God. In time, the simple prayer that Jesus taught us and the practice of praying it over and over change what we want into what God wants, leaving us content with daily provision, reconciled relationships, and submission to God’s will.
That hasn’t always been the case, of course. Just as a child’s disappointment at opening a Christmas present to find clothes evolves into an adult’s delight to find the same gift, so, too, does our delight in God and God’s will evolve as we are able more fully and faithfully to call upon God as our Father. We pray the words, “Our Father,” until we know that those words are true—until our deepest desire is God’s deepest desire. In the end, therefore, God grants us not only what we need but also what we truly want in a reciprocal desire that Jesus identifies as the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus teaches us to pray, he teaches us the same thing that he has always taught us—to believe, to know, to count on God’s unwavering love. The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is an exercise in faith—a statement of what we believe and what we hope to believe. Jesus invites us to call God “Father” because, as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ is the one who inseparably brings God to us and us to God. We pray the prayer that Jesus taught us not because there is magic in those words but because there is power in approaching God with trust in our hearts that God is our Father, our Mother, our eternally loving parent. That trust—that faith—has the power to shape us into the children we are bold enough to claim to be—the children that Jesus has taught us that we are.