July 28, 2019, The 7th Sunday after Pentecost Year C, Luke 11:1-13
The other day I saw an article about a woman who had posted on social media how millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, who don’t have children should not be allowed entrance to Walt Disney World. Her angry social media post complained about how on a visit to Walt Disney World in Florida her three year old son really wanted a Mickey Mouse shaped pretzel, but the line was very, very long. Her son begged and begged and begged for that pretzel but the lengthy line made it prohibitive and so she had to tell him he couldn’t have it. However, she saw this young millennial woman without a child get one for herself and it made the mother angry because she felt why should that young woman get one when her son who so wanted one and asked and asked for one had to go without? She felt that because his desire was clearly so great that his request should have moved him ahead of the young woman in the waiting line to have his request answered over and above hers.
As I read this article I shook my head at the selfish attitude that I felt the mother of the three year old had. That somehow she felt that she and her child were more deserving of the Disney World experience and that Mickey Mouse pretzel than the young woman. However, then I thought about how this was pretty typical human behavior and it was actually kind of like how we feel about getting our prayers answered. Because aren’t there times when we look at others and see so much going right for them and so much going wrong for us and wonder why their prayers seem to get answered and ours don’t even though we judge ourselves so much more deserving than them of having our prayers answered? Because after all, we go to church, say our prayers properly and regularly, follow the Ten Commandments (for the most part, give or take a few), and do good deeds. So, why should that other person’s prayers be answered when they so clearly, in our humble opinion, are so much less deserving of getting their prayers answered?
It seems to me that our thinking in this way about prayer has something to do with the Prosperity Gospel or the belief that if we simply follow God in all the right ways then God will do good things for us. In this kind of thinking God becomes a sort of heavenly vending machine where we put in the exact amount of money or good works and biblical rule-following and God spits out the exact thing we want in return – healing for ourselves or another, that new job or raise at work, having your offer on a house accepted or getting that parking space right at the moment you need it most. This sort of thinking reduces our relationship with God to a transactional one where in exchange for the right behavior or way of life, God gives us exactly what we ask for.
I fear that we can listen to our Gospel reading from Luke today and think that it describes prayer as falling under this transactional vending machine model of our relationship with God. That if we pray with just the right words that Jesus tells us to and are persistent enough in our pursuit of our prayer requests that God will respond as we desire. Except, as anyone who has ever used a vending machine knows, sometimes the vending machine eats your money and you get nothing in return for what you’ve put into it. Or there are times when you push that button for the item you really want and instead of it dropping down, you watch in horror as the vending machine pushes out something that you don’t like or want at all and would do anything to trade for any other option in that machine.
And so what happens in this vending machine mentality when we pray and pray and pray for something we want or need and feel we are justly deserving of and yet don’t receive, like that woman and her three year old child and that Mickey Mouse pretzel? We can get angry at God feeling like we have lived up to our end of the bargain, but God has wronged us by failing to keep God’s promises to us in return. Or when we don’t receive our prayer request we can feel as if it must be because we have done something wrong and not lived up to our end of the bargain. We can think that we haven’t lived in just the right way or prayed just the right words or have been persistent enough in prayer like the parable in the second part of our reading talks about. Failing to receive what we pray for in this transactional understanding can leave us feeling angry, hurt, inadequate, or lead us to lose our faith in God.
Yet, perhaps more than teaching his disciples in our Gospel reading the exact way we need to pray in order to get a desired response, Jesus is telling us about the One to whom we are called to pray. Because the parable Jesus tells about going to a friend a midnight and asking for three loaves of bread so that the person asking can welcome another friend, isn’t exactly as it might seem to us. The friend whose help is sought and who initially rejects his friend’s request of help because his door is locked and he and his children are in bed doesn’t give in because of the “persistence” of the one asking for help. While the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that we read in worship chose “persistence” as the word choice in their translation, most scholars say the word here should instead be translated as “shamelessness.” So, the friend doesn’t give in and give the other friend what he wants because he simply won’t stop asking. Instead, the friend responds because of the boldness shown in asking at all. The friend finds he simply can’t ignore the boldness and shamelessness of the friend asking, but has to respond and we read does so by giving him “whatever he needs.”
Now you’ll notice it doesn’t say that he gets whatever he WANTS, but whatever he NEEDS. Thus, those verses that follow that say, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” don’t mean that Vending Machine God is working his transactional magic in exchange for some necessary action that transpired on the part of the human beings making the requests. Instead, Jesus lets the disciples and us know that God responds not to OUR bullet pointed and foot noted wish list for God, but what GOD sees in God’s goodness that we are actually in need of.
Like in the back and forth between Abraham and the Lord in our first reading from Genesis today. Abraham dares to ask the Lord for ever increasing mercy on the people of Sodom and the Lord in God’s goodness responds with that ever increasing mercy in a way that probably surprised Abraham. The Lord sees what is needed and doesn’t hold back in offering it. We see in Abraham how God responds to our audaciousness in asking, by one upping us in God’s answer.
It is as we see in our Gospel reading as Jesus says, “How much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” We dare to make brazen and outrageous requests in prayer and God dares to answer in kind for what we might not even know we are in need of or asking for – the gift of the Holy Spirit. An answer that might not be what we thought we wanted or needed, but that God knows is exactly what we were and are always in need and search of. God will not hold back the presence of the Holy Spirit with us no matter what it is we find we are going through. Thus, God answers us in prayer not because of or in response to our ability to annoy or manipulate God through our incessant requests. Instead, God answers us in prayer because of who God is – a loving and caring parent who will let nothing keep him from reaching us through any means possible and offering us in our need of what we probably don’t even know we need yet.
Yes, this means that our prayers won’t always be answered in the ways WE want them to be. Illness or disease won’t always find healing. Broken relationships won’t always find reconciliation. Pain – physical, emotional, or mental – won’t always find relief. Sadness won’t always give way to happiness. A loved one or home or a job may be lost. Yet, just because we don’t receive the answer we wanted doesn’t mean God has abandoned us just when we need God the most. Instead, Jesus promises us that when we are shameless enough to risk praying in our time of need, God is brazen enough to answer and does so by showing up in the Holy Spirit to meet us wherever we are to offer God’s presence in our time of need.
In our times of need in the messiness of life as we call out in desperation to God in prayer we can worry that we won’t find just the right words or offer them in just the right way to God. However, Jesus reminds us in our Gospel that we are simply called to offer ourselves – raw, real, and shameless – before God in prayer and then we will discover as Scott Hoezee says in his commentary on the text, “Prayer isn’t always polite. Prayer cannot be sequestered to the safe corners of our lives. Life is bumpy and unpredictable. So also will be prayers that occur across the whole sweep of just such a life.” And so also will be God’s answer to those prayers. They may not appear where or when or how we expect. They may not happen in the most polite or orderly way. They may not fit neatly or safely and securely into our lives or world as we would like them too. They may make for a bumpy and unpredictable ride, but God promises that whatever our prayer, if we are bold and shameless enough to ask it, in God’s goodness God will respond just as boldly and shamelessly, giving what we need through the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.