Sermon: "Knocking on Heaven's Door," July 24, 2016

The following sermon was offered at a joint service at St. George's, hosted Cumberland United Church, Comox United Church, and Comox Presbyterian Church. This service was the final of four shared between the four churches this July.

Luke 11:1-13

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.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
   Give us each day our daily bread.
   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
 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; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 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.” 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.
 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, 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!’

"Knocking on Heaven's Door"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Our passage today from the good news according to Luke begins with Jesus at prayer. His disciples, his followers, his friends, are there with him.  “Lord,” they say, “teach us how to pray.” We want to follow in your footsteps. We want to be like you, and you always seem to be praying. Show us how you do it. Some say prayer of some kind is universal to all the world’s religious traditions and cultures. But even then it doesn’t seem to come naturally. It’s something that needs to be learned. And it needs to be taught.

And, Jesus is a good teacher, maybe even one of the best. Good teachers start out small, and Jesus starts out, close, intimate. “Father,” he says. Jesus tells us that we don’t pray to a cold, unsympathetic universe. Or some cruel, vengeful God. Jesus addresses God as an intimate, loving parent. Like a mother who holds her children close. The hallowed part makes sense, too. “Make your name, Holy God.” Sounds like good, formal religious language.

Jesus starts small. But then he makes a surprising shift. Jesus starts us out small, but then goes big. And I mean big. “Your kingdom come,” Jesus says. God’s kingdom, the world the way God has always meant it to be. Perfect justice, perfect peace, perfect mercy. The new creation, God’s world set right. In perfect harmony and love. The scope is huge. It’s social, it’s political. It’s cosmic. This prayer becomes as big as it gets.

“Your kingdom come,” Jesus prays. And this is isn’t just the beginning of a list of separate items. It’s the overarching demand that shapes the rest of the prayer.  He continues: “Give us our daily bread,” he says. Not just me, but all of us. It’s not just personal. It’s bread enough for everyone. A future where everyone has everything they need, no one goes without. God’s kingdom. “Give us our daily bread.” It’s a huge prayer.

But the end to world hunger almost seems doable in the face of the next prayer. “Forgive us our sins,” Jesus says, “for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” This prayer points towards a world where everyone forgives. And realizes their need to be forgiven. The bad guys and the so-called good guys. No more vengeance. No more retaliation. No more finger-pointing, or scapegoating. “Forgive us, as we forgive others for what they’ve done to us.” The end to the human spiral of violence. Could you imagine? It’s a huge prayer.

It’s a huge prayer. It’s so unlike most prayers. No prayer for a parking space. No prayer for the right political party to be elected. Not even for the healing of a loved one. No, Jesus teaches his disciples, teaches us, first and foremost, to pray for nothing less than the invasion of earth by heaven. With this prayer, Jesus goes as big as you can get.

Like I said earlier in the service, those of us who are regular church folk will recognize these words as similar to the Lord’s prayer. We may pray words like this Sunday after Sunday, maybe even daily in our personal practices. But I wonder if we actually realize what we’re asking for. Like I said, with this prayer, Jesus goes big. If we think about it, though, I wonder if he almost goes too big with this prayer. I wonder if it’s a bit too much to ask for.

What’s more, though, is that right now we live in anxious times. Telus’s tagline might be “the future is friendly,” but I’m not sure if we think so. One of my teachers, Keith Howard, recently reflected on this on his blog. “Our eight-year-old granddaughter Zoe worries about ISIS,” he writes. “She wonders where her family might find a safe place.” We may find it amusing or think our children’s exaggerated worries are cute. But Keith points out that her granddaughter’s worries are a reflection of our own, especially people of my generation. With each new terror attack or mass shooting (it seems to just be one after another this week), each report of rising ocean tides, job loss, and a host of other changes, it really has become hard to imagine the kind of future Jesus tells us to pray for. This past week was my son’s third birthday, and I admit that I, too, have these fears. Less for my own future, but for his.

This is why, I believe, we are seeing the kinds of changes we are in politics. Because the future seems anything but friendly. So we look to a glorified past, to make things great again. Or we reach out and try to get ours while we can.

If we’re truly honest with ourselves, Jesus kind of sounds like he’s out of his mind. I don’t mean to sound cynical. But this prayer sounds crazy. It sounds impossible. A prayer for a parking spot actually seems perfectly doable in comparison. Because Jesus’ big prayer just seems a little too big.

But, you know, I think Jesus’ followers feel the same way when they hear it, too. They themselves were poor. Lived under brutal empire after brutal empire. And soon they would see their teacher and their Lord end up in a long line of crucifixes dotting the roadside. You get the sense that they came with the same fears and anxieties we do. So Jesus tells them this parable:

An annoyingly persistent neighbor comes pounding on the door of a house nearby, Jesus says, looking for food for unexpected guest. It’s midnight, and so he’s woken up the his friend inside the house. It’s the middle of the night, the family is sleeping. The answer is: “Find your bread somewhere else.” But according to Jesus, though, the neighbor won’t give up. He keeps at it. Knocking and knocking, and finally the owner of the house gives up. Not out of obligation to a friend in need, no. He gives his friend the bread simply because he just can’t stand his knocking anymore. “Because of his friends persistence,” Jesus says, “he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Other translations use words like “importunity” which is kind of like when children in the car ask “are we there, yet? Are we there, yet?” for hours on end. Or “shamelessness,” begging without a sense of decency. “Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Be shameless in your persistence.

Now, Jesus isn’t saying that if we just pray this prayer enough times that it will finally come true, like Dorothy saying “there’s no place like home.” This prayer isn’t magic, no. He also isn’t saying just pray for it, either, as if what they do doesn’t matter. No, with this prayer, Jesus is calling his disciples, and calling to faith. To trust. To persistence.  He’s saying you may knock now. You may hear no answer now. And right now the door to God’s kingdom might seem like it’s never going to open. But trust me when I say that one day it will. But between now and then know that every act of compassion, every confession of sin, every movement towards justice, every act of reconciliation is not This big prayer that seems too big to pray, too impossible to imagine right now. Don’t hold out, don’t lose faith. Hold on to this prayer, and this promise for dear life.

Because with God this thing that seems so impossible in the face of the life you know and the world you know is possible. When it comes down to it, in the face of an uncertain future, Jesus offers them nothing less than an audacious hope. One they can trust in, and can live and die for. With shameless persistence.

And friends, dear friends. As we gather together this day as the body of Christ, drawn from multiple communities, and multiple places. With all sorts of differences. In all of our own worries about the future of our congregations. We need this prayer and this parable more than ever.

A favorite preacher of mine, Chuck Campbell, tells a story of a friend who spent his life as an activist and advocate for homelessness in Atlanta. Earlier in his ministry, he said that people would pray things like “Lord, put an end to homelessness,” or “God, bring about a living wage.” But more recently he noticed a subtle shift. “Lord,” the prayers would go. “Be with those who are homeless.” Do you notice the difference? His friend said it was like we ceased to believe that homeless could come to an end. And accepted that the world as it is, is the way that it has to be. It’s like that even we, the people who pray this prayer, might not even think it’s true. We wonder how to reach people, but we don’t have confidence in what we’re reaching with.

Karl Marx once said that religion is the opiate of the masses, that which soothes and dulls the pains of the world. But, as my friend Richard Topping likes to say, hope is the amphetamine of Christian faith. It’s the fuel, it’s the juice, dispensed by the Holy Spirit, that gives life to everything else. And it begins with this prayer. If there is anything we need to do right now is remember that the great gift that we have for the world God in Christ has given us is hope. One where children need not be afraid. Where no one goes hungry. Where sin and death drown in forgiveness.  Not only do we need it, the world needs it now, as much as it ever has. “Your kingdom come.”

“For everyone who asks receives,” Jesus says, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Behold, says Christ, I make all things new, these words are trustworthy and true. So, friends, keep on asking. Keep on searching, keep on knocking on heaven’s door. Because one day it’s going to burst open wide. And heaven will stream out, and wash over the earth for good.

Image: JESUS MAFA. The Insistent Friend, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved July 25, 2016].