“Ask, and it will be given” (July 28, 2013)

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 12/Lectionary 17
July 28, 2013

The text for the sermon

John 3:1-17:  1Jesus 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.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3Give us each day our daily bread.
4And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5And 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; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And 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.’ 8I 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.

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”

The Prayer of the Day:

Faithful God, you teach us to call upon you in every time of need as child speaking to a dear father and promise to answer us with the gift of your Spirit.  Give us confidence in prayer and hearts that seek for your kingdom to come and your will to be done in our lives and in our world.

 +   +   +

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Rich texts

There is much for us to hear in our readings for today.  We have the fabulous story of Abraham asking God to spare the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  We have the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray.  We have the text of the Lord’s Prayer.  We have Jesus telling us to call upon God as father.  We have this wonderful parable about the man needing bread for a guest in the night.  We have the wonderful question 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?”  We have the fabulous promise, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  And we have this remarkable note that what God gives in response to our prayer is the Holy Spirit!  And all of this without looking at the beautiful words of the psalm or our second reading warning us about false teaching and urging us 6As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

There is much here about confidence in prayer, steadfastness in faith, and the absolute promise that God is not high and mighty, but a dear father.

I wish I could do justice to all these texts, but there’s not enough time to explore all their riches.  Some of the themes I have preached on before; some I have written about in the daily devotions on the website (Watching for the Morning); and some we are going to have to let go without comment for now.  I want to focus this morning on the parable Jesus tells, both for what it says to us and because we usually get this parable wrong.  Understanding the parable will help us not only to hear what Jesus is saying, but remind us how to listen to the scriptures.

How we hear

I need to begin by reminding you again that whenever we tell a story we don’t explain everything, we tell the outline of the story and the listener fills in the details from our shared cultural experience.  If I say something as simple as  “I’m going to church.” You have a picture in your mind of what a church is and what goes on there – and if it’s a Sunday morning, you will fill in the idea of participating in a worship service and you will have some image of what happens in that worship.  There is a ton of information that you bring to the hearing of my simple sentence.  I have used five words, but if you were not from this culture – if you were talking to a Martian – think about how much you would have to explain to make sense of those five words.

We bring a lot of information to the hearing of the text.  And sometimes what we bring doesn’t match the world in which Jesus lived – doesn’t match what his hearers brought to his words.  Now part of the genius of the scripture is that God speaks to us through the text even when we don’t understand its context – but it’s far richer and more meaningful when we try to hear what it meant when it was first spoken.

So we have this story of a guest coming late at night and a man going to his neighbor asking for bread.  The neighbor does not want to help you because of friendship, but he does anyway.

When we hear this story we fill all kinds of details.  So, for example – without looking at your text – how many times did the man knock on his neighbor’s door?

It’s a trick question.  He didn’t knock at all.  If we went to a neighbor we would always knock because we live in large communities in these large, multi-room houses and we keep our front doors closed.  But in a village, where everyone knows everyone else, you would call out and your neighbor would recognize your voice.  If you think back a couple generations to small towns and farmhouses in the summer, where the doors and windows are open, that’s exactly what people did: they called out as they came near.  When I was a kid living in a new stretch of Eichlers on Louis Road in Palo Alto we would walk the back fence and call out for our friends to come and play.

In a village, knocking at night would frighten your neighbor.  I remember one night in Detroit someone knocked on our front door after 10:00 at night.  Deb and I both jumped.  It was scary and I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I didn’t want to open the door to a stranger in the dark of night in the area in which we lived.  If one of our friends had been coming they would have called us first to give us warning.

Village Honor

This is a story about village life.  And the thing that we need to understand about village life is that, when a guest comes, the way that guest is received reflects on the whole village.  Hospitality is the obligation not just of one person; it is the obligation of the whole community.  The whole community will be judged by the way a guest or stranger is received.

Think about this.  If you visit a church and the people near you don’t greet or talk to you, you will go away and say that the church is cold and unfriendly.  The whole community will be judged by the way the people near you treated you.  We judge stores by the clerk who dealt with us, whole cities by the way we were treated by a few strangers on the street – we judge entire races and ethnicities and classes of people based upon a few encounters and some stories on TV.  So the reputation of the whole village is at stake whenever a visitor comes.  And for a society that is based on honor, this is an important moment.  The honor of the village is at stake in the way they treat this visitor.

Hospitality is such an important thing that you always roll out your best.  You serve your best wine.  You use your best china.  You make your best meals.  When you have guests over, you don’t put the bag of sandwich bread on the table at dinner, you make rolls and use a breadbasket.  You put new candles on the table.  You use cloth napkins.  Or at least decent paper napkins – you don’t hand them a paper towel.

In a village people didn’t have much.  So when a guest came – since hospitality was the responsibility of the whole village – the host would go around to all their neighbors and borrow the villages’ best stuff.  Someone would have a nice pitcher.  Someone would have a nice bowl.  Someone has a nice tablecloth.  Someone has fresh bread.  And no one refuses, because the honor of the whole village is at stake.

I read of one person who was a kind of visiting scholar staying in a Palestinian village.  He was invited to dinner at a home in the village and found that the family served him using his own dishes.  They were the best in the village and so the family, when they had gone around, went to his cook and borrowed his plates.

When the man in our story goes to his neighbor he is not going to beg something that he doesn’t have, he is asking the village to fulfill their obligation to show the proper hospitality to this guest.

We are a society very focused on stuff.  We don’t like to borrow stuff.  So we all have our own plates and silverware and chairs and washing machines and shovels and pruning shears and if we really don’t have something we are more likely to rent it than borrow it.  Mediterranean culture, especially village culture, was very different.  And poor people don’t have this choice.

Similarly, we don’t bake our bread in the communal oven (which is why the man knows who in the village has made bread that day).

And the thing to keep in mind about this request for bread is that bread is used like we would use a fork.  The prepared foods are served in common dishes.  Each person is given a loaf of this flat bread, they break off a piece, dip it in the dish, and then eat – each time using a fresh piece of the bread (there’s no double dipping).  The bread is something essential.  It is the means for getting food to your mouth.  You must set before your guest a whole “loaf” of this bread.  And you must have more bread than required – so the man needs three loaves.

I went to an Ethiopian restaurant in Detroit with a visiting Ethiopian pastor – and when he greeted them in their own language, they pulled away all the western utensils and brought out all these incredible dishes and we ate the Ethiopian way with this thin, crepe-like bread with which you would scoop up food from the common dish.

All of this is the information that Jesus’ hearers are unconsciously filling in to the story. Therefore, when they hear it, the thought that someone would refuse a request for bread is unthinkable, and these flimsy excuses just make the crowd laugh.  The point is that no one would refuse.  It would be unthinkable to refuse.  Even if you didn’t like the neighbor who had come to you, honor would compel you to grant his request.  It’s unthinkable to say, “no.”

Rightly translating the texts

So, to look at your text briefly: it shouldn’t begin “Suppose one of you has a friend” because the sentence is actually a question.  For us, it would have to be translated something like “Can you imagine having a friend and going to him at midnight… and saying… and having him answer… no?”   The question mark doesn’t come until the end of verse 7.  As Jesus is asking the question he has everyone shaking their heads and laughing at the thought; it’s unimaginable.

Then Jesus says, “even though he won’t do it for the sake of friendship, he will do it because of,” and then we have this word in our translation ‘persistence’.  But this is not about persistence.  This is about his sense of honor.  It should be translated “because of his sensitivity to shame.”  If he had said no, he would have been the talk of the town for a very long time.  It would have destroyed his reputation and standing in the village and surrounding countryside.

The point of the parable is that if we will do the right thing even to our “enemies” because of our sense of honor, how much more will God act honorably when we ask of him?!  As laughable as it is to think of a villager making silly excuses to deny bread, it is much more laughable to think that God will not come to our aid.

Dynamic and wonderful words

Why is this a powerful message?  Because they live with the idea that God doesn’t come to the aid of sinners.  Remember what the leaders say when they investigate how the blind man was healed in John 9?  “We know that God does not listen to sinners.  He listens to the godly man who does his will.”(9:31NIV)

As laughable as it is to think a villager would make excuses to deny help, says Jesus, it is much more laughable to think that God will not come to our aid – whether you are a ‘friend’ or not.  And so Jesus goes on to say, “Ask, and it will be given.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Those verbs are all in the present tense in Greek and they all have the sense of an ongoing or repeated action.  Ask.  And never be afraid to ask.  Never think it is silly to ask.  It’s laughable to think God will not act in keeping with God’s honor, in keeping with God’s character, in keeping with God’s love for us.  Ask.

The punch line in this verse is the word ‘everyone’; “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  Jesus, remember, has been talking to the poor, to people on the margin, to tax collectors and “sinners”, to foreigners (people who are not children of Abraham).  It is not a small thing when Jesus says that God hears the prayers of all people.  The right to be heard by God doesn’t go to the wealthy and those able to keep the ritual law.  The right to be heard by God doesn’t go to the priests and elders.

Who has access to the White House?  Who has access to the halls of Congress?  It’s those who have money and power and prestige.  Jesus is saying that the poor have access to the White House in heaven.  God’s ears are open to the cries of the poor and the hungry and the homeless, to the shamed, to the broken, to the outcast, to the stranger, the lame, the maimed, the “unrighteous.”  All those people excluded from the temple have access to God’s favor.

God’s Good Gifts

God is honorable, and will act in keeping with his nature.  God hears the prayers of all, not just the prayers of the elite.  And now Jesus goes on to say that what the poor and the outcast and the marginalized can expect from God is good.

You wouldn’t think of giving your child a snake when they ask for a fish.  This seems an odd conjunction of words to us, but what Jesus probably said – or has in mind – is an eel.  The eel was an unclean fish in Israel, fit only to be thrown back.  If you’re a fisherman and your son asks for a fish, you wouldn’t toss him an eel – the garbage of the catch – you would give him a fish.  If you are baking bread and your daughter asks for bread you wouldn’t toss her a stone that looks like bread.  And when you are out looking for eggs in the wild you wouldn’t toss your child a scorpion when asking for an egg.  If we, as frail and sinful and selfish and corrupt as we are, wouldn’t think of such a thing, how much less would God?

Jesus says God is your father.  He is not a rich and powerful potentate, sitting high on a throne, to be approached with fawning words and faint hopes for a favor.  He is a dear father, with ears open to all his children, honorable and eager to give what is good.  And so we come to the last line of our text: “How much more will your heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God is waiting to give us his Holy Spirit.  God is waiting to govern our lives and our world in his grace.  God is waiting to create in us generous hearts.  God is waiting to create in us true compassion.  God is waiting to create in us love of our neighbor and love of our enemies.  God is waiting to create in us his Spirit of reconciliation.  God is waiting to create in us a world where bread is shared.  God is waiting to create in us a world where swords are beaten into plowshares.  God is waiting to create in us a world where God’s Spirit governs every heart.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Amen.

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