Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 18:(17-19) 20-33
Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]
I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.
An outcry is when an abused child or person finally reaches out for help; it is when they tell the truth about what is happening so that something will change. This is not how all abusers get caught. The abused is often too frightened to tell the truth, so it takes others in their lives to notice that something is not right. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to get involved. They don’t want to falsely accuse someone, or they don’t want to get caught up in the situation. Sometimes, however, the crime is so blatant that it is obvious. The crime itself cries out, demanding justice for the victims.
The Jews in Nazi Germany could not cry out, but the crimes against them certainly did. It took time, perhaps too much time, for people to realize that what was happening was not right. Many who survived that time are still hesitant to talk about it. We look back on the history today and wonder how it was able to go so far, but the attitudes still exist and as much as we deem it impossible, it could happen again. Though there was no outcry from the victims, God heard the cry of the Holocaust and will make all things right.
Last week we heard the beginning of this encounter between God and Abraham. After serving the LORD and the angels dinner, the Lord wondered if He should reveal to Abraham what was on His mind. He had heard the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah; He was going there to see firsthand the sins of the city. Their sins were great enough to warrant God’s attention, whether the cries came from victims or were simply too blatant to ignore. God revealed his plan to Abraham, inviting Abraham to intercede with God for the sake of the cities.
We wonder about this, after all, God is omni-everything. He knows, so why does He have to go to see? This is actually very comforting because we see that God is merciful. We see that He won’t destroy a city without ensuring that what He is doing is good, right and true. “I will know” He said; He makes decisions based on His knowledge, on His mercy, on His grace.
Unfortunately, we aren’t so gracious these days. We take the word of others without really looking at the situation fully. We hear gossip and we believe it. We take early reports on the news and we think they have all the information. By the time the whole story is revealed, we have made a decision to condemn someone even though they are not guilty. It is comforting to know that God is not going to believe an enemy without first seeing for Himself whether their cries are true. And we should consider His example as we listen to gossip and uninformed reports before we make a judgment.
Abraham knew that his nephew Lot was in that city, and though he has most likely heard the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sinfulness, too, he also knew that there are at least a few people that did not deserve to be destroyed. “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?”
There are unintended consequences that come with our prayers. We may have every reason to ask God to sweep away our enemies. We’ve been hurt; we have suffered. We know that God will take vengeance on those who harm His people. We want to ask Him to deal with them, and perhaps God will answer that prayer. However, we do not always know how our desires will impact others. Even our enemies have families. They have spouses and children. They have people who rely on them. They have daily responsibilities. They have debts that need to be paid. Wiping our enemies off the face of the earth might solve one problem, but how will it destroy the lives of innocents?
And so, we are cautioned when praying for justice to ask, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham is not trying to make a deal with God, or test the waters, or brazenly diminish the need for justice. He wanted to understand the boundaries of God’s justice and the limits of His mercy. “Will you spare the cities for fifty? For forty? For thirty?” What impudence! God agreed that if there can be found even ten righteous men in the city, He would not destroy it.
However, ten were not found to be righteous. Only Lot, Lot’s wife and his daughters were found righteous. Even the sons-in-law, those promised to his daughters, thought that Lot was kidding when he predicted the destruction of the cities. He tried to get them to repent, to respond to God’s cry for justice. They refused and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were lost. However, God is forever merciful. Though He could not save the cities for the sake of the few, He did save the few before He destroyed the cities. God’s justice prevailed, but so did His mercy.
God heard his plea. We might be shocked at Abraham’s boldness. Yet, we have seen in this story that God is a friend to Abraham and that He has encouraged Abraham to become involved. God sought Abraham’s council. Abraham approached God humbly. He knew he was nothing. He knew he was just dust and ashes. But he knew God would listen. “Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak just once more.” Unfortunately for Sodom and Gomorrah, the LORD did not find even ten righteous people in the cities. He helped Lot and his family escape and then sent the brimstone to burn it to the ground. In this story we see how God is willing to listen to our prayers and perhaps even change His mind if we are cheeky enough to ask.
Jesus told the disciples a parable in today’s Gospel text. “Imagine that visitors arrive at your door in the middle of the night and you have nothing to give them.” Remember last week that we learned how important it was to provide hospitality in those days? The people who were listening would have identified with this story. Jesus continued, “So, you go to your neighbor and knock on his door, begging for something to give your guests because you don’t even have a loaf of bread in your house.” He told them that even though the neighbor would not get up to give you a loaf of bread because you are his friend, he would do so because you are cheeky enough to interrupt his sleep.
In this Jesus is saying, “Go ahead. Be cheeky. Call God Daddy and seek His grace. It’s ok. God will answer the door.”
While we might not have the opportunity or need to pray for the deliverance of cities, God calls us into a relationship with Himself, inviting us to intercede for those whom His mercy is the only salvation. We can boldly approach God with the question of where to draw the line between justice and mercy. We will discover that God knew all along the state of those for whom justice has been promised. It might seem shocking that justice would include the destruction of two cities and all the people within, including children, animals and others who may be innocent. Yet, we do not know what God knows or see all that God sees. Sometimes mercy means ending the self-destruction of wickedness.
As we continue through this Pentecost season, learning what it means to follow Jesus, we are reminded that prayer is a vital part of our relationship with God.
A 2014 Pew Forum survey suggests that we aren’t spending very much time in prayer. According to the survey, 24 percent of Americans, whatever the religious affiliation, spend little or no time in prayer. The other 76 percent pray at least monthly, with about 55 percent praying daily. You might think that the number is so low because the non-Christians weighted it heavily against prayer, but the reality is that Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics report only 55-59 percent pray daily. Evangelical Protestants are higher, with 79 percent praying daily. Historically Black Protestants are the highest among Christians with 80 percent praying daily. What is particularly interesting is that 39 percent of the unaffiliated (no religion) actually report praying at least monthly.
I began making prayer beads about fifteen years ago. I sell a few, but mostly use them as gifts. I have sent some to friends who learn they have cancer in the hope that they will find comfort in having something tangible to help them pray as they struggle with their dis-ease. It is a ministry for me, even when I’m selling them at a craft fair, because I take the opportunity to talk to my customers about prayer and their devotional life.
This ministry wasn’t received well the first time I took my beads to a church craft fair. Some of the ladies were offended by them. “We don’t do that.” “We don’t need those.” Despite coming from the same religious background, the ladies rejected me outright, not only refusing to buy the prayer beads, but also ignoring the other products I had for sale. They did not want to listen as I talked about ways to grow closer to God through prayer.
Those of us who pray regularly have out patterns and practices. Most families talk about prayer at dinner and bedtime. Many spend time praying as they drive their cars and do their dishes. Some people report that they pray all day long, constantly talking to the God who is always near. Wherever it happens, we use our prayer times to honor God with thanksgiving, to worship and praise Him for His faithfulness. We use that time to raise our needs and concerns to Him. This is good.
It is good to be prayerful throughout our day. God is always with us, so it makes sense to have conversations in those moments when our hands our moving but our mind is not engaged. Some of my best conversations with God have happened behind the wheel or at the kitchen sink. I have to admit that those prayers are often for safety, since it seems everyone on the roads these days are insane (I’m being a bit facetious!) but those are also quiet moments when I think about the world and my neighbor. I’m reminded of the sick every time I pass a hospital and about specific people when I see stores that sell things they like. I pray when I see emergency vehicles and school buses. A trip to the grocery store can be an awesome adventure in intercession as I see the needs of so many in the passing world. It is good to pray this way.
But is this enough? Is it enough to be in constant conversation with God, knowing that He is right beside us the whole way? While there are some people who find time away from the hustle and bustle of the world to spend time in quiet prayer and contemplation, most people pray on the go. We are too busy and we think that it is enough to recognize God’s daily presence in our lives and talk to Him as a friend who never leaves our side. We think it is ok to raise up a million prayers at the spur of every moment during our day. And yet, Jesus, who was God in flesh, managed to find time alone to pray. He knew He needed that time to focus solely and completely on the work of prayer. He knew that He had to stop doing so that He could not only speak to God, but also hear what God has to say. Why do we think we can pray any better than Jesus?
And here’s something else to consider. If it is enough to be in constant conversation with the God who walks with us, why did the disciples, who truly did constantly walk and talk with Immanuel, ask Him to “teach us to pray.” Jesus knew, and the disciples knew, that a powerful prayer life was more than conversation with a friend who is by our side. It is a time to stop, to worship, to praise, to thank, to intercede, to listen, and to contemplate God’s Word. We might be able to do all that at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel of our automobile, but is that really the kind of relationship we want to build with our Father? Doesn’t He deserve our undivided attention for at least a few minutes of our day?
And so we are encouraged to set aside time specifically for prayer. Make an appointment. Establish a place. Turn off any distractions. Use tools that help you keep focused. Prayer beads are just one type of tool that we can use during our prayer time to help us. I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that my mind often wanders when I’m praying. I begin focused and with a list of things I want to talk about with God, and I get a good start until I hear the ticking clock or the phone rings. I remember that I need to make a shopping list for later that afternoon and remind myself that I need to buy milk. I think about my kids and say a prayer for them, but then I think about how I haven’t heard from them in a few days. I hear a siren in the distance and I wonder what’s going on. That reminds me that I need to go to the post office. You see how it goes? Does any of this happen to you?
There may be no way of avoiding some of these mind wanderings, but we can use all the tools available to us to help keep us focused. It is said that the more of your body you get involved in any activity, the better you are able to focus and to retain what you’ve experienced. This is as true about prayer as it is any other activity. This is why prayer altars include candles and incense, beads, music, icons. Engaging all our senses helps us keep our focus on the task at hand: prayer.
And so, I encourage people to use something like prayer beads to enhance their prayer life. Of course, there are many who do not want to use such tools because they’ve seen others who have used them in a way that has no value. They become a crutch, the prayers become rote. That is not the fault of the beads; it is the person praying who must use these tools properly.
The Lord’s Prayer is another tool. Like the prayer beads, many refuse to use the prayer because it has become too familiar. “I’d rather speak to God from my heart.” They don’t want their prayers to be heartless. Sadly, the Lord’s Prayer can become rote. It can become heartless. It can become empty words without understanding. This, again, is not a problem with the words as Jesus taught us, but with our own focus and attention on the conversation.
It is a useful tool for us to use because Jesus is giving us the themes of our prayers. We begin with God, first recognizing Him and submitting ourselves to His will. We ask God for what we need, and in this Jesus reminds us that we do not need anything beyond today. We ask for forgiveness and then we commit ourselves to living as forgiven people. Forgiven people understand that our sins against God are far worse than anything anyone has done to us and if God can forgive our debts, then we certainly can forgive the debts of others. Finally, we ask God to give us the strength to avoid the temptations of this world.
If our prayer time is limited, then these words help us to focus our prayers on the things that truly matter. There are a million particulars that we can pray about, and God certainly wants us to ask, but Jesus teaches us to pray about the root of faithful living: praise and thanksgiving, supplication, confession and absolution, sanctification.
God is willing to listen to our prayers and has given us this prayer to help us develop a pattern of conversation with Him. Like Abraham, God reveals His plans to us and invites us to interceded with Him for the sake of others. We might even change His mind if we are cheeky enough to ask.
“I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.” There is great responsibility in this statement. Do we cry out against the sins of our neighbors knowing that God will deal with them? Or do we, like Abraham, consider those who may be destroyed and beg God for mercy on their behalf? If we use the Lord’s Prayer as the foundation of our prayer life, our prayers will be focused on doing what is good and right and true, not what will satisfy our fleshly desires.
God knows what is right. Jesus made one more point in the Gospel lesson. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he won’t give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he asks for an egg, he won’t give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” God has promised to give us good gifts; He will always give us what we need most.
The psalmist understands our need to pray without distraction. When we focus our hearts, minds and bodies on God, we are more likely to hear His voice and recognize with great joy the touch of His hand. We’ll learn to pray rightly so that we’ll ask His will not our own. It doesn’t matter what helps us focus; we will see and hear and experience Him fully as we use our senses, hearts and minds. The psalmist writes, “In the day that I called, you answered me. You encouraged me with strength in my soul.” With these words, the writer recognizes the incredible grace of God in this world. He does answer our prayers. He seeks to do the right thing. He searches the truth and accomplishes what is best for His Kingdom. He has taught us to ask, to be persistent, to be cheeky. He encourages us to seek and to knock and has promised that He’ll be there to open the door. He will, as the psalmist writes, “Yahweh will fulfill that which concerns me; your loving kindness, Yahweh, endures forever.” His love endures forever and He will complete His work in our lives.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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