Proper 12 C – Luke 11:1-13
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
It would sure be a lot easier to hear and preach today’s gospel (Luke 11:1-13) if it weren’t for all the unanswered prayers in our lives. I’m not suggesting that our prayers never get answered the way we want. I know that happens. I’ve experienced it and I suspect you have as well. But I’ve not had anyone come to my office asking why they prayed and got exactly what they wanted. I have, however, had people want to know why they asked but were not given, why they searched but did not find, why they knocked and the door never opened. I’ve struggled with those questions and I’ll bet you have too.
I prayed with everything I had the night they called and said our son had been in accident. And he died. I have prayed for wisdom, discernment, and clarity about my life and been just as confused as before I prayed. I have prayed for people that were ill, relationships that were broken, situations that needed changing, and been left wondering if anyone is listening, if anyone is out there. What about you? Has that ever been your experience of prayer?
I don’t know why some prayers seem to be answered and others seem to go unanswered. I don’t have any good answers or explanations for that but I have heard some really bad ones. “You didn’t pray hard enough.” “You don’t have enough faith.” “You were asking for the wrong thing.” “It’s all a mystery and someday we’ll understand.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Something better is coming.” “Sometimes God says no.” “God is testing you.”
If you’ve ever been told those things then you know how unhelpful and hurtful they are. So at the risk of adding to the list of really bad answers let me tell you where I’ve come to in my own life with this issue. I can’t promise that it will be a good answer, I’m not sure there is one, but maybe it will be a less bad answer.
I wonder if we have misunderstood this text and what prayer is really about. What if we are not to blame for unanswered prayer but neither is God? What if God is neither the dispenser nor the withholder of answers, things, or what we want?
Before you begin responding to my wondering and what ifs let me ask you this. Who taught you to pray and what were you taught? Somewhere along the way I got the idea that if I bowed my head, closed my eyes, clasped my hands, was good and well behaved, believed with all my heart, and told God what I wanted or needed I would get it. Any of that sound familiar? I suspect many of us were taught or have lived with some version of that as our understanding of prayer.
I sometimes think of that as Coke machine theology. Put in your coins of faith and good behavior, make a selection, and get what you want. I like Coke machine theology. I like it a lot. It’s reassuring. It makes sense and it’s predictable. It works great until it doesn’t, until the machine gives you a Dr. Pepper when you want a Coke, or worse yet, steals your money. Then what do we do? Kick the machine? Put in more money and push the button harder? Walk away vowing to never drink another Coke?
God is not and never was a divine Coke machine. And prayer is not a transaction between us and God.
I don’t think Jesus ever intended ask, search, and knock as a blank check on God’s account. His instruction to ask, search, and knock is in relationship to what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. We are to be persistent in aligning our lives to the hallowing of God’s name, giving existence to God’s kingdom in our life and relationships, opening ourselves to the gift and sufficiency of this day, freely receiving and giving forgiveness.
What if those words we pray as the Lord’s Prayer are also words the Lord prays to us? What if they are the Lord’s prayer to us, a call and insistence in our lives?
When Jesus teaches about asking, searching, and knocking he is not teaching a technique or magic formula for getting whatever we want. He is describing a certain posture, a way of standing before God, exposed and responsive to a holy and life giving spirit. Maybe prayer is more about what we do than what God does. Maybe our words and actions offered in response to the insistence and calling of God in our lives are our truest prayer.
I have come to think of prayer not as asking God to do things for me, but as the way I stay open to the future that is coming to me; the coming of the kingdom, the coming of daily bread, the coming of forgiveness. There is always something coming to us and I don’t want to miss it. I want to stay open to the future because there is a sense in which the future is always better, not because it necessary will be, but because it might be. That “might be” is the faith and hope in our prayer. That’s the thread we hold onto when our life is unraveling. When we haven’t got a prayer we pray for the coming of our future.
It means we do not give up when the sands of life are shifting under our feet, when our life comes unhinged, when we are overwhelmed, when we come to the limits of our ability, when it looks like this day is as good as it gets and all there will ever be.
Prayer keeps “the present from closing in upon itself and from closing in all around us” (Caputo, Hoping Against Hope, 196). Prayer opens the present moment to “the possibility of something new, the chance of something different, something that will transform the present into something else” (Caputo, On Religion, 8).
Prayer does not guarantee an outcome, undo the past, or offer an escape from life or the circumstances of our lives. It keeps us open to the future. And where there is a future, whether it is an hour, a day, a month, or twenty years, there is the possibility of life and more life. That’s what Jesus is promising in today’s gospel. And it’s what I want, don’t you? I want the possibility of life and more life.
I don’t know if any of this is a less bad answer, but I know this. The Coke machine never really gave me life or more life. It left me asking, searching, and knocking for something more. And yet I am still tempted to go back to it. Lord, teach me to pray.
So what would it be like for us to walk away from the Coke machines of our lives? What would it be like to not spend so much energy, time, and prayer trying to control or determine our future? What if we simply lived open to and ready to say yes to the future, to the possibility of life and more life?
Let us pray. Let us dare to pray.