Prayer with a Knock on the Door

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldA sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 18:20-32Psalm 138Colossians 2:6-19, and Luke 11:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Every month or so, I meet with a friend who is a retired priest.  We catch up.  We talk about friends we share in common.  And I usually end up talking about some issue, some problem, or some question I’m wrestling with.  My friend listens wisely and inevitably—at some point in the conversation, will ask, “What’s your prayer around this issue?”  “Have you asked God about this?”

Usually, I have not.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives a pattern for prayer, a set of words to use, to store up and recall when we need them. But Jesus even more, Jesus gives us a relationship. He shows us a door, an opening, a way for conscious contact with God.

In the Lord’s Prayer we are given the picture of a Father who cares and never forgets us. God will provide. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Abraham learned this from the angels who came to visit, in the reading we heard last week.  Abraham and Sarah had their doubts about whether God was listening, but by the point of today’s reading, Abraham and God are like familiar friends to the point that Abraham and God are engaged in a kind of “holy haggling.”

The back story to what Abraham is asking God is a complicated one.  It seems like Abraham has no idea what he’s asking. He has no idea just how awful the people of Sodom really are, or he probably would not have asked God to show mercy at all.  Sodom and what is called “Sodomy” has come into our language through a misreading and misunderstanding of scripture.  What happens in Genesis is that the angels who meet Abraham and Sarah in last week’s reading, move on and go into Sodom.  There they meet Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and Lot invites them in for food and to stay.  The men of Sodom are a mean, evil bunch. They demand that the strangers be turned out to them, be given over to them.  The men of Sodom want to use them and violate them.  Lot does the almost unimaginable thing of protecting his guests, but giving his daughters to the townsmen.  It’s an awful story about the lust and violence and bullying of people, and Lot shows himself no better, though his daughters do get back at him near the end.  It’s one of those old, old stories shrouded in confusion and mystery, but the point is clear that God wipes out Sodom because it did not welcome the stranger, did not show hospitality to the angels, and could not contain its own insecure lust and drive for dominance.  As scripture teaches, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

But all of this is an aside.  Abraham is able to talk with God as a trusted friend, and that’s what Jesus is offering.  Knock at the door.  Say hello.  Begin the conversation.

In talking with his disciples about prayer, about knocking on the door of God’s heart, Jesus uses images and sayings from his own day.  He mentions a sleepy neighbor who might not get up for just anyone, but with persistence, will answer the door.  Jesus speaks of “you who are evil,” and I think it’s important for us to hear that Jesus is simply chatting with his friends here.  This is not a formal, moral pronouncement.  It’s more like Jesus is saying, “Look, you know how you are, on your worst day.  Even on that day, you wouldn’t give your kid a deliberately bad thing when she asked for something simple.  Imagine how much more, then, God looks after you!’

St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians explains just why we have the potential for relationship with God, just why we can have the confidence and faith to walk up to the door and knock, or begin to ask God for help.  Paul reminds us that God lives in Christ fully, totally, completely; and we have the life of God in us because of Christ.  In Christ we were “buried with him in baptism,” and we are raised with him above the death of sin, and we will be raised like him from death itself.  Paul goes on to say basically, “don’t forget who you are, and whose you are.  Don’t let people drag you into silly debates about this detail or that detail, what you should pray for, or how you should pray, or whether you should pray kneeling, with hands folded, or arms spread out, or standing on your head, for that matter!  Hold fast to Christ, the Head of the Church, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

Ask.  Knock.  Hold on.

When I think of Jesus encouraging us to knock and trust, I sometimes think of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting, “Light of the World.”  In his 1850s Pre-Raphaelite way, Hunt shows us Christ as though we have knocked on a door, and Jesus has opened it.  He stands with his lantern—light with light—ready to help, ready to love.

The most famous version of this painting is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and I have to say, I never really liked the painting very much.  Hunt’s version of Jesus is a little too blond and white, a little too wispy and ethereal for me, and all the colors looks a little too technicolor for my tastes—but all that changed, and that painting means a lot more to me after a Friday night in summer of 2014.

I was in London for a day to two and had arrived at St. Paul’s early to try to get a seat for Choral Evensong.  Not only did I get a seat—I got a great seat up in the choir stalls.  The service was sung beautifully and the whole experience felt like the perfect blessing at the end of a long trip.  After Evensong, it wasn’t too hot outside, so I began walking to where I was staying. After walking for about thirty minutes, I reached for my phone and it wasn’t in my pocket.  My phone— with my calendar including the time of my departure the next morning, the scanned version of my tickets, my contacts, notes, and photos—had been stolen.  Or was lost.  Or, as I thought about it (I had carefully taken it out of my pocket, turned off the ringer, and placed it in the choir stall), it was back at St. Paul’s.

I prayed.  I prayed, “God help me find my phone.” I know my prayers should have been loftier and holier, but they were base and selfish. I needed my phone.  I needed to fly out the next morning.  As I thought more about it and turned the problem into an all-out catastrophe, I (of course) walked as quickly as possible back to a closed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

When I reached the Cathedral, sure enough: all doors closed and locked.  I found a security guard, told her my saga, and while she was sympathetic, she said she thought the best I could do was come back to Lost and Found Monday morning!  But, she said, maybe the guard at the other entrance might have an idea.  So went around to another entrance.  He was equally discouraging, but after listening to my story, he suggested I go across the plaza, down the construction entrance, and look for the security office underground.  Maybe they might have an idea.

I followed the directions—across the plaza, down under the street, and told my story to an unsympathetic security guard in his glass-enclosed office.  He looked at me, shook his head, and turned the lights out in the office.

But then he opened the door and said, “Follow me.”  I followed as door after door opened.  We passed an underground loading dock, crates of chandeliers that looked like they were being sent out for cleaning, all kinds of strange things, and I was given this unexpected and impromptu underground tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  After following the man through the labyrinth of doors, hallways, and tunnels, we went up some steps and another door opened.  We were in the nave of St. Paul’s.  With a minimum of lights on in that vast space, he told me to look for my phone.  I went to my spot and sure enough, it was right there!

I could have hugged the security guard.  He had answered my prayer and gone way beyond.  Though I don’t remember looking towards the “Light of the World” painting, I have thought about it a lot, and have a new appreciation for it and its placement in St. Paul’s.  The next time I’m there, I will thank that particular expression of the Light of the World in person, again, and pay homage, as though it were an icon.

My prayer was silly and selfish.  But I hope that when I have deeper worries—prayers for health and healing, prayers for direction and discernment, prayers for the highest and holiest of things—I hope I will remember to ask God honestly and boldly, but also be open to God’s help from every door I see. I would hope that when I ask God to answer a prayer that I would remember God might be trying to answer through doctors and nurses, through professionals and consultants, through family, friends, old ones and children.   When I lost my phone, I knocked on doors and risked looking dumb, looking like the worst of American tourist, and looking completely helpless.  Some doors closed but others opened.  And then, did they EVER open.

Christ offers to take us by the hand and help us knock.  He helps open the door.  We don’t need to worry about how we pray and it doesn’t matter if we get tongue-tied. The only thing that matters is that we ask and have the faith to walk through the door.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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