Knocking on the Door of Prayer

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldA sermon for July 28, 2019, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19), and Luke 11:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I was talking with a friend this week about a book on prayer.  I told her that I thought I had read it. As she mentioned the section of the book that she has found so helpful, I kept wondering, “HAVE I read this book?  Did I hear about it?”  Later, I looked at home, and sure enough: there it was on my shelf. But it still looks new.  I have not read it.

I’m often interested in prayer—new ways of praying, how other people pray, what people have experienced in their prayers.  But sometimes, I do this INSTEAD OF PRAYING.  I get hung up on technique and skill, forgetting that the basic thing about prayer is simply to do it!

I understand the disciples in today’s Gospel.  They’ve seen the disciples of John the Baptist, and they want to have special prayers like John’s disciples.  Who knows exactly how John and his disciples prayed, but however it was, it was impressive.

In the forgiveness of his mercy, Jesus looks at his disciples (and us) with compassion, and gives us the prayer we know as The Lord’s Prayer. It can be disappointingly simple. It is not fancy and does not seem very mystical. But it’s impressive in the only way that really matters: it works.

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.”

Last week, we heard about how Abraham and Sarah learned this from the angels who came to visit. Until then, 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.

If we lack the courage to knock on the door, we can remember another scripture in which it’s Jesus who is knocking on the door. In Revelation 3, Jesus says, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

This passage is illustrated beautifully in the famous painting of Jesus entitled, “Light of the World.” The painting is by William Holman-Hunt and one copy is in a side chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  People line up to see it and huddle around it.  Jesus stands in a doorway holding a lantern. As one commentator points out:

The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. There is no handle on the door, and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter. The morning star appears near Christ, the dawn of a new day, and the autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life.

We have courage to knock on the door of prayer because Christ has already knocked on the door of our heart.

Christ offers to take us by the hand and help through any 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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