GOSPEL Eggs and Serpents and Daily Bread

I’ve not written a sermon for a while because … well, it’s been hard to be motivated. But I’m enjoying the reflecting I’ve been doing of late on Joshua, and I thought it worthwhile to start reflecting on the weekly revised common lectionary readings. So, here goes. The gospel for this week, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), is from Luke, chapter 11.

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

3 Give us each day our daily bread,

4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If 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!” (Luke 11:1–13 ESV)

This is a hard word to hear this morning.

I have asked, and I have not received. Work, a job, something to provide for myself and my family. And nothing. I have sought, but have not found.

Perhaps I have not been impudent enough. Perhaps I have not demanded enough. Or knocked at midnight and insisted, “please, give me, because my wife and my daughter are in need. Because we are travelers, weary, tired, looking for some place we can belong and be useful. Some place, any place…”

Perhaps that is my problem. Jesus speaks of asking here, and we know that frequently in scripture, God does not deliver his people without their first asking — even if it only wordless groans and inchoate cries for help to the great beyond, or a pleading with God to “do as you see fit, only deliver us today!” Without their first pleading, begging, demanding. “Were their not enough graves in Egypt? Were we brought this far to die?”

Because it does sometimes feel that way. That we have been brought into the wilderness, only to perish — of thirst, of hunger, at the hands of our enemies.

At the hands of God.

It may be, however, that God needs our pleas, our demands, our groans given up to heaven like smoke wafting from a incense brazier. I know, I know, we all believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God who knows everything, and knew it long before he spoke the world into being. Such a God knows our hearts, knows our needs, knows our very souls!

What is the point of prayer? Of praying? Of asking? Of crying out, or demanding? Did God not know of Israel’s plight in Egypt, Israel enslavement and suffering, until the groans and cries rose to God, prompting God to remember his covenant with Israel, to see Israel, to know Israel’s plight?

Fine questions for dinner conversation, but they miss the point. We need our groans, our cries, our demands. And if we are in a relationship with this God who has called us, who yanked us out of Egypt into a seemingly unending wilderness, who walked among us as one of us, then we need to speak to that God — our wants, our needs, our pains, our sorrows, our suffering, our joy, our thanks, and our praise.

We need these things. We need the words, we need to speak to God. As Jesus points out here, we aren’t mere playthings to God — we have a relationship with him. And a relationship involves give and take, questions and answers, conversation, an exchange. And one of the reasons I have trouble with speaking of God as omniscient and omnipotent is that it is impossible to have a real relationship with someone who already knows everything about you and can learn nothing from you.

To ask of God is to prompt a response, if for nothing else it is to receive forgiveness and daily bread. A father knows much about his son, but will still respond when asked for something — and will respond with something good, something beneficial, something the will benefit and not harm.

In the end, of course, Jesus speaks here of the Holy Spirit. But even that we are to ask for. Even as we have received that Spirit — in fire and breath — with an abundance we cannot even measure.

We are to ask. We are to seek. Because … we shall find.

SERMON Second Sunday After Pentecost

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
  • Psalm 96:1–9
  • Galatians 1:1–12
  • Luke 7:1–10

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, 23 and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart…

41 “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.” (1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43 ESV)

This prayer is just one petition in a long prayer Solomon, the Son of David, gives as he dedicates the temple. This house of God that David wanted to build, promised God he would build not long after he become king of all Israel. David thought it was wrong that he should live in a house of cedar and stone while God — present to Israel in the ark it had carried around since being given the teaching at Sinai in the wilderness — “dwelt” only in a tent.

God seemed miffed at David for this promise. “I’ve lived in a tent, wandering with my people, since the day I brought you out of slavery in Egypt. Did I ask you, or anyone else, to build me house? I have been with you, Israel, with you, David, wherever you have gone. I have no need for a house.”

And God promises David — “I will make you a house, and a king from your line, of your descent, shall sit on your throne forever.”

Your descendant shall build me a house, God tells David, but don’t imagine that what you hew and fashion with you own hands (or, an army of conscripted laborers) can hold me. I, the Lord, am the one who really builds. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever,” God tells David.

So maybe this is why Solomon, who has spent so much building this house of God upon the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (Araunah in the Kings account), seems to only hope that God will maybe dwell in this house.

12 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” (1 Kings 8:12–13 ESV)

Note, at this dedication to the temple, Solomon, in his prayer of intercession here, asks the Lord, the God of Israel, to “hear in heaven” (תִּשְׁמַע הַשָׁמַיִם) in each of his petitions.

Today, Solomon prays for the mercy of God upon Israel. He prays for right judgment, forgiveness of sins, abundant rains, relief from famine, and victory in battle when Israel is at war. He prays for the restoration of Israel in defeat, for the return of captives from exile, and for God’s mercy on his people when they sin.

“For there is no one who does not sin,” Solomon prays.

Solomon confesses that even as he has built this great and wonderful house of cedar and stone and bronze and gold where the presence of the Lord shall dwell among God’s people, that God is bigger than this house. That God truly dwells in the heavens, listening from heaven, to prayers from this house, to Israel when it prays toward this house.

And so Solomon also prays for the foreigner who comes to pray to this house as well. He prays that the Lord, the God of Israel, will listen to “all for which the foreigner calls to you.”

That everyone on earth shall know the Lord as Israel knows the Lord — as protector and redeemer, as the one who delivers and blesses.

And so begins the long and strange encounter of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with those who are not of or from the people God has called out.

Such it is with our gospel reading. Jesus, the God who has condescended from heaven to dwell temporarily with us as one of us, has been invited by a group of Jewish leaders to heal the slave of a Centurion, a senior Roman soldier or even the commander of a Roman garrison. He may be a good guy — the Jewish leaders are rather obsequious in their declarations — but he is still a slave owner and the leader of a military garrison that, if it came to it, would use violence to maintain order.

Roman order. Foreign order.

When we think of foreigners in this context, I suspect we think of curious people who rather meekly and rather quietly pray to God, curious less about God than becoming one of us. After all, they are praying to the same God, are they not? Why wouldn’t they become like us?

But as scripture makes clear, again and again, foreigners often times means enemies. People at war with us, who have no desire to become us or even become like us. Who will not stop fighting us even as they have met and encountered and been healed and redeemed by our God. Who may conquer, and occupy us, and oppress us, and yet … meet redemption and salvation in our God.

When Elisha meets and heals Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army — Israel has been at war with Syria for many years at that point — he doesn’t demand Naaman convert, or defect, or stop fighting. Naaman does convert, does confess “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” and asks God’s forgiveness from Elisha, not for waging war against Israel, but for the future idolatry he will have to commit as a faithful servant of king of Syria. But Naaman never stops being a general in the Syrian Army, never stops serving his king, and likely, never stops waging war on Israel — the very people whose God he confessed.

Whose prophet healed him.

What an ingrate, right?

This is where we are today. Jesus encounters, entirely by proxy (a similarity this story shares with Naaman’s healing), a man who has embraced the God of Israel, has done great things for the faithful people of his community, built a place of meeting and worship and appears to want the best for these people he … occupies and rules over. “Such faith I have not found even in Israel,” Jesus says of this man who is used commanding, who knows and understands authority.

He has faith, this centurion. He trusts Jesus, apparently because he understands — unlike many of Israel — the authority Jesus is under, the authority by which he teaches and heals and casts out demons.

But he never stops being, not even for a minute, a commander in an enemy army, an occupying army. An army Israel seeks to shake off, an army that will later capriciously execute Jesus at the request of the Jerusalem mob. The centurion isn’t just a foreigner — he’s an occupier, an enemy, an oppressor.

We like to think when someone meets Jesus, meets our God, they are changed, converted, they become people like us. They become one of us. This centurion believed in the Lord, the God of Israel, used his power and his position to do what he could for God’s people in the city of Capernaum. But he very likely never stopped being a Roman, a soldier, committed to the order Rome brought and its fearsome price in blood and suffering. He may have become one of God’s people, praying and worshiping and giving thanks, but he never became one of us.

That doesn’t matter. To love enemies, as Jesus commands all who listen just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, is to love flesh and blood human beings who may want and intend for us nothing but harm, to pray for them and do good for them. They may live in our midst and wield great power over us — and use it arbitrarily and often with great cruelty. And yet … they may meet our God, maybe because of our love and our kindness, and come to have great faith and trust in our God, but they may never stop being our enemies even after that. They may never really mean us well, even if they know and fear God, even if they do some good for us.

I know that doesn’t sound right. But this is about the love of God, the love of God shown in, and to, a violent, cruel, deeply unfair and unjust world. If it strikes us as wrong, that God would love our enemies, would heal them and bless them and leave them unchastised to do their horrible work, we should remember — we too are unworthy. We too have sinned.

And we too have been forgiven.

Your Prayers Are Needed

I don’t do many personal appeals here, but I want to ask you all to pray for a 15 year-old girl who I’ll call Andrea whose safety and life are at risk right now. I don’t entirely know how to explain how she found me — it seems abused and neglected teenagers know how to find me online, even when coming across me happens entirely by accident.

And Andrea needs the prayer. I received a very anxious text message from her very early this morning in which she feared that she — and possibly her mother — were in danger of being hurt. Given what has happened to her in the last few days, I have every reason to believe she is at risk.

So pray. Pray without ceasing. For the strong, protective arm of God, for the mighty and overwhelming salvation of the Lord, and for the vengeance of God against those who have done her harm. Pray without ceasing for a young woman who needs, more than anything, to know she is not alone. That God loves her.

UPDATE: Andrea is fine. I do not know what happened to her early this morning, but she is safe now. Keep praying, though. She needs a lot of prayer.