Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Sunday, July 28, 2019 at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas. I was a candidate for call.
Before I come to the topic at hand, I want to thank all of you for being here and receiving me today, and thanks especially to the Call Team for all their work with me over the last two months. I visited Dallas for the first time only six weeks ago and have very few connections here. However my friend and mentor, Rev. Dr. Raymond Legania, was an assistant to the bishop for this synod once upon a time. And he tells a story that I think about a lot when I am facing a challenge in church. He calls it “Three Good Reasons.”
A woman went to wake up her son on Sunday morning. “Baby it’s time to get ready for church.” “I don’t want to go to church today,” the son says. “Why do we have to go to church?” The mother said, “I’ll give you three good reasons. First, because it is the Lord’s Day and you belong in church. Second, because I am your mother and I am asking you to come to church with me. And third, because you are the pastor.”
Now by the grace of God I have never, in my ten years of ordained ministry, needed my mother to talk me into going to church to do my job. But I come back to this story not just because it made me belly laugh the first time I heard it. But also because the twist in the punchline reminds me of how often asking for something comes down to reminding the person we are asking of who they are.
Abraham, in our reading from Genesis today, asks God to spare the city of Sodom. And in doing this he says, “Far be it from you to destroy the righteous along with the wicked! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This tactic works for Abraham. He persuades God to spare the city that is threatening violence against a visitor if as few as ten righteous people could be found within it.
Now the ten righteous were not found, and that’s a story for another sermon. But Abraham emphasizes God’s justice in asking for God’s mercy. Abraham relies on that justice when he asks God to do something.
Now speaking for myself, I read this story, I heard sermons on it, I felt that I got the gist. And then I started having children. And I realized that I knew nothing about asking for things. I was a rank amateur. The constant barrage of requests. appeals, entreaties, demands—all of them introduced with a simple and devastating word: “Daddy.” I wasn’t ready for it. We have four kids now, and have hosted others in our family along the way, and I still think I’m not ready for it. “I’m not going to make an argument for this thing I’m asking for, I’m not going to try to tell you why it’s just or right, I’m just going to tell you who you are: my dad.”
And I finally understood what Martin Luther meant when he insulted his opponents by saying that any child of six or seven understood theology better than they did. It’s not because he thought children were dumb. On the contrary, Luther said this because he knew that children had an instinct for trust. They ask their parents because they trust the relationship they have with them. Children don’t care whether they are asking for something right or reasonable or even possible. They just ask because they trust dad to be dad, they trust mom to be mom, and this is how they know to trust God to be God.
And so Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. The prayer we hear today is simpler and more direct that the version we get from Matthew’s Gospel, which we pray each week in worship. Jesus tells them to pray: Father. May your name be kept holy. May your kingdom come. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, because we forgive everyone in our debt. And do not bring us to the time of trial. Simple. Direct. Just asking for what you need. We don’t pray “Father, if we may be worthy to call you Father,” or “help us to bring about your kingdom” or “make us work hard for our daily bread.” Jesus says, just ask. Talk to God like a rude friend arriving late and needing food. Your friend will hear you because you don’t give up. How much more will God hear you.
More than that, Jesus says: just ask like a child asks. If your child asks for a fish, which of you would give them a snake? Or if they asked for an egg would give them a scorpion? None of you would do that. And if you, who are regular old wicked people, can answer the prayers of your children, how much more will God answer your prayers?
Ask like a child. It was the sort of thing that, if I heard a preacher saying it fifteen years ago would have annoyed me no end. I want what I want, but I want to be good, to be right in my own mind to ask for it, to be convincing to God and myself. I want to trust my words, my intentions, my plans and projects, my goals. But Jesus says to simply ask God for your daily bread. Ask God for his kingdom to come to this suffering and dying world. There is lots more to prayer than this plain, trusting, and totally abject request. There is praise and thanksgiving and hymns and psalms. But everything we add to prayer is for our benefit, not for God’s.
That’s how my kids do it, anyway. I might be pleased that they try to persuade me. I might be impressed that they try to make a deal. But mostly I do just what Jesus says we’ll do: I give in not because their request is just and proper but just because they simply won’t stop asking and I’m tired of hearing it.
Life doesn’t always work out that way, of course. Our hearts break in this world because we want to say Yes to everything and everyone when we have to say No to some things in order to say Yes to others. The ten righteous in Sodom were lacking. Many children do get snakes and scorpions instead of fish and eggs. Those bonds of obligation and commitment we make with each other are the most sacred thing in the world apart from the worship of God. They are how we can know God at all, who pours out love for us in the Body and Blood of Christ each week, who gathers us in the tears of baptism, who forgives us our sins whenever we plead for them to be forgiven.
So don’t be afraid to ask abjectly: God please make a way for my child. God please help me with today’s bread, today’s needs, today’s sorrow.
And the truth is we don’t know and can’t know how all of these prayers are answered. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened. Everyone who asks shall receive. But which door, and to what room, we can’t know beforehand. But the words of Jesus here and everywhere are meant to call us to trust, to speak honestly from the desperate depths of our own lives. Because God always hears. God always listens. And in God’s own time, in God’s own way, through the noise and conflict and struggle of this life, God always answers. Amen.