Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

~ Luke 11:1-4, 5-13 ~

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Jesus, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:1-4)

When Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples he wanted them to see it as their prayer. This was a prayer for the community not just for individuals. What one requests, we all request together in community. And so Christians have been saying this prayer together in worship for two thousand years.

As a liturgical element of worship, one could say that the practice of the prayer is not so much to “think hard” about the meanings of the words. You could say that as an element of worship, we don’t concentrate on the meanings of individual words and phrases so much, as we let the drone of these words help us worship. Which is probably why we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much that there are two different versions in scripture, this one in Luke and the one in Matthew. You could say that the primary purpose isn’t propositional but rather sacramental. Through the repetition of these ancient words we become more aware of the presence of God. In the sound of community, Jesus’ prayer brings us together. Which is why we do it every Sunday.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t think about the words. Indeed, ever since Jesus taught this prayer to his disciples, his disciples have been arguing about the right words to say. Many a church battle has been fought over whether it is debts or transgressions or sins we are to be forgiven of. And, yes, here at Noe Valley Ministry we’ve thought about the words ourselves. Seeking to be more inclusive and non-patriarchal, we eschew saying only ‘Father.’ And we don’t even call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ but rather the ‘Prayer of Jesus’. OK, let’s tell it as it really is! We don’t even use the original words but, instead, use other versions. So, I guess we do care about what the words mean after all. So, maybe I’m saying that we can still embrace the sacramental even as we think about the propositional.

In that spirit, in our worship today we are featuring some of the different versions of Jesus’ prayer that we use at Noe Valley Ministry. The first one is a version by Parker J. Palmer, a Quaker writer/philosopher of considerable renown. So, let us say this Prayer of Jesus together as found in your bulletin:

Heavenly Father, heavenly Mother, Holy and blessed is your true name.

We pray for your reign of peace to come, We pray that your good will be done,

Let heaven and earth become one.

Give us this day the bread we need, Give it to those who have none.

Let forgiveness flow like a river between us, From each one to each one.

Lead us to holy innocence Beyond the evil of our days —

Come swiftly Mother, Father, come.

For yours is the power and the glory and the mercy:

Forever your name is All in One.

After introducing the prayer to his disciples, Jesus tells a rather odd story of the midnight visitor. Let us hear that story as I read from Luke 11:5-13:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 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!”

The Word of God according to the Gospel of Luke

Thanks be to God.

 

Jesus draws the listener right into the story. Suppose you go to your friend at midnight. How would you feel about going to your friend’s house in the middle of the night, wakeup the whole household including the babies, and risk having your friend be mad at you because you need to borrow some bread? But you go anyway because you have this unexpected guest who is hungry. So you knock and knock and knock until you hear someone stir. Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door. Of course, Bob Dylan’s song isn’t about asking and receiving. It’s actually about death’s door. But we preachers shamelessly appropriate cultural stuff all the time for our own manipulation.

But on with the story. Finally, our friend opens the door. Now, we often assume this story is about persistence. We say this because that’s what it says – “because of his persistence.” The lesson? If we are persistent in prayer our prayers will be answered. Or, maybe not…

It seemed like a perfectly reasonable prayer request for this ten-year old boy. Every night for weeks, before I went to sleep, I prayed fervently that my request be granted. I was quite persistent. Every morning when I awoke I would check to see if God had answered my prayer. I would point my finger at the model airplane on the dresser and say, “Rise.” But, alas, it did not rise; it did not levitate on my command. And so every morning I had to deal with the disappointment that God had not answered my prayer for magical powers. Now, every time I prayed I promised God, most sincerely, that I would never use my magical powers for anything untoward (OK; I didn’t know that word then but you get the idea). Yet, every morning when I woke up I’d point my finger at the model airplane on my dresser and try to levitate it. Rats! Well, maybe tomorrow.

Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.” Well, I asked but I didn’t receive. Over and over and over I asked. Yet, God disappointed me again and again and again. And it seemed like such a reasonable request. Years later, as a teenager, I realized that I would never have been able to keep my promise (I think you know what I mean).

We have all been “disappointed” at one time or another that God has not answered our prayers. And we have been disappointed with requests that are more than just ‘reasonable’. They were requests of dire importance, issues of grave concern, truly matters of good and evil. Prayers of healing but healing didn’t come. Prayers for reconciliation with a loved one but reconciliation never came. Prayers that justice be done but instead injustice ruled the day. These are things God supposedly cares greatly about, but God didn’t grant our requests. We asked but didn’t receive; we searched but didn’t find; we knocked but the door did not open.

Often the retort is “Well, you mustn’t have been persistent enough.” Your prayers weren’t fervent enough; you weren’t bold enough in your request. “Isn’t that the point of Jesus’ parable?” they say. Yet we know their criticism mocks our integrity. We know we have been sincere in our prayers. No, there must be some other explanation. So, what do we do with Jesus’ words before us today? What are to actually pray for? What did Jesus mean for prayer to accomplish?

I would like to suggest another way. I suggest that instead of seeing prayer as a request for God to intervene to fix our personal or corporate problems, that we look at prayer as a means of experiencing God who is already with us. This is not to deny the place of asking God to intervene in the specific issues of our lives. But rather maybe this is a fuller way of regarding the work of God in our lives. I suggest we look at prayer as what could be called a “thin place.”

“Thin places”—Theologian Marcus Borg has borrowed the concept from ancient Celtic Christianity to describe what is at the heart of Christian practice. Celtic Christianity flourished in Scotland and Wales from the 5th century on and being people of the earth, they believed all creation was alive with God’s presence. Everything—any moment, any time, any place—could be a window to God. There are some moments, or times, or places that make encounters with God happen more easily. These are called “thin places.”

The idea of thin places is about a particular way of thinking about God. God is an encompassing Spirit in which everything exists. God is “right here.” So you could say that there are two dimensions of reality: there is the visible world of our ordinary experience and there is God, the invisible. As Thomas Merton says, “God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without [God]…The only thing is that we don’t see it.” But occasionally we do “see it.” We do experience God shining through into our visible ordinary reality. “Thin places” are places where these two realities meet or intersect. They are places where the membrane between our visible reality and the invisible reality of God becomes very soft, porous, and permeable. Thin places are places where the veil lifts for a moment, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we really do live, and move and have our being.

There can be all sorts of thin places—places where we can have significant encounters with God. The Celtics believed there were actual geographical places, such as the island of Iona, that could be thin places. Some thin places are “secular” in that they aren’t explicitly religious. A walk in the wilderness can be such a thin place. For some art, dance, music, literature can be thin places. People can be thin places. A significant heart-felt conversation with a friend can be an experience with God. A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened to an encounter with God. A thin place is a means of God’s grace.

Borg suggests that the practices of the Christian life, therefore, are particularly good thin places. The purposes of spiritual practices are to become thin places where our hearts are opened. Worship is a thin place. Worship is about creating a sense of the sacred, a thin place. Of course there are many types of worship and all can be thin places, be they the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal worship or the quiet of a Quaker service. In our tradition all the elements of worship are meant to come together to create a sense of the sacred. Music in worship, whether it be music performed for us or hymns we sing together, are meant to be thin places. Sermons can be thin places…maybe not always, but occasionally. The Bible can be a thin place.  The reading of scripture in worship can be an opportunity to encounter God. And the sacraments are thin places. Indeed, that is their officially defined purpose: they are means of grace. They are sacraments in that they mediate the sacred to us. The meal we eat from this table is an encounter with God, a thin place. Finally liturgical words can become thin places. The confession of sin. Our responses (“The peace of Christ be with you,” “And also with you”). And more to the point of our text today, the Prayer of Jesus can be a thin place.

Going back to that word ‘persistence’ – In the Greek, instead of ‘persistence’ a better translation of the word would be something like “shameless.” Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be shy.” Be bold; go ahead, ask, seek, knock. Don’t be afraid to “shamelessly” seek God. I interpret that to mean that we are to be intentional in our pursuit of God. In other words we put ourselves into those thin places where we encounter God.

God is ready. God is present. God will give you what you ask for. God won’t give you something else. God won’t trick you. What does God give us? It says it right there – God gives us God’s Spirit. What you get is God. Not necessarily a God who intervenes directly, miraculously in all our affairs. Not a God who will give a 10-year old boy magical powers. But a God who is here with us, upholding us, bearing with us, loving us. Prayer is that conscious, intentional awareness of the presence of God who has been with us all along. Prayer is a thin place in the geography of our spiritual world.

So, should we be ‘knockin’ on heaven’s door’? Well, if we did an angel just might answer the door and tell us, “God is not here but is already there with you.” Go now, and don’t be afraid to seek God shamelessly. Amen.

 

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