A sermon preached on July 25th, 2010 based upon Luke 11:1 – 13.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He 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 indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’*
5 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;6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”7And 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.” 8I 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.
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for* a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!’
There was this laboratory experiment I heard of years ago in which a fair-sized fish known as the wall-eyed pike was inside a glass container filled with water. A clear pane of glass was placed down the center dividing the container into two sections. The wall-eyed pike was in one side; on the other was the smaller fish that were its natural prey. The experiment was kind of cruel; repeatedly the bigger fish would lunge forward anticipating dinner, only to be repelled by the glass panel. After being rebuffed numerous times, the wall-eyed pike would essentially give up, swimming in repetitive agitated circles.
At this point the experimenters would remove the glass panel. Now the smaller fish swam freely throughout the container, brushing up beside the larger fish’s gills. The wall-eyed pike, however makes no attempt to eat them. Having experienced a door that would not open so many times before, it now starved to death, in spite of an abundance of available food.
I was reminded of this experiment when my sister Alison told me this past week about Gus, the 700 pound polar bear in the central park zoo. (We drove together for over 1200 miles this past week in order to visit our father who lives in North Carolina; with so much time to fill, an endless array of topics get discussed.) In general, polar bears in zoos are not happy campers, more so than other animals, because, it turns out, they are very smart. A while back it was noticed that Gus was obsessively swimming laps in his cage for hours on end, a sign of boredom if not downright depression.
The zoo keepers attempted a variety of things to spice up Gus’ life. In general, it helped Gus’ demeanor to increase the opportunities he had for exploration, which, of course, are limited within the confines of a zoo cage. One thing that seemed to help in particular was if Gus had to put in some work to get his food. In one case they devised a little stream in his cage where live fish swam, requiring Gus resurrect his instinctual fishing abilities. It also helped if Gus’s food came wrapped up tightly, requiring Gus put in some effort ripping open his supper. Apparently, food served on the proverbial silver platter didn’t make for a happy polar bear.
Particularly given Gus’ native intelligence, he needed challenges in life. Spoon fed meals left him empty, spiritually speaking.
We are not so very different from polar bears, or even from wall-eyed pikes for that matter. Do you ever feel like you’ve experienced so many doors that won’t open that you’re tempted to give up?
Our Gospel lesson from Luke includes some familiar material; it is interesting, however to notice what Luke has done with it in contrast to Matthew. Our lesson begins with a stream-lined version of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” but whereas Matthew presents the more familiar version as part of an extended sermon, Luke has Jesus teaching the prayer in response to a question asked him by one of his disciples. Noticing how much time Jesus spent by himself praying, the disciple asks, “Teach us to pray.” It’s a subtle thing, but perhaps significant, that Luke has the disciples acting less passively. They take some initiative in this interaction.
Now, there is one verse of the Lord’s prayer that can come across a bit pat: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It can sound like all we’ve got to do is ask God for supper and it will just show up, with no effort on our part, like Gus receiving his meat without having to put in any work. Which, of course, we all know isn’t how it really works. But the verse can suggest this is how its supposed to work.
Following the streamlined Lord’s prayer, Luke has Jesus go in a different direction from the one he follows up with in Matthew. Luke inserts this peculiar little story that once again involves taking initiative. A friend on a journey (an adventure, a quest of his own) shows up unexpectedly in the middle of the night asking for a place to stay. Hospitality is a big, big deal in middle-eastern culture. The man can’t turn his friend away; in fact, it is assumed that a guest will have food set before him, particularly a hungry guest who has been walking all day.
Unfortunately, the man doesn’t have any food, but he’s determined to come up with some food, so he goes over to a friend’s house and knocks on the door, waking him from a sound sleep. Through the locked door he explains his dilemma to his groggy friend — how he needs to borrow three loaves of bread to set before his unexpected guest.
At this point, we assume that if the man has gone to this length, surely the friend – if he is in fact a friend – will get up and open the door, and hand over the requested three loaves. But he doesn’t. “Go away!” he cries, hoping to quickly fall back asleep, his little ones snuggled close beside him.
(In the telling, I suspect the story would have struck Jesus’ listeners as being pretty funny, like he’s doing stand-up.)
Nonetheless, the man refuses to give up, and eventually he wears down the so-called friend with his persistence. Eventually he gets out of bed, unlocks the door, and hands over the bread the man needs.
It is at this point that Luke inserts the familiar lines about ask, and it will be given to you; and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. In this context, although the words are reassuring – you will be given, you will find, you will have the door opened –- they nonetheless imply significant effort. You’ve got to go through the process of asking, seeking, and knocking. Don’t be surprised if a few doors get slammed in your face; don’t give up. You ‘ve got to be persistent, perseverant.
Certain characters that Jesus encountered and took a liking to come to mind: the four friends who hoisted their paralyzed friend up on the roof, tearing a hole to lower him to Jesus, after the crowd at the door made it impossible to enter. Bartimaeus the blind beggar who refuses to quit calling to Jesus when the crowd tells him to knock off the racket. The woman with the flow of blood who doesn’t give up after twelve years of pursuing healing, who decides to go where she isn’t welcome in order to touch the hem of Jesus garment.
And then there is the character that Jesus himself makes up later in the Luke’s Gospel – the poor widow who comes to the unjust judge in pursuit of justice, getting told by the crooked judge to get lost, but who eventually wears the judge down with her persistent knocking at his door.
In all of these instances Jesus commends a quality he calls “faith”, which in these contexts seem to have a lot in common with persistence and a refusal to give up.
Sometimes we wonder why didn’t God make life easier. Why do we seem to smack into so many glass walls; why are there so many doors slammed shut? Why didn’t God just provide us with everything we need without all the asking, seeking and knocking?
The implication here is that there is an inherent value to the quest, and without it, something essential is lost. We are made for a higher purpose than that of wall-eyed pikes. It is not good to be a couch potato, notwithstanding all the advertising that would suggest otherwise.
I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid there was a time when sports meant everything to me. I wanted to be a professional athlete when I grew up. When I hit adolescence, however, my experience in the world of sports didn’t go so well. Eventually, I sort of gave up (like a wall-eyed pike?), justifying my abandonment of sports by telling myself that sports aren’t really as important as so many people make them out to be; that sports are in fact, rather trivial. There was some truth to these rationalizations, but it didn’t change the fact that in some sense I had given up, and as a result sports I kept finding myself back on the athletic field in my dreams at nights for decades to come.
Now as you may know I have this almost 15 year old son Bobby who has inherited my innate attraction to sports – soccer specifically; he wants to be a professional goalkeeper when he grows up.
I am quite conscious that like so many other dads with children in sports, my own unresolved sports issues are a part of what is going on in my interaction with my son around sports. I am aware that there can be serious problems with this, but with some intentionality, I hope that both of us can come out the better for it.
If you were to ask myself or probably any other sports dad what it is we want for our kids in sports, the quickest, most honest, and least thought through answer would probably be this: We want our kids to be winners. We want them to go out there and succeed, and be showered with glorious accolades.
With a bit of reflection, however, I recognize that this isn’t what I truly want most out of sport for my son. As evidence of the foolishness of this desire by itself I present exhibit A: Lawrence Taylor. Those of you who are football fans recognize the name instantly, perhaps the greatest linebacker who ever played the game. Lawrence Taylor was just naturally talented. He didn’t start playing football until he was 15. Six years later he was the number two draft choice of the entire NFL draft, going to the New York Giants, where he instantly became the best defensive player in the league, leading the Giants to two super bowl trophies. Lawrence Taylor rarely lifted weights; he didn’t have to, he was just naturally strong. He didn’t have to train hard; it all came so easily to him.
Apparently boredom was an issue for Lawrence, because along the way he got heavy into drugs, which didn’t seem to get in the way with his competing on the football field. But even his extraordinary athletic giftedness couldn’t hold off the aging process, and eventually he was compelled to retire. In retirement there wasn’t much for him to do but to live in the past of his glory days. Having never achieved anything that hadn’t come easily for him, he was at a loss for how to chart new territories in retirement. He was arrested several times for drug-related crimes. Presently, Lawrence Taylor is on trial for the rape of a minor.
So much for having life come to you on a silver platter.
And so it isn’t simply success and glory I want for my son in sports; I want him to learn the lessons that sports at their best can teach. There are several lessons for sure. There’s the value of discipline in working to bring forth the best that you are capable of. There is good sportsmanship and the value of what it means to be a part of a team.
But for me, the deepest lesson sports has to teach, which is, I am sure, related to all the others is this: the value of simple perseverance. The capacity to try, try again if at first you don’t succeed. The ability to get up off the mat (to throw in a boxing metaphor.) This includes the humility to take an honest look at oneself when things don’t go well, and to change what needs to be changed in your approach.
I am proud of my son Bobby. When I think about it, what I am most proud about isn’t the success he’s known, which has been significant. What I am most proud of is the fact that there have been a number of times in his soccer experience when it has not gone well; when it hasn’t been much fun, when a part of him was probably tempted to quit. There are times when walking away from something may well be the wise choice, but Bobby really loves playing soccer, and in each instance I’ve witnessed him move through the difficult time, discovering a determination to try again, to recommit himself to bring forth the most of his God-given talents.
This is a lesson that can be reapplied in every other arena of life. Consider intimate relationships, for instance. If your inclination is to give up when the going gets tough, what will happen to the most important relationships of your life when they enter a difficult stretch, as they inevitably will.
While I was in North Carolina this past week, Bobby underwent a five-day “lock-in” at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark with all the other in-coming freshmen. The folks who run the school understand about the lessons of perseverance. They put the boys through what amounts to a rite of passage through which they learn the traditions of the school, bond together, and come to a sense of belonging. The week is designed to be hard, very hard, sort of like basic training in the army. The boys sleep on the floor of gymnasium, have no free time, and undergo experiences that are both physically demanding and emotionally humbling.
When Sarah and I picked him up on Friday afternoon, Bobby was absolutely exhausted. “It was awful! It was terrible!” he exclaimed with a smile, in between giving bear hugs to all the new friends he had made. Sarah and I were so proud of him.