Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hang in There!

"Well son, I'll tell you:
  Life for me ain't been no crystal stair;
  It's had tacks in it,
  And splinters,
  And boards torn up,
  And places with no carpet on the floor--
  But all the time
  I'se been a-climbin' on,
  And reachin' landin's,
  And turnin' corners,
  And sometimes goin' in the dark
  Where there ain't been no light.
  So, boy, don't you turn back.
  Don't you set down on the steps
  'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
  Don't you fall now--
  For I'se still goin', honey,
  I'se still climbin',
  And life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
   --Langston Hughes , "Mother to Son"

Two weeks ago we turned to Luke’s gospel and talked about the story of the Good Samaritan. Last week we were talking about Mary and Martha and how we needed both women not just the meditative and not just the worker. Now today we turn to Luke 11 where Luke gives his rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples had been with Jesus long enough to know that prayer was important to him. And so they came together and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It was a strange request in a way. These were pious Jews—they prayed several times a day and so this request at first seemed peculiar. But I don’t think they were asking about technique. I think it was more than that because Jesus gave them a prayer that we Christians around the world still say Sunday after Sunday. I was tempted just to stop and focus on the prayer…for it is a powerful prayer indeed and covers all we need to know about praying. It helps us understand the difference between our wants and our real needs.

He Gave Them a Parable

But when Jesus finished “Our Father which art in heaven…” he wasn’t through talking about prayer. He gave them a parable. And if you listen closely you can hear the humor in what he had to say. It seems that a traveler on a journey in that hot land traveled early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the blazing heat of the day. And so he came late to his friend’s house sometime around midnight. Now in that culture you always fed your guests when they arrived. They would not think of just sending their guests to bed. But the host, to his horror found that his cupboard was absolutely bare. What was he going to do? Well, he knew his neighbor would have plenty of bread—they always cooked more than they needed. So—even though it was midnight he knew he had to serve his guest. So—he knocked on his friend’s door in the middle of the night. No answer. So he knocked a little louder. And from inside he heard a voice say, “Who is it?” And through the closed door he told his friend he needed three loaves for his guest that had just arrived. I can just imagine what the response was. The expletive is deleted.

Picture the scene. The home was one room. At night they would gather all the animals in so they would not be stolen or killed. Into that room. Then there was a little raised platform where the family slept. Most of the families had lots of children and the arrangement was: the animals were closest to the door, then the children and there were several—and then his wife—and then the man. He told the neighbor to go away. It was the middle of the night. And he did not want to wake up the animals or his kids and particularly his wife. Why nobody would have gotten any sleep for the rest of the night. You would have thought that would have settled it. But no—the man kept knocking on the door. He was going to wake up everybody. So the man of the house stumbled around in the dark found the loaves, tried to step over his wife and Sallie and Junior and little Suzie and Bobby—hopefully he would not wake up the animals. He cracked the door, hoping the animals would not get out and gave the man the bread and growled quietly: “Go.” And Jesus said: “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.” If the man hadn’t kept knocking he never would have gotten the bread.

Why did Jesus follow the Lord’s Prayer with this story? This parable has always bothered me. It seems to say if we pester God long enough he will finally give in. Like I used to do when my children would keep pulling at my coattail wanting something. “Daddy, Daddy” they would say. And finally, in frustration I would say: “OK.” Is this what Jesus was saying? I don’t think so. The key word to understanding this story is the word, persistence. Because of his persistence he will get up and give his neighbor the bread. Because he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Persistence is the Key

Persistence. It was a real problem for the early church. The central problem they faced week after week was apostasy—falling away. People who started and couldn’t continue. It was understandable. To be a Christian was hard business in the Roman world. Every citizen including slaves had to go and stand before a public statue of Caesar and say: “Caesar is Lord.” And when these Christians would shake their heads and say, “No, Jesus is Lord” they lost jobs, were hounded out of town and many of them were crucified. And so many dropped out along the way. Paul would say of Demas, “Demas has deserted me and gone back to Thessalonica.” It happened again and again.

Now am I rambling? What does persistence have to do with prayer? Everything, really. Prayer is not only what we say—it is what we do. The old adage may fit here: What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear a word you say. Prayer, then is what we do. I love the way one person puts it. Pray without ceasing—when necessary use words.

Prayer is more than Words

Our problem we think we have to bow our heads and close our eyes and say some words to God. Maybe and maybe not. Let me tell you a story. Weeks ago I visited a good, good friend and we both knew that his days were numbered. And so we had a good visit but it was heavy and he talked about how hard it would be to leave his wife and grandchildren and not be able to see them grow up. We talked about that trips we took to Paris and Oberammergau. We talked about the birthday celebrations and going to the Beach together. And when I started to go I told him, “I’m not going to pray—I am afraid I would just break up and couldn’t get through it—but what we’ve done today I think is a prayer.” You see, prayer really is sometimes what you do.

One preacher who understood this used to say, “Mama when I go to the Revivals the preachers are always talking about their sainted mothers and how they always found them on their knees, by the bed, out in the corn crib or in the kitchen—everywhere. Always praying. I never have seen you do that.” And his mother said, “Son with children like mine you have to pray as you go.” So there are a lot of ways to knock on the prayer door with actions as well as words. We may have to pray as we do—but we have to keep at it.

To worship is to pray. Ritual is very much a part of the Christian faith. We get up and put our clothes on Sunday morning and come to church week after week. Carlyle Marney used to say it is one of the most important things that we are to do. And then he explained. He said, tongue in cheek, God doesn’t come to church every Sunday. Some Sundays he stays home in his pajamas and reads the Birmingham News and drinks coffee. I don’t know if he watches Joel Osteen or not. But Marney went on to say—even though God does not come to church every Sunday—we need to be there. Because once in a while, when we least expect him, the big doors back there will open and God will come into the house and walk down the aisle and stop at your pew or mine. And when that happens—we will never ever be the same again. So—we need to be here every Sunday just is case God decides to stop by.

Do you see what I am trying to say? This is prayer, too. This getting up and coming week after week. And it’s more than that sulk I’ve heard in every church I’ve been in: “That sermon did not speak to me at all.” Or “I just hated that anthem.” Or “the flowers just drooped this morning.” Or “the preacher didn’t speak to me.” That’s a far cry from the prayer in action when you come knowing that God may just speak to you when you least expect it. Knocking on the door. Persistent. Isn’t that prayer, too?

But in our culture who wants to keep knocking on the door. We don’t have time for that. So we have instant coffee and instant potatoes (that taste like instant potatoes)—and we have microwave lunches that we cook in ten minutes (and taste like it, too) and we have canned biscuits and One-minute-managers. And we can learn French or Spanish in six easy lessons. And all these things on TV—we can grow hair or eye-lashes in a matter of days. We can lose twenty pounds overnight. And we can even look like Joan Rivers if we have the money. None of this requires persistence. Just a little cash and a few minutes or a few days to say the least. Instant everything.
What can we Do?

And Jesus comes telling this strange story at the end of the Lord’s Prayer about this man who knocked and knocked on his neighbor’s door at midnight. He would not take no for an answer. We’re all in the same boat. It gets downright scary sometimes. We don’t know where the world is going. Why we don’t even know where we are going. The pressures are everywhere. And sometimes we wonder if our little efforts really matter.

Haiti so big and so enormous—what can we do? We wonder about the oil spill and what in the world is going to happen. We can go down there with our buckets but will it make any difference? We think about the Taliban and the suicide bombers and wonder about the future. We look at the drug problem or the rage and anger in the country or all those boys and girls that come home in those flag-draped boxes week after week. There are over 6,000 now that we’ve lost. 39,000 have been wounded to date. And our hearts just sink.

Can our efforts—our knocking on the door make a difference? Mother Theresa was interviewed one day by this newsman. “Let me ask you, Mother—why do you do what you do? You pick up one child and it’s already dead. You pick up another and another and another and try to help. But out there on the streets there are hundreds and hundreds more. Why do you do what you do?” And she looked at him with those piercing eyes and said, “Young man I do what I can where I am with I have.” If that’s not prayer I don’t know what it is. We’re not responsible for the world. That’s God’s business. But we are responsible for our little family and our little half-acre and our church here and those that we touch in the grocery store and we pass on the streets. We are to do what we can where we are with what we have. That’s prayer and that’s persistence. Knocking on the door.

Hang in There!

Let me tell you a pretend story. It is only a story but it could be true, who knows? My wife was out of town the other day and so I got up early the next morning and worked out and when I got through I was hungry, so I stopped at the Waffle House. Surely I thought a few carbs wouldn't hurt. I sat down in the no-smoking section and ordered an omelet with bacon, grits, lots of grits, whole-wheat toast, coffee and orange juice. As I waited for the meal a woman came and sat down next to me. Strange looking woman. Bright red-hair—sorta stringy. Had on a flowery dress, and a hat of all things, covered with flowers. Lots of make-up and long green gloves and red very high heels. “You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?” Well, what could I say? And so I said, “No, I don’t mind.” “What’s your name,” she asked. And I said, “Roger.” “My name is Gabriella,” she said. I thought she must be Italian. “What do you do?” she asked. And I didn’t want to tell her because when you say you’re a preacher they act like you either have bad breath or just told them some very bad news. And if not that—they get this wild look in their eyes. So I mumbled, “I’m a preacher.” She didn’t seem to flinch. She said, “I’m a messenger.” “A messenger.” “Yes,” she said, “a messenger and I have been sent to give you a message.” Huh? “Who sent you to bring me a message?” “Her,” she said. “Her?” And she said, “Her, you know God.” And in my most ministerial voice I said, “God is not a her.” And she shrugged and said, “Whatever.” I thought I must be losing my mind. “Well, if you’re a messenger, what is the message you have from, er, her?” Gabriella said, ‘Hang in there.” “What?” I asked. “Hang in there is the message.” And I said, “What kind of a message is that?” Gabriella said, “I don’t know. I’m just a messenger. I guess you have to figure out what it means for yourself.” And without a word she got up and left the table and walked out the door. As she got into her old car, my waitress brought my omelet to the table.1

And all the way home I couldn’t get that message out of my mind. “Hang in there.” Reckon this is what Jesus was talking about the story. Hang in there. You who are barely hanging on by your fingernails. You who have mounting debts. Hang in there you who wonder if you will lose your home or your health or your marriage? Hang in there even a bad lab report or a back that won’t quit hurting. Hang in there in an age when everything seems hard. I really think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told this story. For you and me and all of us: Hang in there. Hang in there. Hang in there. I do believe that may be prayer after all.

(In the Princeton University Chapel my favorite window is featured above. It is the great north window which depicts endurance. Christ is the central figure and is shown in martyrdom. The figures represent martyrs of the Church. In stone beneath the window is carved, "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.")

(This sermon was preached at the Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL on July 26, 2010 and follows the lectionary text for the day.)

1. I am indebted to Ted Loder for giving me this idea years ago. The story is mine.

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