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July 25, 2004 (Pentecost 8/St. James the Elder)—“Haggling with God”
Pastor David Barber
Genesis 18:20-32; Luke 11:1-13
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Little Leroy came into the kitchen where his mother was making dinner. His birthday was coming in a few days so he thought this would be a good time to tell her what he wanted. "Mom," he said, "I want a bike for my birthday."
Little Leroy was a bit of a troublemaker. He had gotten into trouble at home and at school. His mother asked him if he thought he deserved to get a bike for his birthday, and she wanted him to reflect on his behavior over the past year. In fact, she gave him an assignment: write a letter to God and tell God why you deserve a bicycle.
Little Leroy stomped out of the kitchen, went to his room, and reluctantly wrote a letter to God. "Dear God, I have been a very good boy this year and I would like a bike for my birthday. I want a red one. Your friend, Leroy."
Well, Leroy knew that wasn't true so he tore it up and started over. "Dear God, I have been an okay boy this year. I still would like a bike for my birthday. Leroy."
Leroy knew that he couldn't send this letter either. So, Leroy wrote still another letter. "Dear God, I know I haven't been a good boy this year. I am very sorry. I will be a good boy if you just send me a bike for my birthday. Please! Thank you, Leroy."
Leroy knew this wasn't true either, and by now he was very upset. He went downstairs and told his mother he needed to go to church, and of course, she was overjoyed because she thought her plan had worked. "Just be home for dinner," she said cheerfully.
Leroy walked down the street to the church on the corner. He went to the altar. He looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then he bent down and picked up the statue of the Virgin Mary. He slipped it up under his shirt, rushed out of the church, ran back home, and went up to his room.
Leroy then wrote his fourth and final letter to God. "Dear God, I got your mama. If you want to see her again, send the bike. Signed, You know who."
Now that could be considered a novel and shameless way to pray, and God might just grant little Leroy's request because of his boldness and his creativity. But it probably won't be taught in any manuals or by persons guiding us in spiritual direction.
Today Jesus teaches us how to pray. He encourages us to pray shamelessly and with persistence. He teaches us to pray with great confidence because God promises to listen to our requests and our concerns.
The Gospel of Luke has a greater emphasis on prayer than the other gospels, and Luke frequently mentions situations where Jesus is praying, which are not found in the other gospels. What I find interesting is that this gospel, with such a heavy focus on social justice, also stresses and encourages the need for prayer.
In the midst of his own prayer life, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray just as John taught his disciples. Why hadn't Jesus taught them to pray before this?
After all, in the chapter 10, he had just sent them out on a mission trip to preach and to heal. I would have thought that prayer might have been a very important resource for them to carry in their tool chest.
Whatever the reason for this delay, Jesus now teaches them to pray using a prayer we have called "The Lord's Prayer." And then Jesus tells a rather strange but humorous story in regard to prayer.
At midnight an unexpected guest arrives. He's hungry, and there's nothing in the house to feed him. The pantry is bare. What kind of hospitality can he offer? So you go the house of a friend to borrow or beg for some food, but I don't know what you do with the unexpected guest in the meantime.
It's late, and your friend can't get up and grant the request without disturbing the whole household. So your friend shouts out that he can't come. "Go home," he says. "I can't help you."
But you keep pestering him, and soon the whole town will be up! And then the whole town will know of your friend's refusal to provide bread and his refusal to provide hospitality.
Your friend will then get up and give you what you need--not because he necessarily wants to--but because he doesn't want the whole town to know what a shameless person he is.
For the last two years we've adopted a couple of stray cats, or perhaps, they've chosen to adopt us. The second cat that appeared on the scene we called Bandito. He would eat the first cat's food so at the beginning, we simply chased him away.
But gradually over time we warmed up to him, and he found a place in our hearts. Like many Biblical characters he underwent a name change. He went from Bandito to Bogart or Bo, and now he's a part of the family.He has a problem, however. He talks too much and he has a loud and a shrill "meow." You can hear him coming a half a block away, and especially if he's out late at night, he wakes you up, and you wonder if the neighbors can hear him as well.
Under normal circumstances I would just ignore him and leave him outside, but now we get up and we give him what he wants just to shut him up. Now I would imagine that some of you might have some other remedy to shut him up, but that's not an option for us.
Is that what it means to pray--to be so persistent and bold and even shameless in our asking? Does God give us what we want just to shut us up? Could it also mean to call God to task, or to appeal to God's nature and hold God to God's promises?
Using the passage from Genesis as a springboard, Walter Wink tells us that prayer is "more like haggling in an oriental bazaar than the polite monologue of the churches." (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 301).
What a humorous story! There's Abraham bargaining with God, and reminding God of what God is about. "Far be it from you to do such a thing," says Abraham. "Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just? How could you be so shameless?"
God agrees to spare Sodom if there are fifty righteous folks, but Abraham is determined to get even a better bargain than 50. "How about it God? What if there's only forty? Or what about thirty? Or twenty? Or even ten?"
God agrees, and even though ten are not found there, God chooses to save Lot and his family even though there's only four. Wink tells us that the moral of the story is that "it pays to haggle with God."
And Luther himself said: "Our Lord God could not but hear me; I threw the sack down before his door. I rubbed God's ear with all his promises before hearing prayer."
If we look at the Lord's Prayer we also notice that the phrases in this prayer are not indicative, but imperative. What does this mean? It means that we are ordering or commanding God to bring the Kingdom near. Indeed, this is what God is asking of us when we pray.
"We are required by God to haggle with God for the sake of the sick, the obsessed, the weak, and to conform our lives to our intercessions." (Wink, p. 303). From that standpoint lives are shaped and changed, and our world is shaped and changed as we intercede and partner with God for the sake of the world.
Now to be sure, there are many who have given up praying because they see no results or at least the kind of results they might have hoped for.
In a recent article in The Christian Century magazine, it told how a church youth group was discussing how 9/11 affected their prayer life. One young man said he's not been able to pray since that event, since he assumes that many of the people in those planes and buildings were praying that God would spare them, and their prayers weren't answered.
Another fellow said he can't pray for a different reason: he assumes the terrorists were praying to Allah for courage to follow through on their plans and their prayers were answered.
Then a young woman said that she is still praying. Being an artist, she tends to pray with images, she said, and in her images the victims and the perpetrators of 9/11 are sitting around a table in heaven, trying to figure out together what happened on that day.
I think she captures the hope and promise of why we pray--that God's kingdom might come near on earth and that all people and all created things might experience the shalom and the well-being of God.
Unfortunately, a pastor who attended this youth group squashed this woman's image by saying that the scene she described is not possible because the terrorists are in hell. (Christian Century, June 29, 2004, p. 6). Oh, to be so certain!
But indeed, such a scene is possible, and that's why we continue to pray. That's why we continue to storm the gates of heaven with our prayers, remind God of his tremendous promises and haggle with God for the sake of others.
We pray together, "Our Father." This introduction to the Lord's Prayer reminds us that we're in this together. We pray together as a community not only for our individual and personal healing but also for the healing of the world.
This is not just a personal prayer, but a political prayer as we pray for daily bread for all of God's children, for debt forgiveness, and for a just and better world especially for those on the margins of life.
In the introduction to the Lord's Prayer--"Our Father in heaven"--Martin Luther asks, "What does this mean?" And he answers:
Here God encourages us to believe that he is truly our Father and we are his children. We therefore are to pray to God with complete confidence just as children speak to a loving parent.
And so we pray--we pray and we act with the assurance and the trust that God is already working within us and within our world. We pray shamelessly and courageously for God's kingdom to come and for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org