Luke 11, 1-13
“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.”
“Truth or Dare?” Have you ever wonder, “what exactly is Jesus talking about here?” Every single day, in every single corner of this troubled planet, a hungry child asks and does not receive; a desperate cancer patient seeks and does not find; a homeless “bum” knocks and nobody opens the door. The Truth—for me. For almost my whole life, this often quoted passage has been an annoying puzzle and a sort of thorn in my side. I hear this piece of scripture and then I hear the echo of unanswered prayers, my own and the prayers of so many desperate others.
I have tried to make some sort of sense of this parable. There are the more standard suggestions. Some experts say that Jesus’ instructions for prayer have to do with spiritual fulfillment and not material need. Others remind us that our prayers are answered but not always in a way that we expect or want. And still others say that when we call on the Spirit, we will be comforted in the midst of our suffering and need. But in my everyday life, the troubles of family and friends and the steady stream of news about a world full of needs that go unmet, makes it seems, as Abraham says, that “the righteous fare as the wicked”. And so, none of these answers have proved particularly satisfying. For the most part, when I pray, I don’t really pray for things. I opt for a meditative openness to the Spirit, to Life or the Source of All Becoming. That way I can avoid, all together, this messy, risky business of asking, seeking and knocking. Most of the time….
Since I started with “Truth or Dare” and I choose truth, I have to admit that I do have this odd, slightly embarrassing ritual of petition that I resort to, occasionally, when I am faced with a situation that leaves me feeling helpless. My youngest, daughter, Mary Kate has this illuminated picture of Our Lady of Fatima that had been my mother’s when she was small. The picture is the one where Mary is floating on a little cloud that is hovering just off the ground in this meadow full of sheep. The three children to whom she is appearing are on their knees, their faces uplifted and their hands folded pleadingly. When I am especially desperate, I go into Mary Kate’s room, turn the illuminating switch to on, drop to my knees and ask for what I need.
I have a recent example. A month ago now, my oldest daughter Anne, applied for this great job. The interview process was weeks long and intense. She likes her current job but the wages are low and this new job would change her life. When the interview process finally ended, Anne waited and waited and waited to hear if she got the job. And every day, in my helplessness, I turned on that little light, got down on my knees and asked for that job because “everyone who asks receives”. Right? This went on for two weeks. We were all waiting to hear; her dad, her siblings, her friends, my friends and her grandma. I told my mom about my little ritual. She chuckled, a little, but suggested that desperate times did call for desperate measures. When we finally heard that Anne did not get the job, I texted my mom and said that I felt like tossing the picture of Our Lady of Fatima across the room. My mom, who is 77 years old, texted back, “Throw that Lady of Fat out the door. She let us down.” I laughed till I cried and so did Anne when I told her about it later that day. But Anne did not think that tossing Our Lady of Fatima out the door was a very good idea. Anne is resourceful and persistent. She had gone to work that day, asked for and gotten a raise. “It’s positive energy out into the universe, Mom. Asking for what you need can’t hurt.”
In today’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. He introduces his instruction by telling them what to say. “Father-Mother, hallowed be your name.” But then he goes on to tell this tale of persistence where “even though the friend will not get up and provide anything because of friendship, at least because of persistence the friend will get up and give whatever is needed.” Jesus summarizes this parable on prayer with this curious instruction to ask, search and knock. He turns the disciples eHHHHHHHtoward a friend who could as easily be a family member or even some stranger. Jesus teaches prayer as an active, relational gesture. Our needs are met in relation. The “reign to come”, “our daily bread”, “the forgiveness of sins”, all are gained in relation. For Jesus, the essence of prayer is a persistent, insistent pursuit of relationships. Embracing our connectedness, we lean into life as potentiality and possibility. In short, we receive what Jesus calls the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The truth is, prayers go unanswered all the time. People pray for rain that comes too late. They pray for loved ones who never come home. They pray for cures that don’t get discovered. They pray for justice that is denied. They pray for prosperity that doesn’t arrive. But it is also true that there is something about the asking itself, about the searching and about the knocking. “It’s positive energy out into the universe, Mom. Asking for what you need cant’ hurt.”
Last week, at the Sunday Assembly “Blessing and Anointing of the Sick”, we prayed for ourselves and for each other. People gathered around those who asked for healing. We laid our hands upon their bodies; soft hands, gnarled hands, hands with painted nails, hands worn by time and hands that were small and eager, connecting us all in prayer. Every week, during the General Intercession, we pray for the world and for each other. We make our needs known in prayer and then we turn toward each other and offer a sign of peace. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by turning them toward each other and he tells them the gifts of the Spirit come to those who ask. In our relation to each other, in the context of our messy, complicated and varied needs, as we ask, as we search and as we knock we find our own opening onto the gifts of the Spirit.