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Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2013

The Rev. Anne Michele Turner

“Is there any one among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?”    At my house, the answer is never simple.

Truth be told, no answer is ever simple at my house, because I have two little girls, who are four and seven. They have very firm ideas about what they want and what they do not want, especially at dinner time. These ideas, while firm, are unfortunately not necessarily consistent. Take, for example, salmon. My girls like salmon, always, except for the days when they don’t. And so our dinners are often a carefully calibrated exercise in diplomacy when they refuse the fish they have requested.

Eat your fish. I don’t want to eat my fish. Butyou need to eat something healthy. I want to eat a cookie. But you need some protein. I don’t want to eat my fish. Your dinner is on your plate. Can I have some yogurt?  You need to eat the food in front of you. Please?  Fish first. At least a few bites.

You get the picture.

I generally don’t tell stories about my children from the pulpit, but I share this one with you because it is not remotely particular to them. If you have lived with young children, you have had the salmon discussion. If you have known older children, the discussion is probably a bit more sophisticated, and maybe it involves a car. But the ardent negotiation is still there.

This drives me crazy, the nightly fish détente. And yet, as a parent, it’s also exactly what I want from my children. In every one of these irritating, mundane, stupid negotiations about what’s on the dinner plate, I know they are learning skills they need. They are learning to reason, and to communicate. They are learning about give and take, about consistency and exceptions and persuasion and authority. Ultimately, our relationship grows stronger, because we are all being forced to become clear about what is important. What really matters most to them?  To me?  In the end, the conversation really isn’t about the fish. It’s about us. It is a manifestation of the struggle or maturity and rewards of relationship.

Today’s lessons hint at those same rewards in our relationship with God. It’s easy to get stuck on the refrain we all know from the hymn—ask and it shall be given to you, seek and ye shall find. Together with the Lord’s Prayer, it almost sounds like we’re being given the magic formula to summon the divine concierge who will then answer our every request. Pray they right way and get what you want: just ask for the fish, and it’s on your plate. (Or not, depending on your desires.)  But pay a little more attention, and I think you’ll hear that scripture is promising us something much more profound, much more important than wish fulfillment. It’s promising us mature relationship with God.

Even before we get to the gospel story, look back at the Old Testament reading : Abraham in conversation about the doomed city of Sodom. Abraham has just been the recipient of angelic visitation, and now he is in the most remarkable position of “standing before the LORD.”  It should be enough to make him shakes in his sandals. But instead of being quite naturally cowed, he instead chooses this moment of proximity to argue for his idea of justice. God outlines a plan of zero tolerance; Abraham counters with a plan for clemency and nuance. He winds up actually haggling with God, bargaining him down as far as he thinks he can get him.

What’s so interesting is that this kind of bargaining is apparently what God had in mind. Our lectionary begins partway through the story; it omits God’s reasoning for including Abraham in his presence: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation . . . No, I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.”  God is counting on Abraham’s informed partnership. If he is to be the father of many nations, he needs to be intellectually and morally prepared. We tend to think of Abraham’s virtue as what Paul describes in Romans, the ability to follow by faith alone. But it seems pretty clear that his virtue, here, is also his ability to pester God with questions.

Pestering is there in the Luke’s gospel, too, of course. Jesus' students come to him wanting to know the answer, the magic charm, and it seems, perhaps, that he gives it to them in the spare and compact petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. But then he qualifies the simple prayer with a very strange parable about one friend bugging another in the middle of the night. What is commendable here, evidently, is not the appropriateness of the request, but actually how inappropriate it is. He doesn’t care that it’s the middle of the night. This friend will not let up.

Most translations, including our NRSV, use the word “persistence” here—“at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him what he needs.”  But a more accurate translation might be “shamelessness.”  This beseeching friend is completely shameless. He has no sense whatsoever of being inappropriate, or demanding, or pushy. He just has a relationship he trusts, and a conviction that the person on whose door he is knocking is going to open up and help him out.

I wonder what it would be for me, for any of us, to stand that way before God. To be shameless. What would it be like to come before God like a complete child, with an open heart, without any mask on my desire?  Most of us have learned, at some time or another, that we have things to be ashamed of. And so we have figured out how to hold God at arm’s length. We ask for the things we think are appropriate. We name only the desires that seem acceptable. We edit our prayers and censor our hearts, trying to present God with articulate souls and hearts already purified.

But I hear, in Jesus' story, a different invitation. I hear Jesus not so much teaching us to pray as reminding us that we already know how. Does a child need to be taught how to ask its parents for what it wants?  Would we ever want our children to stop feeling safe enough with us to tell us the deepest desires of their hearts?  Doesn’t God want us to feel that same safety, that same intimacy, that same trust?  Ask, seek, knock. Please.

Of course, we eventually circle around to the troubling question of what happens to our desires once they are made known, what happens to our prayers once we are bold enough to give them voice. Because we all know prayers that have not been answered, desires that have not been fulfilled. Jesus makes a pretty generous promise. Does our experience contradict his words?  Honestly, I don’t know the answer.

But I do know that Jesus wants us to keep praying even those hard and dangerous prayers. It seems that perhaps the asking is more important than the receiving, the seeking than the finding. There is something about that process that is, in itself, the answer we seek. I am reminded of the old movie Shadowlands , which tells the story of how C.S. Lewis’s wife died of cancer. I don’t know if the scene is apocryphal or not, but late in the movie C.S. Lewis is talking with his parish priest about the disease, and the priest blithely suggests that perhaps Lewis’s prayers for his wife are being answered. C.S. Lewis responds, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Are you willing to be changed?  That is the challenge, the dare, the gift that God has for us today. God wants us to know satisfaction and fulfillment and love and health. But for all that to happen, God just can’t hand out happiness on a platter like a short order cook. Those blessings all come with maturity—in theological terms, with sanctification. And maturity, sanctity—those things grow up out of a lifetime of honest relationship.

So be shameless. Pester God. Wake him up in the middle of the night. Ask for the things you think you’re supposed to ask for, and ask for all the stuff you’ve been afraid to admit you wanted, too. Talk about the things that embarrass you. Ramble on a bit. Haggle, if you feel strongly about it. You won’t be the first.

Maybe God’s not going to give you everything you want. That would be far too small, wouldn’t it?  But God will give you something better—God will give you himself, and in the process God may give you yourself, too. And who knows where that relationship will take you?