Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Loving God and Neighbor: Letting God Love You," Sermon, July 24, 2016

Community UMC, Quincy, CA
“Loving God and Neighbor: Letting God Love You”
Pastor Andrew Davis
July 10, 2016
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.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.[b]
    Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
    And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]
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;for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’And 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.’ 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.
“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. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for[e] a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If 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[f] to those who ask him!”

(playing and singing) Your love o God,
is broad like beach and meadow, Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.  You leave us free to seek you or reject you,
                You give us room to answer “yes” or “no.
                Your love, o God, is broad like beach and meadow,
                Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.[i]
        I remember singing the words of this song in our Tuesday chapel service at Wesley Theological Seminary on September 11, 2012, the eleven-year anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in my lifetime.  The first verse of this song alone tells us much about God’s love, how wide Gods love is, like beach and meadow.  While I don’t remember the sermon our acting dean at the time, Rev. Dr. Bruce Birch preached that morning, I do remember being captivated by the words of this song because despite tragedy, despite turmoil, and despite fear, God’s love is so much wider and so much bigger than anything we can comprehend, even in the midst of violence and other issues that are happening in our world as we speak.  But as the song says and because humans do have the capacity of choice, we have the “room to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’” when it comes to accepting God’s love and when it comes to prayer.[ii]
        As we wrap up our series of “Loving God and Loving Neighbor” this morning, we come to “Letting God Love You,” in which we have the choice to accept that love or turn it down.  We also have the freedom to pray, or not to pray.  But an important part of loving God and loving neighbor is to be in regular prayer with God, loving our neighbors, loving God, and letting God love us.  Prayer is also a means of allowing God to love us because “we bring our need to God’s love in faith, [which] is [through] prayer.”[iii] So just as we will sing about in our closing hymn, we are always being called to “take it to the Lord in prayer” or as one of my friends and colleagues I went to seminary with from Seattle always says, “just give it to God.” Sometimes, letting God love us is simply giving it all to God. 
        As we roll up our sleeves to engage with our text this morning from Luke’s Gospel, we encounter the theme of prayer.  The text this morning reads more like a sermon on prayer, and prayer is certainly a good focus and means of letting God love us.  God loves us when we simply seek God and ask God.  The text begins with the disciples asking Jesus to show them how to pray, which many of us may already be very familiar with because it is part of The Lord’s Prayer which we recite each week as part of the prayers of the people, or during the Communion liturgy on the first Sunday of the month.  In teaching the disciples the prayer that he taught them, Jesus is primarily talking about God and “the nature of God as father,” but in order to let God love you, “the greatest stimuli to prayer are the awareness of our need and those who know their own need and the love of God as a heavenly father will be able to pray truly.”[iv]
      Jesus goes on and talks of the neighbor needing help from another neighbor and while the neighbor being asked is slow to respond initially, Jesus tells us that it takes persistence and that is much like how our prayer lives need to be.  Persistent...constantly seeking, constantly knocking on the door, and constantly asking God.  It’s like the line from the hymn, “Seek Ye First,” that goes “knock and the door shall be opened unto you…” Seeking God, asking of God, and knocking at the door persistently is one way we can allow God to love us when we treat our prayer life in the same way. 
        When we pray, we let God love us by allowing God to know our needs, especially when we are fully honest with God.  When Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, he lists off some of the basic needs that we pray to God for…aspects of God’s love expressed through these needs are giving food through our daily bread, being forgiven when we ask forgiveness and in turn, forgiving others, and protection from temptation and sin, as well as being delivered from evil when we turn to God and let God love us.  And even more, “God longs to love us! One of the chief ways God is able to express that love and care for us is through responding to our prayers—including ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ but not limited to it.”[v] However, one caveat to being persistent in prayer is that response to our prayers may take a little time and may not always happen overnight.  At times, the words of “no” or “not yet” are also part of letting God love us. 
In her book, An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest turned professor of religion, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that
the problem, I think, is that divine response to prayer is one of those beauties that remain in the eye of the beholder.  What sounds like an answer to prayer to one person sounds like silence to another.  What seems like a providentially big fish to someone sounds like silence to someone else.[vi] 

        While some might have an answer to their prayers right away, there are times when we need to wait, in which it sometimes feels like God is being distant, kind of like the neighbor who is reluctant to get up and help their friend.  Even while waiting, it could even cause us to question faith or whether we are still loved by God.  Waiting is already hard enough. Except, that's where Jesus implores the disciples and us to be persistent, to keep seeking, keep asking, and keep knocking. 
During the recession eight years ago, I was going through a very stressful time in my life amidst essentially having two jobs which were sometimes in tension with each other, particularly over scheduling and resulted in some animated exchanges with management in one of my jobs.  It was one of those times where you weren’t sure you would even have a job later that day given the volatility of the economy and working environment.  It was an anxiety-inducing time for many of us and still is to some degree.  Even though I was still able to hold both my jobs and was frequently reminded that I still had a job or was still working to the point of irritation, I kept praying to God and tried not to give up.  While it took another year for things in one job to change for the better and then three more years for God to show me the way toward a different vocational path, persistence in prayer paid off, but the waiting could be painful.  I see it in retrospect that it was God’s way of saying wait, not yet, and “patience little grasshopper, patience.” But part of that journey was filled with me questioning whether God still loved me, or if I was being punished by God for something I wasn’t seeing.  It’s easy to feel that way when prayers are not immediately answered…more reason why Jesus tells us to be persistent and keep seeking, asking, and knocking, all while knowing that God still loves us.  We need to be persistent in our prayers, because Waiting and trusting in God's timing is also way of letting God love us. 
When we think more about God’s love and why lack of response from God is a way to let God love us, God’s silence may be a way of keeping us from being hurt in the long-run.  In a blog by Washington, DC attorney and writer, Joshua Rogers, Rogers was writing about waiting for and wanting this “Big Thing,” which he was praying really hard for, but did not immediately get.[vii]  Sometimes, we have to hear the word “no” or “not yet” from God, but as Rogers says, he heard God reply by saying “No, you can’t have it, and here’s why: I’m jealous for you, and I love you with an everlasting love.”[viii] Letting God love us involves hearing that answer of no from God at times and even not yet.  But as Rogers says, it also makes us more dependent on God over other earthly things, and times like these in our nation and world is where we need to depend on God and let God love us even more than ever.[ix] Despite what happens or doesn’t happen when we pray, we need to keep praying regardless. 
We may have to keep knocking and seeking, like the friend does with his neighbor who had already gone to bed for the night and likewise, our prayers may not be answered overnight, but God still loves us and when we pray, we are still allowing God to love us.  On the other hand, as I learned through a good friend of mine, love is not always warm and fuzzy and that goes for God’s love too.  We all need friends who hold us accountable and as I shared last week that whenever I get a character flaw of mine pointed out by some of these friends, I initially resent it.  But then I need to pray about it, and allow God to love me and in turn, receive God’s love and assurance.  That IS how much God loves us, even enough to speak the truth through others so that we can see things in us that we normally would not see.  And part of letting God love us is having such friends in our lives, the ones who speak God’s truth, but also speak it out of their own love for us because they too let God love them. It’s all part of the greater picture of loving God and neighbor. 
Likewise, we too need to be willing to speak truth in love to each other, but also hear truth in love from others because it’s a way of letting God love us, especially when it can lead to personal growth, spiritual growth, and transformation.  But we can also be reassured of God’s love when we pray by feeling a sense of peace, even in times of turmoil, uncertainty, and fear because the good news is that our faith will be stronger when we let God love us through prayer.  Indeed, God’s love is “broad like beach and meadow.”
So as we go into our new week and this final full week of July, how are you going to encourage others  to “seek,” "ask," and “knock” at the door through prayer?  And how will you let God love you as you pray? 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[i] “Your Love, O God,” words by Anders Frostenson, Music by Lars Ake Lundberg in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 120. 
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] “Luke 11:9-13 Commentary” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 239. 
[iv] Ibid., 238
[v] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Lectionary Calendar’. 2016. Accessed July 22, 2016.
[vi] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper One, 2009), 182. 
[vii] Rogers, Joshua. ‘So Thankful God Said No’.Spiritual Growth. May 27, 2015.
[viii] Ibid. 
[ix] Ibid.  

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