Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 28, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 18:20-32+Psalm 138+Colossians 2:6-15+Luke 11:1-13

“’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….'” (Luke 11:6-7)

We are rather accustomed to reading parables by assigning roles to humans and a role to God or to God’s reign. The implication of the middle part of this section of Luke that we read today would lead us to believe that we are the ones who have unexpected guests and we go to God for bread, and he tells us that he’s already in bed, but maybe if we persist in asking, he’ll get up and help us.

And if that’s your interpretation of this parable, it makes God sound like a big jerk, so I think we need to revisit how we read this particular story.        

Some of what we run into here is a translation problem.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the bible that we use, and our lectionary uses, Jesus starts this part of the story with “Suppose one of you has a friend” (v. 5). However, the original Greek is “Τίς ἐξ ὑμῶν” – who among you? And to confuse matters further, this is actually an idiomatic expression for “imagine the unthinkable.”[1] And that unthinkable would be that anyone would show up at someone’s house and not be offered whatever the person had to give.

Think back to what I said about last week’s story of Mary and Martha. Martha was doing exactly what she should have been doing in providing hospitality to Jesus and his companions. It is a duty and requirement of Jewish culture. Even the poorest of the poor will share the last of what they have if someone in need comes to their door. It reminds me of the time we were guests in the home of someone living in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem in Palestine, and the family served us as honored guests even as they struggle for daily survival.

You can assume that the man who had unexpected guests in the middle of the night had nothing. Maybe he had fallen on hard times. Chances are, he had already been to his family to ask for help, and they had nothing to give either. But this neighbor of his, apparently, he does have food to share. And it would be unthinkable, unimaginable that he would not provide it.        

There is one more problematic translation here. In verse 8, we read, “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.” First of all, it doesn’t say he asked more than once, so where is this persistence? The word ἀναίδειαν is most-often understood as shamelessness. It would be the height of shame for the man not to provide what he had, even if he is as destitute as the one who is asking. The one doing the asking bears no shame because this is what one does in this culture – he knows he has guests to feed at home. And the one who has bread must share it. Even if it means he’s not sure where the next meal will come from.

Which brings us back to the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus has just taught. “Give us each day our daily bread” (11:3). As the Israelites depended on God for manna in the wilderness, gathering only enough for each day’s need, so God tells us to trust that what is needed will be provided. So, if someone shows up asking for bread, give it. Even if it is your last loaf. We are to give as generously as God does. God does not give snakes and scorpions to those who are hungry for food. Why do we give the last of what we have, only what we don’t think we’ll need? When you give to the pantry, do you give the stuff that’s old and expired or your kids won’t eat, or do you give the best you have? Do you give away old clothing that you wouldn’t be caught dead in and expect someone else to wear it? Do you pledge to the ministry of this church only what’s left over in your household budget?

Those are not the kinds of gifts that God gives, and it doesn’t matter who you are.

At the beginning of this chapter of Luke, Jesus is praying. He does that a lot. Then his disciples ask him to teach them to pray as John apparently taught his disciples. I can’t help but wonder if there is a little competitiveness between the two groups. And in this version of the prayer, Jesus omits the first-person-plural possessive. He doesn’t say “Our Father.” It’s almost like he’s teaching them a lesson without telling them he’s teaching them a lesson. God is not just our Father. He’s their Father, too. He’s all y’all’s Father. The one, holy, and hallowed God is the God of all of us.

Pray that this God-of-all will do what God would do, would bring God’s reign on earth, would give us bread each day, would show us how to forgive, and would save us from evil. This is the kind of persistence in prayer that Jesus teaches. If we say this prayer every day, we are praying for a new world order, one in which we not only say God reigns, but we act as if God reigns. Now, not later.

A few months before Dr. Martin Luther King died, he told a story in a sermon about an event that had happened years before when he was working in Montgomery, Alabama. Arriving home late one night, the phone rang, and a voice threatened to bomb his home if he didn’t back off.  He had received many threats, but this one shook him. So, he sat down at his kitchen table and prayed through most of the night. He sensed that this was a turning point for him: either he was all in, or he was not. Either he fully trusted God’s leading or he did not. And somewhere in that night of praying, he felt God’s movement that convinced him to go on. To make a difference. To live his life as prodigally as Jesus lived his, even to the point of death. Dr. King’s house was bombed a couple of days later. He and his family were not harmed, and he lived to tell the story and to lead a movement.

Seek. Knock. Ask. And yes, be persistent. Just as Abraham was persistent in his requests of God to spare the people of Sodom if even ten righteous people could be found there.

Prayer is a subversive activity. It’s a denial of worldly power. A relinquishing of reliance on our own efficacy, our own power. It’s trusting that God hears and guides our feet. I believe that God answers prayer, but God’s answers are not always the ones we are looking for. One of the most famous quotes that wasn’t actually said by someone is from the movie Shadowlands in which Anthony Hopkins, who plays C.S. Lewis, is talking with a friend about his dying wife, Joy, and the friend tells him to keep praying and God will hear. Hopkins as Lewis says, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Prayer has a way of changing us so that our hearts and minds are more aligned with God’s will rather than our own. Our hearts are tuned to see God’s grace. Be persistent in prayer, not because God doesn’t hear you the first time and wants you to beg, but because in our prayer we are spending time with the one who created us and whose great longing in the creation of humankind was simply to be in relationship with us. God promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who ask. Try it. You might be surprised at the power you unleash.


[1] I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Bosco Peters for this interpretation. https://liturgy.co.nz/parable-of-the-friend-at-night

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1005539-i-pray-because-i-can-t-help-myself-i-pray-because

ASEPSermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 28, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas