How many of you know about Dennis the Menace? It started as a comic strip back in the early 50’s. And then there was a TV show for several years, and then a movie 25 years ago. In each, the story is the same.
Dennis is a young boy with a penchant for mischief. He is never really devious or mean, but just a little messy and clumsy at times. Especially if you ask his neighbor, Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson receives the brunt of Dennis’ mischief most of the time. Every time Dennis tries to help Mr. Wilson, it ends up making a mess or causing more trouble. Every time Dennis shows up, something happens to break. To Mr. Wilson, Dennis is clearly a Menace.
Mr. Wilson is the classic grumpy old man neighbor. Always shaking his fist and yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, he is not the guy that you want to live next to. In general, when you watch the show or the movie or read the comic strip, you side with Dennis. Mr. Wilson is, by most accounts, a bad neighbor.
And he is the perfect image for our Scripture passage today. Luke 11 is about Mr. Wilson and bad neighbors. Actually, it is about prayer. But it helps to have this image of Mr. Wilson in the back of your mind when you read it. The passage I read today has three parts.
The first is the most obvious bad neighbor section. It is a parable of a man who needs some bread. Apparently, a visitor has shown up to his house at a late hour of the night, and the man is caught unprepared. He doesn’t have a HyVee to run to, in order to put out some bread for this hungry travelers late meal. So, he goes to his next door neighbor and asks if he could borrow a couple of loaves. It actually happened all the time.
But this man had the bad fortune of living next to Mr. Wilson. Without even opening the door, we hear from inside the house, “Why are you knocking on my door this late at night? My kids are in bed. I’m in bed. I could care less about your lack of bread!” If he had even opened the door, this is when he would slam it. In the minds of Jesus’ audience, they would recognize immediately that this man was a bad neighbor: the worst side of grumpy old Mr. Wilson.
The second section is about asking and seeking and knocking. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.
But then the third section is back to Mr. Wilson. Technically, it isn’t about a grumpy neighbor, but a grumpy father. He paints a word picture of a young child, asking for a fish to eat. Or for an egg for breakfast. But instead of giving the child what she really wants, this grumpy father gives her a snake. Or a scorpion. We could almost hear Mr. Wilson again, right? “I’ll teach you to whine for a fish! What if I gave you a snake instead? Or a scorpion on your plate? That would teach you to shut your mouth, wouldn’t it?”
Of course, we are aghast at these metaphors from Jesus. They are the worst kinds of stereotypes, and we wonder if anyone could ever be so cruel and unloving. It’s like the caricature of grumpy Mr. Wilson times ten!
It sounds like a completely unrealistic and unhelpful picture. But Jesus’ point seems to be that there are many people who have that exact picture of God. They see God as the grumpy neighbor up in heaven, yelling at all of us, “stay off my lawn.” They suggest that God has the power and authority to give us anything that we want, and yet, here we are living lives of pain and suffering.
And maybe, there are days where we agree. Where we wonder if God is up there, and whether God cares about us. It feels so often like we are the hospitable neighbor, knocking and seeking and asking, but not hearing the answer that we so desperately want to hear. Instead, we hear the words that we dread profoundly:
“Thank you for your application; we have decided to go in another direction.”
“I think we should see other people.”
“There was yet another shooting. This time in a church.”
There are so many times in our lives where we knock and knock and knock, until our knuckles bleed from the knocking, and there is still no answer. Have you ever felt lost enough, afraid enough, desperate enough, that your question is not “should I keep knocking?” But instead, “where in the world is the door? Is there anyone out there who hears my pleas for help? How long, O Lord, how long?”
How often in our lives do we wonder deep down if God is just like a grumpy Mr. Wilson? Maybe he created us once upon a time, but now, he’d rather just be left alone, not really wanting to mess with us or our problems?
But the picture that Jesus paints is very different than a grumpy Mr. Wilson. When we ask, “why aren’t my prayers answered?” Jesus gives us two different answers to the same question:
First, he says, “even if…” The Gospels are filled with these “even if” teachings. The point is that “even if” God were basically a horrible deity, this is how we could respond. “Even if” God was a corrupt judge…. Or a merciless king…. Or a horrible neighbor…. Or an abusive parent.
“Even if” God were all these horrible things, then we could still count on God to give us what we need…if we don’t give up asking. These “even if” parables are usually attached to a teaching on persistence or endurance. And Jesus teaches us that “even if” God were completely unjust and unwilling to help us, Mr. Wilson yelling at us from his front porch, then by our persistence, we could still get what we want. Just like Dennis does. The widow keeps pestering the unjust judge and eventually he hears her case. The man keeps knocking on the door of the grumpy neighbor and eventually he gets up and gives him bread. The child asks for a fish enough, and even the most horrible of parents will relent and give it to her. If we believe that God is powerful, but not kind or loving or gracious, then we might as well keep asking.
But, of course, the “even if” parables are never quite the end of the story. Matthew Skinner reminds us that this passage does not begin in verse 5, where I started reading. Look up to verses 1-4 that precede it. The disciples ask, “how should we pray?” And Jesus responds by teaching them the Lord ’s Prayer. Skinner says that “detached from Jesus’ prayer, verses 5-13 might seem to offer empty promises, blithely suggesting that God dispenses favors and blessings like a vending machine. Christians should not pray to get whatever they want. They should pray for God to bring the fullness of God’s reign to fruition.” Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. We can trust in God’s will because God is not an unjust judge or a grumpy neighbor or an abusive parent. God is a God of grace and love and care. And that is the real good news. God wants only good things for us. God is Emmanuel: God with us. God is incarnate: through Jesus and now through the Holy Spirit.
And so, the real good news is this: the grace comes in the knocking. For it is in the knocking that we are changed. Perhaps we don’t get the answers that we want right away, but the gift of God is not just that we get our checklist checked off. But that God is willing to make our list with us. God is willing to be present – through the Holy Spirit – in the midst of our struggle and our pain. When we are devastated by the news of physical illness, the grace comes in the knocking. When we are concerned about whether we will get that job or make it to that next paycheck, the grace comes in the knocking. When we are terrified about walking into a church because we don’t know what weaponry awaits us inside these doors, the grace comes in the knocking. Jesus invites us to knock and ask and seek, and not stop. Because as we do so, we are being formed. Our fear is replaced by peace. Our questions are replaced by clarity of presence. Our anger is replaced by joy. So Jesus gives us two answers: the simple answer is persistence. The profound answer is Presence. The presence of God is the reason we pray. The grace comes in the knocking.
Today is the second in three weeks asking “Does Church matter?” Does it matter to get together with sisters and brothers in Christ and talk about God, pray to God, learn from God? Does it matter to believe in that which we cannot see? Does it matter to listen to each other’s prayer requests and say them out loud?
You bet it does. Together, we learn alternatives to the images of God as grumpy neighbor or violent king. Together, we learn from each other who God is and what God has done in our lives. Together, we understand the Holy Spirit’s promptings more fully and more clearly. Together, we share in the asking, in the seeking, in the knocking. When one of our knuckles starts to bleed, another can step in and start knocking.
The sermon series is concurrent with our emphasis on Project One62. In fact, this passage is the Scripture passage chosen by the prayer team of Project One62. Early on, they knew what it meant to ask, to seek, to knock. And not just for money. This whole thing is not just about money. Remember that when we began this campaign, the title of it was Building Hospitality. Our goal was to make our building match the hospitality of our people. To welcome the stranger and build community in ways that our old building would not allow us to do.
And now, building hospitality seems even more important. After the tragedy in Texas, a lot of us our asking what it means now to be hospitable. What it means to welcome. What it means when we follow the command of Christ “do not be afraid.” I am glad that you are here today, because it is a testimony to our faith. To stand together and worship together even while many of us are afraid.
It might help you to know that there has been a leadership team over several weeks talking about risk management in our congregation; not just about shootings, but about child protection, financial safeguards, building safety, emergency preparedness. We don’t want to live by fear, but we also want to be smart and keep the most vulnerable among us safe. It might help to know that these conversations have been happening long before this one family squabble turned deadly in Texas, and that they will continue in earnest now. It might help. It might not.
My suspicion is that deep down, what really helps is Jesus. What really helps is the promise that whatever pain and whatever fear that you face, you do not face it alone. What really helps is that in the midst of the knocking, we know that there is Someone on the other side of the door. What really helps is to look to the person next to you and to whisper the words that Christ spoke to his disciples 2,000 years ago: do not be afraid.
Last week, in the Two Way, we dug deep into this passage of Scripture. We asked some hard questions about what God is doing in our lives, especially if we cannot see the answers that we are looking for. And one of the participants had the guts to lay it on the line and share some pain and fear and questions that they are struggling with.
So, together we prayed. Together we asked…we sought…we knocked.
And we didn’t find all the answers. But we found each other once again. And we found God once again. And we remembered that we were not alone.
For the grace comes in the knocking.