May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Holy Scripture is full of advice about how to live our lives. I think most of us crave this kind of advice; I know I do. It’s not easy to live rooted in Christ’s love when we also must live under the world’s “rulers and authorities”, as the writer of Colossians put it.
There’s all kinds of advice on offer. This letter offers some of it. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” We’re to be tough-minded, to avoid distractions, to attend to the purity of our thoughts, and to keep our eyes on Christ. It is live-giving to keep our eyes on Christ. So, if we just take the letter-writer’s advice, all will be well.
Do this, get that. Perfect. Right? Well, maybe. But “doing this” – keeping our eyes on Christ – is hard enough that we can’t be sure we’ve done it well enough. So there’s a trap.
Things go wrong. We are taken captive sometimes – we suffer from addictions, apathy, greed, anger, prejudice, you name it – the evil things the Church has always called sin. We suffer from those things and we make each other suffer from them. We make bad decisions. And then we’re taken captive again because we carry huge wet sandbags of regret – what the Church has always called guilt – for how we’ve caused people to suffer and suffered ourselves. So, it’s double jeopardy. We do bad things, and we carry the burden of guilt.
Finally, when we read scriptural advice like “see to it that no one takes you captive” our double jeopardy turns to triple jeopardy. We do bad things, and we carry the guilt, and it’s all because we weren’t tough-minded and pure-hearted enough to make good decisions and avoid trouble in the first place. How is this working out for you? I wonder if this tough-mindedness and pureheartedness helps?
Almost all of us have been two years old, and some of us have raised two-year-olds. Do you remember discovering the word “No?” Do you remember the thrill of learning that it’s possible to be uncooperative, and the frustration of living with an uncooperative two-year-old? Would it occur to you to punish an uncooperative two-year-old by saying, “sit in the corner until you stop being weak-minded and letting yourself be taken captive by principalities, powers, and worldly philosophy?
No. But the little child’s gleeful at saying “No” and seeing her parents become frustrated. Is that glee free from sin? Also no. We do mistreat each other. Our human tendency to mistreat each other – to sin, in Church language – has at least some roots that go deeper than good decisions and diligent mind-control can prevent.
So there’s a problem with “be tough minded” advice like in this letter. We want to live in God’s realm of justice and peace, but when we don’t consistently live that way, it must be because we’re not tough minded enough.
If we could just be a little tougher, we’d be fine, right? No. We know that’s not going to work out. We have a prayer we sometimes say where we admit that we’re in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. That’s the truth, all scriptural advice about tough-mindedness notwithstanding.
Sometimes the words of Jesus offer us crisp advice on how to live our lives. Again, we crave that advice and love to hear it. We’ve been hearing that advice in our Gospel readings this summer. Two weeks ago Jesus wrapped up his parable of the Samaritan caring for the injured stranger on the highway by saying “Go and do likewise.” Last week he told Martha — the more anxious of two sisters — to respect the choice of the less anxious one to be at peace and listen to him. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he said.
This is advice, like the epistle-writers’ advice. But it’s not quite the same kind of advice. Jesus didn’t condemn Martha for anxiety and busyness, he simply praised Mary for choosing the better part. He suggested that you and I have the same ability to do what the Samaritan did. He advised Martha to see Mary’s choice with an open heart, and all of us to see the guy lying by the side of the road with an open heart. Jesus’s advice carries us toward openness towards each other.
Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after the last two weeks in Luke. It too is full of advice. But the advice in this chapter is again very different. Jesus uses a couple of counterexamples for how to feed a hungry child: give her a snake or a scorpion instead of food? That seems extreme. Don’t we wish he said, “don’t try this at home!”
This whole passage is about prayer: about our conversations with God, the One Jesus called “daddy.” Jesus gave us this advice:
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.
This is challenging advice. For one thing, we’re always being taught to shut up and listen in prayer-in our conversations with God. “Be still and know that I am God” are the words from Psalm 46, not “pester me until I give you what you want.”
For another thing, what does it mean if you don’t get what you ask for in prayer? Does it mean you didn’t pray right, or didn’t pray hard enough? What does it even mean to pray hard enough? Is it like shouting loudly enough at your two-year-old to stop saying No, so she’ll actually stop saying it? (Don’t try this at home, OK?)
So this isn’t direct advice like “go and do likewise.” This is advice that invites us to re-imagine what it’s like in the realm of God.
A minister acquaintance of mine, Sally, serves in upstate New York. A woman knocked on the church door, and said “I live in my car with my two cats. We’re crowded. Can I borrow a tent?”
In conversation, Sally got to know the woman. She heard about the woman’s life. It had times of joy, but she also episodes of addiction and anger. She wasn’t tough-minded. She found it hard to make good decisions about her life. At any rate, Sally found somebody in the congregation with a tent, and gave it to her.
After a week or so, another knock came. “Can I put up the tent in the church backyard and stay here for a while? I won’t be any trouble.”
Sally was tempted to act from her heart of compassion and say “Go ahead.” But she didn’t. She recognized in her heart that the car-cat woman was following Jesus’s advice: ask, seek, knock. Pester God, pester a church, don’t give up, get your daily bread. She didn’t just say OK. Instead, she started following the Jesus’s advice herself. The church’s telephone got a lot of use that day, with the woman and Sally together asking, seeking, and knocking. Some friend of a friend suggested a supportive housing place that could take the woman and her pets.
And, both Sally and the woman learned from each other about the power of asking, seeking, knocking, and then listening to the answer. They found saw God’s relentless compassion in each other and in the people they spoke to that day. When they knocked, they heard God knocking back, and listened. Asking, seeking, and knocking opened up their imaginations about what God’s realm could look like.
We’ve heard three kinds of scriptural advice about living in the realm of God. There’s the advice about being tough-minded with ourselves. That helps, but it’s not enough. There’s the advice about being open-hearted with others like the Samaritan. That’s also good advice. Thirdly there’s the advice to ask, seek, knock, and never give up. Sally and that stranger experienced what that’s all about: opening up ourselves to be transformed by God and each other. It’s when we’re willing to be helped that we will be led by each other and God into the realm of justice and peace.
May each of us continually ask, seek, and knock to find God’s realm in this world.