Sermon preached July 24, 2016
Texts: Luke 11:1-13
The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuyaK0hGxWk
In the late 1960s, early 1970s, the phrase “truckin’” connoted keeping on. Keep on truckin’ – keep on going. Toward the end of this song by the Grateful Dead, the singer sings, “lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Well, I am in a reflecting mood these days as I move toward my new role as a bishop and new position in Michigan. It has been a wonderful trip these last eleven years. Lately it occurs to me how quickly that time has gone and how deep the bonds run. More on that in a couple of weeks.
Our gospel reading for this morning has a lot to do with persistence, keeping on. The story, however, begins with prayer. Jesus has been praying and the disciples ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus offers them a prayer, not atypical of the teachers of his time. It offers a beautiful prayer, and in it one can find a summary of what the life of discipleship is to be about: intimacy with God, desiring God’s dream for the world to become a reality, concern for basic needs, forming a community of love and forgiveness, easing times of trial and courage to confront them.
This delightful and wonderful prayer is followed by a rather odd story, a story only Luke has Jesus tell. Luke has Jesus tell a story about a man who has unexpected company arriving late at night. This man goes to his friend to ask for bread to help show hospitality to the guest. The man with the bread at first refuses, but then relents, giving bread to his friend not out of friendship but out of persistence.
So is this story trying to say that God is a God who wants us to pester, perhaps even grovel? Is this story trying to say that God is reluctant in generosity, but if we are persistent in our asking this reluctant God may relent?
Jesus continues, though, and his words indicate that God is not that kind of God. Ask and it will be given you, search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you…. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?
Persistence seems to be a quality of God. God is persistent in love. God is persistent in grace. God is persistent in wanting to give good gifts, particularly God’s own self in the Spirit. Our persistence is rooted in the persistence of God. We persist in prayer not to get the attention of a reluctant or capricious God, but in response to God’s persistent love and grace. Keep on in prayer, because God keeps desiring our best. There is ambiguity in the story Jesus tells about the man seeking the bread. Most of us read it as his persistence getting bread from his friend. The story can be read as persistence belonging to the giver of the bread. He wants to be persistent in doing good.
Jesus encourages us to be persistent in prayer, to keep on praying because God is always responding to our prayers. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki wrote one of my favorite books on prayer. In it she writes: God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Quite simply, prayer changes the “isness” of the world…. And God who is always working with the world takes every opportunity within the world to influence it for its own good. (In God’s Presence, 31, 49). God is always working for the good of the world. God is persistent, and our persistent prayers are ways we open ourselves to God’s continuing influence.
Yet while the focus of these words of Jesus seems to be prayer, and keeping on in praying, keep on truckin’ in prayer, the prayer that Jesus first offers, a model for the prayer we pray weekly and many of us pray more frequently, is a prayer about the entire life of discipleship. The persistence Jesus highlights here is also a persistence in all the work of God, all of the work of God’s dream for the world – intimacy with God, meeting basic needs, building communities of love and forgiveness, easing difficulty and cultivating courage for difficult times. Jesus seems to be saying keep on, keep on truckin’, keep on going, God is at work in the world and when you draw near to this God of persistent love and grace, you become persistent in love and grace.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney is a favorite of mine, as many of you know. I have told the story of how one day, when I was a pastor on the Iron Range I heard a recorded reading of his from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis while driving in my car. I was excited that the reading would be repeated that night at 9 p.m. I made my cassette recorder ready and taped that reading. I love the poems and I love his voice reading the poems.
One of the poems Heaney read that day was from his then new book The Spirit Level. It was a poem dedicated to his brother, an Irish farmer, a Catholic in the Protestant north. The poem is a wonderful mix of childhood memories with cruelties from the news. Heaney recalls how his brother one time used a whitewash brush and chair to pretend he was playing the bagpipes, and the laughter created. He recalls his brother’s broken arm. He also, in the poem notes the death of a part-time reservist who had been waiting for a lift – Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood/In spatters on the whitewash. Heaney does a wonderful job of reminding us of the small joys of life, the small injuries of life, and the large cruelties that are also part of the world.
He ends the poem with a tribute to his brother who lives in this world of ours.
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.
After reading this poem, Heaney shared a bit of wisdom with the Guthrie Theater crowd. “Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about. Getting started. Keeping going. Getting started again. That’s it.”
Those words are especially poignant now. Getting started, keeping going, getting started again. Here we are on the edge of change, you and me. We are getting started again, you with some new pastoral leadership, and me as The United Methodist Bishop assigned to Michigan. God’s love is here for us as it always has been, God’s persistent love. God invites us to get started again and keep going – keep going in deepening intimacy with God, keep going in desiring and working for God’s dream for the world, keep going in being concerned for basic human need, keep going in creating a community of love and forgiveness, keep going in trying to ease difficult times and cultivating the courage for when those difficult times come anyway. God is not interested in our groveling. God desires our good. God desires to fill us with God’s Spirit. God desires us to get started, keep going and get started again. Sometimes the trip may seem long and strange, but God’s way is the way of grace and joy. Keep on truckin’ in that way. In Jesus. Amen.