Ready to Give
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The time we live in is an age of communication. There are modes of communication available that were unimaginable a century ago. With these modes of communication comes an increase in attempts at communication. I say “attempts,” because many of them are unsuccessful.
Do you have email? Then you know what it’s like to struggle with spam.
Is your phone equipped with an answering machine? Then some of the messages you play back are unwanted ones; they may even be recorded announcements recorded again by your recorder.
The letter carrier may bring you something worthwhile, but it will be badly outnumbered by bills and junk mail.
The number of commercial messages on television per hour of program keeps increasing.
Drive down a highway or a city street, and more likely than not, you’ll have advertising to keep you company.
Then there are times when you’re the one who wishes to communicate.
You send the email, and no response comes.
You leave the phone message, and it gets lost. Or the person you’re trying to contact is “in a meeting,” or “away from her desk,” or “one another line.”
You sit in the restaurant ready to order, and start to wonder whether the wait person has been kidnaped and it’s up to you to pay the ransom.
Add to this all the perennial ways in which human communication can turn out to be a losing proposition due to our inner condition. Any one of us can enter an encounter full of prejudice, disinterest, distraction, or other factors that prevent us from hearing or prevent us from responding in ways that the other party will appreciate.
For all these reasons and still others, it looks sometimes as though “human communication” is a contradiction in terms.
But wait—there is something else regrettable about all this that I must mention. Often we go a step further in a very unrewarding direction. We assume that communication with God—what religious traditions call prayer—is necessarily beset with the same problems that make so much human communication a disappointment and a dilemma.
Perhaps we imagine God as a harried bureaucrat who returns from lunch to a desk covered with pink slips titled WHILE YOU WERE OUT. On one of them he notices our name as the party to call back, but only snorts to himself, crumples the paper, and throws it away.
Today’s Scripture readings tell us stories in an effort to help us realize that communication with God is not like that, or if it is, the responsibility rests, not with the Most High, but with us.
Jesus tells a story about a neighbor that I will call “The Midnight Nuisance.” Remember that back then nobody had email, a cell phone, or even electricity. So when it got dark, most people went to bed, because it was very dark indeed.
Moreover, when people made bread, they made enough for that day. When Jesus mentions “our daily bread” in the prayer he teaches his disciples, he means daily and they know what he means.
So what happens when some guest arrives on your doorstep late in the day and you feel a sacred obligation to practice hospitality, but the bread you baked that morning is all gone? Well, you might go over to your neighbor’s house. This is a culture that practices solidarity, and your neighbor might feel as obliged to provide your guest with something to eat as you do. “One for all, all for one,” that sort of thing.
On the other hand, however, maybe this neighbor is already in bed. She has several small kids, and they’ve finally fallen asleep in her bed. She doesn’t want to get up and wake them when you call. Will she answer the door?
Jesus says she will, and maybe she gets up with agility and acrobatic grace, without awakening a single tot. She does this out of a sense of duty perhaps, maybe also to get you to go away. Perhaps she sees that some time the roles could be reversed. She might even like to be helpful. And she gets a kick out of her success in gymnastics, and hopes she can get back in without anybody crying.
In any case, she puts into your hands the bread she has left, enough to feed your guest. You tell her “Thanks!” and then return home through the blackness of night.
Jesus offers this story to give us hope. If people will get out of bed in a situation like that, ordinary, tired people whose children may be light sleepers, then don’t you think that the Holy One, blessed be his name, whose mercy endures forever—don’t you think that this Lord God may be at least that approachable by those who pray? Don’t you think that those who search out his house through the darkness, who knock on his door in need—don’t you think that they will have the door opened for them and have thrust into their hands something more than a few cold crusts? God is a lot better than we are even at our best, or God ain’t God.
Jesus realizes how anything this gracious is difficult for our small minds and tough hearts to accept. So he makes the point again in different terms. He recognizes that most parents at least try to be good parents, even if they sometimes fail. If our kid asks for fish fillet for supper, we don’t throw a live snake at him, do we? If our kid asks for a hard-boiled egg as a snack (What sort of kids are these, anyway?)—if our kid asks for a hard-boiled egg as a snack, we don’t hand her a scorpion, do we?
When it comes to our kids, we don’t act like jerks. Why should we suppose that when it comes to his kids, God would act like a jerk? The Lord of heaven and earth does not crumple and throw away the WHILE YOU WERE OUT slip that’s marked with our name. No, far from it.
It might be easier if God did. Then we might regard ourselves as off the hook regarding prayer.
We try to make it complicated. God keeps it simple.
We want it our way. God has a better way.
We may be fearful. God leads us to trust.
We may be out to lunch. God’s waiting by the phone.
As one old prayer puts it, the Lord is “always more ready to hear than we to pray,” and the Lord is ready to give us “more than we either desire or deserve.” [Collect for Proper 22 in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 234.] The language of that prayer is not meant to keep God on good behavior; it’s there for us not to believe that God has either a distracted mind or a small heart.
Jesus ends today’s Gospel with an attack on tunnel vision. Often what we ask of God is too small. We ask for what might be a part of our lives rather than life itself. Jesus promises—and who of us will call him a liar?—that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. In other words, Jesus tells us to ask God for God, for the gift of God’s own Spirit!
What bigger gift can we ask for? What bigger gift can be given? Ask for the Holy Spirit. Let the Spirit prevail in your life. Seek first the kingdom of God, seek to be that kingdom, that place where God is apparent and God reigns.
God bestows the Spirit for the asking. In the light of that Holy Spirit everything starts to look different.
It is astounding to realize that God gives himself away in response to our prayers. It’s astounding to realize that God then expects a like generosity from us.
May our receiving and our giving be abundant, for what we receive and give—all of it is God or comes from God. May our receiving and our giving be abundant. Amen.
Copyright 2007 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.
Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).