Is This About God or Us? Yes

Ask, seek, and knock. You’ll be amazed at what you find
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It is great to be with you all today. Together, we’ve spent a couple of months walking through Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, seeing how it builds and develops, discovering what it means for us to live into the life that God wants for us. Next week we will be finishing up the Sermon on the Mount. There were a few ideas that I had in mind for this summer, but our plans have changed, so if there is anything that you are curious about, anything that you’d like to learn more about, let me know and we’ll have some fun.

Before we jump into this text, let’s pray:

God, give us your peace so that we might be present with one another and with you, to see ourselves, and one another, as you see us, with love, with hope, with grace. Inspire our hearts and minds to hear the word that you have for us today. Amen.

Jesus tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your [child] asks for bread, will give [them] a stone? Or if [they] ask for a fish, will give [them] a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your [God] in heaven give good gifts to those who ask [God]! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Essentially, Jesus says, if you want to know what ethics are in the scriptures, just treat people like you’d like to be treated, you know, by not being a jerk. But on top of that, Jesus tells us that if what we ask for will be given to us, what we seek we will find, and when we knock on a door, it will be opened to us.

When you hear these words from Jesus, ask, seek, knock, what comes to mind, what sort of images and ideas well up within you?

Maybe, you, like the late, great artist, prophet and poet, Janis Joplin have this come to mind

Oh Lord, if I could just have a Mercedes Benz, a color TV, and a night on the town, all would be right in the world.

There is a tension in this text because in the United States there are a lot of well known and wealthy pastors that can tell you that God wants you to have a Mercedes Benz, and if you say the right prayers and keep giving them money, they’ll get another one and you might get one too.

This sort of theology and faith can make us queasy. It just doesn’t sit right because the idea of God as a cosmic genie that grants wishes doesn’t work. There’s more tension with this passage too because there’s the time that we asked for cancer to go away and it didn’t, there the family member that we keep searching for the right rehab for, and they never found it, there’s the door that we keep knocking on, but it never opens.

My guess is, when you hear Jesus say ask, seek, knock, your gut impulse is to assume that Jesus is talking about prayer and our relationship with God, but could it be that this passage in the Sermon on the Mount first and foremost about our relationship with one another?

Let’s remember the ground that we have covered so far because when we see how we got here, we can really get a sense of what Jesus is pointing us towards.

In Matthew Chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor in Spirit”. From the start, Jesus needs us to know and remember that we are not alone, we are not cast aside, when we are at the end of our rope, when we just can’t hold it together anymore, at the very moment we feel like we can’t keep going, God is there and we are loved. Jesus then spends the rest of chapter 5 talking about the kind of people that God believes and knows we are.

Jesus starts this teaching by telling us that God is not distant or indifferent, Jesus tells us, over and over again, we are blessed, beloved, and entrusted to be a people that live with grace and peace, we can share the endless love with one another that God has first given to us. Jesus tells us that we are salt and light. Jesus doesn’t tell us that we could be, that we might be, Jesus simply states that this is who we are, a light that shines before others, and a life that enhances this world.

In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus shifts from telling us about who we are, who God has created us to be, and moves into telling us how we can trust our lives to God’s love. Jesus teaches us to pray, saying anytime we pray to God we can simply say, “You already know”. Jesus tells us about the birds of the air, how they don’t reap or sow or hoard toilet paper and God takes care of them. Jesus tells us about the flowers of the field, they bloom today but are gone tomorrow, and yet their beauty is beyond any outfit we have. In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus is teaching us how to be a non-anxious presence in the world. Because we trust our lives to God, it’s not that we never feel fear or worries or anxiety, is that we acknowledged those feelings, we own them, we don’t try to hide them or cast them aside, but instead of letting our worries get the last word, we remember that God already knows, and with that grounding, centering our hearts and minds in the love of God that is always with us, we move forward together. We live with hope, we orient our lives with this grace and peace, justice, and joy, that God wants for us and for everyone else.

As we saw last week, Jesus starts chapter 7 by shifting us into trusting one another to God’s love. When Jesus tells us not to judge, to take the plank out of our eye before we worry about the splinter in others, that we shouldn’t cast our pearls before pigs, Jesus is saying, all that stuff I just said about you, remember that it’s true about them too.

Our judgments often come out of guilt or shame or critique and it’s a not so subtle way to attempt to control one another, to take charge of their lives by forgetting that God already knows what they need too. But sometimes it’s not guilt or shame or critique that we use to try to control others, sometimes it’s the pearls, the gifts that come with strings attached.

Since Jesus has just told us that we can trust our lives to God, that we don’t have to control one another because we can trust everyone’s life to God’s grace, could it possibly be that when Jesus says to ask, seek, knock, Jesus has something to tell us about the goodness and the mercy that can come our way when we live in right relationships with one another?

Jesus tells us to ask because when we ask, we’re not making a demand, we’re not trying to be in control. When we ask, when we come to one another humbly, we’re honoring one another, we’re recognizing each other’s gifts and skills and abilities, we’re seeking their wisdom or insight or help, we’re trying to connect with one another. And when we ask, we know that they can always say no.

And yet, when a friend calls us at 4 am in tears, are we going to hang up and tell them to call us back in a couple hours? How often, when someone who has nothing comes to us and asks for something, are we going to send them away empty-handed?

Jesus says ask and you will receive.

I went to Simpson College in Indianola and through a camp that I worked at I got to know a lot of the students at Ankeny First UMC. Since I knew so many of their students, I was asked to volunteer with their youth groups, I made a counteroffer for gas money, and they brought me on as an ‘intern’ at the church.

This was my freshman year of college and that year my older sister, Elisabeth, was also at Simpson, in her senior year. Our parents gave us a car to share and it wasn’t anything special, but it worked.

One day my sister and I exchanged keys and she told me that the car was starting to drive a little weird, it felt like the alignment was off, and I drove it from Indianola to Ankeny and knew exactly what she was talking about. The steering was just a little off and the car was driving louder than it used to. Spring break was coming up soon, and like good college students instead of taking the car to the shop ourselves, we called our mom and had her set up an appointment for us when we were back home.

In the meantime, my sister was driving to her internship, I was driving back and forth to Ankeny a couple times a week, and the car was now noticeably shaking as we drove, especially on the highway.

Our confidence in the car was shaky, but not as shaky as the car now was, but we were still driving it because this was before uber and what else were we going to do? Ask a friend to borrow their car?

The last time I saw that car, I was driving back from the church in Ankeny towards Indianola. I had just got onto 35 south and made it past exit 92, which, if you know that spot on the map, you know that means I just made it out of town.

It was late at night and because there wasn’t much traffic on the road, I got up to the speed limit as fast as I could which was still pretty slow, but then thought about the homework that I still needed to do and pushed it a little faster. That’s when the car started to bounce a little faster too. It was a bumpy ride until all of a sudden it wasn’t because the front driver-side wheel had completely fallen off the car. Instead of bouncing, the car was now skidding down the highway with sparks flashing from where the wheel used to be.

It wasn’t just that the tire blew, the entire wheel was gone because what was throwing off the alignment, and getting louder and louder until the car started to d bounce was the axel slowly breaking into multiple pieces.

When I was able to get the car off to the side of the road and come to a stop, I couldn’t get out on the drivers-side because the wheel well and door were kind of welded together.

As I crawled out the passenger door, I looked ahead down the road to see if I could track down the wheel that just fell off our car, but it left the vehicle at about 80 miles per hour, so I quickly gave up that search.

While I surveyed the damage and reveled in my safety, I noticed a car had stopped behind me. They asked if I was OK and then asked if I needed to use their phone, which I did because this was 2004 and I didn’t have a cell phone.

Had that car not stopped, I don’t know what I would have done, but because they stopped, I was able to call my parents, who were able to call a tow truck, and called one of their friends in the area so I could be picked up off the side of the road.

The car that had stopped to make sure I was OK stayed with me until my ride came.

Friends, church members, family, if you saw that I lost not only a tire but an entire wheel off my car, if I was stranded and needed help, if I asked, would you say no?

In our relationships with one another, when we have trusted ourselves and each other to God’s grace and love, Jesus says, “Ask, and you will receive.” And yet, how often do we refuse to ask? Could this be why Jesus says the gate is narrow and few people find this path? Because let’s be honest, how often do we say something to ourselves like, I don’t want to be a bother? Or we imagine that they already have enough going on and we don’t want to burden them. Sometimes we simply don’t want to swallow our pride and admit that we can’t do everything on our own.

If you have a friend or a family member that has just made it through one of the most challenging times of their life, if they felt lost and alone and confused, but just kept a stiff upper lip, when they finally tell you about how desperate they were but now everything’s better, what do you think?

Why didn’t you tell me before?

Don’t you know I would do anything to help?

Eventually, you’re going to wonder what kind of person they think you are – did they think you wouldn’t care, that you wouldn’t drop everything to be with them?

Our desire for independence can create a lot of dis-ease, can’t it?

I want you to fill in the blank of a sentence for me:

Francis _______ lives at home with their parents.

I am willing to bet that a lot of you filled in that blank with an exasperated “still”.

If Francis is 10, that’s fine and we feel bad for judging them. But if Francis is 52 and lives at home because their investment in Beanie Babies never took off like they expected, we think Francis has some issues. Francis needs to move out and take all their cats with them as soon as possible because Francis needs to grow up.

In the United States, there is a certain trajectory that we have in mind when it comes to growing up and gaining our ‘independence’.

The story, the trajectory, that we so often have in mind is that you graduate from high school so you can go to college so you can get a job and be on your own. That’s what it looks like to pull yourself up from your own bootstraps, that’s what it means to be a contributing member of society. But how often is that trajectory achievable? Is life ever that simple? I have been very lucky in this life, I’ve been able to achieve a lot, and yet, I know I’m only a few accidents away from crashing in my parent’s basement, again.

If this moment is teaching us anything, it’s that as independent we think we are, we are inter-dependent and we can’t pretend otherwise. We are not as autonomous as we like to imagine. Our lives are intimately interconnected and we have to take care of one another because if we live like we are independent beings that can do whatever we want without worrying about the consequences that might happen in someone else’s life, we’re part of the problem.

In our life together, because we have trusted our lives to God, because we have trusted one another to God’s justice and grace, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your [child] asks for bread, will give [them] a stone? Or if [they] ask for a fish, will give [them] a snake?”

Bread, in the first century, like a slightly well-done dinner roll today, could look a bit like a stone. And certain fish are just slippery and slimy enough that we might, at first glance, confuse them for a snake. But if we are taking care of one another, we’re going to take the time to not get any of that confused.

By now, I’m willing to bet that at least one of you is thinking, “Yeah, but you don’t know my cousin Lenny because they just keep asking and searching and knocking and they waste whatever has been given to them. Last week Lenny showed up and asked for gas money to get to work and I had to ask Lenny why he drove to my place instead of work and that only made things worse.”

You’re right, I don’t know your cousin Lenny and it sounds like they might have some issues to work on. But beyond those issues, shouldn’t we have an honest and difficult conversation about what it means to really help one another? About how living connected, supportive, and inter-depending lives means we aren’t living with unhealthy codependence?

As you may know, church members have a tendency to talk about their pastors – I know you do, it’s ok, because pastors also spend a lot of time talking about their members.

When I worked at another church, in my first week, a pastor in the area gave me a phone call and said, “I need to tell you about one of your members, they are going to ask you for money, often, and you can’t give it to them because if you give once they will ask you every time and it’s almost never used like you want it to be.”

About a week later, I got the first phone call asking for help. It wasn’t for a lot, they needed help with rent and told me their next paycheck was coming just after the rent was due and they would pay me back as soon as possible. I told them I’d be glad to get in touch with their landlord and figure something out.

While they appreciated the help, the next time they called for assistance, they said “I’d rather not get my landlord involved in all of this. They are already looking for a reason to kick me out and if they think I can’t pay rent they’re just going to cut me loose.” In my head, I thought to myself, “You can’t pay rent on your own, so you’re landlord isn’t too far off” but against my better judgment I wrote them a check.

Then I asked them if they were going to pay me back for the last time I helped them. They had some story about a repair that they needed and how they would pay back their tab.

The next time they needed help their son was moving back to the area, looking for a job, and while they wanted to have them at home, they didn’t have a second bed yet. They told me the bed would be coming soon, they already had that taken care of, but since they didn’t have a second bed yet, they asked if I would put their son up in a hotel, just for the night, because the bed would be there by tomorrow.

I asked them what hotel they wanted to stay at so I could pay the bill and they said they hadn’t figured out all those details yet. On top of that, they weren’t sure when their son was going to be in town, so it would be best if I just gave them $150. I told them I know that’s not the going rate for a room that I’m going to add to their tab and talked them down. We went back and forth for a bit, but eventually they agreed to my counter offer, sneering only slightly when I wrote them a check.

The next day their son called me and said, “I didn’t get into town until about two in the morning so I just slept on the floor at my dad’s place for the night. We decided to use the money you gave him for groceries. Is there any way that you can give me gas money?”

After a long pause, I said your dad can give you gas money and take it off my tab.

That was the last time I ever heard from that family.

In our relationships with one another, sometimes we have to say no and I don’t have an easy answer for when you should say yes and when you should say no. There’s not an easy answer here, but I find comfort in what Jesus says, “Which of you, if your [child] asks for bread, will give [them] a stone? Or if [they] ask for a fish, will give [them] a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your [God] in heaven give good gifts to those who ask [God]!”

The word that Jesus uses as evil, in Greek, is πονηρός (pon-ay-ros) and the root word means full of labors, annoyances, and hardships. We could read what Jesus says as, “If you, then, though you are toilsome and full of annoyances, know how to give good gifts…”

As good as God created us and calls us to be, we can admit that the human condition is full of toil and annoyances. On top of that, when we are honest about our interdependence, our need for help, when we with everyone else, ask, seek, and knock, there’s a chance we might bump up against one another in ways that only add to our toil and annoyances, especially, when we, like Janice, ask for a Mercedes Benz, a color TV, and a night on the town.

And yet, we still seek the good of one another, we still want to help, we still want to do what’s right.

Sometimes, the right response to someone asking is no. I can’t give you a rule for when no is the good gift that someone needs to receive from you, but what I’ve experienced in my own life is that you feel the need for that no when you have to say it.

Jesus says, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your [God] in heaven give good gifts to those who ask [God]! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Quickly, Jesus makes a couple of interesting shifts here. Jesus is talking about how we, with one another, can ask, seek, and knock, that we need to be in interdependent (not co-dependent) relationships, but then Jesus shifts into ask, seek, and knock as a prayer, saying that God will give good gifts to those who seek God, and then Jesus shifts back into a social ethic saying, “So in everything, do to other what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus talking about our relationships with one another or our relationship with God? Yes.

Often we are either/or thinkers. Jesus invites us to view faith as both/and.

Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment and Jesus replies saying, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

Jesus will not let us separate how we think about God from how we treat one another.

In the New Testament letter of James it’s written, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and [Creator], and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

The Letter of 1 John it’s put this way, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

If you want a clear and defined line of distinction between loving one another and loving God, you won’t find that with Jesus. Jesus continually blurs that line because we cannot separate the devotion that we have for God from the care and devotion that we have for one another.

Together, when we ask, and seek, and knock, even when we have to say the difficult but necessary no, even when we have to accept that no, or in the times when we remember that our help may be limited but it’s still the help we have to offer, do you know what happens? We quit taking one another for granted. We can’t ignore each other. We see one another and enter into a beloved and blessed community that is in this together, but better yet, we know that God is with us too.

Ask, seek, and knock. You’ll be amazed at what you find.

Offering

Your continued support of Grace makes everything we do possible and each week I am here asking, seeking, and knocking for support and you are there to respond. Thanks to your our confirmation class continues to learn together. Thanks to you our youth group can meet online. Thanks to you our small groups have found new ways to gather. Because you’ve responded to the ways our church has continued to reach out to the community. Your support of our church makes everything we do possible and financially the best way that you can support our Grace is by giving online at gracedemoines.org.

During these times, and always, we remember that our offerings aren’t only financial, they’re relational, they’re the ways that we reach out, that we hear someone asking and let them know we’re here for them and in this with one another. So keep being an offering of support and care for your friends, family, and neighbors. And if you need to, ask, and seek, and knock by letting me know how our church can help you. We have resources available and ready, we just need to know what you need.

Thank you all for joining me this morning, it has been incredible to spend this time with one another, thank you so much and we will see you all again next Sunday.

But before we go, there is a song that I want to wrap up our time together with and it’s from the Broadway Musical, ‘Dear Evan Hansen’. It came through Des Moines a couple years ago and has stuck with me ever since, especially this song, “You Will Be Found”. Some songs you just keep going back to, because you have to.

I try to have everything nice and neat and put together in these moments that we have with one another, but I’ll be honest, this is a lot harder than I ever thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I have had amazing moments of rest and peace because in the last month trusting that love that is God is the strongest force in the cosmos hasn’t been a mental exercise, it’s the only way I can get out of bed right now.

We’ve all had those overwhelming moments of sadness, and grief, and confusion, when we feel like we’ve lost all control, because we have. I had a nightmare this week about people wanting to shake hands with me.

This is one of those times where if you never knew what it meant to be poor in spirit, you know what it means now.

And it’s ok to feel all of that. We can’t distract ourselves from it, we can’t hide from it. The only way that we have is forward, through this, and we’re going to make it through this. So we take a breath and remember we’re not alone.

When we reach out, when we make the phone call, when you ask, seek, and knock you will be found and feel that support and care and love that lets you know we really will get through this, as much as we are apart, we are unified together. You will be found. I know you will. Grace and peace everyone.

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Sunday April 26 - Matthew 7:7-14

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April 27 – May 2

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – Proverbs 15:1-4

Notice – Many of the Proverbs have a bit of a scattershot quality to them. But in these four verses, the Hebrew sages put together four wise sayings that address the quality of human speech, both in its ability to wound and damage, but also to heal and give life. The Common English Bible translates the Hebrew word in Proverbs 15:1 as “sensitive,” and other translations use “soft” or “gentle.” For some, such words give an impression of weakness. But a later proverb said, “A commander can be persuaded with patience, and a tender tongue can break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15). When have you seen wisely chosen words break down barriers that harsh speech would only have made higher and more rigid?

Pray – God, help my mouth not to “gush” with foolish words. Grow in me your spirit that can make my speech more and more a “tree of life” for the people I meet. Amen.

Tuesday

ReadJames 1:19-21

Notice – Scholar David Allan Hubbard wrote, “Harsh, vindictive speech—even though apparently based on God’s Word—is not the way to accomplish God’s justice.” Through the centuries, issues like slavery, the role of women in ministry, sexuality, and gender identity have triggered such speech from Christians against other Christians. How can the “humility” of which James wrote move us away from destructive speech and toward living into what James called “the word planted deep inside you”?

Pray – God, make me ever more “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” You know that’s not my natural condition, Lord—but I know you can change me from the inside out. Amen.

Wednesday

Read James 1:22-25

Notice – After describing the danger of hasty, ugly words, James moved on to describe “the word planted deep inside you” (James 1:21) that we should follow. He called it “the law of freedom,” God’s wisdom, above all as Jesus taught it. James’ words about the law of freedom were rooted in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:34-35). In what ways have you found greater freedom as you’ve grown in your ability to love even those you dislike or disagree with?

Pray – Holy Spirit, I want my life to bear your signature. So fill my life with your fruit. As others watch me, may they daily see me growing more and more like the person you want to shape me to be. Amen.

Thursday

Read James 1:26-27

Notice – James used strong language—not angry, but strong. He said if people don’t control their words, “their devotion is worthless.” Some people then (and now) used angry, ugly criticisms of “the wicked” (however they defined that) to try to show everyone else how devoted they were to God. It didn’t work, James said—speaking that way was disobedience to God, not devotion. True devotion, he said, shows when we care for and help the weak, not in reckless speech. We live in a world where tweets, anonymous comment boards and a 24-hour news cycle seem, at times, to bombard us with contentious, belittling speech. James wrote that one aspect of devotion to God is “to keep the world from contaminating us.” How do you actively seek to keep our world’s barrage of negativity from contaminating you? What choices help you do that?

Pray – Almighty God, you love me. You know that elevated blood pressure and a pulse racing from anger are hurtful, not helpful. Guide me toward your pure, peaceable approach to life. Amen.

Friday

Read – Colossians 3:8-10

Notice – As Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, he recognized that there is an unbreakable connection between who we are on the inside and what we say for others to hear. He named anger, rage, malice, slander, obscene language and lying as things to “set aside.” The first three are attitudes, but they inevitably show themselves in the harmful kinds of speech the apostle named in the last three items on the list. Scholar William Barclay said we can turn the items in this list about speech into positive commands. The first two, he said, tell us that a Christian’s speech must be KIND, and it must be PURE. How easy or hard do you find it to speak in those ways if you feel anger, rage or malice toward someone? How can we be kind in our speech even when it is necessary to make an honest appraisal of another person?

Pray – Jesus, when Paul said I should “set aside” these bad things, he used a word that means “taking off a garment.” Help me discard nurtured anger, and the ugly speech it produces, as I would a dirty, worn-out shirt, and to put on your new way of life. Amen.

Saturday

ReadEphesians 4:25-32

Notice – Scholar N. T. Wright, commenting on Ephesians 4:25-32, said, “Living as a Christian demands that we grow up in our thinking: you have to learn to identify your own moods and behavior patterns, to see which ones are going in the right direction and which ones in the wrong direction … we should regard our moods, and the speech which flows from them, as we might a strong but willful horse, which needs to be reminded frequently of the direction we’re supposed to be going in.” When did you last say words that hurt, and then ask yourself, “Why did I say that?” What helps you to understand your “interior landscape” better, to keep you from blurting out words you regret and wish you could take back?

Pray – Lord of my life, be Lord of my words. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

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