Most of us have probably had a time or two when the phone has rung after midnight.
It’s an ominous feeling.
At least, it always used to be.
I remember as a kid, we had our phone—and it was only one for the whole family—and we had it in the hallway on a little table, and there was no chair there because phone calls weren’t supposed to take very long…and the hours it was considered “open” were from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The morning we got the call that my mother’s mother had died, when I was eight years old, we all knew it had to be bad news, because when the phone rang, it was not quite 7:30 yet, and that was unheard of…and I remember that I was closest to the phone and so I was the one answered it, but in point of fact, my parents were already halfway toward the phone with hands outstretched when I turned to say it was Aunt Susan calling for mom…because a ringing phone outside of normal hours could only mean bad news.
It’s been a while now, but maybe some of you remember the wonderful movie “Moonstruck,” where Olympia Dukakis plays a no-nonsense Italian grandmother, and when the phone by her bed rings after midnight, she doesn’t even say hello. She picks it up and says impatiently, “Who died?”
That’s how it used to be with phones, remember?
Of course, times have changed somewhat since then, and a lot of people feel free to call later than they used to, and for less urgent reasons.
Even so, I think it’s safe to say that when our friends or family call us late at night, if it’s serious or important, we don’t give it a second thought that they called.
Because of course they called. We’re glad that they called. We might even be hurt if something happens and we realize that they didn’t call.
The minor inconveniences don’t matter. What matters is what they have to say. What matters is them. What matters is that they need us, and that’s that.
So with that in mind, I have to admit that I kind of smell a rat in this morning’s Gospel.
This story of the friend who knocks on the door at midnight doesn’t entirely add up for me, or at least, it doesn’t at first.
Jesus describes a scene in which we can see ourselves, with everyone finally in bed, and the dishwasher running, and the locks all checked, and the dogs curled up, and nothing on but the nightlight in the upstairs hall…and then….(MG: knocking on the pulpit).
It is our friend, who comes in desperate need of three loaves of bread because late as it is, he has a guest coming, and hospitality was expected, and so…(MG: knock again)…”Friend, I’m sorry, but I need you to help me out.”
And this is where I smell the rat.
Because I think most of us might groan a little…we might roll our eyes as we unlock the door…we might raise our fists to bop them one as we say, “Really? You woke me up for bread? Really?”
And yet, while it’s kind of a weird request, I don’t think that we’d actually be all that put out by it.
After all, asking our friends to help out with our weird requests is part of what it means to be friends. That’s what it is to be close to someone. It’s about knowing them below the surface level, and knowing them at the level of their imperfections and mistakes and what they forgot at the grocery store.
These are the stories that make friendships come alive…the stories we tell about each other for years.
“Do you remember the time you woke everyone up because you needed bread for that guy?”
I just don’t think it would be that big a deal.
I don’t think we would be that put out by something like that…unless…unless the person who was knocking on our door was someone we didn’t really consider much of a friend.
Because….That. Changes. Everything.
If the person who is banging on our door…if the person who’s calling on phone after midnight isn’t really a friend…if the emergency that brings them to our door isn’t really much of an emergency, well, then the full force of their imposition hits home.
Because if the person knocking after midnight isn’t really a friend, then it’s hard to accept that he’s willing to bother us, he’s willing to disrupt our rest and our lives so that he can go celebrate someone else. He’s bothering us so that he can show respect for someone else…someone he actually cares about.
It’s bad enough when the telemarketers call during dinner. Can you imagine if they called after midnight?
That’s something most of us would find it much harder to take in stride.
So if, as the story says, it is after midnight, and there is a knock at the door, and the householder is irritated beyond belief at the disruption, I think we have to ask if the person doing the knocking is actually a friend or not.
And so here’s the thing.
Jesus isn’t actually talking about friendship.
What he’s really trying to talk about is prayer.
In today’s Gospel, he offers one of his most important affirmations of love of God and the power of prayer, saying, “…ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, those who seek find, and to those who knock, the door will be opened” (Luke 11: 9-10).
They are dangerous words in certain hands because they seem to suggest that if all we do is ask often enough, or sincerely enough…desperately enough…then God can be counted on to grant our prayers.
The wisest among us know that it is not quite so simple—that at the very least, while it is true that God answers every prayer, the fact is, the answer God gives to many prayers is often “no,” and is for reasons that at the time, are known only to God.
There are times when that “no” does not feel good enough, and this is a real challenge even for the very strongest believers. When someone we love is very sick. When something we’ve worked hard for suddenly falls through. When bad things happen to good people.
This passage seems to teeter on the brink of saying that God will not say no to our prayers if we just keep asking, and that this is what faith is.
To be honest, if that’s the point, then I’m troubled about what that implies about God. About the games such a God would seem be into playing. About the loyalty and fear such a God would seem to be commanding.
That’s not my God.
To me, God is the one who is with us no matter what, the one whose tears are the first to fall and whose heart is the first to break.
To me, God is the one who sees the secret courage we must gather to do the things that are hard for us to do, who is proud of us when we stand on principle for the greater good, especially when there is a price to pay.
God rejoices in our compassion and our commitment to the truth.
That’s who God is. That’s what matters to God.
And so to me, the point of this morning’s Gospel is actually much simpler.
Because in this morning’s Gospel, God is the guy being woken up at midnight. And you and I are the other guy, the one who is knocking on the door so persistently.
But where you and I see a world of difference between helping out friends and being worn down into helping anyone else, I’m not so sure God does.
God is not as into categories as we are. God sees only friends. God sees only His children.
God sees only the people whose hearts and desires he knows from top to bottom.
God opens the door at midnight, and He is only too glad to see us standing there.
What matters to God is what we have to say. What matters is us. What matters is that we need God, and that’s that.
You see, the answer to prayer is simply not God’s “yes” to what we request…or even God’s “no” if that’s what God decrees.
The answer to prayer is God Himself. The answer to prayer is being in His presence, and knowing that He is with us, loving us, strengthening us, journeying beside us, regardless of any “yes” or “no” that may emerge in time for what we ask.
It isn’t that God answers prayer, but that for those who come before Him, God is the answer to prayer.
So ask. That’s the point Jesus is making. Ask. Don’t be afraid.
You may not receive exactly what you asked. You may not find exactly what you were seeking.
Because for those who knock, the door will always be opened. For those who step forward, a path will always emerge.
And so this week, I wonder if you and I might take the time to knock on God’s door.
If you’re not sure what to pray for, start with naming the things you know you should pray for…and then as you do, see if it doesn’t quickly get a whole lot more real and whole lot more personal. If you like, you can just name things, or just let pictures rise up in your mind. Just knock for a while. And keep knocking.
And see if you can’t tell when it is that God opens the door.