This is a sermon that was given by the rector (pastor) of the Episcopal Church where my wife and I are members. I think it is the best sermon I have ever heard, so I asked for a copy so that I could share it with you.
Our church is Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, one of the largest Episcopal congregations in America. You can listen to this sermon and many others at the church's web site.
Sermon for July 28, 2013. The Scorpion and the Egg: Luke 11:1-13.
By The Right Reverend Anthony Burton
Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
Last month Anna, the kids and I spent a couple of weeks in California. For most of the last 20 years we have got together there with Anna's best friend from childhood, her husband and family.
We got married around the same time, and had kids around the same time, so this year we were commiserating about our two firstborns who both fly the nest this fall. Caroline is off to Baylor and their son Aidan to the Annapolis Naval Academy.
It is strange to think that Aidan, who a few weeks ago was a skinny kid messing with a soccer ball in the driveway, is now at boot camp, suddenly separated from the toys of modern childhood—Xbox and iPhone—his head shaven, denied any personal possessions, any control over his day, over what he will do or how or when he will do it. I suspect he will enjoy experience as a test of his mettle— as a game — like weekend warrior going on a mud marathon.
But he has signed papers. So while he may feel like a weekend warrior, that is not the reality, and he cannot know the terrible sacrifice that one day may be required of him. All that lies in the future, unknown to the carefree teenager of today.
We have something of this feeling of young adults in over their heads in this morning's Gospel reading.
The disciples were so slow figuring out what they had got themselves into, how great their destiny and how harrowing their end, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. They couldn't accept that Jesus would soon die—even when told them straight out–much less that they themselves – most of them anyway – would die under torture.
But in these early days they were like adolescents whose brains hadn't entirely developed. They would ask questions and then not listen to the answers–or at least not process the answers.
Jesus understood that making disciples out of these recruits would be a process, and that there was going to be a long time-delay between what he told them and when it sunk in. So a lot of his teaching was just putting down markers for the disciples to return to pick up later.
In this morning's Gospel the disciples ask, "Lord, teach us to pray."
He responds with the Lord's Prayer.
You might have thought this was a big moment - that having unveiled to history the ultimate prayer, the model prayer, the prayer that would shape the lives of billions of people to follow, Jesus would celebrate the moment and unpack it for us. God knows there have been thousand of books on the Lord's Prayer since then. But what do we get here?
Jesus just says it. Probably slowly. Probably with one of the disciples taking the note. Probably with Jesus looking over at the disciple to make sure that he got the note down. And that's it. That prayer was for later.
There was something else they needed to know right away, something much more basic, without which the Lord’s Prayer would be of no use to them anyway:
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a snake; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Jesus knew those men. He lived with those men. He knew what was in their hearts as they said their prayers.
And it grieved him.
He had recruited twelve Episcopalians – or at least the sort of Episcopalian who prays without expecting anything to happen.
You know what I'm talking about. ‘Saying prayers’ is not necessarily praying. Can I say that again? ‘Saying prayers’ is not necessarily praying. If prayer had been a crime, and they were caught coming out of church, they could have pled lack of intent. They had been praying without expecting God to do anything about it.
Jesus took this personally. Because if you pray without expecting anything to happen, it means one of three things:
* that you think that God can't hear you,
* that you think God is powerless to help you
* or you think that God can't be bothered to help you – that your God is deaf or impotent, or callous.
To Jesus those were fighting words. What kind of God would send these callow young men into spiritual combat without equipping them? What kind of God would throw them to the wolves in this way? What kind of God would send them out without the provision they needed, without the words they needed, without the courage they needed, without the protection they needed? What kind of God was that?
It was insulting.
And so he tells them in no uncertain terms:
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" – not might, not maybe, not maybe on the first full moon after the vernal equinox in a leap year:
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a snake?"
The fish and the snake.
Let's look at the fish first.
When I trained for the ministry in Nova Scotia fishing villages, I was astonished to discover that a lot of the old fishermen, who had spent their lives on the ocean, didn't swim. They were fatalistic about drowning: if it was your time, it was your time.
Sailors have always been like that.
In the ancient world, people thought about the sea differently than we do today. They didn't grow up with the "Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," or "Finding Nemo" or "Spongebob Squarepants." "Undersea" wasn't associated steel drums and happy Calypso music but death.
No sunken ship had ever been raised, no ships’ treasure had ever been recovered.
The sea was primordial, capricious, monstrous – the home the ultra-monster Leviathan. Storms at sea were demonic and could be conjured up by witches. Undersea was death.
But fish! They were the one thing that had protection under water. Deprived of air, they were happy as can be. In the one place where just being there meant panic, horror and immanent death, they were masters of grace and freedom.
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a snake?" You see what he's saying to you? He’s saying that no matter how bad it is, if you are drowning in some way, if some relationship or circumstance or condition is suffocating you, if are barely keeping it together or dying on the inside, if deep down you feel panicked and out of control, if you are sinking and can see no way out, the Lord will help you.
He's got the power if you've got the expectation.
I won't talk to you about snakes. You know all about the symbolism of snakes.
But let's talk about the scorpion and the egg for a minute. I love the scorpion and the egg.
"What father among you if his son asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?"
Of course the egg is a symbol of hope and resurrection, which is why they are an Easter thing.
But here, when Jesus is warning the disciples against just 'saying prayers', he contrasts the egg with the scorpion.
Scorpions are nasty things. Generally they don't kill their prey with their poison which is full of neurotoxins, they just paralyze it, so the scorpion can eat it alive.
The scorpion here symbolizes the danger of looking backwards. The sting of death and paralysis is always behind.
Why do we pray without expecting God to answer our prayers?
Because we pray looking backwards.
You can't pray with expectation if you are looking backwards. Expectation is looking forwards.
Your past can be the enemy of you future.
For example, in the past you prayed to God and were disappointed because you thought that he didn't answer your prayer so you stopped praying and started 'saying prayers', praying without expectation.
· But did it ever occur to you that maybe you thought that you were at Whataburger and you were in fact at the Mansion at Turtle Creek and what they serve at the Mansion at Turtle Creek is so much better than what they serve at Whataburger, that it just takes longer to prepare, and that your order simply hasn’t come yet?
· Or that you in fact got something better than you asked for but it was different so you didn't connect what you got with what you asked for?
· Or that instead of what you wanted, God gave you what you needed – but that you didn’t like that, and are still mad at God, still looking backwards, nursing the wound?
Your past can be the enemy of your future.
· Some of you were brought up in a household where your father or mother taught you that you were no good, that good things happen to other people, that it would be too much to expect God to answer the prayers of someone like you. Some of you were abused. And you are still looking backwards, weighed down by the memory, carrying your low sense of self into your prayer life.
· Some of you are angry– angry with somebody, so angry that bitter thoughts preoccupy your mind and that when you try to pray, your lips are saying the words but mind is wandering back to that old hurt to replay the tape.
· Some of you may feel that you do not *deserve* to have your prayers answered because of something you did that you think God can’t forgive you for.
Your past can be the enemy of your future.
When we keep looking backwards, where the poison is, spiritual paralysis sets in, and every backward glance paralyses us a little bit more.
We all carry a burden of grief. For some of us our grief is raw and just below the surface, for others it is buried, an unacknowledged weight.
I want you to hear me: there comes a time to let it go.
· If you need to get professional help, get it and deal with your past once and for all. But don't keep looking back, pointlessly. God yearns to take you gently by the shoulders and turn you around towards the beautiful future he has prepared for you. Let him.
· If you need to forgive, he can give you the strength to forgive and move forward – if you really want to, if you ask.
· If you need to be forgiven, he can help you accept that he has forgiven you and that you needn't feel guilty any more – if you really want to, if you ask.
You can't live in the past. It's over.
If you just look down and notice you will observe that your heavenly Father has placed an egg in your hands. The egg is dark inside. The life in the egg has to fight to get out. The shell doesn't break itself. The chick has to decide that it is tired of being confined, tired of living in the darkness, tired of living the way it has been living, and decides to take that first step, to do something it never thought it could do, to get out into the world of life and light.
The Gospel always starts in a dark place. God did not appear on a sunny beach on a cloudless day. He came to earth in the dark womb of his mother. He took flesh in the dark. He was born in the dark. He died on the Cross during an eclipse of the sun. He defeated death in the dark, he rose from the tomb in the dark. He appeared to Mary Magdalene in the dark, he appeared to the terrified disciples in the dark of the upper room.
He comes into our lives not at our best but at our worst, not when our finances are great, our relationships are untroubled, when our kids are thriving, when we are cancer-free and pain-free and sound of mind and body, when everything is coming up roses – but in the dark. He comes to us at our point of need, where we need him, when we need him.
Be he needs one thing from you today. He needs you to do just one thing.
"Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened."
To me? To me? Yes, to you.
"Lord, teach us to pray."
Copyright 2013 - Anthony Burton
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