Cynicism or Shameless Expectation?

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from July 24, 2016. Listen along here.

The gospel according to Luke, the eleventh chapter:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 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!”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

I am going to go out on a limb this morning and say that I think one of the threats to love and community these days is cynicism. Please don’t hear me incorrectly. I’m not talking about your harmless uncle Albert, who consistently plays the part of “cynic” at the family’s summer reunion. I’m talking about something much bigger. I’m talking about what I observe in the media, overhear in my conversations with family and friends, and witness on Facebook and in the Twittersphere. When I talk about the cynicism that threatens us, I’m talking about the pervasive and overwhelming sense that the world is somehow rigged and there is nothing we can do to change that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that some days I, too, get swept up in cynicism’s powerful tide. The past few weeks, it seems like every which way I turned, there was something that made me suspicious and that caused me to distrust the motives of others. Philando Castille. Dallas. Nice. Kabul. The convention. By the end of the day, the tide often had me feeling defensive and despondent. Wise essayist Rebecca Solnit writes that “[cynicism has the ability to] bleed the sense of possibility and…the sense of responsibility [right] out of [us].”[i]

Jesus never names it as cynicism, but in this text from Luke, we see that the disciples’ sense of possibility and sense of responsibility are in peril. The First Century questions that stand behind the text have remarkable resonance in a twenty-first century world: “Jesus, if we ask, will God really give?” “Lord, if we knock, will doors really be opened to us?” “Teacher, if we seek, will we really ever find something?” Keep in mind, these devotees have been out door-knocking from village to village. They’ve been listening attentively to their neighbors. They’ve been spending all of their free time working to change the political and religious systems that trampled the lives of many for the sake of the few. It brings me comfort that, back at headquarters, the text indicates that the disciples wonder like we wonder: Does all of this really matter? Will the arc really bend toward justice? Why should we keep going in a heartbroken world?

To be certain, these are questions about the disciples’ sense of possibility and responsibility in the world. They are also questions about the nature of God. Peter, James, John, and all the rest want to know if God is still with them in the muck, in the mess, in their daily hardships, and in their little victories. The disciples want the Son of God’s assurance that God hadn’t abandoned them to their own, oft fickle, devices.

Jesus answers them clearly, which—lest we let it pass without notice—is its own kind of a gospel miracle. He says: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock, and the door shall be opened for you.” One theologian says that “the temptation is to interpret Jesus’ parable as indication that God needs cajoling, or at least that the hallmark of Christian prayer is persistence. The Greek word, however, is better translated “shamelessness” than “persistence,” and implies a boldness that comes from familiarity…Jesus [suggests] that we too should boldly offer our petitions to God, shamelessly calling on God to keep God’s promises.”[ii]

And here is where I go out on a limb for the second time this morning when I say: Shameless expectation is incompatible with cynicism.

This truth became clearer to me two weeks ago, when I had the Sunday off. I had just come back from vacation and was gearing up for a week of continuing education. The city, country, and world felt tumultuous. My husband Paul and I decided to go to church at Fellowship Missionary Baptist in North Minneapolis, where, Marcia, a friend of ours is a minister. The sanctuary was packed in the wake of Philando Castille’s roadside homicide, and all those who greeted us as we entered indicated it had been a particularly hard week for their faith community. I admit that I expected to find a cynical congregation—filled with suspicion and distrust. But those expectations were turned upside-down the moment worship began, when an elder stood up at the microphone and simply said: “Even in our deepest sorrow, we sing our hallelujahs.”

It was the least cynical word I’ve heard for a long time. It was a word spoken by a faith community deeply familiar with hardship and sorrow. It was a word spoken by a community even more deeply familiar with the goodness of God’s promises. For the next three hours, I sat with a community that chose to trade cynicism for the shameless expectation of God’s promises of love, fidelity, mercy, and justice. As I worshiped alongside that community, I experienced what Denver Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber called a divine heart transplant—that is, God reaching in and replacing my heart of stone with a heart of flesh—something that was actually warm and beating again.[iii]

Luke offers the same warm-hearted gift to us today when we hear Jesus say: “Should you think for a moment that God has abandoned and forsaken the world for its negligence or maliciousness, its forgetfulness or foolishness, think again. These options aren’t even on the table. God promises to love the world, and God’s promises are to be trusted.” And because we tend to forget this divine promise, Jesus gives us a prayer as a kind of reminder string permanently tied around our fingers:

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

With warm and beating hearts, we’re sent back out on the road to do what we know how to do (or at least sometimes know how to do). Drive out demons, tell stories that reshape the world, speak truth to power, and welcome the children. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu says that discipleship is the acknowledgement that “what each of us does can retard or promote, can hinder or advance, the process at the heart of the universe. Christians would say the outcome is not in question. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts the issue beyond doubt: ultimately goodness and laughter and peace and compassion and gentleness and forgiveness and reconciliation will have the last word and prevail over their ghastly counterparts.”[iv]

People of God, this is our shameless expectation. And that’s why, even in our deepest sorrows, we choose to sing hallelujah.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rebecca Solnit’s article entitled “The Habits of Highly Cynical People” in the May 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine. Read more here.

[ii] This comes from David Lose’s commentary on Luke 11. Read more here.

[iii] I’m sure she’s said it many times, but here’s where I was first introduced to Bolz-Weber’s concept of divine heart transplants.

[iv] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness, 86-87.



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