Sunday, February 5, 2023

Sermon: "Knock Knock", Matthew 7:1-12 (February 5, 2023)


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At the end of last April, after two full years of avoiding it, my household was finally taken down by COVID-19. It was not fun, but having been vaccinated, we were only down and out for about a week. When I returned to the church office after quarantine, I felt fine, but continued to wear a mask around others out of an abundance of caution. I think we can all agree, however, that while they’re an effective way to stop the spread of illness, masks are THE WORST. Besides, there were times that I was the only one in the office all day. So as a way to keep other people safe from my germs while minimizing my own discomfort, I came up with an extremely clever solution (at least, by this pastor’s standards). I kept my office door closed, and I printed out a sign to hang on the door. It said, “Knock, and the door will be opened unto you (i.e., I’ll come out with a mask).” The sign is long gone by now, but the memory came back to me when I read this week’s scripture.



At the end of last April, after two full years of avoiding it, my household was finally taken down by COVID-19. It was not fun, but having been vaccinated, we were only down and out for about a week. When I returned to the church office after quarantine, I felt fine, but continued to wear a mask around others out of an abundance of caution. I think we can all agree, however, that while they’re an effective way to stop the spread of illness, masks are THE WORST. Besides, there were times that I was the only one in the office all day. So as a way to keep other people safe from my germs while minimizing my own discomfort, I came up with an extremely clever solution (at least, by this pastor’s standards). I kept my office door closed, and I printed out a sign to hang on the door. It said, “Knock, and the door will be opened unto you (i.e., I’ll come out with a mask).” The sign is long gone by now, but the memory came back to me when I read this week’s scripture.

When most of us hear these words out of context, we assume that they’re talking about how to pray – if you’re persistent in prayer, God will answer. That’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation. In Luke’s version of this teaching, it’s clearly offered in that exact context; it comes right on the tails of Jesus teaching the Lord’s prayer. But Matthew interprets this statement a little bit differently. He puts 26 unrelated verses between the Lord’s Prayer and this teaching about asking, seeking, and knocking. It's not clear at all that Jesus is talking about prayer OR persistence here. Matthew seems to understand this lesson in an entirely different way.

Although the COVID sign on my door was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, I can’t help but wonder if it was actually closer to the mark than I realized. My concern was that, if I closed my door to limit the spread of germs, I wouldn’t know if someone was waiting for me outside. I needed anyone looking for me to advocate for themself so that I would know to help them. It wasn’t a matter of persistence or method; it was a matter of logistics. I WANTED to help; I was READY to help. I just needed to be asked. Self-advocacy seems to be the practical point that Matthew has Jesus making here. We can’t just assume we’ll be taken care of, we have to ask for the things that we need. Once we do, of COURSE God will provide it. As soon as we knock, the door will be opened.

But of course, as Jesus-via-Matthew points out back in chapter 6, God already knows what we need, so why on earth should we have to ask? Is it some sort of power move, like God demanding we “say the magic word” before helping us? This is an excellent question (and frankly, one that I have about the Lukan version of this teaching, as well). So as usual, let’s dig into the context of this verse for an answer.

Take a look at what the rest of the passage is saying. “Don’t judge others”, “take the log out of your own eye before addressing the splinter in your neighbor’s”, “Don’t expect others to act outside of their nature”, and, of course, “Treat people the same way that you want people to treat you.” This passage is clearly not focused on our relationship with God. It’s about how we, as people of faith, should act in relationship with others.

Now, you could argue that this must be an editing error from some point early in scriptural history. But the odds of that are pretty unlikely. It’s not like this context could have resulted from a scribe misplacing a vowel point or a translator erroneously inserting punctuation where it doesn’t belong. Even if this wasn’t originally where Jesus said these words (which is entirely possible, given the discrepancies between gospels), SOMEBODY included this teaching here intentionally. They WANTED this proverb to be read in the context of Jesus’ teachings about human relationships with each other, and their version became biblical canon.

So why, then, would Matthew put these particular verses, ostensibly about asking God for what we need, in the middle of a discussion about how to relate to other humans? The answer comes in the verse immediately following the directive to ask, seek, and knock: “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets”. When we advocate for ourselves to God, we (rightly) expect God to answer us. And so, when OTHER people advocate for THEMselves, scripture is saying that WE should respond the way that we’d want God to respond. This isn’t just a good rule of thumb – this is the Law and the Prophets.

Although verses 1-6 might seem completely unrelated to this revelation, they actually serve to emphasize this point. If we’re busy criticizing others, how will we be able to respond with grace when they tell us what they need? If we already have it in our minds that they’re lazy, or na├»ve, or unintelligent, or aggressive, how can we expect our first response be, “I believe you. How can I help?” Because this response is the only one that’s acceptable to God; it’s the only one that belongs in the kindom of heaven. There’s no room there for judgment or rugged individualism.

An example of this has played out dishearteningly in our denomination this week. As you may know, PCUSA clergy must pass several exams before being ordained, the last of these being an exegesis (or biblical interpretation) exam. Candidates for ministry are given a scriptural passage, which they then have a week to study, translate, and explain. The passage this time around involved – and this is not hyperbole – an account of violent sexual assault and physical dismemberment of the victim. Many Presbyterians, including those speaking from their own experience with emotional trauma, reached out to those in charge of the exams to say that this choice of passage was causing harm. Five people weren’t even able to complete the exam because of it.[1]

The powers that be heard the distress of those who struggled with the passage, but their official response came across as self-righteous and seeped in judgment. “Pastors have to be able to wrestle with difficult texts,” they said, the implication being that if the passage triggered PTSD for you, you weren’t strong enough to be ordained. There was no invitation to larger conversation, no regret expressed, no explanation other than, “We considered this prayerfully and decided it was an appropriate passage.” Those unable to complete the exam have since been offered an opportunity to retake it with a different passage in the spring, but to my knowledge, there’s been no effort to express compassion or reach out to anyone who endured re-traumatization in order to complete the exam or any recognition that this could be a harmful passage for certain exam readers to encounter over and over again. Trauma victims asked for bread, and our denomination gave them a stone.

I truly do not believe that God would ever respond to any of us this way. If anyone were to say, “God, I’m struggling and I’m in pain; please help me,” God would never respond, “I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided that this is appropriate and that you should be able to deal with it.” That’s not the God that I worship. The God that I worship walks through our trauma with us, easing our pain where possible and surrounding us with love where it’s not. The God that I worship hears us and helps us find a way to keep moving forward without breaking us completely. The God I worship answers the door when someone knocks. So why don’t we?

 
Obviously, Christ’s Church has not yet reached a point where we can fully live into this teaching. We can’t seem to help but judge, to see what we perceive as a splinter in our neighbor’s eye and consider that a good enough reason to ignore the knocking at our door. We may give our children fish when they ask for it, but we don’t hesitate to pass out snakes to others who directly tell us what they need. We still think that we, the ones with the logs in our eyes, know better. So if that holy kindom where self-advocacy is answered with love and support remains still out of our reach, what can we, as people faithfully pursuing that kindom, do in the meantime?

First, we need to listen. We need to hear when our brothers and sisters and siblings tell us that they’re hurting, that they need help. We need to believe them. And then, we need to advocate on their behalf. Sometimes, it means amplifying their voices and creating space for them to be better heard by others. Other times, when their pain is so great that their voices falter, we need to use our own voices on their behalf. We need to pick up the baton and make sure that society can’t ignore the knocking.

Because the Kindom of Heaven is not, nor will it ever be, a group of individuals living their own separate lives. It is a spiritual organism, made up of every soul that recognizes its interconnectedness with others. None of us is in this alone. The Kindom will come about not when need no longer exists, but when need no longer goes unmet. When each one of us receives what we need every time we ask – no matter our age, economic status, past, sexuality, gender identity, race, health, religion, political affiliation, occupation, or anything else – THAT is how we’ll know that the kindom of heaven has finally, truly arrived.

So, beloved, don’t just expect that your needs will magically be met – that your pastor, or your boss, or your spouse, or your government already know what you expect of them. None of us are God. Speak up and advocate for yourself. Ask. But perhaps more importantly, if you see someone else’s voice going unheard, advocate for THEM. Make sure that their earnest knocking doesn’t go unheard or ignored. They deserve to be heard. And when you find someone knocking at YOUR (metaphorical) door, make sure you answer it. You may be opening the door to the kindom of heaven without even realizing it. Amen.

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[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/a-difficult-bible-passage-sparks-widespread-social-media-reaction-over-the-choice-for-the-exegesis-ordination-exam/?utm_content=236986410&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&hss_channel=fbp-22627435207


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