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A Friend at Midnight
President Ted Wardlaw
September 4, 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Luke
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.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
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.’
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; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 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.” 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.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give 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!’
A friend at midnight is unlike a “nine-to-five friend,” an “office hours friend.” “Doris, will you be a friend and Xerox this report? It’s eight pages, front and back. I need twenty copies before that big meeting in thirty minutes. I know I’m asking you at the last minute, but will you be a friend and make copies for this report?”
We have all kinds of friends like that—hundreds of them. We call them friends because maybe they live down the street and we see them about once every six months. Or we know them from college days, or friends from work, or friends from church, or friends from the club. Maybe they’re Christmas card friends, or friends because they vote the way we vote—friends with whom we may be planning to watch the election returns in a couple of months. We are in lots of relationships which we characterize with the word “friend.”
But the rarest, most precious, friend in the world is a friend at midnight. It’s hard to find a friend like that. And, to be honest, it’s hard to be a friend like that. It’s hard, because midnight is a no-nonsense time—a time when the stakes are higher than they are in the office at 11:00 in the morning, or at a party or a golf game or at a church meeting.
Midnight is a time when the ante is upped on all that cheap banter which sometimes looks like friendship. You know the banter I’m talking about: “if there’s anything I can do, you just let me know; no, really, you let me know…I’ll be there. If there’s anything, you just call me. I really mean it.” All of that goes down easier at other hours of the day. But midnight is when all the illusions are stripped away, and unable to comfort us in quite the same way.
In that sense, midnight is the loneliest time—a time when we feel the most vulnerable.
Midnight is when our children wake up screaming from their bad dreams about invisible giant squids under the bed. They may run around the house in their Superman costumes during the day, but at midnight they are frightened children in need of a comforting parent.
Midnight is when I lie in bed and tremble over all those things I know I’m not in charge of. During the day, when my calendar is full and there is a list of things to do and meetings to run and people who come when I call for them; I can feel, sometimes, almost omnipotent. But at midnight, I worry—about the wars, and the terror, and the mean rhetoric, and the economy, and the climate when I read of all the flooding on the coastlines—not just because of weather events anymore, but now, maybe, because it’s just high tide. When it’s midnight, I second-guess all the easy solutions I might have had during the day; and I just tremble over everything I can’t control.
A lot of us are caught up in a web of fear in these days. It’s in the violence; it’s in the nasty rhetoric that, all over the world, we’re hurling at one another; it’s in the epidemics in which one mosquito bite can change everything. And, in our desperation, we yearn for a presidential candidate or a superhero or somebody, for God’s sake, who can swoop in and fix it all. Because, for a lot of us, a lot of the time—it’s midnight.
If ever we need a friend, we need a friend at midnight.
In St. Luke’s gospel—the gospel which, above all others, focuses upon the themes of prayer and its importance in the life of discipleship—Jesus suggests that God is like a friend at midnight. The disciples come to him, while he is praying, and they say, “Teach us about prayer.” And so, after giving them a model for prayer—which we call “The Lord’s Prayer”—he says, You want to know about prayer? Suppose you have a friend who comes to visit late at night. Your friend has been out on the road all day and half the night with nothing to eat, so what are you going to do? You’re going to feed this friend of yours, aren’t you? Isn’t that what friends do for each other?
Sure, the disciples say, that’s easy.
But suppose you don’t have anything in the house to eat, says Jesus. The pantry’s bare, there’s nothing at all. You have to go to another friend—after all, what are friends for? You run next door, and next door is your typical first-century Palestinian friend in his typical first-century Palestinian house—one room, in which are sleeping Mom and Dad, and all six children, and half a dozen chickens, and a dog and a goat. So you pound on the door, asking for bread, and what’s your friend going to do? If he won’t give you bread just because you’re such good friends, then he’ll give you bread just to get rid of you because if you keep pounding on the door you’ll wake up the dog, and the dog will wake up the goat, and then everybody will be awake. That’s a friend at midnight.
Now there’s a great deal of scholarly discussion about this parable. Some commentators suggest that what this parable means is that we have to knock and knock and knock until we finally get God’s attention. Others have asked the sobering question, Does this mean that God only grudgingly answers our prayers? That God would “give us each day our daily bread” just to get rid of us?
But I wonder if such approaches end up taking it all much too seriously. When all is said and done, I have an idea that Jesus was trying to say that the whole point of this parable may be that prayer, simply put, is about having a friend. The kind of friend who qualifies as a friend at midnight.
We want to believe, with respect to prayer, that God is powerful. Powerful in the sense that, when it’s midnight—when we’re facing surgery and the doctor has cautioned us against getting our hopes up, or when it looks like we can’t fix the world we live in all by ourselves, or when an errant child writes us off and exchanges our authority for the authority of peers (which is often an authority that is far more tyrannical than any parent)—then, just then, at midnight, we want God to answer our prayers and make the illness go away, or transform this world miraculously, or give us back that child who has written us off. We want God to be powerful in that kind of way. And sometimes, in God’s mystery, something like that happens.
But in this text, I think Jesus is asking us to consider a different kind of power—the power that is available to us through God’s friendship. Not a friendship that is contingent upon our every wish and need being granted to us exactly as we ask for it. No, God desires to be our friend at midnight. Because when we’re knocking on the door in a moment like that, it is simply not a component of God’s character to leave us at that door alone. Which means that, even when our prayers don’t get answered in the way we’d like, God still comes to the door and offers us, if not bread, then the gift of God’s very self. Which is surely what we’re praying for when we utter those dangerous words, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Seven years ago, on a Friday night, with nobody in the house, Kay and I made plans to stay at home and just carve out some time for each other. We had not had much time like that for some long while. You know how it is: things happen. The work to do, the social obligations, the parenting, several trips out of town for one or the other of us; and, before long, it’s been months since there’s been some serious quiet breathing time together. So that’s what we were doing—swordfish on the grill, sitting out on the terrace with a bottle of wine, watching the sun set and then waiting for the stars to pop out in that big Texas sky. Then, when it got cool, we went inside to the living-room, got a fire going, turned on some jazz, lit some candles. Precious time, just talking, just visiting, catching up. No agenda.
Well, the phone rang. I wouldn’t have answered it, but the area code was from Atlanta, and so I thought it might be important. We came here from Atlanta; I’d been a parish pastor there. I thought it might be a parishioner calling from the church I’d served before we moved here. It was late enough—even on Central Time—that I thought that perhaps there was an emergency.
So I answered the phone. It was a collect call from a man in prison. I had met him during the year or so that our church in Atlanta was under renovation, and he had been part of the construction crew, and I’d spent some time with him. He was a great conversationalist, and we’d gotten to be buddies. Then, after the construction work was long-finished, he’d gotten into some trouble and had been thrown in jail, awaiting a trial, and had called on me. He had a lawyer who’d been assigned to him, but it was poverty law; which meant that the lawyer had barely investigated his case at all. So I’d asked a parishioner from one of the silk-stocking law firms in Atlanta to take his case, and he had done it for free and gotten involved with it and gotten the sentence reduced. But he still had to do prison time in South Georgia. And so, from prison, the man called me from time to time just to chat. This was who the phone call was from. “How ya doing, Reverend?” he said.
“Well, I just wanted to check on you. Haven’t talked to you in a while. How’s your family?”
Kay came into the kitchen and whispered, “Can’t you talk to him later?” I nodded.
“How’s Kay?” he said.
“Well how ’bout the girls. How’s Shelby? How’s Claire?”
“Well, that’s good.” And then he went on to tell me about how he was working on earning his high school equivalency, and about how he’s become a trusty in prison, and about how he’s reading the Bible every day and every night. He told me about a State inspection the prison went through, and about how he and some other inmates had worked hard to make it shine for the inspectors, and about how they had passed the State inspection with flying colors and so he and the other trusties had been given a special meal of hamburgers and French fries. He told me he went back twice and had three hamburgers in all—big old fat, backyard hamburgers, he said. With cheese and mustard and lettuce. And thick, juicy tomatoes like the ones his mama used to grow in her garden. And then he went back to the French fries—how big they were, freshly cut, steaming hot, and how good the ketchup was. And then, at the end of the meal, the warden had surprised them all with ice cream, and he ate more than one bowl of that. Covered it in homemade chocolate sauce, even.
The candles in the living-room had burned down to nothing; there was wax all over the coffee table. Kay came in and pointed to her watch.
I listened on the phone, wishing that I had not answered it. The first weekend in months that I was home, and now this. It was getting later and later, and pretty soon the jazz music from the living-room ran out, and Kay turned off the lights and went upstairs to bed. Why does he call me so often, I thought to myself. Can’t he find somebody else to talk to about hamburgers? He went on and on, and finally I sensed that the moment was coming when I would be delivered of this chore and able to hang up. But then the tone in his voice changed. “Ted,” he said. “I’m calling because I want you to know that when I thought I had not one friend in all the world, God sent you to me.” He said, “God does that, you know. God stands beside us just when we think we’ve run out of rope. So I pray for you every night,” he said, “and I thank God for you and your family. And when I get out of here, if I can ever do anything for you, or if you pass away someday and your daughters ever need anything; I’m there.”
I think that guy understood what it means to need a friend at midnight. But quite apart from my expectations, I think he understood, as well, what it means to be a friend at midnight. Thinking back on that conversation, it strikes me now that, contrary to what I was expecting, he was my friend in that particular midnight. Someone who offered me a surprise ending to that conversation—a gift of sustenance that I had not expected, that I had not really thought I much needed.
Jesus says that God is like that sustaining friend, and suggests that such a friendship is held together by prayer. He points us toward a Kingdom which, when it comes someday, will not be a fairyland of wishes granted, of dreams come true, but rather one which will represent the completion of that ongoing enormous divine project of redeeming the world. God shows us friendship by coming to the door, and offering us the Bread of Life and—more than that—the gift of God’s very self, which we recognize as such whenever we summon the courage—and it takes enormous courage—to pray, like we really mean it, the most dangerous but sustaining of all prayers: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”