When I had the opportunity to take a course on Iowa History at UNI, I jumped at the chance. It was taught by Professor John Baskerville who was trained at the University of Iowa and was a proud citizen of the Hawkeye State. He was one of the few Black professors I’ve ever had.
In one of his first lectures he discussed Iowa’s place among those seeking admittance to the Union. It was a tumultuous time as slave and free states tipped the scales of power in Washington D.C. My heart swelled hearing that slavery had always been off the table for our state. I knew that Iowa fought for the Union in the Civil War and had more casualties per capita than any other state in the Union. Iowa fought for the right team and was on the right side of history.
But sometimes when good is done it is not always for the right reasons. Dr. Baskerville explained that Iowa’s prohibition of slavery was not, at least foremost, because of a moral objection to the practice. It boiled down to economics. Those who settled in the land between the Mississippi and Missouri often came from the aristocratic South. Southern plantation owners could out compete poor farmers with slave labor. The wealthy, land owning class was able to keep the market artificially low by exploiting black bodies. So those who could not compete but sought a living from agriculture went west.
When those people organized the state of Iowa, they made sure that oppressive aristocracy could not follow them and banned slavery. But they also made sure that any black bodies freed from bondage couldn’t follow either. Free Black people had to pay $500 in order to become residents in our state. That would be the equivalent of nearly 17,000 dollars now.
Sometimes we do the right thing but for the wrong reasons.
“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.
The friend in this parable does the right thing for the wrong reason. This dozing buddy does not help because it is the right thing to do. The drowsy pal does not help because of friendship. The friend winds up getting out of bed because of the dang racket might wake up his kids and neighbors. All of this knocking is annoying and embarrassing. So, he gets out of bed and does whatever needs to be done to get the racket to stop.
Jesus tells us today that we can look all around and find examples of average people granting prayers. So, when we knock on the door of God we are instructed to call Father, why would we expect less than we would of groggy friend in the middle of the night?
The good news Jesus gives us today is that we should expect even more, of course. So, he yearns we who have been call heirs of the eternal kingdom to knock with confidence in our prayers.
Yes, let us knock. But perhaps there’s more.
I would like to argue that sometimes, God knocks back.
I am struck by the question at the beginning of the Gospel. “Jesus, teach us to pray”.
What about this prayer makes it distinctly Christian? Why does it distinguish the prayer life of we who sit at the feet of Jesus?
I do believe that God can prosper even the smallest seeds of our obedience. I believe that God can help us do the right thing even if for the wrong reason. I do believe that when God knocks on our door we will sometimes be able to do the right things if for the wrong reasons. If just to get the knocking to stop!
When we feel guilty, when we feel our conscience roused are we not like the sleepy one who doesn’t really want to go answer the door but does anyway?
But we who take this prayer seriously, we who get in the habit of opening the door for God, must be changed.
The radical claim of this prayer is that we evil ones who pray it are also able to call the living God, father. We share in Jesus’ status. We share in his destiny.
We who pray this every week, every day, are shaped by it. As God knocks, the reason for our rising becomes more and more noble.
God can bring good from our bad reasons but that’s not where God wants to stay. Our God summons the best of us. Over the years, decades and lifetimes we pray these words, we rise to answer God’s knocking for better and better reasons.
Surely now Iowa’s prohibition of slavery is perpetuated by better motives than when it was first penned into our legal code. We have come to do the right things for better and better reasons.
But God still knocks. God is still summoning from us the image in which we were all made.
God still implores us to plumb the ways in which those Black bodies our forbearers excluded remain that way to this day.
No, beloved of God, we cannot rest on our laurels. We who dare call ourselves the children of God still need to get out of bed when we hear a commotion at the door.
And we will keep rising until that kingdom is totally unfurled.
The good news is that each time we are roused from sleep we wake up looking more and more like our Lord.
So, let us rejoice in the God who opens the door for us. But let us never forget that same God is the one who knocks for us.