Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sermon for September 19, Proper 20: Prayer is How To Manage Contradictions

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Some of Jesus’ parables are difficult. Like this one. Does Jesus really approve of a the dishon­est manager? Is Jesus really advocating kickbacks? Doesn’t this contradict morality?

Remember that a parable is a story told on a curve. Jesus throws it like a curve ball. The pitch comes at you looking straight, and then at the plate it suddenly drops, and it moves inside and outside, where you don't expect it. A parable has play in it, it teases you, it resists you, it offends you, it judges you, and you have to let yourself be judged. To get it you have to give in to it. You can't stay standing in your normal stance. Your ideals of the good fall short of the actual reality of the world, the fallen world, the world which God loves but which is also under judgment.

A couple details. Verse 9: “Eternal homes” is literally, “pavilions of the age,” the pavilions of the kingdom that is coming. Think of great big party tents, pavilions of public feasting in the age to come, after the final judgment. To be part of that celebration then suggests you live right now in contradiction to including yourself among the best and the brightest. And you will be a lonely person in the kingdom of God if you try to stand on the goodness and the rightness of your mor­al­ity and your mind. Give that up. Be accepted for the silly reality of what you are.

The word “wealth” is “mammon.” It doesn’t mean great wealth, but the common wealth of common people, your ordinary capital, your ordinary equity, your share in the economy of ordi­nary life. “Dishonest wealth” is a better translation than “unrighteous wealth.” Unclean wealth, unkosher wealth, crooked wealth. Like Jesus’ people having to use the Roman coinage with Cae­sar’s image on it, a constant violation of the second commandment. Just to participate in the eco­nomy was to keep breaking the commandment, making all their wealth unrighteous, no matter how honest their dealings or innocent their intentions.

Like our own participation in a world economy with its capitalist concen­tra­tion of economic power, in a glo­b­al system which increases the wealth of the wealthy and the poverty of the poor, exhausting our natural resources, and polluting the planet. We enjoy its benefits, but if we hold to the stance that our economic life is morally respectable or acceptable or even neutral, then this parable whizzes right by us, and we strike out. This parable has judged us. We are trying to serve two masters. We want to serve God, but we want to preserve our economic loyalties. So we all of us have to let ourselves be judged in order to face the reality of the contradictions of our life in this world every day. None of us can claim the stance of having solved it or of gotten it right. The wisdom here is for each of you to admit that whatever wealth you have is somewhat crooked.

The manager in the parable solved his problem by giving kickbacks. But the real point is that he did not try to defend himself or even plead his case. He just faced his own unrighteousness. You do the same, don’t stand on your innocence, just come to terms with your unrighteous­ness, be as shrewd in your own predicament as the manager was in his. Accept the judgment of God, don’t argue it or deny it. Accept yourself as contradictory. Don’t try to show the rightness of your mind or your morality. Don’t keep swinging. Just take the four balls. Get on base with a walk. Forget about your batting average. Live by grace, God=s grace, live by undeserved grace.

This sermon is the first in a series on prayer. Each week I’ll be asking the scripture lessons what they might tell us about prayer. This morning I’m saying that prayer is how we manage the contradictions of the world and the contradiction of our own selves. Look at the prayer which is Psalm 79. The Psalm comes to God with a problem. O God, we are supposed to be your chosen people, but look at our predicament. “The heathen have conquered the promised land, the temple is defiled, and Jerusalem is a ruin.” What happened to your promises, what hap­pened to your faithfulness? “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. How long, O Lord, will you be angry forever? Help us, deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’ sake.”

The prayers of Israel hold up the contradictions. The prayers of Israel are not idealistic, they do not smooth things over, they do not try to solve the contradictions or make things all add up. The prayers of Israel manage the contradictions just by holding them up to God. “Here is the situ­ation, we cannot solve it or resolve it, we will not pretend we understand it, we will not pretend that we are in the right, we will only say that we need you desperately, and your forgiveness.”

The spirituality that is popular today prefers an idealistic unity. You know, everything comes together as one, and it all makes sense. But organized religion confronts us with contradictions. The liturgy in church gives words to the contradictions you live with every day, not least the contradiction of yourself. They way you manage your contradictions is by holding them up to God, by trusting in God=s mysterious responsibility, and kneeling down in your mind and body.

In St. Paul’s day, the greatest contradiction was to be the citizen of an empire that would kill you if it really understood what you believed. There was no separation of church and state, and Caesar claimed to be Savior, Lord, and Son of a God. When St. Paul made that very same claim for Jesus, he was being seditious. To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was to be in constant contradiction. The eventual persecution was inevitable, once the authorities figured it out. And yet St. Paul exhorted Timothy to keep praying for God to bless the authorities.
We do that too. We pray together, we hold up to God this world of contradictions and conflict, and we hold up to God the predicament of our own inescapable unrighteousness. Prayer is not a solution, it’s not a resolution, but it is an engagement, and an action, and an active reconciliation. And it’s the only way to live in love within the midst of all the frustration and the anger and the hatred.

I have told you this story once before, and it’s not a parable, so I’m telling it to you straight. I know a woman named “Deborah”, from Chile, in South America. She is a jeweler, but she was also a political activist, and she had worked in opposition to the dictator General Pinochet. She got ar­rested and interrogated by the CIA and tortured. They broke her fingers and her hands were soft like rags. One of the torturers demanded that she maker her a ring like the one they had taken from her. How could she do this? With her hands like this? For her tor­tur­er? She said she would do it if she could also make something special for herself. The torturer shouted, “Nothing political.” Deborah answered, “No, I want to make a Star of David. I am a Jew.”

It took her five days to make that piece of jewelry. As she made it she could feel her fingers heal and her hands made whole. She told me that the whole time she was making it, she could sense the Sheki­nah of God—the glorious presence of God—right there in the prison with her.

You can believe this story. It is true. Her making that jewelry was a kind of prayer. You can do the same thing when you pray, if not so extreme. If you want to pray, begin by choosing one of the psalms of contradiction, giving words to the contradiction of yourself and of the world. Pray that same psalm over every day. The solution will not come to you in the logic of philoso­phy or science or even theology. And it will not come to you in your feelings but in your faith. Your solution is the humble silence of the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the mystery of God and the grace of God.
Yes, you can start your praying with the Psalms of Israel. And I can offer you real hope, from my own experience and the experience of many other people, that if you keep on praying the Psalms, you will make yourself be present to God and God will be present to you. The hope you have is not a feeling but a being. God’s own person is your hope.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Please note: the piece of jewelry at the top of this posting is the actual piece of jewelry that Deborah made in prison.

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