Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 30, Proper 8, A Geography of Prayer 5: The Boundaries

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

Dearly beloved, this is the fifth sermon in my series entitled “A Geography of Prayer.” For this sermon in the series, I’m relying a great deal on the reflections and insights of my wife, Melody. My geographical feature this week is the Boundaries, from our Psalm, verse 6, “My boundaries enclose a pleasant land, indeed, I have a goodly heritage.”  Both Jesus and Elijah are crossing the boundaries of that pleasant Promised Land which was the goodly heritage of the Children of Israel.

In the case of Elijah, he gets his message while he’s over the southern border down at Mount Sinai. His message will take him back over the northern border into Syria to anoint the next king of the Aramites. After he anoints Elisha as his successor he will cross the eastern border over the Jordan where he will be taken up, as you remember, in the fiery chariot.

In the case of the Lord Jesus, he crosses the border between Galilee and Samaria on his way down to Jerusalem. Samaria is unfriendly territory for Jews. The Jews and the Samaritans regard each other as heretics, like the Shiites and the Sunnis, and their religious feud goes back for centuries. So it’s with righteous anger that the disciples James and John suggest to Jesus that he call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan villagers who have not welcomed them.

They got that from the stories of Elijah. Two times Elijah called down fire from heaven on the soldiers which the king of the Samaritans had sent to get him. Elijah is on the mind of James and John. They had just seen him for themselves, up on the mount of the Transfiguration, conversing with Jesus — maybe giving him advice? And they are excited now, for they heard the voice from heaven confirm their leader as the Messiah, the Son of God, the rightful king of the Kingdom of God. Should he not judge his enemies, like these no good Samaritans?

The Samaritans had no interest in the Messiah. They believed that the whole thing about the house and lineage of David was an heretical innovation of the Judeans and in contradiction to the Torah of Moses, which certainly said nothing about Jerusalem as the holy capital. So why is Jesus taking this way to Jerusalem, instead of going around along the Jordan? Is he making his claim that this province rightly belongs within the Messiah’s goodly heritage, and that by right his kingdom’s boundaries enclose this pleasant land? So the disciples seem to think.

But Jesus does not push his claim. Nor does he deny it. He calls himself the Son of Man, and then he has these off-putting encounters with individuals along the road. Jesus is a powerful and charismatic figure who approaches people in both predictable and unpredictable ways, and he is also constantly being approached on the road by all sorts and conditions of humankind. Why does he push them off? What he says to them we should not take as reasonable. He is speaking recklessly and in extremes.

It’s like he’s clearing the space in front of him as he goes, pulling on people and pushing them off from side to side. Not out of anger or vengeance, like James and John, but because he has set in motion a lava flow, a river in its flood, a great migration, a world in motion within our world but with a different energy and with different rules. The boundary is not a static border but a dynamic edge in motion, pushing and pulling on the ground it’s passing through.

The momentum is from the entry of God into history, in the person of Jesus. The urgency is not of Jesus’ own making, and you need not take it as a general behavioral model, that you as a disciple need to follow Jesus this recklessly, this hastily. Yes, be awake and be ready to move, but the point here is God’s activity in history, in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s not about our making the kingdom come by our haste. So Jesus tells his disciples to cool it with the Samaritans. “Guys, we don’t have time for that anger stuff now.”

God’s kingdom is coming. God is doing it. We don’t make it come. We don’t bring it. Despite what many Christian leaders say, we don’t advance the Kingdom of God, we don’t build it, and we certainly don’t have to defend it. God can do all that, and God does all that. What you need do is receive it. Pray for it. Desire it. Recognize it. It often contradicts the world, as with freedom and slavery. In Galatians St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Good. And then he writes, “through love to become slaves to each other.” Not so good. What does that mean? Realistically? At a congregation like Old First? Do you really want to be a love-slave to other people in this congregation? Is that how you receive the Kingdom of God?

Recognize slavery in the so-called “works of the flesh” and recognize freedom in the “fruits of the spirit.” The list of the works of the flesh is long and specific; the list of the fruits of the Spirit is short and sweet, and oddly vague. (Paradise is less interesting than hell.) These sins don’t feel like slavery; they feel more like strategies for dealing with slavery. They feel like ways to forget your suffering for a while. Or to actually do something about your suffering. Some of the strategies don’t sound like fun, like “strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,” but those strategies are seductive and they feel righteous when you are caught up in them. Most of you avoid fighting, but don’t you feel righteous when you’re in the middle of a fight you had tried to avoid?

So here is where we come to prayer. We are used to praying for what we want, but we have to learn to want what we pray for. We pray for what we desire, and we keep praying in order to desire what we pray for. We pray for God’s kingdom to come in order desire that kingdom and what that kingdom brings.

This is why it’s important to pray more than the prayers we make up ourselves. Yes, you need to pray for your own desires, but you need to develop your desires, you pray the prayers that have been written down by other people, the prayers that are still a bit beyond you, the prayers you don’t yet understand. You pray the Psalms beyond your understanding, the prayers of the liturgy, the prayers of the Christian tradition, praying things you never thought to pray for, to develop your desires. You can pray for what you desire, but you can also desire what you pray for. Pray outside yourself, pray beyond your current boundaries.

Pray to want what is freedom in reality. Who wants to be generous? Who wants to be patient? The fruits of the Spirit. Who wants self-control? Nobody likes to be told, “Control yourself.” If someone says of you that you are “controlled,” that means you are no fun, or you can’t access your emotions. It’s an insult, it’s feeling constricted. When Jesus rebukes his disciples on their desire for righteous judgment, he’s inviting them to freedom, to cross the boundary from the normal life of paying-back into the moving stream of love, joy, and peace.

We live on both sides of the boundary. The Kingdom side is fluid and dynamic, and it makes us nervous, while the normal side feels more solid and familiar. But the good news is that the two sides are unequal. On the Kingdom side, the fruit of the Spirit is successful and the works of the flesh are powerless. On the normal side the works of the flesh claim much success. But the fruits of the Spirit are no less powerful here as well, although in different ways, in ways that you can learn to recognize. It is his power that works on both sides of the boundary, and so you work it best by praying for it. And when you’re praying it’s like you’re breathing only on the one side, you’re breathing the fresh wind of that side instead of the stagnant air of this side. The breeze of the Spirit makes this urban jungle still a pleasant land.

Pray for what you desire, and pray so that you may desire what you pray for. Pray for that new job, if you desire it. And pray for faithfulness and gentleness and self-control, to desire to be faithful and gentle and self-controlled. Pray for patience, kindness, and generosity, so that you desire them. You pray for peace, you pray for joy, and you pray for love, to grow in your desire for them. The first fruit of the Spirit is love. You grow your love for others out of the love God has for you. You love God back with the love God has for you. The first way to love God is to pray.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

June 23, Proper 7, A Geography of Prayer 4: The Slopes

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:18-27, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Dearly beloved, this is the fourth sermon in my series entitled “A Geography of Prayer.” Last week was The Desert, and this week is The Slopes, as in the steep slopes of the hills around the See of Galilee. That’s our setting today, it’s where the Kingdom of God has landed for a little while in the person of Jesus Christ. And that’s my theme, to pray under the Kingdom of God, to pray for yourself and your needs under the Kingdom of God.

This gospel story is difficult all around. We could wish that Luke had given us some footnotes. It’s difficult to tell when it’s the demons talking or the man, or both, and the verb forms shift from singular to plural. We are not told why Jesus went to that region in the first place, on the far side of the lake. The country of the Gerasenes was across the border, it was pagan territory, and the inhabitants would have had no interest in the Messiah of the Jews and maybe some hostility. We are not told why Jesus so readily gave in to their resistance, when in the story just previous he had commanded the wind and the waves to yield to him. We are not told why, after Jesus saves the guy, he commissions him but does not baptize him.

It’s difficult to know what demons are and why they like to inhabit people and animals, or need to, and Luke does not assist us. I can tell you this: the demons are not the demons of Christian mythology. They do not come from hell. They don’t want to go there, as they tell Jesus. Try to imagine these demons as the displaced spirits of the landscape. Their home is on the landscape, which for the pagan mind is very spiritual. But they are spirits out of whack. They are less like devils and more like diseases, like viruses, or like velociraptors gone berserk. They are not so malicious and malevolent as they are hostile and fearful and destructive. They do not have super-powers, and they are not super-smart. Notice how stupid was their very idea of entering into the swine, in which they get the very destruction they begged Jesus to be spared of. They are destructive and self-destructive.

As for the local population, when they tell Jesus to leave, I doubt the main reason is the cost of the pigs. The reason they ask Jesus to leave is because of how fearfully they see the world, and with good reason. In my first church, in 1982, I pastored an elderly Hungarian woman whom I came to love. She was born in Uj-verbas, a town outside of Belgrade in what now is Serbia. When she was born it was a part of Hungary, and then after World War I it was part of Serbia, and after World War II it was part of Yugoslavia. I forget how many armies came through her town as she grew up, armies in battle, taking their food and abusing her sisters and her, the Austrians, the Russians, the Serbians, and then the Germans, and the Chetniks, and then the Russians again. Her life was not in her control.

We want to control our lives, we want to control our environment, we want to control our economy and political events and protect our national interest in the world. But so much of the world is outside of our control and resistant to us and even hostile. We can establish a bit of order around us, and outside of that is chaos. That is the natural way to see the world, the law of club and fang.

It looks to me like that’s how the Gerasenes saw the world, and you’d have to say the rampage of their pigs confirmed their worldview. So while they couldn’t solve the troubles they lived with they could manage them at least, or keep them at bay, which is what they had done with the demoniac. And then here is this new power who has landed on their shore and who has just added to their uncertainty, so of course they prevail on him to leave. And this foreign power which they are rejecting, a power outside of their control, with new uncertainties, tragically this foreign power they’re afraid of is the Kingdom of God. Which is the case for all of us.

A lot of what we moderns call religion is the attempt of human beings to manage the spiritual powers which we feel are there but are outside of our control. The way the religions do this is by means of rituals and incantations and formulaic prayers. Those are the practices that are being condemned by the prophecy of Isaiah in our first lesson. God was saying, “Yes, pray to me, I want you to pray to me, I’m waiting for you to pray to me, but not like that, not like that, if you pray to me I like that I will not listen and I will judge you.” I believe that the prayer which is rejected by Isaiah is the prayer that we pray in order to manage our world. Sort of like using medicine, or insurance, or your personal financial advisor. We pray to God for help in management, especially when things get tight and the chaos seems to get too close.

But on the other hand, in our gospel lesson, the demons make their request to Jesus and Jesus listens and grants to them what they ask for, self-defeating as it might have been. What’s the difference?

I think it’s because they recognize his authority. When they see Jesus, they recognize the Kingdom of God has come. He has landed. It’s D-Day. It’s General MacArthur striding onto the beach. It’s not the end of the war, and there will still be blood, much suffering and great hostility, but the end has been revealed. Even the stupid unclean spirits can see that there is some new emperor here who has the greater power over them, some Alexander, some Julius Caesar, with his own legions more than theirs.  They don’t know enough to know that he is gracious. They can’t imagine him not torturing them, so they are terrified. But he is gracious even in granting them their request.

“Thy kingdom come.” Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. It’s the beginning of all our prayers. When we pray for salvation, it’s under “thy kingdom come.” When we pray for healing, it’s under “thy kingdom come.” When we pray for that new job, it’s under “thy kingdom come.” When we pray for our daily bread, it’s under “thy kingdom come.” When we pray for that new bicycle, it’s under “thy kingdom come.” And so our prayers need not be formulaic rituals or rain dances or anything else. We make our request, and we explain to God why it fits so nicely under the Kingdom of God. And then we remember who we are and what we really know, and we pray, “Thy will be done.”

Even when we’re living on the edge. We’re always living on the slippery slopes. Prayer is how you keep your balance on the steepness of the slopes. The cliffs, the palisades, the rock-slide, the scree, the precipice, the very steep bank that goes right down into the water.

I’m talking about the prayers we pray within the danger of the world, the liminality of our lives, the chaos that surrounds us and threatens to overwhelm us, especially those of us who are weak or who have made mistakes. But it may be it just happens, even when we’re innocent. I’m not talking about prayers of repentance and confessing of your sin, I mean the prayers we pray to God from just the danger of the world, from how close we really do live to the edge, how close we live to the abyss.

Jesus did not make the world a paradise, a gated community, a pleasure cruise. God did not do that with the resurrection. The resurrection stands in the middle of the world as it is. The Kingdom of God most certainly does bring order to the world, but God has willed it such that it has not yet fully changed the world, and it comes into the world as it is, and it comes only partially and provisionally. And so there’s a gap between the world as we can imagine it should be and the dangerous world as we experience it right now and that gap is what we bridge within our prayers.

"Help us, save us, release us, free us. Not according to my list, not to make this world work for me, but according to your kingdom come." Is this a helpful distinction for you? Can this settle you down like that man, and put you in your right mind, and in some simple clothing?

So look at Psalm 22, in the course of just a few verses it goes from “help me, help me, save me from the beasts, from the dogs,” to “I will praise you in the great congregation.” “You are great O God. You are just plain great and wonderful, quite apart from what you do for me.” You have to do both. You have to let yourself pray both. You have to give voice to your lamentation in order to give voice as well to praise. That’s the way it works when you are praying under the Kingdom of God. It might not seem a natural dynamic, but the experience of believers over the centuries has found it to be true, that the prayer of lamentation is one half the pulse, and the other half is the prayer of praise, and in your heart you generate them both, and you can’t have the one without the other.

If you think about that, that fits with love. You can harden yourself to keep the chaos of the world at bay, or you can love it and lament it. You can harden yourself to your fate and to your destiny, or you can praise God, which is what you do for love. If we find that these two come so close together, lamentation and praise, that’s because it’s love that’s pulsing in it. Don’t you want it always to come down to love?

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, June 17, 2013

June 16, Proper 6, The Geography of Prayer 3: The Desert

2 Samuel 11:26—12:10, 13-15, Psalm 32, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36—8:3
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 45

This is the third sermon in my series entitled “A Geography of Prayer.” My title is from our Psalm, verse four: “My moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.” When I say desert I mean desiccation and desertion, I mean the drought of desolation and the aridity of alienation. I mean that God is gone from you and you are gone from God, when this mutual desertion is caused by guilt and shame. I mean when the silence between you and God is a guilty silence and not a quiet repose.

The sinful woman does not say a thing. It is Simon who can talk. He’s the one who claims the right of moral discourse. He’s a good man. He works at being good and keeping good, which is why he is a Pharisee. He’s so good he will have Jesus over for dinner, even though he opposes Jesus. He’s so good he lets the poor people in to gather up the leftovers, which is why the doors are open. He’s so clean he never once touches Jesus, because Jesus is notoriously unkosher. So he will not honor Jesus with the customary kiss  or water for his feet and oil for his head. Which could be considered rude, but Simon can justify himself in terms of ritual restrictions. “Look, am I not trying to be a nice guy?” It ends up as a patronizing hospitality, and an insult is implied, if Jesus wants to take it.

But Jesus doesn’t hold it again him. Jesus is more gracious than his host. Jesus has been forgiving Simon all along, without Simon asking for it or understanding that he needed it. There’s a point: God forgives you long before you ask for it, and God forgives you of far more than you ever ask forgiveness for. In God’s economy of grace, forgiveness comes before confession. God has forgiven your sin before you ever confessed it. The reason you confess it is not to get God to forgive it, the reason you confess is to honor the truth of God’s grace and how much you need it.

The woman knows she needs it. She does not hide her status as a sinner. The nature of her sin is strongly suggested, but it’s only suggested and we do not have to know for sure. In fact, whenever it comes to another person, you really can’t know anyway. Simon thinks he knows, but what does he really know about this woman and her predicament and why she might have sold herself, if that in fact is what her sinning is. Not that we need to justify her choice. She does not attempt to justify herself, she offers no explanations or excuses. All she pleads is the expression of her love. And again, we are not told why. We do not need to know. That’s a second point: the true confession of your sins is not an accurate enumeration of your sins. No, it’s far more simple than that: You just say, “I am a sinner. For what I have done I make no excuse, and I do not try to justify myself. I believe you, O God. I am a sinner. Be merciful to me. I want to love you.”

She washes his feet with her tears. How is that possible? Who is physically able to cry out a whole pint of tears? And how long is her hair? How sexual was it when she loosened her hair before them all? Or when she rubbed the cream on his skin. Propriety is threatened here. But it also threatens propriety if the forgiveness of God is so extravagant. If God forgives us so freely how shall we protect morality? How shall we keep things good and right, with good boundaries, and keep things safe for children, and responsible, and respectable? These are right considerations, but they do not capture God, and God’s capacities, and God’s extravagance.

I hear it often said that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry for your sin and if you repent of your sin. Your forgiveness is conditional on your repentance. That was the import of the Old Testament, as you saw in Psalm 32, and it’s still the official teaching of some Christian churches. They teach that a sin is not forgiven unless it is repented of, and it might not be forgiven if you are not sorry enough. That is certainly not the official teaching of the Reformed Church. Our teaching, which we got from Martin Luther, is that your forgiveness does not depend on you or on the depth of your sorrow or even on the value or veracity of your repentance.

Your forgiveness is an absolute and unconditional gift of God which comes from the cross of Christ, once-for-all, for all of time and all of humanity and all of human sin, past, present, and future. There is therefore now no condemnation, there is no more punishment, no more little babies dying because of the sins of their fathers like King David. That’s all completely done with as of that first Good Friday. Your forgiveness does not depend on how truly sorry you are or whether you repent or whether you stop doing the sins you say you’re sorry for. Which is apparently too drastic and radical and lavish and extravagant for many churches to believe, because that means that all of your future sins are already forgiven too, before you have confessed them, before you’ve even done them. That’s right.

Then why do you confess them? Not to get them forgiven but because they are forgiven. You confess to let the load off of your guilt. You heard that in our Psalm today. “God’s hand on me lay heavy night and day, while stubbornly I hid my guilt away.” Guilt is what you deserve when you’re a sinner, it’s what you really do deserve. So knowing this, and in fear of others knowing what you deserve, you hide your sin, and when you hide your sin, your guilt weighs down on you. And that cuts you off. That drains you and it dries you out. You know what it’s like when you’re hiding something, you know what’s it like to feel the weight of guilt, and you know how you get. So you confess your sin in order to release the guilt you feel. You will have to pass through the shame of it, like the woman in the story, but that’s the death you have to die in order to be free.

You confess your sin to tell the truth about yourself. You learn to tell the truth about yourself, even when it’s an inconvenient truth, especially when it’s an inconvenient truth, because it is a liberating truth. That your goodness is a goodness given and not a goodness gained, which frees you from the hardness of trying to keep good like Simon the Pharisee, in order to be free like the Lord Jesus, who let himself enjoy the wet and fragrant contact of the woman’s love. You confess your sins to tell the truth about yourself, which, if you accept the humiliation, gains you liberation.

You confess your sin to tell the truth about God. Your prayer of confession is also a confession of faith. When you confess your sins you’re saying that you believe God, and what God says about our human race, and you believe in the value of what God had to do in Christ for the salvation of the human race. That’s why in our liturgy we first confess our faith and then we confess our sins, because the confession of your sins is also a confession of your faith, you confess your sins to say, Yes, God, I believe it when you say that I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. You confess your sins as a statement of your faith.

Which is why in the Reformed Church we keep our prayers of confession very simple. We don’t generally enumerate our sins. Sometimes there’s value in this, in doing a searching moral inventory, or in therapy, or in spiritual direction. But even then you cannot fully know yourself, and you have to come back to trust in what God says about you, and trust the promise that as far as God is concerned you are fully justified, just receive it and believe it. And be grateful.

You confess your sin as an act of gratitude. How much God has done for you, thank God!

You confess your sins as an act of praise. Let me tell you how great God is, how gracious, how merciful, how lavish and extravagant.

You confess your sin as an act of love. You love the Lord because you have been forgiven much. To recite in your prayer that “you have not loved God with your whole heart nor your neighbor as yourself,” even that recital is act of loving God with your whole heart.

This story is like a parable, and it is mystical. The woman stands for Jesus. The woman is Jesus, who became sin for us, Jesus weeping, Jesus with his dirty hair, smelling of your sweat and your dirt, and his oil on your desiccated skin. The woman is also you, when you confess your sins, and then Jesus is God, whom you are grabbing for, in your broken love and your bad attempts at love, and God accepts your love, and you need not speak, because of how much God loves you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

June 9, Proper 5, The Geography of Prayer, #2: The Pits

I Kings 17:17-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

Dearly beloved, this is the second sermon in my new series entitled “A Geography of Prayer.” Last week was the Planet of Prayer, and today is the Pits of Prayer. My title is from our Psalm, in the tenth verse. In the Bible, the Pit is that deep cavern in the earth where the dead went. In the geography of Israel it was a real place but undiscoverable. The Pit was also a metaphor for them, as it is for us, of the despair of human life, the deep despair.

In both of our stories today, a widow is in the pit of loss and grief from the death of her only son. The widow in the gospel is silent in her grief, while the widow of Zarephath lashes out in anger and resentment, as well as with the guilt we often mix with grief. Neither of the widows ask for help. Neither one has the idea to ask to have her child raised again.

Elijah does it because he is convicted by her accusation. He does it to defend the honor of God against her charge.  But the gospel widow makes no accusation. God’s honor is not at stake. Jesus could have done nothing. He does it for himself as much as for her. It is his idea, not hers. He does not wait for her request. He does not expect it. He does it freely. Or as a Calvinist would say, he does absolutely freely in his sovereign grace.

So if neither widow has requested it, what does this have to with prayer? Last Sunday it was clear. We saw the petition of the centurion and the intercession of the elders. But the widows do not petition and the pall bearers do not intercede. Because it was too late. You can pray for healing while a person is alive, even in extremity, but as soon as that spark of life goes out it is too late. So if you’re a normal person you’re not going to ask for it, even if you believe these Bible stories. Most of my own family believes the Bible stories more or less, but at the funeral of my father, a year ago yesterday, none of us prayed for God to bring my father back to life right there. We prayed for many other things, but not that.

Jesus did it for her without being asked. Here’s a take home: So much of what God does for you is what you've never asked for. We never thought to request the great part of the good God does for us, nor do we think to credit God for it. I suppose God’s used to that by now, and God is not resentful or bitter. The joke’s on us, and when the angels are having happy hour it’s our stupidity they joke about.

There is another point. Just as the raising of their sons was not the idea of the widows, so too, in a general way, doctrinally, the resurrection was not our idea. It is God’s surprise. If you look at religions globally, it isn't resurrection that humanity was ever asking for. Not that we haven’t always hoped for immortality. People say they want to go to heaven when they die. The global idea of humanity has ever been the immortality of our souls, whether that’s immortality with the angels up in heaven or, in some religions, reincarnation through the transmigration of our souls. But God’s idea is the resurrection and renewal and sanctification of your ordinary bodies. It’s an idea that even the church finds hard to believe, and we keep sliding back to the easier idea of the immortality of the soul.

It’s easy to believe that evil and sin are natural to the ordinary world. It is taught by most religions that Evil is just as natural and necessary as the Good. Even Christians give in to this, and we are taught that this ordinary world is so unsalvageable that we have to leave it behind for heaven in order to enjoy eternal life. But God’s idea is that the world is meant to be good, and the ordinary world is very much worth saving and redeeming. God’s idea is that sin and evil are neither natural nor inevitable to the ordinary world, and that the presence in our lives of sin and evil tells us that there’s something wrong. God’s idea is to make it right, not to abandon it. God intends to make it right, and we shall have a second chance to live in it as right. God’s idea is to raise us again and put us back into the world when God has made it right. And it’s also God’s idea to make things right, right now, even if only provisionally and partially. When we pray we are saying, “Come on God, make things right.”

But what’s so wrong with dying to begin with? Why not just accept our deaths as other creatures do? Why can’t we accept our biology like other animals, that when our time is up we’re done? Cicadas get seventeen years, gerbils get two, elephants get sixty, and we get about seventy. Why does our species presume to be eternal, or even to have a second go round? Why does Christian doctrine set this up? Why does God offer this to us?

It’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s about God’s investment in the world, and what God made us for and wants from us. We are the animals who belong to God and not to ourselves. We are the species that doesn't make sense to ourselves. (How much our tragic history confirms this.) Our species makes sense only in terms of God and the judgments of God. Humanity makes no sense apart from God. Which means that we should not expect the idea of resurrection to be reasonable on its own. The resurrection of human beings is about God, and it’s God’s idea. God will raise us again because this jealous God will not surrender us to sin and evil and death. God will restore us to God’s self. In both stories, the mother — she stands for God. God is the mother, and you are the child, and Jesus is the prophet, and it’s his idea.

The stories are specific. Elijah gave the boy back to his mother. Jesus gave the son back to his mother. God has compassion on these widows in their circumstance and God desires their restoration. God wants a good life for these widows, that they experience their existence in the ordinary world as good. It’s for their mothers that these boys were raised again, in order to care for them in their widowhood. It’s not for yourself that you will be resurrected, but for loving others as yourself as you’re supposed to, and especially for loving God as you should, for once! Your resurrection is because you belong to God and God desires you and is jealous for you, and God will not let death succeed in cutting you out of the enduring communion of God’s love.

Which is why you pray. Yes, you pray because you count on the compassion of Our Lord, but you also pray because you count on what the resurrection tells you, what it tells you of God’s commitment to your life within this ordinary world, which God has made you for and put you in. Now, you get it that to be resurrected you have to die first, you know you have to go down to the Pit, and you know there’s going to be pits and valleys in your life, and you may fall down a pit so deep you can’t see out, and all you have left is a prayer of desperation. But you keep praying as a way of believing in God’s promise of life beyond the pit. You keep praying as a way of trusting in God’s commitment to what life must be like in this world, not because of what we deserve, but because of God, and what God is like.

And what God is like is to be compassionate, and gracious, but also free, and sovereign. And there is no mechanical relationship between our prayers and what God does. Your prayer is not a toggle switch. It’s more like a letter you put in the mail, or an application to college or an application for a job.  And you live with the gap between your prayer and God’s response, and you have trust God in that gap. The gap is not in God, who is constant and eternal, the gap is in us and in our knowledge and our limits and our mortality.

So now my family is praying for my little niece Ragan. She has leukemia. You could say that leukemia is just natural to the world, and you’d be right, and all of us have to die. But God has strange ideas, and in your prayers you claim those strange ideas. And you cannot see beyond the gap so you have to trust in the goodness of the sovereignty of God. And, on my word, you can believe that all the energy that empowers the sovereignty is love. God’s love. Not just compassion, but love, and desire for you and delight in you. God’s been loving you before you even thought to ask for it. You can pray because God loves you.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.