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.

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