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.

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