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.

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