Thursday, September 29, 2016

October 2, Proper 22, Prayer and Action #3, Grieving and Doing

Lamentations 3:19-26, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

We’ve got some difficult scripture lessons today. Another one from Lamentations—again. While the writer admits that their sufferings are justified by the multitude of their transgressions, that does not prevent his grief.

In Psalm 137 you get anger on top of the grief, and when grief and anger come together you get depression, and you see the depression in that they refused to sing.

What does this all say about prayer and action? That sometimes you just can’t pray and you just can’t act because you find yourself so angry at the world and angry at yourself and angry at God. You have to acknowledge it and sit in it before you can get out of it.

The gospel lesson is difficult as well. Listen again: “We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.” I doubt if that was as off-putting back then as it is now. Back then self-esteem and personal fulfillment were not your obligations to yourself, and slavery was not regarded as categorically wrong. But it’s certainly off-putting now, and yet there may be some hard truth it.

 The hard truth is that the reason for us to have faith in God is that we are obliged to. It’s what we’re made for. Just as a tree is obliged to the sun, and a horse is obliged to run, and just as a seed is obliged to lose itself in the earth and break open and sprout, so you are designed to live by your faith and you therefore are obliged to it. Faith in God is the obligation of your existence.

That’s a counter-cultural truth. The prevailing view is to think of religion as a purely voluntary choice that you can make, like choosing whether or not to join a softball team. It’s like belonging to the food coop. They have the best food in Brooklyn, at the best prices, but they expect obligations. You can choose for that, or you can choose for the lesser produce at Key Food, which wants nothing from you except your money. It’s your choice.

We think of religion as something freely added on to life or not. But then you come to church, and you hear Jesus saying that you owe your life to God. And he compares you to a slave who is obliged to serve with no reward for your service except another job to do when you’re done with this one.

You open yourself to this hard truth. You give it room within yourself. You let yourself get used to it. So even though, because of your enculturation, you can’t help but approach your religion as a consumer, and then the Lord Jesus pushes you off for being a consumer, you come right back at him. “I’m with you Jesus, I’m hanging on to you Jesus, I just need a little more faith to handle some of the things you say.” Especially when you find yourself a little angry or aggrieved.

You only asked him to increase your faith. And it’s like he made fun of you by saying you should have faith the size of a mustard seed. That’s confusing. Does he mean your faith is so infinitesimal to begin with that just to get it merely tiny would make you a regular superhero, or does he mean the opposite, to get your faith small, so that asking for more is a wrong request?

Then he suggests a miracle which is silly, because why would you command a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea, which would kill the tree by drowning? It feels like the Lord Jesus is more than teasing here, it feels a little like he’s mocking. Not the Jesus we’re used to.

How different is the tone of the Apostle Paul to Timothy. Encouraging, supportive, approving, very loving. He’s trying to instill some confidence in Timothy, his student and successor, who was overly self-critical and often doubtful of himself. The kind of guy who well might say, Increase my faith!

St. Paul is so different from the Lord Jesus in his style of communication. He’s never as funny, and rarely paradoxical or contradictory. He doesn’t write parables or engage in comedy. He’s more straightforward, occasionally prosaic, often passionate, and sometimes hot. Here he is confessional and exhortatory, which makes his literary style feel more Greek than Jewish.

He makes this wonderful statement that sounds like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” I grew up singing that, in the old translation, my parents sang it at the dinner table, “But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” I know all the parts, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, because I sang them all in turn as my voice changed through the years. He is able to keep that which I commit to him.

The value and strength of my commitment comes from him whom I’ve committed to, not from me who commits. Like I’m a mediocre short-stop and he’s a fabulous first-baseman, who catches my throw no matter how badly I throw it. Like what the Lord Jesus said about the mustard seed, that it doesn’t matter how large or small your faith is, but that your faith is planted.

What does this all mean for prayer and action? It removes the pressure of effectiveness, of how much difference your prayers and actions make. That’s not up to you. You’re the servant, not the master. It doesn’t matter how well you pray. It doesn’t matter how good your actions are. And it doesn’t matter if what Our Lord expects of you looks to you to come up short.

I’m preaching to myself. I spent Sunday and Monday with Salam Qumsiyeh, our speaker for last week, and then on Tuesday and Wednesday I found myself depressed. I think it was my grief and anger at her experience as a Palestinian under occupation in her own land, and this mixed together with my love of Judaism and my support for the Jewish homeland. Nations have the right to defend themselves, both Israel and Palestine. The situation seems intractable and hopeless. I do pray, but what is prayer without action? She said simply, “Come visit us.” Come visit us. And that will make a difference? But that’s not up to me. Is that an action I must contemplate? Is that one for me?

You have your own actions to consider. What do you find yourself praying for a lot? What part of the world has God given you some power to be God’s servant in? What issues of need or illness or poverty or justice or someone’s loneliness are you able to address? Where are you able to sustain the cost that will come with action?

Not everyone can equally bear the costs. If you are vulnerable, let the group do it for you. Our congregation has already taken great steps in ethical investment of our church’s endowment. I myself would like to see us go further with fossil-fuel divestment. Will that cost us? Maybe, maybe not. If it does, would I be willing to take a pay cut? Do I have faith as small as a mustard seed to plant it in my Lord?

Our little prayers, our little actions, they seem so cost-ineffective. You’re tempted to doubt your usefulness. And the record of the church often leaves you ashamed. I’m sure that the Apostle Paul was also tempted by that shame, or else why would he confess, “But I am not ashamed.” When all your efforts seem quixotic and naive, that’s precisely when you need the faith of a mustard seed. To commit what you do to God, to entrust it to God, to let God hold on to what you do until the day of reckoning.

There is here no contradiction between faith and works. You need the faith to do the works. Not your great faith, but your little bit of faith, the one thing that you know.

Nine days from now I will be attending the Yom Kippur service at Beth Elohim. I have not missed for fifteen years, I have perfect attendance. The congregation knows I will be there. I know the liturgy well enough to sing along. You might regard my prayer with them as an action, an act of solidarity. Let that be my witness to the world. But that’s not why I do it. I don’t even do it for the very warm welcome that I get there. I do it for love. I love to sing and pray in Hebrew, I love the ancient yearnings of the Jewish people, I love to pray for Israel with Israel, I do it for love.

I’m ending with this because I think that love is the little secret hidden in the off-putting parable of the Lord Jesus here—because when you love someone, you will do more for them than any slave would do, and for less thanks. I think the off-putting parable is to clear away all motivation for prayer and action other than sheer love, the love that comes from God.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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