Saturday, September 17, 2016

September 18, Proper 20, Prayer and Action #1: Lamentation and Limits

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

I’m starting a new sermon series today. Last Sunday I finished a series on prophecy. That series was broken up over the summer, but you can get the whole of it on-line. I have a method for these series, which is to ask the same question of the scripture lessons every week.

And this is how I come up with a series: first I sit down with all the lessons for a few months ahead, and I look for themes and threads. I consider what questions those lessons might have answers to. I settle on a question that is honest to the lessons but also speaks to Old First. I use this method in the belief that God still speaks to us today out of this careful conversation with the Bible.

So this new series is called Prayer and Action. I’m asking the weekly lessons how our prayer and our ethical action enhance each other. Our attention to God, and the difference we can make in the world. I chose this question because I think Old First could be a little more activist than we are, and because prayer is a theme in the Gospel of Luke, and we’re in Luke through November. But this morning what we heard in Luke is about action, not prayer. For prayer we go to the other lessons.

The prayers in Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are lamentations. Grief and despair. All joy is gone. The city of God is a wreckage and ruin and the promises of God are contradicted by the facts. So you could just be done with God, or, in lamentation, you hold the awful contradiction up to God. As Dostoevsky shows us in The Brothers Karamazov, you could become an atheist or you could squarely face the terrible facts and yet make that dangerous leap to still believe in God.

The Old Testament is not afraid to complain to God and to complain to God about God. The Jewish tradition of kvetching goes way back in the Bible, while we Christians tend to talk nice. Last week Melody said to me that without the Old Testament, it’s just Jesus and TED talks!

Lamentation is spiritually necessary. If you want to pray realistically, you also have to pray the bad stuff, and pray it without receiving an explanation or a mitigation. You say, “It is bad, it is very, very bad, and where are you, O God?” And what does God say? “I know, I know.”

But if God’s not going to do anything to fix it, then what’s the use of us trying to make any difference in the world? This will be one of our working problems for this sermon series. If God’s not going to fix it, why even try to make a difference in the world, and if God’s not going to fix it, why even pray our supplications and intercessions, as St. Paul urges us to in First Timothy? Prayers of thanksgiving—okay, you’re not asking God to change anything. But supplications and intercessions ask God to act within the world and maybe even intervene. And when do you ever see it?

When you scratch the surface of what St. Paul says, it gets puzzling. St. Paul tells us to pray “for everyone,” but especially “for kings and all who are in high places, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Well, that is the kind of life we’d like our kings and officials to provide for us, but how often don’t they give us wars and tumult and taxes and corruption and oppression, and that was true no less back then. So are we supposed to pray for bad kings too, and corrupt officials? How about if they persecute us? Do we pray for their good health or for their defeat? Or do we just pray their names and let God sort it out?

I was taught in Christian school that the Roman Empire was providentially ordained by God for the first expansion of the church, with its excellent roads and a single common language and its freedom and safety of travel. We were not taught about the underside of the Empire’s vicious cruelty and rapacious exploitation. Just so in my own life I can say that I have benefited greatly from the freedom, prosperity, and security of America. So has this church, through the centuries, for which we give thanks, and we intercede for our government officials. But what about the underside?

I have sobering words from a Methodist bishop from South Africa: “American [churches] have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage: you have to . . . expose, and confront, the greatest disconnection between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.”

I mean to be provocative. Because if we can get down off our chairs, and sit on the filthy ground of lamentation, if we just accept it is that bad, then what kind of Christian action is required of us? If we stop trying to justify our record and defend our honor, can we better make a difference in the world? And here St. Luke can help us. In the comic parable of the dishonest manager, the Lord Jesus offers us a way of liberation from the defensive posture of self-justification.

This is how it works. When the master discovers the manager’s mismanagement, and calls him to account for it, the manager wastes no breath in trying to defend or justify himself, nor does he grovel in guilt. He takes the opening generously handed him when the master, instead of throwing him in jail, orders him to produce his accounts. The sharecroppers do not know yet that he’s been fired, so when he tells them to rewrite their contracts they happily do so.

You see, he is calculating on the consistent generosity of his master. The master will not stain his noble reputation by making the sharecroppers pay up after the manager’s trick. What’s the moral? Don’t bother to justify yourself or the rightness of your wealth, accept God’s judgment, but count instead on the grace of God.

And then the Lord Jesus strangely says, “Make friends for yourselves with your unrighteous wealth.” His word for “wealth” is not the great wealth of the wealthy, but ordinary middle class wealth. He won’t let us be all moralistic and self-righteous about the wealth that we have, that we earned it and it’s good and we deserve to keep it. Nope. It’s crooked, every dime you have is connected to corruption and every shirt you wear has exploitation woven into it. The more you defend it or attend to it, the less you’ll have of the Kingdom of God. The more you service it, the less you can serve God. But the freer that you are with it, the more you can celebrate the kingdom of God.

I think of the famous quip of Rev. James Forbes, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” You help the needy not because they need it but because you need to! You need to take your place with the sharecroppers and the tenants and the lower class and accept their generosity. The way that you can get in close with them is by sharing what you have with them as if they have their own rights to what you have. You don’t give money to the poor because you’re so generous, or from a place of power and direction, that you can expect to improve them, but because of how much you need to share with them. To understand that is the shrewdness.

Which means, we do our Christian action in humility, we do our Christian action accepting our limits, the limits of what we can control, the limits of our possible outcomes, the limits of how much difference we actually can make within the world, just like when we pray. So you do your Christian action as a form of prayer. Your Christian action is an enacted intercession, a lived-out supplication, and you offer it up to God precisely to put it beyond your own control. So that Christian action can even include lamentation. Your lamentation can be a prayer of solidarity with those who suffer.

We do our Christian actions calculating on God’s character. Whether God will intervene here or do some special action there is beyond the limits of our knowledge and control, and God does not explain the where and when nor justify the here or there. Which goes with the reality of how much difference you really can effect in other people’s lives, no matter how great an activist you are.

But here’s the benefit. The risk of action is frustration. But when you give up the burden of control and the necessity of your outcomes, you end up with gratitude. When you do your Christian actions as enacted prayers, your intercessions and supplications generate thanksgivings. And you learn, along with that dishonest manager, to calculate on the possibility of God’s love.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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