Thursday, September 22, 2016

September 25, Proper 21, Prayer and Action #2: Losing and Investing

This is Salam Qumsiyeh, from Bethlehem in Palestine. She will be speaking in our service on Sunday, and her experience has inspired my sermon.

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15,
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16,
1 Timothy 6:6-19,
Luke 16:19-31

This is the second in my sermon series on Prayer and Action. Let me start with prayer, with that most basic of prayers, the prayer for help.

The prayer for help is common to all religions. You ask the gods and goddesses for help; you buy their help with costly sacrifice; in Homer’s Iliad the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to buy good weather from the gods.

Do you pray to God for help? I think you can. I do! The Bible is full of it. We just read Psalm 91: Protect me, deliver me, rescue me, save me. How many ways can you say it: Help me O God.

I know that some people get very specific with their prayers for help, asking for this and asking for that. I tend to keep my prayer for help more general. I think of how the Lord Jesus answered that second temptation of the devil, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Now you might say that’s just an excuse, that the real reason I keep it general is because of the monstrous gap between the help we ask for and the help we get. Maybe. But I think it’s like training for the Olympics. That your chances of winning a medal are very slim does not you from investing your life in that slim chance. And life is more like soccer than American football, in terms of how often you score for how long you play. It’s like that with prayer.

Instead of asking for help on this and help on that, my habit is rather to live like we’re told to in the Epistle of First Timothy, to work on my godliness and contentment, to live squarely in the present, to work on my present righteousness, my present faith and love, my endurance, my gentleness. But to live in the present is not the same as living for the present. I live for the future squarely in the present.

I regard my living in the present as an investment in the future. And I regard my prayers for help that way. Not as controlling the future but as investing in the future. I know I will have my losses, and much I must sacrifice, and that I cannot gain my life unless I lose it, so my prayers are like my actions, not my attempts to claim the future but my investments in the future that belongs to God.

You see it with Jeremiah. Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army. The land of Judah was under occupation. I am sure that in the Temple the priests were praying night and day for God help them with deliverance. I’m sure they were quoting Psalm 91. They were not wrong to do so, even if God had firmly decided the opposite, and they’ll all be carried off.

Yet at the same time Jeremiah was commanded to buy a piece of land—property under occupation, a parcel he could not even get to, much less take possession of. And today that very piece of land today is somewhere in the West Bank. And there the Palestinians are reliving Jeremiah, their ancestral lands occupied by Israeli settlers, their houses bulldozed and their vineyards uprooted, and all this protected by the weapons of the IDF. And will God help them when they pray?

They should pray and they should act. Because our prayers and our actions are both investments that we make without our controlling the results. God says, I will help you in my time and in my way. That’s hard. To count on things not turning out as we intend, things not going to plan, on loss. But we still invest in actions of justice and mercy and social change, and we still invest in prayer, because it’s the Kingdom of God we’re investing in. The future belongs to God, not us, and, as I’ve said,  we don’t build the Kingdom of God, it is given to us. Your Christian actions are meant for illustrations of what you pray, “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now let me turn to the parable. I’m going to step over much of its meaning and magic to glean it for Prayer and Action. Right off we notice that the Lord Jesus gives the poor man a name, the only time he does that in all his parables, so it’s important. And Lazarus means “God helps.” Much in the parable turns on this.

The rich man was thinking that God should help the poor man, so he didn’t have to, or, that God helps those who help themselves. The result is the same. If you’re poor or suffering, somewhere it’s your fault, or your parents’ fault, your karma, whatever, just not mine, so I don’t owe you anything. I can let you on my stoop, and eat the crumbs that trickle down when my servant sweeps the floor. This parable is a cartoon of trickle-down economics.

But then when it’s the rich man’s turn to suffer, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus down to soothe him. Which he had not done for Lazarus. Then he wants Abraham to help his brothers by sending Lazarus back to warn them. Which God had already done for him just by having Lazarus lie there at his door, and did he take the warning? With this opportunity to care for the poor man and stop being so selfish God had been helping the rich man, but he would take the help.

Even in his punishment he remains impenitent. He never once addresses Lazarus himself. He still regards Lazarus as beneath him. Just as when he had stepped over him on his stoop whenever he went out feasting with his brothers. Today we call this dehumanization. We did it in America to our black slaves. We used their labor but treated them like cattle. Even now African-Americans have daily experiences that tell them their lives don’t matter the same. Last week I read the transcript of a horrible sermon preached in a Reformed church in Hungary that compared the refugees in Europe to ants and rodents. And I have had Israelis tell me without shame that Palestinians are a lower race, with fewer rights. Dehumanization. And this parable is an accurate cartoon of dehumanization.

So then, how do we respond? Close by in action and at a distance in prayer.

Close by, our Christian action is to invest in relationships that humanize. Crossing boundaries of race and class, nervously crossing the monstrous gap of fear. This is what you volunteers did in our summer Respite Shelter. This is what some of you want to do in our new project on racial justice with Congregation Beth Elohim. This is what you can do at our forum with Salam right after church today.

Because the world says what Abraham said, “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no once can cross from there to us.” But Christ has risen from the dead, and jumped across that chasm, and offers his body as a bridge. A bridge to risky relationships, outside of our control. To build relationships that others call impossible is a Christian act of investing in the Kingdom of God.

And then at a distance, is your intercessory prayer. We only have so many close relationships, but you can make relationships spanning space and time in intercessory prayer. Christian prayer is the ancient internet, and intercessions the original social media.

It’s true that intercessory prayer has many tangible benefits, both to yourself and to those whom you pray for, but I don’t want you to do it for these outcomes. That would miss the point. You pray your intercessions leaving the outcome up to God. Your prayers are investments in the Kingdom.

Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord Jesus would return again tomorrow. He said that he would plant a tree. There has to be good humor in our actions and our prayers. Like the comedy in the parable. You know what a comedy is. The joke is on the hero and the powerful lose control and the nobles lose the game but love wins out. Plant that tree. Buy that piece of ground. Pray without ceasing. Because Love wins.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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