Saturday, October 08, 2016

October 9. Proper 23, Prayer and Action 4: Enduring and Encouraging

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

This is the fourth sermon in my series on Prayer and Action. And our lesson from Jeremiah could not be more relevant: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Seek the welfare of New York City and pray to the Lord on its behalf; or seek the welfare of Brooklyn and pray to the Lord on behalf of Brooklyn, for in the welfare of Brooklyn you will find your welfare. What if we changed our mission statement? Our mission is to share in God’s redemption of the city. Old First is a community of Jesus who work for the welfare of Brooklyn and pray for it. Well, that’s good, but it’s a little narrow I think.

But how is that specifically Christian, to seek the welfare of our city? Isn’t that what everybody wants, that their city prosper? So maybe the issue is the difference between welfare and prosperity, that we Christians have a particular responsibility for welfare, for being the agents and advocates of welfare. Both political parties vilify welfare, both political parties keep appealing to the issues and interests of the middle class. But the lower class, the underclass, is that the group whose issues and interests we Christians must appeal to, for in seeking their welfare we will find our own?

Jeremiah wrote this letter to the Jews in exile in Babylon because they were being told by other prophets that their exile would be short, maybe a couple years, and God would miraculously defeat the Babylonians and liberate Jerusalem and they’d all return in triumph. Jeremiah says, Nope.

Not gonna happen. Settle down. Build houses there, plant gardens, raise families, be at home there, be at home among the Babylonians who till now were your enemies. Effectively don’t have enemies.

Of course it’s when we are prospering that we start having enemies. When we prosper is when we go to war to protect our interests, our way of life, our markets, the oil we need, the resources we need. Poor nations don’t start wars. On a planet of limited resources, is it possible to seek the welfare of your city without having enemies?

So maybe we should be a little like exiles, resident exiles in our cities—to seek the welfare of our cities without being patriotic. We are not fully loyal to the city we seek the welfare of. We pray for it, we are active in its common life, we don’t keep ourselves separate, we fully integrate, we advocate, we are at home where we live, but we have a prior loyalty.

Our loyalty to the Kingdom of God is what compels us both to seek the welfare of our city but also not to identify ourselves by it. It’s a fine line. We might not be trusted. We might be made to suffer for it. Even in democracies you can go to jail for not acting loyal enough, especially in time of war.

The Apostle Paul could have stayed out of prison if he’d wanted to. If he’d just learned to get along. He kept on saying things that made people think he was their enemy. Even though he wasn’t. He was just not loyal to the reigning loyalties. There’s a message here for us about Christian action: your Christian action may well result in your being misunderstood, your motivations doubted, and you may be opposed, ironically, precisely because you will have no enemies!

St. Paul wrote this letter from prison to his protégé, the young Pastor Timothy. He was having a tough time of it. Not from prison or persecution but from his own self-doubt and his recurring weaknesses and how his little churches struggled, unlike the booming church in Corinth and the mega-church in Antioch. Timothy felt ashamed.

How to encourage him? Don’t be ashamed, how many times can you repeat it, don’t be ashamed, how many ways can you say it! Do stop measuring your work all the time. The outcome is not in your hands! Lift up your head, raise your eyes, remember the vision, remember the promises. Come on Timothy!

“Get up, get going, your faith has saved you.” What Jesus says to the Samaritan leper. Don’t misunderstand the gospel lesson. All ten of the lepers had been saved by their faith. All ten of them dared to act on Jesus’ instruction to go get certified as clean by a priests, as required by the law of Moses, and in their going they were cleansed.

Don’t condemn the nine who kept on going. They were following their instructions! And they were eager to get back to their lives, to their houses, their gardens, their wives and sons and daughters from which they had been cut off for so long.

But one does turn around. And when the Lord Jesus asks the question, “Where then are the other nine,” I don’t take his question as rhetorical and critical, but that he really means the question. He is wondering here, observing something, what happens to us when we get sudden goodness in our lives. How is it that only one turned back? And the one who was not a Jew? They were all together in their misery. There was no division among them, Jew or Samaritan, when they were outcasts, and now that they are cleansed, their differences come out. Why is that? What’s going on here?

I wonder if Jesus was wondering about his own results. How much he caused division. How often he was rejected. How often his followers abandoned him, how alone he often must have felt. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows he’s going to die. He understands why, he even has a vision of the victory, but that won’t prevent his questioning: Why the division? Where are the other nine?

If you do Christian action, you will face both discouragement and opposition. Our Lord did, St. Paul did, self-doubt, like Timothy, self-criticism. You have to be reminded to get up and keep going, because your faith has already saved you. And the most important way we do this reminder is Sunday morning worship. Why go to church? To sustain you for Christian action during the week. I have noticed how often St. Luke structures his episodes like little worship services. You can see it in other places, like the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary or the Walk to Emmaus. It’s here too.

It begins with the prayer for mercy, literally here the Greek word eleison. Then comes a message, the instruction, the tiny one-sentence sermon, in this case, “Go show yourself.” Then you get songs of praise, and then you get thanksgiving, literally here the Greek word eucharist, and then a benediction. I believe this literary structure is by design. This rhythm of prayer is what sustains your Christian action: Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
Mercy, praise, thanks, go.

After the Donald Trump tape on Friday I found myself weeping. Grief and discouragement. I don’t have to list the reasons. You wonder what real difference does your Christian witness make? Are we too soft, too complacent? Why aren’t we in jail, like Christians in other times and places?

So you have to come here again this week to be reminded that your faith saves you. Saves your soul, saves your mind, saves your peace of mind, saves your self-respect, saves your voice, saves your music, and saves your spirit in order to get up again. You come to be reminded that you are not ashamed. You came here today to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.

One last thing. The middle part of our Timothy lesson is a quotation from a hymn or a liturgy, it’s obviously a poem, and scholars think it’s from an early baptismal liturgy.
If we’ve died with him we’ll live with him.
If we endure we’ll reign with him.
If we deny him he’ll deny us.
If we’re faithless he’s still faithful,
For he can’t deny himself.

We like that, that he keeps faithful even when we’re not, but then what does that mean that he might deny us? I’m going to take it that he’ll deny our denial, that he will overturn our mistakes and he will counteract our failures. This is the great promise of our baptisms, and this is why even we adults have to come to God like little children, even adults have to be baptized like children.

Because the power and the virtue of the baptism is in him and not in us. It’s a gift, a gift that we receive in our dependency and weakness. If we’re faithless he’s still faithful, for he can’t deny himself. That’s a promise you can just rest in, relax in, sleep in like a baby. He can’t deny himself because his name is Love.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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