10/20/2004 Entry: "Preaching the common lectionary"
I guess a sermon is a little like a blog, except that people have to sit through it and shake the preacher's hand afterwards. So, at Ms Mayerson's insistence, here's the sermon which I preached on Sunday 17 October in Buckinghamshire, England, and you are excused sitting still on an uncomfortable pew while reading it.
My texts were Jeremiah 31:27-34 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8 (as set out in the revised common lectionary, used by many Christian denominations across the world.)
'The days are surely coming, says the Lord'. That's what Jeremiah told the Israelites. He was reassuring them that in the midst of disaster, they could look forward to good times ahead. Children sometimes insist they 'can't wait' for some promised treat or celebration. On most occasions, we certainly can wait if we have to. All the complaining in the world won't bring a birthday around sooner, or boil a kettle any faster. But on the other hand, if we want something to happen, nagging and complaining can make sure that it does happen, and can make it happen sooner rather than later. In a world full of news of political failures, we can still remember the campaigning that brought apartheid to an end. In the last couple of weeks, there have been three stories in our newspapers that have involved waiting for answers, for justice, and for healing. The first story is a happy one, for dog lovers at least. In 2001, Dino, a german shepherd, went to the park with his owner, became a little over-excited with some children, and bit a woman who intervened. His owners were fined and required to pay compensation, and they paid up without arguing. But the judge in the case also made an order that Dino should be destroyed, and his owners began a long fight to save him. They badgered one judge after another, going right through the English justice system and as far as Europe, before finally winning their case and the life of their dog. I'm not sure if what they got in the end was justice exactly, but it was certainly mercy and a happy ending for the dog and his owners. The photographs in the papers show Dino wearing a muzzle now, so perhaps there will be no more problems. The news reports don't tell us whether Dino's owners prayed, as well as consulting lawyers and spending large sums of money, but prayers for mercy and compassion have been very much in the news in the last six weeks, as millions of people, not just Christians but Moslems too, have waited and prayed with the family of Kenneth Bigley. His murderers were men who operated in secret. No one knew where they were holding their prisoner, or how to contact them directly. People who wanted to talk, to plead with them were forced to work through networks of doubtful contacts, never knowing if they were making progress. But they still tried. Pleas that could not be made directly were instead broadcast over radio, or television, or dropped in thousands of leaflets. But unjust judges do not always give in and do the right thing. Evil men and women do not listen to God or to prayers, and extremists, even people we would call idealists, often dispense with mercy and compassion, in search of their own vision of justice. Sometimes even a man who is trying to do the right thing realises he can't respond to prayers asking for mercy and compassion, because to give in to the unjust demands of terrorists for the sake of saving one man will ultimately cost too much. My final story concerns a man who seemed in every way the opposite to the oppressed widow in the parable. He mixed with powerful people. He was wealthy, influential, intelligent and well educated, happily married with a young son, and quite astonishingly handsome. On top of all that, many millions of people were happy to believe, for a few hours at a time, that he could fly. I'm talking about Christopher Reeve, the actor who played the comic book superhero, Superman. In 1995, he was disabled in a riding accident. His doctors never lied to him. They told him there was no hope that he would walk again, that he was unlikely to regain any movement from the neck down. He would spend the rest of his life almost totally dependent on others to provide his most basic needs. He needed to resign himself to life as a paraplegic. But he said, no. I will never give up hope. When Christopher Reeve died this week, he had not achieved any of the headline goals he set himself. He had barely been able to walk a few steps, with a great deal of assistance. He could certainly move around well enough in his wheelchair to run races with his son, but he did this by blowing into a tube, not by using his arms. He did regain the ability to breathe for himself, but he always needed the most intensive medical intervention to ward off infection, and sustain his body's essential functions. And yet he never gave up hope We have heard three stories of people who wouldn't give up hope. But what did they really expect? Scores of foreign hostages have been snatched and then murdered in Iraq. No paraplegic with the injuries Christopher Reeve suffered has ever walked again, for medical reasons that are well understood. And as for taking a plea for the life of a dog to court in Europe, after being turned down by higher and higher courts in England, it must have seemed a very slender thread of hope indeed. But from time to time legal decisions are overturned at the last possible moment. Sometimes, hostage takers do negotiate, or do want to make a concession, or appear merciful for their own reasons. Doctors and scientists are investigating new ways to repair damaged nerves, and they do believe that in ten years, perhaps, ways will be found to treat at least some patients who are threatened with total paralysis. The hope that Christopher Reeve kept until the very end brought vision, funds and public support for research that may, one day, be able to help thousands of people who suffer similar accidents. God does find ways into the hearts of his enemies. He is building his kingdom. Where we fail or give up, he persists. When Jesus tells us to pray always and not to lose heart, what is he asking us to pray for? For world peace? A cure for AIDS? Bumper harvests in Africa? An end to gun and drug crime in British cities? A huge growth in church membership? Those are the human answers to human need. They are great visions for the future, but they are human visions that humans fail to achieve. Sometimes we move in the right direction: a cease fire can lead to reconciliation and lasting peace, even if another war soon starts up somewhere else. We can't cure AIDS, but we have stopped blaming people with AIDS and HIV for their own suffering. We can't send rain to Africa to end a drought, but we do send food, and we do send the means to dig wells, collect water in tanks and irrigate the land more efficiently. Local churches actively support the mother of a murdered child who pleads for an end to gun crime, and we can all come out of our half-empty churches and talk about our faith to the people who never step inside. We take little steps towards our vision of the kingdom of God, and hope and pray that God will take the big, impossible steps. Michael Deland, chairman of the National Organization on Disability in America said of Christopher Reeve, "Obviously, he did a tremendous job in furthering the cure, but he also was fixated on helping those with disabilities today, pending the wonderful arrival of that cure, which could be many years off." In his own words, Reeve said, "I am doing everything I can to prepare for recovery." It could be many years off. In the same way, what we want could be many years off, or might not be in God's plan at all. We should remember what Jesus told us about the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Luke's Gospel, just before the parable about the persistent widow, the Pharisees ask 'when will the Kingdom of God begin', and Jesus answers them: the Kingdom of God isn't ushered in with visible signs. You won't be able to say 'It has begun here, in this place, or there, in that part of the country', for the Kingdom of God is within you. So are we wrong to pray, like the persistent widow, for justice? Of course not. Our care for God's world, for his church, and all his people, is real. Jesus taught us to love our neighbour and ourselves. That love inspires us to want justice, and healing, and peace in the world. When we desperately want good things for God's people, it's only natural for us to share that wanting with God. But God is not an unjust judge, who will respond to our list of wants and needs if we nag him for long enough. He is, as Jesus says, 'more' than that. If we were trying to persuade a judge to act justly, we might write letters to him, or telephone his office or stand outside his house and press our case every time he arrive home at night or leaves in the morning. We would never talk to him about anything but our legal case, and if he asked about our health, or commented on the weather, we'd accuse him of changing the subject. God is more than an unjust judge, and our praying is 'more' than nagging and complaining. Praying is being with God, worshipping him, listening to him, confessing to him and receiving his forgiveness, as well as bringing our needs to him, and the needs of others. Persisting in prayer is not about endlessly battering God with a single request. Persisting in prayer is staying close to God, however far the world drifts away from him. Persisting in prayer means thinking about all the things God has done for us. Persisting in prayer is possible because we read his Word, and we are aware of the things he has done for us and for others in our own lives. Persisting in prayer means being aware of God's wisdom and guidance, through scripture and through his holy spirit speaking to us now. Persisting in prayer means putting his guidance into action to do what is possible now, while we wait for God to do what is beyond our power. Persisting in prayer means, as Paul said to Timothy, continuing in what we have learned and firmly believed. In short, it means doing everything we can to prepare for recovery. And if we do that, then, as God says through Jeremiah, "they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest." And then, when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.
Posted by Jane Seaton
Replies: 1 Comment
Persisting in prayer means putting his guidance into action to do what is possible now, while we wait for God to do what is beyond our power.
Thanks, Jane. Beautiful sermon. I like your sermitorials over at J LHLS, too.