October 16, 2016, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost YR C, Proper 24
ON PRAYERS OF PETITION
Good Morning. My name is Ed Lawry and I have been a member of this Church for three years. Before that, I was a Roman Catholic, whose Church rules precluded non-ordained members from preaching at mass, so it is with great trepidation that I am here before you in a sacred space to offer “a speech about a moral or religious subject that is usually given by a religious leader” as the dictionary defines “sermon”. Still, I have a strange proclivity for thinking I have an obligation to say yes to requests of people I admire, and so I said yes when Fr. Brent asked me if I would preach this weekend.
So where to start? I believe I must fall back on my instincts and my professional training as a philosopher to invite us all to puzzle out the readings. Why does the Church choose to bring together all the readings we have just heard into the same service?–in the present case, Jeremiah on the new covenant, Psalm 119 on the benefits of attachment to God’s law, Timothy on proclaiming the good news, and Luke on persistence in prayer. We may not see everything about their relationships, but at least their basic affinity. And maybe this can help us hear “the word of the Lord.”
It is easy to see why we might want to read Timothy at every mass, since Timothy states the principle that underlies all scripture readings, that Scripture is “inspired by God.”
But these readings, as is true every week, are vastly separated in their historical context and difficult to hear clearly. Indeed, we are frequently put off and even sometimes scandalized by readings that suggest that if this is the word of the Lord, the Lord must be crazy or not paying attention. Luke’s reading today gives many of us this sense. Does Jesus really believe that God will answer our prayers very quickly and give us every good thing we ask for, so that if we pray regularly and with alacrity our prayers will be answered? Even children know that God doesn’t always give us what we ask for, and the longer we live the more we see that many who are suffering in whatever way are not able to end their suffering by prayer to God. Indeed the real prayer scandal of religion is that if God is all powerful and all good, and knows our every need, then why do bad guys win so often and why do good guys lose? The drug cartel gets rich and the children of Aleppo get bombed. We have been praying for a good long time now at our services for the Lord to “end the war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria” and not much seems to happen.
The most obvious meaning of Psalm 119 also seems a bit manic. The psalmist exclaims that he loves the law and thinks about it all day. But it is not because the law is so complicated, but rather his comprehension of it makes him have more understanding than his teachers and his enemies, that his observance of God’s commandments makes him wiser, free from evil and unafraid of God’s judgement. Indeed, the commands of God are a great pleasure to the psalmist, even sweeter than honey to his mouth.
Now even if the commands of the Lord are just and sensible, this reaction seems excessive. While we might firmly believe that obeying the law is itself a moral obligation and beneficial for all in the our community, we don’t typically jump up and down with glee in obeying laws—unless the commands are so much in tune with what we desire that we never have the slightest interest in doing anything else. Since most of us recognize that we sometimes wish we didn’t have to obey either the legal statutes or the moral commandments, the psalmist’s declarations seem disingenuous—something he is trying to convince himself about.
But perhaps Jeremiah’s reading might provide a thematic coherence in our readings and a better understanding of Luke and the Psalm. This reading has been extolled by Christian scholars as one of the most revelatory and clearest prophecies of the New Covenant in the Old Testament. The prophet has God clearly promising a new covenant, different from the Covenant with Moses which Israel had broken and which many believed was responsible for their exile, disruption and suffering. This new Covenant will be different because of the role of the Law in the old and new covenants. In the old Covenant, the Law was given to Moses and the wise Elders who then proclaimed it to the people. The people had to give assent on the basis of their confidence that their leaders had more direct contact with God. In the New Covenant according to Jeremiah God says “I will put my law within them and I will write it in their hearts…No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “’Know the Lord’”, for they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
This might make it easier to see a reason why the Church leaders may have put Psalm 119 together with the Jeremiah reading and a provide a different way of understanding that Psalm. If God has put His law in our hearts, then it makes sense to say that each of us has more understanding than our teachers. Consider Huckleberry Finn, for example, helping Jim run away from slavery even though he figures he must be going to hell to do it, since all his teachers think he is breaking the law.
From this reflection, we might come back to Luke. Jesus tells his disciples to pray always and to not lose heart. Why might the disciples (or we) lose heart? Because prayer is often ineffective. Jesus knows that his disciples (along with everyone else) experience the ineffectiveness of prayer. But if God is who the Bible tells us he is, the ineffectiveness is not his fault. He loves us like a parent . He is on our side. Then why is prayer ineffective? Luke tells us implicitly that God will quickly grant justice to us if we pray to him provided we have a grievance that is on the right side of the law. In the parable, we have to take for granted that the widow who petitions the unjust judge has a justified case against her opponent. But are we justified in our requests to God? Well, we need to think harder about the content of that law that God has put in our hearts?
In the famous confrontation with the Pharisees in Matthew, Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord with your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole mind. Jeremiah’s suggestion that God writes his law in our hearts rather than our minds suggests that first and foremost we find God’s law in the seat of our emotions and will. Rather than reading a set of commandments as might be thought an adequate way to get at the law in the Old Covenant, we have more of an instinct, a sensibility, a feeling, maybe even a wild longing to do what is required of us in the New Covenant. Aquinas and other Medieval theologians held that human beings have an innate appetite for God and perhaps that appetite is what we sense as something provided to us from the start to guide our way.
If the great commandment is to love God, then no desire of our own that is in conflict with our most basic appetite for God is justified. St. Augustine has famously given the advice to “Love God, and do as you please”, for if we love God with our whole being, none of our desires will be in conflict with God’s will. Religious thinkers often speak of the “de-centering” power of prayer—that it frees us, at least somewhat, from our own ego, and opens us to the Divine. Perhaps our only proper prayer is one which appends Jesus’ telling phrase in the Garden—“But not my will, but Thine be done” (remember this phrase is also prescribed in “the Lord’s Prayer” as well).
Does this representation of today’s scripture readings mean that we should give up prayers of petition? I don’t think so. If God loves us with an everlasting love, and particularly if God forgives us our sins, then he loves us in our imperfection. There is no need to hold back our suffering from a perfectly loving being. To put our problems before our completely understanding and completely sympathetic God seems itself to be an act of love and confidence in God. It is the sort of thing that draws us closer to that which is the source and the end of all our desire as it is written in our hearts—the love of God.
My favorite way of reminding myself about these things is to take out the fine poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 19th century Jesuit priest that, like the widow in Luke, petitions God for justice for himself. Hopkins has dedicated his life to God as a religious minister. Yet he sees that his sermons are not effective, his programs in the church don’t flourish, his own writing seems to fail, and maybe he even feels God is indifferent to his efforts. He feels exceptionally frustrated and asks for justice.
Thou art indeed just, Lord if I contend/With Thee; but sir, so what I plead is just./Why do sinners’ ways prosper? And why must/Disappointment all I endeavor end?
He acknowledges God’s affection, but that makes his petition even stronger.
Wert thou my enemy, o thou my friend/How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost, Defeat, thwart me?
In his complaint he even cites the accomplishments of sots (drunkards) and thralls of lust (degenerates) who sometimes do interesting things in their spare time.
Oh, the sots and thralls of lust/Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,/Sir life upon the cause.
In an effort to show how poorly he has been treated he looks around the natural world and sees how effortlessly it flowers forth with beauty,
See banks and brakes/Now leaved how thick! Laced they are again/With fretty chervil (a kind of parsley growth that looks a bit like Queen Anne’s Lace) and fresh wind shakes/Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain/Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
But this evidence from the natural world suddenly crashes back upon him, destroying his egotism and “decentering “ him. He closes his prayer with a petition that is already a transforming acknowledgement.
Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.
(The Appended Sonnet)
Thou art indeed just, Lord, If I contend With Thee; but sir, so what I plead is just. Why do sinners’ ways prosper? And why must Disappointment all I endeavor end? Wert thou my enemy, o thou my friend, How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust Do in spare hours more thrive that I that spend, Sir, life upon thy cause. See banks and brakes Now leaved how thick! Laced they are again With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.