August 4, 2013
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
In his discussion of the psalms of lament, Walter Brueggemann points out that the psalms go against what he had been raised to believe. He had grown up with the idea, popular since St. Augustine, that God takes all the initiative. When something faithful or religious or spiritual or miraculous happens, God takes the first step.
What is interesting about theology and the Bible is that the Bible is a wide and long tapestry of many threads, many colors, many stories and images and voices. Theology, on the other hand, tends to takes such a tapestry and tries to summarize it down to three or four important threads and one voice. It has been noticed by more than one seminary student how much of the writing of theologians is to counter the writing of other theologians, each of whom is following one thread, one color, while they are both looking at the same tapestry.
In the psalms of lament, in the cries of the people in Egypt under Pharaoh, and in the people who come to Jesus in the Gospels, we find the people who are in need, the people who are in pain, the people who are hurting, inviting God (or Jesus) into their lives, into their homes, into their situations.
Bruggemann goes on to point out that Karl Barth, one of the great 20th century Protestant theologians says that the act of prayer is the act of inviting, the act of summoning God into a situation, and if we do not invite or summon God into the situation, all we have is the situation and its consequences. But inviting God into that moment, something new can happen. Barth goes on to say that prayer causes God to do things that God would otherwise not do. Brueggemann says that this is a primitive notion of prayer.
What he means by this is that when we are nice and settled and comfortable, when we feel sophisticated and knowledgeable, we have the notion that God is in heaven and all is right with the world. For settled and comfortable and sophisticated people, the notion that prayer is about summoning God to change things that otherwise would not change smells of superstition and primitive belief.
But for the slaves in Egypt, for people in exile in Babylon, for people whose test results are not in yet, or whose test results have come back positive, for people whose loved ones are missing or imprisoned, for people who are hurting, whether it is our own hurt or the hurt of those we love, these are the prayers of our hearts. These are the waiting room prayers and the bedside prayers and the soup kitchen prayers and the street corner prayers. And however sophisticated and comfortable we may be, these are biblical prayers.
But today’s story is different. It differs from the blind man Bartimaeus, Jairus’s daughter, the woman who was hemorrhaging, the Syro-Pheonician woman whose daughter was ill. Unlike all of these stories where the person comes to Jesus and invites Jesus into their moment, into their lives, into their home, and lives are changed and people are healed, in this story, the man comes to Jesus saying:
Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.
Fights over inheritance can be long, ugly, drawn out and downright mean. Some people spend more than an estate is ever going to be worth in attorneys’ fees just to make sure that the other side does not get anything. It isn’t about the inheritance. It is about something else in a broken family that is being played out with wills and money and property. (See also divorce.)
It is not always like this. Some families, even in the midst of grief, are able to settle things in ways that heal relationships. Some families are strong enough in their relationships that the stuff is secondary. Those who can walk in their integrity with compassion in the midst of the other side playing dirty are to be admired.
Jesus is being invited into a broken familyt. It has happened before. But unlike those moments when someone is healed, or raised, or made whole, here he offers a warning. Do not make it about stuff. However important the stuff is, the people are more important. However valuable the stuff is, the people are of more value. However much we think it is about the stuff, it is about something else broken in the family.
I wonder if the story would have turned out differently if the man had instead come and said, “Master, my brother and I are at war over dad’s estate. Help me heal my relationship.”
Our reading from Colossians warns against fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, and even calls them idolatry. It cautions to put away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Instead the church is told to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, and when something goes wrong, forgiveness.
The message is fairly straightforward: are we asking Jesus the right questions?
If we are asking to get all the stuff to which we think we are entitled, if we seek to satisfy our own desires, especially at another’s expense, if all we are out to do is win, then Jesus offers a cautionary tale of the true value of such things.
But if we come with our hurt, with our pain, with our desire for healing, for ourselves and for others, for our relationships and even for creation, the story ends differently does it not?
Is not this the God Jesus reveals to us: the one who hears, the one who acts, the one who heals. Is this not why Jesus came, saying
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.