NRSV PSALM 79:1-9
1 O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2 They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3 They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
4 We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6 Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name.
7 For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.
8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
9 Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins,
for your name’s sake.
NRSV JEREMIAH 8:18-9:1
18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
19 Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
21 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
9 O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
NRSV 1 TIMOTHY 2:1-7
2 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all
–this was attested at the right time. 7 For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I
am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
“It’s that time of year again…”
Aren’t you tired of hearing that old cliché. Bad way to start a sermon.
But it is that time of year again. No, not just the start of football season, though plenty of us are tightly wound about how UVA, Virginia Tech or the Redskins will do this year. No, not the end of baseball season; some of our teams gave up long ago, and others of us are sweating it out to see if our teams make it into the playoffs (as a die-hard new York Mets fan, I know all about blown opportunities and terrible bullpens, but there is always hope). No, not even the end of summer and the beginning of fall, which we marked yesterday. Even with fall here, the forecast is for warm days ahead so it may take a while for that to sink in.
For some of us, when we hear the words, “It’s that time of year again…,” it marks the beginning of an appeal for money from Public Radio, the start of their Fall or Spring campaigns. It’s the beckoning of seemingly endless cheery appeals for cash so, as they remind us, we can continue to enjoy the programs we love.
It’s a coincidence that those same words can be used for another appeal for donations much closer to home. Yes, it is that time of year again, time for our annual Stewardship Campaign here at FPC. We don’t make a big deal about it around here; it seems that every year you all are generous in your pledges, and our coffers have enough to support the mission we seek to fulfill. In the weeks to come we will be asking for your commitments for 2020, which looms as an important year for this church. A time of transition, a time of reflection, even as much as this – our anniversary year – has been. A time to consider what you want from your next minister, what directions you want to take, what do you want to let go of, what do you want to take on. It’s that time of year again.
As important as the concept of financial Stewardship is, it remains only one part of Stewardship. Stewardship itself is reflecting and acting upon our understanding of what it means to be good and faithful stewards, caretakers, of all God’s gifts. Financial resources are one piece, granted a big piece, at least in the work of the church. It’s hard to keep going without your contributions to pay salaries, keep the lights on, provide books for Sunday School classes, and support the mission work we are involved in.
The Gospel reading – the one we didn’t read – stresses that, but that is not the reason I didn’t read it. The reason is because that parable – the one of the dishonest manager, Luke 16:1-13 – is a personal favorite of mine, and I always preach on it. Always. So I thought I would take a different tack this time and preach on the other texts, while also keeping that great story in mind. Please read it some time today. Jesus tells about a manager who is let go of his job and then proceeds to ingratiate himself to his clients by getting them to reduce items on their bills. It can easily sound like Jesus is telling us that it is okay to ‘cook the books’. While any of Jesus’ parables are not to be reduced to one simple meaning, the central idea in this story does seem to be that it is okay, in fact it is a blessing, to use money to win over people, rather than to use people to win over money. As Jesus says at the end of that teaching, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Or as Eugene Peterson says in The Message, “You cannot serve God and the bank.”)
With its concern about keeping money in its appropriate place – as a tool and not an idol – it can be easy to see how stewardship can apply here. But the concept of stewardship in a much broader sense is also there in the texts we did read. They are all about prayer, prayer as a gift given to us to use responsibly with our time and talent. Maybe money, too, but mostly we are called in these texts to invest our time in prayer; to take the time to lift up our concerns for ourselves and others, our celebrations, our wonderings, to God in a way that is authentic and sincere. It is also a call to use our talents in prayer – to be creative, to be honest in talking with God; with getting away from staid, cold formulas in how we talk to our Creator. They may have served their time. It was fine to say, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” when we were kids. But when I became an adult, Paul reminds us, we take on things differently, and we use our gifts differently. And these texts talk about being good stewards of the gift of prayer by tapping into three twists that prayers have for us at different times in our lives.
The 79th Psalm (which we read responsively) sounds like a text out of time. Listed among the works supposedly written by King David, it sounds more like a lament written while the city of Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians some 500 years later. It sings of a deep desperation for the people of God. No easy, formula prayers needed here. In the midst of that prayer, the Psalmist lifts up the words that have come at some point to every believer since: “How long, O Lord?” In this case, how long will your anger burn against your people? Maybe we have voiced that prayer, too. Maybe we feel that God is angry with us for some reason, some misdeed, some careless word or action. Or maybe we feel frustrated at a long line of events going back heaven knows how long. In the face of those catastrophes, we say: How long, O Lord? How long must I deal with this illness? How long will my loved one’s health diminish? How long must I grieve? How long must people deal with injustices? How long do we let the sin of racism bind our thoughts and actions? How long, O Lord?
So twist number one are our rants in the face of so much systemic and personal evil. How long, O Lord, do I – do we – have to put up with this? The second twist comes from the prophecy of Jeremiah. In most of this book the sins of the people are the sins of worshipping other gods and abusing people who are in need, of denying God’s presence and God’s call. Here it sounds like something else is going on – a drought. In that land the people put up with dry summers aware that there was a potential for early fall rains to help with the harvest. But this year, it seems that the rains didn’t come. We know about that one, right? It’s been a while since we had a good rain around here, even if we got a little too much rain last year. Too little rain is always a threat for people, and especially for the people of God who see God’s blessings in rain and the harvest that comes from it. In this sequence, no rain, and it threatens the harvest that will sustain people.
But that’s not the twist. In Jeremiah there is deep pain and anguish throughout as the threat of doom looms over the people of God, even if that doom is there because they have wandered away from the God who has sustained them and have taken up with other gods. But rather than throwing lightning bolts from afar, God is present with the people even in the misery that comes from their sinfulness. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” The words are the prophet’s, but they are words given to the prophet by the God of the Covenant, the God who delivered them from slavery, the God who will let them go into exile, but the God who will not ultimately abandon them.
The twist here is that when we are in the midst of our suffering – even when it comes about because we have done or said something dumb and wrong – even in the midst of our own self-wrought suffering, God is still present. God is still yearning for people to come back to God. Even when the healing balms in Gilead – a place known for remedies that would cure just about anything – even when the balm in Gilead will not help, the presence of God remains. It remains there until we come to our senses and realize that there are pains in our lives that only God can heal.
God lets us rant – authentically. God is present in our suffering, suffering with us. And God calls on us to pray for all people. Even politicians. Even those we may not like. Even those with whom we have serious disagreements. At least that’s what I am hearing from the first letter to Timothy. It was written later than Paul’s lifetime; we can say that because for over two hundred years biblical scholars have noticed that the images used in these Pastoral Letters are those of an established church, something that was not part of Paul’s world. Now the church is putting down some roots, but with that come some concerns. Like, do we even pray for the emperor when he is trying to kill us?
Yes, this disciple of Paul wrote. Prayers are to be lifted up for “…kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all dignity and godliness.” Really? Tell the German people to pray for Hitler? For the Russian people to pray for Stalin? For the Cambodians to pray for Pol Pot?
Maybe we need to consider something: when it is offered up at its best, prayer is a subversive act. It should be saying ‘no’ to the ways of the world which can be violent, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic; the ways that can call on us to be against them, whoever ‘them’ is; the ways that can seem to take the easy answer when a more complicated course involving listening and loving and working for peace and justice would be better.
But still, whether we agree with our leaders or not, we pray for them. We do it not because we agree with them, but because they, like we, are children of God. They have power, to wield for good or for ill. We pray that they would use their power and authority not just wisely but lovingly, and justly. We pray, because human authorities are not gods. They can be God’s instruments on this earth. But in the final scheme of things, God is the one in charge, and we pray to God on their behalf that they would lead us with justice and peace for all.
We also pray because prayer itself is a gift given to us by a loving God who still seeks to be in relationship with God’s people, with all of us, with all of those whom God yearns to save. In our prayers we are opening ourselves to the greatest source of strength and peace we will ever know, trusting that this loving Source will answer us in ways we could never have imagined. For when we pray, when we tap into the gift of prayer as a faithful steward, we are talking with a God who is beyond us, but who is also very much with us. Amen.