Bossy Pray-er, Living Prayer

For peace in Northern Syria, and protection for the Kurdish people who find themselves trapped between the economic and political interests of warring nations.

Lord, have mercy.

For a world where black men and women are safe in their own homes, and that the family of Atatiana Johnson knows peace.

Lord, have mercy.

For the teenagers who cry out to be healed of their same sex attraction might know themselves to be fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the congregations who have made them believe they could be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord repent and be made well.

Lord, have mercy.

For the refugee fleeing the violence and poverty of her homeland to be safe in her passage and find hospitality at the end of her journey.

Lord, have mercy.

Over the last few weeks (ok, who am I kidding…years) my prayers have taken a variety of tones. Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is straight up bossy-pants, as if God got distracted like my 10-year old son on his way to take out the trash and simply needed a stern reminder of God’s current and most important job. These directive (and sometimes salty) prayers are often accompanied by such imprecation against the enemies of justice and peace as to make the Psalmists proud and your local church-ladies cringe.

Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is the more desperate pleading of a soul at the end of her rope with no place left to turn. Like the writer of the 121st Psalm, my hungry eyes search the hills for any sign of salvation coming over the horizon.

On other days, my soul can’t even form words as I lay myself bare in the silence, trusting God to understand the groans of my heart for a world made new.

The parable of the persistent widow is a gift sent to us by the lectionary for days like these when we might look around and fear that God has fallen asleep at the wheel and simply cannot handle the mess we’ve made of this place. Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the people of Israel in exile before her, Jesus’ invocation of this widow in a parable whose lesson is the need to remain steadfast in faith in the midst of trial reminds us that hearing–and responding–to the cry of the vulnerable is one of the best and chief characteristics of God. Perhaps Jesus tells this parable because he recognizes that patience and persistence are not among humanity’s best and chief characteristics.

The widow also extends to us a challenge about the true nature of prayer. She pulls us beyond whispered conversations in the dark of early morning, out of the pages of our journals into action. See, this gal is doing more than simply writing or speaking her truth. The heroine of Jesus’ story this week is an easily overlooked, readily dismissed widow who receives the justice of her cause through her willingness to make herself a thorn in the side of the establishment figure who holds power in this situation. Her faith in the rightness of her cause has voice. It has legs. It is an action. In her resistance she becomes the answer to her own prayer. She becomes a living prayer whose very persistence shows the powers of this world for what and who they are.

Being among those in this world who desperately want to be liked, and emerging from a denominational tradition that seems hell-bent on always finding a middle ground where no one is offended, the widow is a good model for a life where seeking God’s peace and God’s justice might require putting one’s reputation and livelihood on the line. Living out of a faith that believes that God’s preferred future is not just a possibility but a guarantee for all creation will set one against the powers of this world. And, sometimes, yes, those powers live inside the people and institutions who believe they speak for God.

Fredrick Baldwin said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In the black church tradition, the statement “Won’t God do it” is equal parts question and affirmation of faith in the one who saved Israel from slavery and raised Jesus from the dead. Friends, this, too, is our God and so may this be our faith. Though we live and work in a world where the horizon of justice may be beyond us, we do not give up hope in God’s ultimate triumph. Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus’ teaching on prayer has been consistent: to pray is to actively seek God and God’s will. As with other parables, the key to this parable’s interpretation lies not in complicated exegetical leaps, but in returning and holding fast to a few basic affirmations of faith: God knows, God cares, and God triumphs in the end for God has already triumphed in Christ. The fate of the powers and principalities of this world is like that of the unjust judge: they cannot endure when the people of God rise in power against them.

All through history there have been feisty women (and men) like this widow who have refused to rest until justice was won. Standing alongside these saints, may God make of us all like this widow: bossy, desperate, and living prayers until that day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Image Credit: Fr. James Hasse, SJ

Hope Without Pretending

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentacost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.
– Ian Hamilton Finlay

The novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen seems to have a talent for roiling the opiners of contemporary culture. Whether it is his disdain for social media or his dismissal of shallow environmentalism, Franzen can write what seems like a subdued and reasoned essay and invite a flurry of blog posts in response, such as a recent piece on the webpage of Scientific American that was intelligently titled: “Shut up, Franzen.” It’s a prophet’s fate to invite such reaction and I think Franzen has the prophet’s gift of speaking uncomfortable words. His most recent essay to such effect was a piece in the New Yorker titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?” Read more

The Toughest Psalm

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 137
Lamentations 1:1-6

This week we read the Bible’s toughest, darkest Psalm–137. The lectionary scriptures from Lamentations 1 and Psalm 137 are poems of lament that look back to the same event…the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonian war machine.

Imagine the fear that gripped the people of Jerusalem when they heard that Nebuchadnezzar’s war machine was headed their way. Imagine hearing the city gates clang shut for the last time. Imagine how peoples’ stomachs knotted up as food, water, and supplies became more valuable than gold. Imagine the terror that gripped citizens hearts as the guards on the walls hurled stones, arrows, and fire at the attackers. Imagine the raw panic that broke out in the streets when the foreign army broke through the walls and there was nowhere to run. Imagine the sick hopelessness that overtook husbands and wives who knew what was about to happen to their spouses and children. Imagine the terror on the day the city burned to the ground and blood flowed in the gutters. Read more

You Can’t Get There From Here

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Luke 16:19-31
Once upon a time there was a rich man who dressed in fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day. Though, to be fair, he wouldn’t have called himself rich. If you were to press him, yes, he would admit that he had done well for himself.

Were you to point out that he had just bought a house in the best neighborhood in town, he’d shrug and say, well, ‘every dog has his day.’ And as for fine linen, his shirt was actually a more wearable linen/cotton blend and while yes, it did cost $120, that was nothing considering how hard it is to find shirts that are made in factories that pay a fair wage.

As for sumptuous fare, yes, good food was one of his values. His friends joked with him about how much time he spent at the grocery store—or as he liked to call it—his neighborhood market—see that’s just the thing, food should be about local sourcing and genuine relationships, about knowing the farmer who raised the lamb you put on the brazier in your new outdoor kitchen. He’d be the first to admit that the flagstone fireplace was a bit over-the-top, but in more reflective moments, he’d tear up talking about how the whole idea was to just have a place the whole family could eat together. Outdoors.

The guy who worked at the farm that sourced the rich man’s food was named Lazarus. One day, while harvesting organic eggplant, Lazarus cut his hand on a thorn. He thought nothing of it and wrapped a bandana around his wrist to stop the bleeding. If he put his back into it, he’d still get 20 baskets that day. A whopping $30 for a 14 hours’ work. Missing time was missing money, so it was almost a month later before Lazarus stopped long enough to get it looked at by some nurses from Atlanta who set up a clinic in the field. The infection had spread up his arm. Gangrene, the doc said. Amputation, or death by sepsis.

But the rich man never saw this. Between him and the people who picked his food a great barrier had been fixed alongside the highway.

As it turns out, Lazarus also had a side job cutting grass for the rich man. At least he could still ride a mower. One day, as he was mowing on an incline, the riding mower tipped over on him. Lazarus cried out, “Help! Help! I’ve cut my foot, and I’m bleeding very badly.”

But the man who had done very well for himself could not hear Lazarus, because between the two of them there had been fixed some very thick windows—the double panes of ¼” glass were insulated with Argon gas to keep the noise at a level best described as contemplative, while the low-E coating on the outside protected the rich man’s furniture from UV damage and help keep his power bill low. Saving money, saving the environment, and saving his sanity—now that was honoring his intentions toward the “triple bottom line!”

At that moment Lazarus died, and by some unforeseen aneurysm, so did the rich man.
The man who had done very well for himself in life found that in death, he was not being treated the least bit kindly. While he wasn’t in a lake-of-fire-type-situation, he did find that he had an awful taste in his mouth—a bitter taste he couldn’t get rid of.
Just then he saw Father Abraham, and said,

“I thought it was supposed to be St. Peter waiting at the gate.”
“That’s over in heaven.” Abraham answered.
“This isn’t heaven? Then what is this place?
“Ehh…it’s kinda like the Jewish waiting room for the afterlife.”
“Yeah, but…I’m not Jewish.”
“A lot of people have a hard time with that part.”
“Hey, there’s that guy who used to cut my grass! What was his name? Oh yeah, Lazarus. Hey dude, what’s up? Hey, if you don’t mind…I mean, I know there’s like an ethnic dynamic here and all, but could you bring me some water—sparkling water if you got it. And I don’t mean to be picky, but Pellegrino, please, its smaller bubbles make for a much softer mouth feel.”
“He can’t hear you.”
“What do you mean, he can’t hear me?”
“You didn’t hear him in life, now he can’t hear you in death.”
“I heard him plenty! I liked his business on Facebook. Lazarus Lawn Care: You Raise ‘Em Up, We Cut ‘Em Down—so clever.”
“The chasm that separated you in life has been fixed in death. Only now you’re on opposite sides of the divide.”
“You mean like the digital divide?”
“Something like that.”
“O.k. I get it. I overstepped a bit with the Pellegrino thing. How ‘bout this for an afterlife tryout? Could you at least ask him in a super-nice way to run down to my old neighborhood and tell everybody to stop using leaf blowers—two cycle engines are terrible for the environment—not to mention the noise pollution.”
“The glass that kept the noise out in life has been fixed permanently. You called the shots in life, but in death, your voice will not be heard.”
“That’s not fair. How was I supposed to know that all that noise out there was being made by real people? How was I supposed to know that there was some life I was supposed to live beyond the one I curated?”
“Had you listened to the words of the prophets and the commands of Moses, you would have been kind to the stranger and the alien. But you payed extra to make sure you never felt like a stranger.”
“Words of Moses? What are you talking about, dude? Everybody knows the Old Testament is like… I dunno…all judgment and sacrifice. Nobody reads that stuff anymore! I was more of a Christ-follower type. Oh, that’s it! When in trouble, just ‘call on the name of Jesus!’ Jesus, help me! Jesus!”
“For a lot of people there will come a day when they cry out Lord Lord! but you had your chance at Jesus. You could have encountered Him in the face of the incarcerated, the poor, and the abused.”
“Yeah, but I never heard Jesus say anything about that.”
“You spent your days eating and drinking, downloading and uploading, —maximizing the yield of everything from your orgasms to your organic groceries–but never once did you hear the voices shouting in the streets for justice.”
“Voices shouting in the streets? What are you talking about, dude? I hashtagged #BlackLivesMatter on several occasions. I had two or three friends on Black Twitter.”
“Did you really care, or were you obsessed with appearing to?”
“But I do care. I can prove it to you. Look, just send somebody to go tell my friends at church. Tell them all that stuff you just said. They’ll believe if you send somebody back from the dead.”
“Take it from me, Son, the Word of One risen from the dead is the last thing church folks want to hear.”

Image Credit: The Danger of Wealth by James Janknegt

Serving Wealth

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

The gospel reading for this Sunday is one of the stranger passages in the New Testament. The steward is identified as both unrighteous and clever. In addition, it looks like the master who tells his steward that he is being fired for embezzlement then commends him a few verses later for fraud. It gets worse. When Jesus says that you cannot serve God and wealth it would seem that in the parable we are invited to see the master as God. As you might imagine, this passage invites a lot of scholarly gymnastics. Read more