Proper 24C Sermon (2001)

Proper 24 (October 16-22)
Texts: Luke 18:1-8;
Gen. 32:22-31; 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5

PRAY ALWAYS . . . FOR THE REIGN OF FORGIVENESS

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

…The need to pray always and not to lose heart. This has become a time for prayer in our nation. Many of our leaders are seemingly calling us to what Jesus was calling us to: the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Twice in the last month I’ve been asked to do something that I haven’t often been asked to do: pray at public, non-church events. On that first Friday after Sept. 11, it was a national day of prayer, and I was at the P.T.A. corn roast for our son’s elementary school. The principal asked me to lead everyone in a few moments of silent prayer together at 7:00. Some people had brought candles. And a couple weeks ago a local business through a block party in our neighborhood with the local fire department to raise money for the F.D.N.Y. They asked me to lead them in prayer, right in the street, and then we all sang “God Bless America.” At ball games, the song “Take Me out to the Ball Game” has been replaced by the singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. Everywhere, people across our nation our praying for God to bless America during this time of tragedy and crisis. At Sam’s Club the other day, I found a huge stack of these little books, Pray for Our Nation. Yes, it seems that as a nation we are taking heed of the need to pray always and not to lose heart.

But there is also something to give us pause in the Gospel Lesson this morning. After telling the parable about the need to pray always, Jesus concludes with this rather ominous question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” There is the sense that we human beings might follow the counsel to pray always, but do we really know how to pray in faith? Do we know what to pray for?

I noticed in this little book many fine prayers. It begins with twenty-nine prayers for all manner of things about our country: for the president and congress, for the military and their families, for our schools and educators. In this book that is dated two years ago, in 1999, there are even prayers for protection against terrorism and biological weapons. It also closes with a section of eight additional prayers for spiritual growth, the last three prayers being for repentance, for the salvation of others, and for personal salvation.

Yet, with all these fine prayers, covering such a wide range of topics, I notice one glaring absence: the Lord’s Prayer. And not just the absence of the prayer itself but of its themes. The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer is, Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we are not simply to pray for our nations and for our wills, but we are to pray for God’s nation to come and for God’s will to reign over us here on earth, too. It isn’t just a matter of personal repentance and salvation for us and for others. It’s a matter of repentance and salvation for the nations of this earth, ours included. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on this earth, not just faith in ourselves and in our nation but faith in God’s will for our lives and in the reigning reality of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ?

What would it be like to have God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? In confessing the reign of Jesus Christ, we proclaim that we already know, to some extent. We have seen his reign come onto this earth, and we will see him come again in fullness. But we already have had a foretaste of that feast to come. How so?

A couple of weeks ago, in the Gospel Lesson, Jesus expressed a similar hesitancy as to the faith of his disciples. They had prayed to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus’ response was cryptic. His metaphor about slavery was a hazy premonition of what he would say to his disciples on the night of his handing over to the powers of this world. After the last supper, Jesus’ disciples started having grand dreams of what it might be like in Jesus’ kingdom, and they started arguing over who’s the greatest among them. Jesus responds to them,

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)

In other words, if we are going to dream, to pray, about living in God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ, then we pray about living under a reign of loving service, not one of domination or force, in any fashion. Can we pray about this reign of loving service coming among us, as we pray for our nation?

Popular Christian writer Max Lucado recently wrote:

This is a different country than it was a week ago. We’re not as self-centered as we were. We’re not as self-reliant as we were. Hands are out. Knees are bent. This is not normal. And I have to ask the question, ‘Do we want to go back to normal?’ Perhaps the best response to this tragedy is to refuse to go back to normal.

Perhaps, Max, when it comes to praying for God’s reign of loving service to come, this is the kind of thing we pray for.

What else do we pray for when we pray for God’s kingdom to come? We skipped over something very important in that Gospel Lesson two weeks ago. When the disciples had asked Jesus to increase their faith, Jesus had just finished giving them some very challenging instruction about forgiveness. “Be on your guard!” he told them. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3-4) Wow! No wonder the disciples asked for an increase in faith! Again, they would not be able to more fully understand this teach until Jesus himself would look down from the cross, and even with no hint of repentance from those who crucified him, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Forgiveness. When we pray for God’s reign to come upon us, we also pray for the reign of the power of forgiveness.

Christ’s reign coming into this world on the cross is not only a glimpse of what will someday come to complete fulfillment, but it is already the fulfillment of the reign shown to God’s people from the very start. We see that in a powerful way in this morning’s First Lesson, the story of Jacob’s wrestling on the night before he is reconciled with his twin brother Esau.

And since we are on the topic of how to pray today, let me quickly bring in again that prayer of Jabez that has made a lot of money for Dr. Bruce Wilkinson, the author of a book by that name about how Christians can pray for prosperity and get it. The actual prayer of Jabez in the Bible comes in two short verses from 1 Chronicles that goes like this (4:9-10):

Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.

What I don’t believe Dr. Wilkinson has noticed is how similar the sketch Jabez’s brief story is to the longer story of Jacob and his brother Esau. What do we have with the Jabez story? We have a rivalry of brothers and a mother who perhaps favors one them with a name connected to his childbirth. With Jacob we have a rivalry of brothers, a name that comes from his childbirth (his name meaning “at the heel,” which is where he was coming after his twin Esau), and we have a mother who favors one of her sons. With Jabez, we have one brother asking for a bigger portion and receiving it. With Jacob, we have one brother who seeks his older brother’s bigger share, and a mother who helps him plot tricking his blind father into unwittingly giving it to him.

The question we must ask is whether receiving the bigger portion is really a good thing or not? Dr. Wilkinson, on the basis of these two short verses seems to conclude that it is a good thing. But if we base it on the Jacob story, is it? What is the upshot of entering more fully into this human reality of rivalry, of intrigue, of playing games for gaining the bigger portions? For Jacob, it’s having to run away from home, fearing for his life, and making a family for himself out of nothing but hard labor under his father-in-law, Laban. Even when venturing to return home many years later, we see Jacob still struggling, still fearing for his life at the hands of his brother Esau whom he will encounter the next day across the Jabbok River. He wrestles with a mysterious figure whom he assumes to be a god. Even with his hip put out of joint, Jacob will not let go until he gets another blessing. He receives a new name, Israel, but is that a blessing? If it gives him a new start on life the next day, it surely will be.

And so if we read on, we find that Jacob still fearing for his life, sends a huge entourage of servants and animals ahead of him as a gift to appease his brother Esau. When Jacob finally comes himself, we read this: “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Gen. 33:4) Esau then tries to turn down his brother’s gift, but Jacob urges him:

“No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. (Gen. 33:10)

Now, we know the whole story of Jacob’s wrestling and his new name. It was in the face of his brother Esau, and the forgiveness graciously extended to him, that Jacob truly sees the face of God and receives the blessing of a new start in his life. He has come home.

This is not simply a nice story of two brothers reconciling. It is a story about the father of a nation, Israel. So it is the story for God’s people of how God’s reign of forgiveness has broken in on us from our very beginnings as a people. It is a story of how God’s reign of forgiveness can be the reigning reality in our lives, not just as individuals, but as a gathered people. This is what it means to pray for God’s reign to come. It is praying for the power of forgiveness to reign among us. Can we pray that prayer as we pray for our nation, for our world?

It’s very difficult for us to imagine how forgiveness might operate on the level of affairs of state. But let me offer a quick example: do you know what the United States did to help get Pakistan on our side in this conflict? We forgave all of their debt to us. This may seem a different kind of forgiveness than we are used to thinking about on a personal level, but it is still a very real example of forgiveness. I realize it is difficult to even imagine forgiveness on a global level among the kingdoms of this earth. But perhaps that is also why Jesus urges us to pray always and not to lose heart. Think of this prayer on a grander scale among nations and earthly reigns. Our Father in heaven, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth. Give us today our daily bread — not tomorrow’s bread, too, just today’s bread. (We don’t need to pray for a bigger portion than our brothers and sisters!) Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

[Another ending for this sermon, which I used at the early service is to have people listen to our liturgy, the kinds of radical things we pray for each week in the mass. At our parish, for example, we use the Marty Haugen setting, “Now the Feast and Celebration,” of third Sundays of the month. We begin with the Kyrie, praying these words, “For the Reign of God, and peace throughout the world…” As the offertory we sing, “As grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you.”]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, October 21, 2001

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