Saturday, October 15, 2016

Year C, Proper 24, Luke 18:1-8, Do not lose heart

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Pray always.”
“Do not lose heart.”
“My help comes from the Lord.”
“The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
it is he who shall keep you safe.”
“I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
On the one hand these are incredibly comforting words.
At least they would be if life always worked out like that.  But life doesn’t always work out that way.  And because of words like these, it can leave us wondering if there is simply something we are doing wrong. 
Do we not have enough faith?
Did we not pray enough?
Are we being punished for some sin, known or unknown?

One quick response, that is used all too often, is that God always answers our prayers, it just that the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes wait.
And yet, when one is in the midst of a grave crisis in their life such an answer is inadequate.
Philosophers have put the issue this way:
Evil exists.
If God is Good,
                Then he must be unable to stop evil.
If God is all powerful, yet allows evil to continue,
                Then he must not be Good.
But if God is both Good, and All powerful,
                Why does evil continue???
That’s how the philosophers phrase the problem of evil.  But we’re not philosophers.
Our struggles get very real, personal, and tragic.

Jerry and Susan were excited.
They were expecting their third child.
And when Spencer was born they had all the hopes and expectations of any couple that just had a new baby.
But something was wrong.
Susan noticed that Spencer just could not nurse like his brother and sister had.
Subsequent testing revealed that Spencer had been born with a rare genetic disease, Spinal Muscular Atrophy. 
Our congregation surrounded them with prayer and support, but the disease is what the disease is, and as predicted, Spencer slowly deteriorated until he lost all muscle function and died, about a year later.
Jerry and Susan had another baby, Andrew.
Andrew lived a little longer, in part because of some choices Jerry and Susan made which kept him healthier.  But just a little bit longer.  He too,  died.
“Pray always.”
“Do not lose heart.”
Those words are easy to say,
                That is until you are watching your second baby die of a disease for which there is no cure. 
Why?  Why does God allow such things to happen?
I’ve buried far too many children.
Some died in the womb.
Some died as new borns.
Some were killed in tragic accidents.
Some died of incurable diseases.
All of them were surrounded with prayer, fervent prayer, and yet they died.
And their parents will grieve for a lifetime.

And yet at other times prayer seems to “work”.
Yesterday I celebrated four years of sobriety.
I first became addicted to a drug called Ativan, or lorazapam.  I had been prescribed it to help with my chronic insomnia, and also, anxiety.  The downside of this drug is that it works on the same receptors in your brain as alcohol does, and like alcohol, is addictive.
I quit taking Ativan.  But I substituted alcohol for it.
I discovered that a couple of Scotch’s before bed would help me overcome the stresses of the day, and enable me to sleep.  But as always happened, I needed more and more to have the same effect.
Toward the end of my drinking, I had been prescribed Ativan, again.  And on October 14, 2012, I made the mistake of taking the Ativan after drinking heavily.
The combination of too much alcohol and Ativan almost killed me.  I entered a treatment center.
I prayed for help. 
Actually, what I would have preferred at the time is for God to help me through the crisis, but allow me to resume my pattern of drinking.  I enjoyed unwinding with a drink at night.  I didn’t want to give it up.

But instead of giving me what I wanted, God helped me to recognize that I was an alcoholic, and then he removed from me the compulsion to drink.  In place of the compulsion was a revulsion.  I couldn’t walk through the grocery store and see all the displays of wine and beer, without having a strong negative reaction.  Serving communion was a real struggle. 
But in the end, what happened is that I was set free.
It was an answer to prayer. 

There are many things we pray for.
In the wake of 9/11 our country collectively prayed that those who were behind that attack would be brought to justice.
It took time, and two wars.
Eventually though, Bin Laden, was killed, and in our mind, justice was served.
An answer to prayer.

At other times we pray, and yet find ourselves waiting and waiting for an answer. 
Our country has experienced too much gun violence.
Mass shootings have occurred in schools, and churches, military bases and night clubs, to name a few.
Sometimes there seems to be a motive.  Like racism.
At other times these killings seem to occur with no rhyme or reason whatsoever.
And they continue to happen.  In spite of our prayers.
Does God not care?

I don’t know all the answers.
Nobody does.
But it seems to me that there are some things we can say.

The first is the hardest.
You cannot pray yourself out of your own mortality.
Even Jesus died.
Some will have the good fortune to live to a ripe old age.
Others will die tragically, and too young. 
But we will all die. 
No getting around that.

But having said that, we also need to acknowledge that there is an incredible amount of healing in the world.  We probably will never know or appreciate all the times that we were saved from death by the healing hand of God. 
Sometimes it’s obvious.
I had open heart surgery to repair a failed mitral valve.  A hundred years ago I might have died.  Today I’m alive.  Healing happens.  And I thank God.
When we get the flu, or pneumonia, we don’t fear for our lives the way people once did. 
Healing happens.  Everyday.  An answer to prayer.

Another thing I’ve come to believe is that prayer is not a substitute for responsibility.
St. Augustine put it this way:
“Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.”
Sometimes the prayer that we need is for guidance.  We need God’s help to determine what WE can do to combat the forces of evil in our world.  The struggle is that on our own we simply cannot agree on the answers.
I think one of the clearest examples of this is how we react to and respond to the violence that plagues our society.
·         Some suggest that if no one had guns, then these mass shootings would stop.
·         Others argue that if everyone had guns, then the shootings would stop.
·         God will probably have to help us through that one.  But our actions, or lack of action, will impact this issue and many others like it.

The final thing I’ve come to conclude, is that though suffering in one form or another will always be with us, so also will God be with us to lead us through this suffering.  The promise is that God will deliver us from suffering, not exempt of us from it. 
The clearest case of this is as we face our own deaths.
We are going to die.  That is true.
But God has promised not to leave us in the grave.
God’s final answer to death is not resuscitation, but resurrection. 
And so we live in a “Good Friday world” but with an “Easter faith”.  Death will not have the final word.
And for this reason, we do not lose heart.

May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen

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