Sermon for Proper 24, Year C, October 20, 2019

Jeremiah 31:27-34                            Psalm 119:97-104             1 Timothy 3:14-4:5                           Luke 18:1-8

          Today’s reading from Jeremiah marks a departure from the people of Israel’s earlier beliefs about God.  The second of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” includes the following, “You shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me (20:5-6).” 

The saying Jeremiah quotes, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” suggests the same; we can be punished for the sins of our parents, our parent’s parents and the sins of their parents as well.  So, if I believe as the people of Israel did when God gave them the Ten Commands, I would believe I can be punished for the sins of my great, great grandfather of whom I know nothing.  If I take to heart what Jeremiah says, I am relieved to know the Lord has declared this is no longer the case.  I will be judged according to my own actions.  Relieved, but not off the hook.  I’ve certainly made enough mistakes in my life to be judged unworthy of the Lord’s favor.

Jeremiah’s declaration that we are accountable for our own sins raises a question.  Has God changed?  We were punished for the sins of our parents, now we will only be punished for our own sins.  This is a change.  Who or what has changed?  I believe this is an example of a people whose faith in God is maturing – the understanding and relationship with God by the people of Israel is maturing. 

Throughout the history of humankind, we have been growing into a more mature relationship with God.  This is not to say that we’re all in agreement – some still fear the wrath of God which is portrayed as jealous and vengeful.  They believe hurricanes, floods, and the like are God’s punishment for the sinfulness of our nation. 

Fear of God’s wrath is still being preached today, but I think we need to focus on the nature of God portrayed here Jeremiah and in the New Testament – a God of love and compassion.  We should not view Jesus as our “get out of hell free card.”  Instead, we need to see Jesus as our teacher who has come to teach us the way of love.  True life and peace are found by loving God and each other.  In short, Christ teaches us the importance of relationships and Christ teaches us the nature of God is love and compassion.   

          The decline in church attendance world-wide is not what has caused natural disasters, or acts of terrorism, but a theology of fear might be the reason some many no longer attend church.  Such a theology kept me from attending church during and immediately after college.

The belief that bad things happen to good people because of sin or lack of faith, the belief that we will be condemned to eternal suffering if we doubt – this theology turned me away from the church.  Fortunately, I found the Episcopal Church where people speak of love, not fear, where people believe God is with us to support us, not judge and punish us. 

          In the Gospel Reading, Jesus is teaching us about what our relationship with God needs to include.  He tells a story about prayer and our need to pray always, and not to lose heart.  This parable can easily be misunderstood if we think Jesus is suggesting that God is like the judge – who, at first, dismisses the widows request for justice.

In the parable, the widow comes to the judge again and again until the judge finally says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”    Then Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” 

Jesus is contrasting God to the unjust judge, saying unlike the uncaring judge, the one who loves and cares about us will act swiftly in response to our prayers.  God does not be need to be beggared into answering our prayers.  Understanding that God is not like the judge help us to understand Jesus is teaching us to live our lives in a relationship with God through pray and faith.  But, does this mean that God will answer our prayers by giving us what we ask if we are persistent?  Some say, “God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no.”  Is this true even when our prayers are for justice?  Others say “God gives us what we need, not what we want.”

Many of us struggle when our prayers seemingly go unanswered – especially when we pray for justice for others.  I think of what CS Lewis said of prayer, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Jesus is teaching us to pray always, and not to lose heart.  We will not live to see all wrongs righted, justice may not be granted in our time on earth, but I do have faith that love will ultimately win.  So, I am not to lose heart, I have to have faith, and I am to continue to pray. 

Like CS Lewis, I understand my prayers may not change the outcome, but it will help me to accept the things that I cannot change.  There is a prayer that has become a mainstay in twelve-step programs, the Serenity Prayer, that was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  It says  succinctly what I believe we need to understand as we pray.  The prayer goes:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

There are things that we can change – and we should work to change them, but there are things we cannot change and we need not loss heart.  These are the things we need to place in God’s hand and then let go of them. 

          Most of us have heard this prayer, but few know the rest of it: 

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.  Amen.

This is a pray of surrendering our will, of trusting that God will ultimately make all things right.  Maybe not in our seeing, but
ultimately God will restore justice, will comfort the afflicted, and grant peace to the souls of those who are lost. 

Let us pray.

          Lord grant us the strength and courage to do what we can to make this a more just and loving world, and grant us the faith to trust your love will ultimately make right what we cannot change.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.