Monday, October 18, 2010

Sermon, October 17

Given at All Saints, San Leandro

I have a confession to make. For most of my life I have resorted to bribery to get my way.

I don’t think I ever meant to do it. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. I thought the easiest way out of a jam, the easiest way to fix things would be to grease the wheels of justice a little bit.

I didn’t start there. I usually would start with an off-hand prayer as I was thinking about it: God, when you have a moment, would you fix this for me? OK, thanks. Then, when that didn’t work, I’d try something a little more formal. Maybe kneeling. Maybe using a little more formal language. Maybe taking a little time. I’d look in the prayer book to see if there was something appropriate, something beautifully written that might get God’s attention and sound right. Something that would start by telling God how great God was, just to butter God up a little.

Maybe I’d couch my situation around with requests for other people and slip my own in in the middle, in the midst of some thanks to God for all God has done for me in the past. I figured that way God would know I was being sincere and not completely selfish, having taken the trouble to include other people as well. God surely wouldn’t know that the most important thing in that list was my own situation.

And sometimes that would work. I would thank God for responding appropriately and go on my way.

But there were times when God either didn’t get what I was saying, or was busy fulfilling those other prayer requests I’d put in for other people. If it went on long enough, if my appropriately formal, appropriately other-focused, appropriately grateful prayers just were not doing the trick, then I might find myself resorting to good old-fashioned bribery. And it usually looked like this:

“If you do this for me, God, I promise…”

The promise took different forms over the years. Some I kept, and some I kept for a while, and some I never had to keep because God didn’t come up to snuff. In some ways I was kind of relieved. Some of those bribes were pretty big pay-offs and I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it.

But there was that one time when God didn’t take my bribe and it was so important, I went to extortion, the nuclear option:

“If you don’t do this for me, God, I’m going to…”

I know I’m not the only one to do this. Some people have offered to God some really good bribes, bribes that were good for them like giving up smoking, bribes that were good for their families, like being around more often, bribes that were good for the church, like making a huge bequest, and bribes that were just plain good, like serving the poor and the sick. But let’s be honest: they were all still bribes.

The extortion was a different matter. The most common one I’ve heard of, one I’ve never had the nerve to do, was to tell God that if God didn’t come through, that was proof God didn’t exist. I’m not sure that was any skin of God’s proverbial nose, but it certainly seemed to be enough for some people.

I feel for those folks though. It’s rotten when God doesn’t seem to care, or God doesn’t seem to be listening. God sure doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.

But the weird thing about bribing God is that I never know if it’s going to work or not. And, now that I think about it, more often than not, it didn’t.

You’d almost think that God was somehow able to see through my clever ways of showing God I’m praying for others. You’d think God was maybe not interested in my bribe. You’d think God actually wanted to hear what I thought, what worried me, what concerned me. You’d think God might actually prefer my prayer concerns for others to be from my genuine concern and not window dressing. It’s hard to tell with God.

And after hearing this parable today, I wonder if my bribery made any difference at all.

I mean, look at this widow. She has no money, no resources, no connections. She has no money to bribe the judge. She has no power to bully him. All she has is herself and the rightness of her cause. She goes before the judge day after day and says, “Give me justice.” She doesn’t say, “If I give you this, will you make it right?” She doesn’t say, “If you don’t make it right, I’ll tell the papers about your scandalous behavior.” Over and over, in the plainest language, in the most self-interested way possible, with no specially trained person to help her, she makes her case.

Jesus has this weird thing about prayer. He seems to think that it should be done in normal language by normal people about everyday things. You’d think a super prayer warrior like Jesus would have some secret tricks up his sleeve, but then when his disciples ask him, he teaches them this little fillip of a prayer: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. That doesn’t take hours. It doesn’t require you to prostrate yourself. And it's just so simple, anyone can say it and mean it.

And here he is again, suggesting that all we need to do is to present ourselves to God, and present our requests to God without resorting to fancy intermediaries or fancy language or fancy tricks or fancy promises. That all we need to do is show up again and again in the presence of the Almighty God with our hands empty and our desires known and our secrets unhidden. And that God is interested in that.

Maybe I’m not as clever as I thought. Maybe God hears me pray whether or not I have anything to offer. Maybe God is more interested in having me than in having my promises. Maybe all I need to do is to bring myself before God asking for justice and see what happens.

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