Sermon: Sunday, October 24, 2010: Lectionary 30

Texts:   Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-7  •   2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18  •   Luke 18:9-14


This may come as a shock to many of you, but, even though I grew up in Iowa – I really know next to nothing about farm life. No, you know that, though there were kids in college who came from the northeast to the Midwest assuming that we were all farmers. But it’s not true. I come from Des Moines, where the major industry is insurance, it’s a city that’s built to avoid risk. We insure crops, but we don’t grow them.

So, I’ve never really had the visceral reaction to long, hot, dry summers that people who’ve lived on a farm do. I grew up hearing adults say, “we need rain” or “the farmers are really hurting this year,” but I was mostly glad not to be pent up indoors during my summer vacation. I’ve never really prayed for rain.

The prophet Jeremiah, delivering a hard word to the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, is very concerned about rain. The beginning verses of the fourteenth chapter of Jeremiah read,

rainJudah mourns and her gates languish;

they lie in gloom on the ground, and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.

Her nobles send their servants for water; they come to the cisterns,

they find no water, they return with their vessels empty.

They are ashamed and dismayed and cover their heads,

because the ground is cracked.

Because there has been no rain on the land the farmers are dismayed;

they cover their heads. (Jer 14:2-4)

It is after this description of drought that Jeremiah’s pleading with God begins, “although our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name’s sake.”

Consider with me for just a few moments what this means – what it meant for Jeremiah, and what it means, or doesn’t, for us. The people are suffering greatly because of the drought, and the prophet’s first response is to turn to God with prayers of repentance and supplication. He repents on behalf of the people, “although our own iniquities testify against us;” and then he concludes, “can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O LORD our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.”

Do you believe that? Do you believe that God sends life-threatening droughts to punish nations for their sin, for turning away from God’s loving will for them and for all people? Is the creation that interconnected, that the heavens actually lock themselves up in response to the idolatry of the people?

And is repentance simply a matter of making prayers of confession? Will a recounting of our sins – individual and collective – persuade God to act on our behalf?

This certain sounds like the kind of thinking we heard described by Bishop Spong in last week’s sermon on prayer. Do you remember what he said,

Prayer is a direct descendent of the behavior of those first self-conscious ancestors of our humanity. Traumatized at the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, those ancestors met their anxiety by postulating the existence of a protector more powerful than the forces that threatened them. Prayer has thus traditionally been an attempt to seek the aid of that protector or to form an alliance with that supernatural being.

That certainly seems to be what Jeremiah is doing. Assuming that pain and suffering are a direct result of sin and idolatry, Jeremiah turns to God on behalf of the people and makes a grand apology, asking God to reverse the course of nature and send the rain.

But, like I said, growing up in the city I didn’t really think much about the rain. As far as I was concerned, water just showed up when I turned the faucet on and disappeared when I turned the faucet off. Rain was fun for making puddles to splash around in, but the water I needed to consume, or boil for my noodles, or to clean my wounds, was just sitting around in a reservoir somewhere waiting for me to come deplete it.

The kind of drought I grew to worry about as an adult is the kind of drought we’re in right now – a recession – when credit dries up, and jobs dry up, and savings dry up. No matter how many times we fuss with the prime rate, or how many tax cuts we give to the wealthiest among us, money just doesn’t seem to be showing up in our bank accounts. Whether we work in a classroom, or a board room, or a church – we’re wondering who will be our rain maker.

You see, there are still some ways that the primal experience of living close to the earth has managed to stay with us as we moved into the city. Law firms and ad agencies and any kind of sales oriented industries still talk about the person on staff who manages to bring in the most money as the “rain maker.”  The hero, the champion, the one we think will save us from our dilemmas by making the rain fall from the heavens on all of us. If the rain maker isn’t our modern god, she or he is certainly our modern messiah – the one to whom we delegate the responsibility of coming up with the resources, or blame when they don’t magically appear. In the non-profits I worked in it was the grant writer, or the development director. In churches, all too often, it is the pastor.

I’m not just talking about today, or even just about us here at St. Luke’s. Clearly it was a problem in Jesus’ time as well. Listen to the parable he tells to those who’d gathered around him,

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…

Let’s stop right there and imagine what Jesus’ audience might have been thinking.  So far the story has two characters who are clearly very different: the Pharisee was a good man, a teacher of the law of Moses, a person of respect in the community. The tax collector was a bad man, a collaborator with the occupying Roman army, a person who got no respect in the community.

But they had something in common as well. They were both fund-raisers. Just like the tax collector would show up at people’s doors to take a cut of their hard earned gains for the Roman empire, to feed and clothe the Roman legion, the Pharisee would also remind the people of the cut of their hard earned income they owed to the church. He didn’t exempt himself from this church tax either – Jesus says he congratulated himself on fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of all his income. Still, no matter how you frame it, these two men both showed up at your house looking for money. Jesus knew it, his audience knew it, the tax collector knew it, and the Pharisee… well, I’m not sure what he knew.

It’s difficult, being the rain maker. When you feel the weight of bringing in the sheaves, it gets easy to become resentful of those who seem to be giving less than you, or to become self-congratulatory when the budget seems to be balancing. And we tend to set our rain makers up. We put our hopes in them to go make rain out of wisps of clouds, and then leave them a little bit isolated as we head back to the fields to earn what we can before the tax
collector or the Pharisee shows up at our door again.

At least the Pharisee in the story sounds a little bit lonely. Jesus says, “the Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

It’s a set up, asking anyone to be a rainmaker. There’s really no way for it to work out well in the end. Look at the two examples Jesus gives – rainmakers either align themselves with noble causes and end up feeling smug, self-righteous, and alone; or they align themselves with empire and end up feeling like sell-outs, traitors… and alone. What we all want, really, is to be equal members of a body that will share in each other’s fortunes and support each other in times of struggle. That means no rain makers, and no scapegoats. That means community. We’re in this together.

Do you think God sends the droughts? Do you think God creates the recessions? Do you think God grants us deficit budgets and shrinking congregations and denominations?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But do you think that we still have something perhaps that requires repentance? Is this recession at all a consequence of the fact that we have delegated to others the price of our personal prosperity? Are the massive layoffs at our churchwide organization the result of steadily declining benevolences to the ELCA over the last twenty years in the hopes that they would find another way to pay for our shared global ministries without us? Have we taken the time to really look at our congregation’s incomes and expenses and ask the hard questions about where our money comes from and where it goes? Have we turned over the job of being the rain makers to our staff, or our council? Are we members of one another’s futures? Are we equitably sharing the joys and the costs of ministry? Are we in this together?

We began our Stewardship campaign five weeks ago, on the morning of Emmett Byrley’s baptism, a day on which we were all reminded that we are members of one another by baptism, and equal shareholders in a community of repentance, forgiveness and rebirth. As I preached that morning, holding Emmett in my arms, I challenged you not to get bogged down in your feelings about money and scarcity. I said:

  • For some of you it may evoke the same feelings you have when Chicago Public Radio goes into its semiannual pledge drive, “when will we get back to the regular programming!” If that’s you, try and remember that thinking about and learning to share our wealth is the regular programming, and is core to Jesus’ teaching.
  • For some of you it may evoke feelings of entitlement, “I work hard for my money, and it’s mine to do with as I please!” If that’s you, try and remember the sight of Emmett being baptized, tiny and dependent, the way you once were. None of us makes it in this life on our own. We rely on others, on our families, to help us. There are members of your family, family members you don’t even know yet, who are relying on you.
  • For some of you it may evoke feelings of fear, “I have nothing left to give!” If that is you, take an honest account of your life, count your blessings. In all likelihood you do have something you could give, because we all do.

As we head toward our annual meeting next weekend, I am asking all of us to remember that we are members of one another. We share a life given to us by grace, as a gift, in baptism. We can have tough conversations and make difficult decisions, because ultimately we know that none of us makes the rain – rather, we rest in the arms of a loving God, who is washing all of us in the plentiful waters of repentance, renewal and rebirth. We are in this together, and we will be alright.


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