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The Olympics have always been a good source of sermon material. Inspirational tales about parents who sacrifice for their children’s Olympic dreams, romantic stories about athletes finding love amidst the stress of competition, come-from-behind sagas about competitors defying physical and emotional handicaps to become champions – all of these are regular parts of the quadrennial international spectacle that serve to illustrate Christian values like grace, hope, and love. Which is why I was surprised to read the following article in a Religion News blog:
“They prayed and prayed and prayed even more. Then they arrived at the Olympics and promptly lost every match. Did God have it in for them?
If the divine does play favorites in sports, the Argentine women’s handball team and the Mexican men’s volleyball team certainly aren’t the chosen. Now the entire rosters of both teams are throwing in the towel on their Christian faith. ‘Six hail marys and six stinking losses,’ said Argentine coach Eduardo Peruchena. He estimated his handballers spent a combined sixty-six hours in meditation and prayer in the week directly leading up to their first match. ‘Since the prayers obviously didn’t make any difference, maybe less time on our knees and more practicing would’ve helped.’
…Mexican coach Jorge Azair agreed, but wanted to look to the future. ‘When we compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, we’ll be competing as atheists.’”
I could not believe it. An entire team announcing to the world that they had lost their faith because of a losing streak? Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t true. I had failed to notice one crucial part of the article’s title – the part where it said, “Satire.”
But it says something that I believed it. Because I know that it’s easy to lose faith when you pray and you pray and you pray and nothing changes. It’s easy to get angry at God when you hear the news that the 28 year-old brother of a friend has suddenly died of pancreatitis. It’s easy to wonder if you are wasting your time when an entire congregation prays for the recovery of a beloved member only to have to attend her funeral a week later. It’s troubling and, for Christians, hard to explain. We not only feel like we have to deal bravely with what happened, but we have to somehow explain why God didn’t answer our prayers. We’d much rather focus on examples of how prayer works.
That’s not necessarily the way it was for our ancient predecessors. Far from making poetic “pretty please” prayers for non-specific things like, “those in need” and “those in positions of power,” the ancient Israelites poured their hearts out to God, expressing not only their deeply felt gratitude for all that God had done for them, but also their anger and fear when God failed to live up to their expectations. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored”?
Jeremiah’s cry to God on behalf of his people is just as resonant today as it was in the sixth century before the Common Era. Perhaps the Babylonians are not at our borders, but our fear of terrorism is just as real. Maybe the symbols of our religion have not been destroyed, but they have been perverted. The cross that once stood only for love and forgiveness is now used as a club to promote exclusion and inauthentic moral rightness. We, like Jeremiah, are sick at heart.
But unlike Jeremiah, we do not tell God how we feel. We do not rage at the injustice in the world – at least not in church. We have come to believe that lamenting is rude. That’s too bad, because lamenting is a long and deeply-held tenant of our faith. It’s too bad because lamenting together allows us to acknowledge that our prayers are not always answered in the way we hope. It’s too bad because without mourning together we can never fully experience what it means to be a community of God.
Our ancestors knew the value of a good group cry. About one-third of our psalms are classified as “lament psalms,” but we hardly ever hear those on regular church Sundays, toting them out only for funerals and global tragedies. Today’s inclusion of Psalm 79, known as a “national lament,” is an exception. Psalm 79 reminds us that we are allowed to question God. We are allowed to be angry when things seem unfair. We are allowed to tell God how we feel.
I think we often forget that. We are so busy asking God to do things for us that we fail to tell God how we feel – and we fail to remember that our relationship with God has a context – the context of our lives. All you have to do is look at how we pray to recognize the way we have taken prayer out of the day-to-day reality of our lives. How many of us kneel and bow our heads on a regular basis? When we pray this way, it tells us that prayer is a time to “withdraw into some otherworldly “religious” realm where all is sweetness and light.” But that is not what prayer is supposed to be. Prayer is supposed to be an integral, expected, part of our lives. Think about the person you are closest to in the world. What would happen if you didn’t talk to that person for even one day? But some of us only talk to God only once a week.
That’s what the author of Timothy was telling his people – that God wants to talk to us – that God sent Jesus into the world as a way for us to get to know him and as a way for us to be in dialogue with God. Timothy’s letter tells us that when we pray, we have to open ourselves up to the possibility that anything can happen if you are in a relationship with a power beyond imagining.
Because you get what you pay for. That’s the lesson of Jesus’s parable about the dishonest – or “shrewd” – manager, a man who’s already being fired for being dishonest who decides to ensure his own future by reducing the amounts people owe his boss so that they might take him in when he is tossed out. Based on its completely unsatisfying ending, in which this scoundrel triumphs instead of being defeated, it would seem that Jesus is recommending that we “imitate the unrighteous behavior of the main character.” In fact, it sounds suspiciously like some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the campaign trail – that it’s okay to use laws to your advantage, that it’s okay to be greedy, as long as it works. And in a way it is – because what Jesus is saying is that your success is measured according to your beliefs. If you believe that the world is a vicious, competitive and unjust place, then you will act accordingly – and you will succeed based on those standards. The “shrewd manager” put his faith in the greed of men and his faith paid off. He was successful because he was dishonest in a dishonest system, and we can be too – if that’s what we want – if that’s what we choose. But remember, when we put our faith in a community of greed, fear, and lies, that is where we must live. If we want to live in Jesus’s kingdom – a world of love, acceptance and peace – we have to live by the rules of that system.
And the first rule of Jesus’s kingdom is to love God – and that means talking to God – talking to God honestly, emotionally, and often. It means praying – praying in a way that acknowledges our desire to be part of God’s will for creation – praying in a way that is not about what we want God to do for us, but about how we can be in closer relationship to God. That kind of prayer is hard. That kind of prayer is exhausting. That kind of prayer works.
And that kind of prayer starts not with asking for God’s help, but by asking for God’s forgiveness –because we cannot even know what to ask for without knowing who we really are. And we cannot know who we are – we cannot love God or ourselves -without facing the enormous breadth and depth of our thoughts, words and deeds, of recognizing what we have done and what we have left done, of examining our efforts and failures to love with our whole hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Real prayer is not about winning things or getting things or changing things. Real prayer is about living our entire lives in the presence of God. It will transform us. It will transport us. It will take us out of this dishonest, grieving, sinful world and into a realm of true wisdom, true power, and true peace. So, let us pray. AMEN.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons (2016). “Olympic squads lose every match – and their faith,” Satire/The Literalist, Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2016/08/16/olympic-squads-lose-every-match-and-their-faith/.
Donald K. McKim, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation]. Kindle Edition.
Helen Montgomery Debevoise, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation]. Kindle Edition.
Scott Bader-Saye, (2010), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), (Kindle Locations 3236-3242). [Louisville, KY:Presbyterian Publishing Corporation]. Kindle Edition.