Sunday, October 16, 2022
First Congregational Church
October 16, 2022
19th Sunday after Pentecost
“How Much More So? Keep On Keeping On”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was a time when Ole was sent to his room because he had been bad. A short time later he came out and said to his mother, "I've been thinking about what I did and I said a prayer." "That's fine," she said, "if you ask God to make you good, God will help you." "Oh, I didn't ask God to help me be good," replied Ole. "I asked God to help you put up with me.”
Dr. Helen Roseveare was a missionary to Zaire and told this story. "A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister.
One of the girls responded. 'Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won't feel so lonely.'
That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as it was opened. Much to their surprise, under some clothing, was a hot water bottle!
Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, 'If God sent that, I'm sure God also sent a doll!' And she was right! The thing was that the package had to begin its journey five months before that day and that prayer. Not only is it a story of answered prayer, but it’s one of listening to the Holy Spirit in its nudging.
Last week’s scripture passage was the one from Luke about the healing of ten lepers with one going back to thank Jesus. After that, there are seventeen verses about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Most any of us who have put in some pew time will have heard about the Kingdom of God - at least a few times. But imagine how the disciples heard about it.
In those seventeen verses, a number of things are mentioned, and to the disciples’ ears, they must have sounded crazy. At one point, when asked about the coming kingdom, Jesus said that the kingdom was already in their midst. In the next breath, he mentioned that the kingdom would be as instant as Lot’s wife and the sulfur and rain that accompanied her transformation into a pillar of salt. When asked where the predicted people would be disappearing with the revealing of the Son of Man, Jesus replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” Say, what?
Imagine being Peter, either of the James, John, Thomas, Philip, Bartholomew, Andrew, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Simon, even Judas. Granted, these were not young things still wet behind the ears, but grown men, responsible people, respected. And now imagine that this was not your first rodeo with all this Jesus talk about coming doom and gloom.
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'
4 "For some time he refused. But finally, he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.
7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Thank you, Molly. It sort of paints a picture of the disciples standing there with their mouths open, wondering just what was going on with this person to whom they’d devoted their lives.
A person named Jean McMahon tells the story about attending a church in Kentucky, where an especially verbal and boisterous child was being hurried out, slung under his irate father’s arm. No one in the congregation so much as raised an eyebrow - until the child captured everyone’s attention by crying out in a charming Southern accent, “Ya’ll pray for me now!”
I’m just going to say right up front, I don’t know about ya’ll, but I have questions about today’s passage. Yes, it’s a parable, but I think the questions are still relevant. Like, if God will bring about justice for the chosen, will God bring about justice for the “unchosen” - whoever they might be? If anyone is interested, I think that it’s not such a question upon which to spend much time, because all the bringing of justice is God’s job. We’re just supposed to love people and spread God’s love.
Anyway, there are scripture passages that essentially tell us to pray, put the concern into God’s hands, and then trust God to take care of it, because going back over and over - whatever the topic - is like not living in the faith that God hears our prayers or is powerless to do anything about them. So how does that fit with the directive to “always pray?”
As I thought about that question, the image that is often seen in connection with courts came to mind; the one of a blindfolded woman holding an equal arm balance scale, as it is called. Maybe it’s a representation of balance between continued praying and continued faith that God will take care of things. I don’t know, but it is an interesting image to have as a part of this exploration of today’s passage.
Still, what about the victims of violence or harm, like Hitler’s genocide? Imagine the number of prayers that were raised over the course of those four years, not to mention the lead-up to and the hardships after the end of his reign of terror. Or the Cambodian people in the 70s, the Armenians in the early 20th century, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, not to mention all the other massacres throughout history. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that a large number of people were “always praying” in and around those situations.
Yes, this is a parable, but how “Christian” is it to harangue and irritate people, esp. those in places of leadership, to get what we want, regardless of the worthiness of our desire? The job of a judge or politician or civil servant can’t be all Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. While making a point, is harassing someone making that person’s job just that much more stressful?
We can and should be critical of those with power and authority and call out wrongdoing when we see it happening, but should we use our power and authority to hurt or make worse someone else’s situation? It’s a little naive, I know, but how much better is our witness as Christ's followers, when we are tactful and creative, rather than being just a pain in the tochas.
The woman from our story would have been without anyone to help, i.e., a man, who would have pleaded the case for her. A woman, poor, probably being cheated in one way or another. At least she wasn’t a leper or had an isolating disease. Even so, even way back in the Old Testament, widows and orphans are to be given extra care and consideration. Even though it’s a parable, my version of the story would have the judge knowing that element of Jewish law, just sayin’.
Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Was Jesus condoning the behavior of a judge that was out to save his own neck? We miss the picture with our English translations, because “so that she may not wear me out” is literally, “so that she doesn’t give me a black eye.” Chelsey Harmon, from Calvin Theological Seminary, asked the better question. “If this judge provides justice, then how much more can we trust our God to make justice?"
William Willimon tells a story about author Malcolm Gladwell, who talks about the difference between a competent amateur tennis player and an athlete who plays professional tennis or the difference between a violist in the community orchestra and a soloist playing at Carnegie Hall.
Mr. Gladwell says the difference between the people polarities is about ten thousand hours. It’s not natural talent, genius, intelligence or other means that explain high attainments. It’s persistence, continued, self-sacrificial, relentless persistence.
So the insistence to keep on praying is actually shaping us into becoming mature and faithful followers of Christ. Sometimes, we can get our heads around the idea that God answers our prayers, just not always within our time frames. Other times, it’s hard to keep on keeping on. And God gets that, too. Thank goodness God doesn’t ask us to do it perfectly!
It’s the last sentence that gives the greater punch. “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" Does that question paint a picture of massive numbers of people flooding Christian church doors, or is it more of a commitment to our human struggle to do better, to keep on keeping on, persistent to receive what God wants to say to us?
Rev. Dr. Willimon describes the experience of an esteemed writer of Christian spirituality, Anne Lamott. When she went to the forlorn little Presbyterian church in her neighborhood, the sermon sounded like “talk about Martians,” as she described it. Yet she went back the next Sunday.
Months later, Jesus nabbed her one evening when her defenses were down as she was in a drunken stupor. While Lamott’s life-changing encounter with Christ occurred at home rather than at church and not as a direct result of a sermon, Anne is clear that the sermons she heard at that church - few specifics of which she remembers - left her vulnerable to the overtures of Jesus.”
Willimon said, of his own experience in a new church, “It took us a year before we figured out how to listen to your preaching. Your brain works weird. Glad we didn’t give up.” Can I hear an Amen?
Willimon’s conclusion is “Fortunately, they were persistent enough either to give me time to get better as a preacher, or give themselves time to learn how to listen to someone like me, or maybe even to give God time to decide when the time is right for speaking.”
If God hears prayers for hot water bottles - months before those prayers are even realized - how much more will God answer your prayers for your spouse, partner, children, grandchildren, neighbors, even people you don’t necessarily like?
If God hears prayers that may never see or realize answers in our lifetimes, how much more important is it for us to pray for the future - for those who will follow us - not to be like us, but to be able to hear God’s voice and do that which God needs of them?
If God hears the prayers of a second rung from the bottom widow in a parable, how much more will God answer our prayers of us, keeping on keeping on? Let us join our hearts in this keeping on business.
Holy and Wise God, thank you for answered prayers, even when we think you aren’t even listening. Thank you for providing for us even before we ask. Forgive our ingratitude and give us consequent opportunities to do better and grow in faith.
When we tire of praying, hold us up that we can pray through your Holy Spirit. When we are reluctant to pray, remind us of the prayers prayed for us, long ago, by people we won’t know until we meet up in eternity. In our time together at table today, remind us of that same Spirit that had breakfast with your son on a beach after his resurrection, the same Spirit that worked with you in the creation of creation. For all your blessings and all your answers to prayers, all your people say, Amen.
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Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.