October 10, 2013
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
"The Persistence Parable"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Doing my homework this week brought me to one of my favorite preachers: Rev. Dr. Tom Long. He brought up a point made by another Dr. of humanity: Bill Cosby. Dr. Cosby said, "When children come to their parents with things like, "Billy took my teddy bear. I want you to make him give it back.," what children naively assume is that parents are interested in justice. "Parents," said Cosby, "are not interested in justice. They are interested in quiet."
Over the past weeks, we've been spending time in the book of Luke: with the healing of ten lepers, mustard seed faith, the shrewd manager, lost sheep, coins and kids. This morning's passage continues in the parable-telling mode, with a person also interested in quiet.
Luke 18:1-8 (NIV)
18 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 what people thought. 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 what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
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, Pam. This is not one of the top ten best loved Bible stories. There are more than a couple ways that "experts" have unraveled it. It has stumbling blocks. As a widow, the plaintiff should have been able to garner the court's attention more easily than most. There was a law in the Old Testament that only an orphan could be considered a more urgent case than a widow. Instead, the widow, being so close to the bottom of the social scale in Jesus' day, probably wouldn't get justice in a descent courtroom, but she ends up in the courtroom of the worst judge in the county. Against a narcissistic judge, she doesn't have a chance, except that she has a weapon: her capacity to annoy. And when you only have one weapon, you use it. In verse 5, where it says she "bothered" him, in the ancient Greek, it means to literally give someone a black eye. She was stalking him and his reputation in ways that would make a Law and Order episode boring - or laughable.
If we look to the judge for meaning, if God is being compared to the judge, does God put us off sometimes - in answering our prayers? How could God be compared to one - the judge - who had so little regard for anyone or anything else? In the end, I don't know what any of you might be thinking, but I'm guessing that such an obvious comparison of God to the judge is not only too blatant, it is also not helpful.
I absolutely love it when someone flips the possibilities - especially in regards to scripture passages. The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt was chatting to her preaching students, and one of them asked, "Oh, but is God the judge or the pleading widow in the story?" Ooo. What a delightful role reversal! Except that it worked in the Old Testament days. In the lectionary passage from Jeremiah assigned for today, God pleads and pleads with the people to turn around and come back to God's self. If the people weren't listening to God some 600 years before Jesus came, why would they do any different with him standing in front of them?
So if the passage isn't about the widow or the judge, then it has to be something else. And Jesus gives us a big clue in the opening sentence. "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." So back to my buddy, Tom Long.
He once preached on this passage and talked about Leonard Bernstein on writing his great rock, blues and jazz Mass: "I think that the most troubling and disheartening language for contemporary people in the liturgy is not the credo - the I believe in God, I mean there is a sense in which even people in a skeptical age can say, in a gaseous and vague way, "I believe in God." No, the most troubling part of the Mass was "Let us pray." Because when the words are uttered, "Let us pray," that vague and gaseous God must come into focus, and bets cannot be hedged. We enter into communion and communication with this God and no other, and it raises all the questions: Is there a God? Is there a God who hears? Is there a God who answers?
Although as of today, I might not agree with Tom Long's eventual point, that this parable is about justice, I think his illustration about prayer has some wider application - for all of us. As much as we'd like it not to be, there are issues with prayer.
There are practical issues: (Yes, I'd like to pray more, but I just don't have the time. It gets crowded out.) I agree. If we are to be about doing good things in Christian love, and maintaining our own realms as good Christians, we don't have all the time for prayer we'd like. That's why I think Brother Andrew's idea of Practicing the Presence of God in all our daily moments makes far more sense - when we can't pray all the time. Then our lives are not only more open to seeing the miracles and goodness with that which God blesses us, but we are able to be the prayer that so many people need - in its purest sense.
"Eileen was one of her first patients, a person who was totally helpless. 'A cerebral aneurysm (broken blood vessels in the brain) had left her with no conscious control over her body,' the nurse writes. As near as the doctors could tell Eileen was totally unconscious, unable to feel pain and unaware of anything going on around her. It was the job of the hospital staff to turn her and give her a tube feeding twice a day. Caring for her was a thankless task. 'When it's this bad,' an older student nurse told the young nurse, 'you have to detach yourself emotionally from the whole situation...' As a result, more and more she came to be treated as a thing, a vegetable...
"But the young student nurse decided that she could not treat this person like the others had treated her. She talked to Eileen, sang to her, encouraged her, and even brought her little gifts. One day when things were especially difficult and it would have been easy for the young nurse to take out her frustrations on the patient, she was especially kind. (Good point - if we take nothing else away today.) It was Thanksgiving Day and the nurse said to the patient, 'I was in a cruddy mood this morning, Eileen, because it was supposed to be my day off. But now that I'm here, I'm glad. I wouldn't have wanted to miss seeing you on Thanksgiving. Do you know this is Thanksgiving?'
"Just then the telephone rang, and as the nurse turned to answer it, she looked quickly back at Eileen. 'Suddenly,' she writes, Eileen was 'looking at me... crying. Big damp circles stained her pillow, and she was shaking all over.
"That was the only human emotion that Eileen ever showed any of them, but it was enough to change the whole attitude of the hospital staff toward her. Not long afterward, Eileen died. The young nurse closes her story, saying, 'I keep thinking about her... It occurred to me that I owe her an awful lot. Except for Eileen, I might never have known what it's like to give myself to someone who can't give back'"
(Incidentally, this scenario is why we should never assume people who appear "out of it" are "out of it." In the nursing world, the training is now to always consider that a person is "with it," and to treat them that way.)
There are theological issues with prayer. If I pray for my sick child and my child dies, does it mean that God didn't hear my prayer? If I pray for my sick child and he gets well, does it mean that God wouldn't have healed my child if I hadn't prayed? Does it mean that I changed God's mind? Does it mean that God can be manipulated? Since when do we have to badger God to get what we need?
All those "problems" can be sorted with some study - perhaps more by the head than the heart. But perhaps the writer of this parable was going for what lies underneath all the other problems: we lose heart. We just lose heart.
We pray for health, but there is still a spot on the x-ray. We pray for peace, but the troops still are "over there" and not here. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for our daily bread, yet some so very close around us starve daily. If we really thought our prayers for (name the place - or person) would bring peace, you couldn't keep us out of the prayer closet. But we just lose heart. It is, I think, because we are so very human. And should we be so honest as to admit losing heart, then the temptation to feel guilty seems to loom over everything else, too.
But here's the thing: we may pray and lose heart. God - as we meet God in Jesus - was willing to go up against all kinds of disrespectful, unjust powers for God's beloved people. In fact, Jesus did it to the point of suffering and death - and he still kept praying. We are human, and therefore imperfect. Christ, who is divine, is perfect. Even more perfect than Emmitt Smith.
A gentleman named David Dykes said, "He isn’t as flashy as Walter Payton or Barry Sanders, and he never possessed true break-away speed. But his strength lies in his ability to persist–he just kept on running.
He has run for 16,743 yards. That’s 9.5 miles! It has taken him 13 years to run only 9.5 miles. What’s the big deal about that?, asked Mr. Dykes. "I ran more miles than that on the Rose Rudman trail this past week! The big difference is, I didn’t have 11 huge defensive players trying to take my head off when I ran! Emmitt’s average run over those 9.5 miles was 4.3 yards at a time. That means he has been tackled and knocked down 3,983 times. And do you know what he did after every tackle? He got back up and ran the ball again. Sure, he was injured a few times, but he always returned. I’m impressed that someone would be knocked down almost 4,000 times and still they get up and run again. Let us pray.
God of strength and courage and persistence, we thank you for fortifying us, encouraging us, and cheering us on in our faith and earthly journeys. We confess that sometimes we don't give you our best, and sometimes we lose heart. BUt we are grateful that you never leave us or leave us behind. You know, Jesus, how hard this life can be sometimes. And how good it can be. So help us be persistent in following you, listening to you, loving you, as you return all those things in multiplied measure to us. For the sheer grace of calling us your children, we all say, Amen.