21st Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 29), Year C
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
God has made you a promise.
God has made me a promise.
God has made us – not just individually, but collectively, the whole church – a promise.
We have a promise that God’s Kingdom, God’s reality, God’s way of life –
God’s neighborhood, if you will –
is coming, and will be our new way of life, our new neighborhood.
Indeed, we have a promise that this Kingdom, to use the Biblical lingo, is already showing up.
There’s a little bit of God’s extraordinary work peeking out of our ordinary world,
a little bit of grace bubbling to the surface in a fallen world,
a little bit of God’s Way working its way through a world
where we like to do things “my way.”
That’s one of the messages we get from today’s Gospel,
a message about the promise of God to bring about justice,
and our calling to pray tirelessly, just as the widow tirelessly appealed to the unjust judge.
First, the promise of God.
The Bible reverberates with God’s many promises.
From the words that spoke creation into being,
to the rainbow that stands as God’s covenant to Noah and his descendants,
to the promise God gave Abraham and Sarah that they be parents to nations,
to the gift of the Promised Land to Moses and the Hebrew people,
to the promise of a Savior proclaimed by Isaiah and the prophets,
to the promise given to Mary and foretold by her cousin, Elizabeth,
to the promise about which we speak today and which Luke was so fond:
the Kingdom of God.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke,
Jesus can be heard preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God,
that reign, that way of life that is inaugurated when the Son of Man returns.
In his parables, Jesus describes a banquet feast – lush with food and drink and music and dancing
– where the hungry, humble, needy, get their fill.
In his parables, Jesus describes a grand celebration
– complete with robe, ring, and the fatted calf prepared for a feast
– for the return of one lost child.
In his parables, Jesus describes a role reversal where the humble and suffering,
those who sit on society’s bottom rung,
find themselves seated in places of honor and prestige in the age that is to come.
Of course, in the Gospels, this Kingdom of God is not just the stuff of stories, of words.
No. It is the stuff of action.
Jesus heals lepers, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead,
cures the sick, feeds thousands with food for just a few,
and in the process giving hope to the hopeless.
These compassionate acts of miraculous power, coupled with the stories Jesus tells,
give us a pretty clear picture of what this Kingdom of God looks like.
It did, too, for all who listened to Jesus.
Today’s Gospel story comes from the first few verses of chapter 18.
But late in chapter 17 – open up your Bibles and find it, if you like –
late in chapter 17 Jesus is talking about the coming of the Kingdom,
and the Pharisees –
who have heard many of his parables and witnessed many of his miracles –
the Pharisees ask Jesus, in verse 20: when is the kingdom of God coming?
Not to be outdone, the disciples – who were often just as clueless as anybody else in the Bible –
the disciples ask in verse 37 where the Kingdom of God will come.
When? Where? Get the popcorn – we wanna be there!
And so this is the context for today’s reading –
Jesus has made clear his articulation of what God’s Kingdom,
God’s way of life, of what God’s neighborhood looks like.
It’s a pretty good place, and everyone – the Pharisees, the disciples, you and me –
we’re itching to get there.
Like a savvy marketer, Jesus has built up his case for the Kingdom –
telling us stories and giving us sneak peeks,
allowing us to sample this glorious way of life.
The build-up has been dramatic, and we’re sitting on the edges of our seats,
begging, pleading – when, where, how can I get this new way of life?
Jesus’ response: Right now, on your knees.
Jesus tells us a story about our need to pray and not to lose heart,
a story of a widow – widows were old, weak, poor, near the bottom of the social ladder;
in horticultural terms, widows were about as small and insignificant as mustard seeds.
And so Jesus tells us the story of a widow
who pesters, and pleads, and day after day after day after day,
repeatedly begs a judge – a despicable judge, at that –
for justice against someone who has wronged her.
Begging, pleading, pestering, repetitively, day after day after day after day.
This, Jesus says, this is the way to pray.
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes that
Nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly
and to drum into his ears our prayer.
In his commentary on Genesis, Luther describes prayer in this way:
we are to pray in such a way that by knocking and urgently demanding
in a vexatious manner, we annoy God.
Drumming, knocking, demanding in a vexatious manner, annoying . . .
Cana, my 1 year old daughter, can, at times, be all of these things.
The only words she has right now are for people – her sister and her parents –
words that are useless when she really wants to say:
Daddy, I would like to have some of those peas on your plate,
not these lousy microwaved chicken nuggets, thank you very much.
But lacking those words,
she grunts and reaches toward my plate.
Hmm, we ask. Perhaps she wants the applesauce,
which is in the general direction of her reaching and grunting.
“Here we go, baby girl, here comes your applesauce. Open wide.”
She emphatically turns her head, grunts, and the applesauce spreads over her left cheek.
Applesauce. Not what she wanted.
Not missing a beat, and with applesauce dripping from her face,
her reaching and grunting continues.
OK, perhaps she wants the pasta.
Not falling for the face-turn, head-shake move again,
I put a handful of pasta on the tray of her highchair.
She picks up a piece – I’m hopeful – and then drops it on the floor,
followed by a rather rigorous and frenetic pushing all of the pasta on the floor.
Pasta. Not what she wanted.
A moment later, her reaching and grunting continues,
persistent and, at this point, quite vexatious and annoying,
she is knocking on her tray like the ringleader of a lunchroom of 5th graders chanting,
“we want food. we want food. we want food.”
Only, I have no idea what she is trying to say.
After trying about half of the food in our pantry and refrigerator
– our dining room table now looks as if a tornado had hit a grocery store –
I finally give her a few peas, and she is – no, all of us are – relieved.
Persistence. Perhaps in my daughter’s persistent pleas for peas, we see a pattern for prayer.
My daughter, as the widow in the parable, got what she asked for.
Cana got her peas,
and the widow, after seemingly endless pleading and pestering, got her justice.
Both of them seem to have taken a page out of Luther’s playbook,
drumming, knocking, annoying, vexing . . .
And, Jesus tells us, if the widow receives justice from an unjust judge after years of pressing,
how much more quickly will the Son of Man, when he returns, respond to our prayers?
So pray as the widow did for so long, Jesus teaches,
so that when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith and grant you justice.
It’s a great story. The widow receives her justice. We should all celebrate with her.
But this parable presents a problem, too. You see, this parable is rather simple.
Just a few verses, and frankly, not much detail building up the drama of the story.
Jesus can tell a good story, and does in many places in the Bible.
Unfortunately, this was not one of those places, not one of his “A” days.
A few weeks ago we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man,
the wonderfully detailed story of the poor man Lazarus
who suffered great injustices on earth
while toiling at the gate of a rich man’s house.
Upon death, Lazarus went to heaven.
In contrast, the wealthy rich man who enjoyed many great things in his life,
suffered in the afterlife.
In one of the great storylines in all the Bible,
this rich man begs that Lazarus could simply dip his finger in water to cool his tongue.
Great storytelling, great imagery!
Or just a few chapters later there is the story of the Lost Son,
often referred to as the prodigal son,
a story in which we get a strong sense of the pain and struggle of the son,
the sorrow of the father at losing his son,
and finally the joy he felt at finding his lost child.
These parables, among many other in the Gospels, drip with detail and drama,
giving vivid imagery to our life of faith.
But this parable of the widow and unjust judge is rather simple,
it doesn’t offer us a very vivid picture,
and its simplicity can be problematic.
You see, in verse three we learn of the widow’s persistent pleas before the judge,
and by verse five – just two verses later – the judge grants her request,
restoring justice to her.
We can be forgiven for reading this story and thinking,
“OK, let me pray for a bit, and then – voila! – my prayer will be answered.”
Particularly in our American culture,
where we pray for everything from parking spaces to peace to political victories,
this parable can easily lead to an understanding of prayer as a magical formula for success.
But it ain’t.
An African-American preacher once said:
"Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding,
you do not really know what prayer is.”
Las madres de la plaza de Mayo – the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo –
is a group of Argentine mothers who,
in the midst of their country’s nasty Dirty War 30 years ago,
began walking in Buenas Aires’ main square, the Plaza de Mayo,
in silent protest over the unexplained disappearances of their children,
mostly students, activists, and labor organizers
who opposed the military government.
The mothers walk to this day, every Thursday afternoon, for half an hour.
Over the years the number of mothers walking in silent protest grew
as the number of desaparecidos – the number of disappeared dissidents –
grew into the tens of thousands.
Some of the mothers themselves became victims of the government’s war against dissidents.
Today Argentina is a democracy,
yet the women continue to march to remember their lost children,
and to further the work of truth-telling about an era of incredible injustice.
After 30 years of marching, the government acknowledges only 9000
of the presumed 30,000 who were kidnapped, tortured, and killed.
Their walking, their hoping, their struggle continues. After 30 years.
"Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding,
you do not really know what prayer is.”
Prayer is struggle, a detail which lies hidden in the backstory of the parable of the widow,
yet which is clear as day in our first reading:
where Jacob, son of Abraham and forefather of the Hebrew people,
wrestles with God at the river,
taking a wicked hit on the hip and receiving a blessing in the process,
a wonderful metaphor for Christian life and prayer.
Perhaps this is why I am not a big fan of televangelists whose lives seems so peachy.
They smile, they have perfect hair, they love Jesus so earnestly, so, it seems, perfectly.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of smiling, having good hair, and loving Jesus,
but when I see these guys on the tv or hear them on the radio
or see their books in the bookstores,
I wonder if we’re all living in the same world,
if we’re all experiencing the same kind of struggles.
Struggle, sin, brokenness, hurt, pain, anxiety – it is all part of our human condition,
and our failure to acknowledge that is to set our sights on an unrealistic utopia
rather than on the real world in which God has placed us.
And that’s the paradox, isn’t it?
Each week, each day we pray that God’s Kingdom come,
God’s will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
And yet, is that the case? Is God’s will being done?
Are our prayers being answered?
Where, when, O God, is this Kingdom of yours coming?
We pray because we have a promise,
and like Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus’ resurrection,
we want to see some evidence, some reason to believe.
We get that evidence, dear friends,
when God’s promises become clear to us in this place,
when we are reminded of God’s love and grace,
when we hear that our sins are forgiven,
when we share in a simple meal that gives us life and joins us as a family of God.
We see and experience the evidence of God’s promises
when we are renewed in body, mind and spirit –
from the gift of baptism to the gift of recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous,
from the joy of renewing friendships to the help given by a perfect stranger.
We hear the words of God’s promises in this place,
and we experience those promises in word and deed
both here and beyond those doors.
Just as the Kingdom of God is a broad landscape painted not only by Jesus’ words
but fleshed out by his compassionate acts,
so too are God’s promises not just the stuff of some sacred words,
but God’s promises are also the stuff of action.
And so it is with prayer.
Our prayer is not just the recitation of words,
but prayer is also faithful action.
Prayer involves both the words that give voice to our cries,
and also the actions that give expression to our faith.
As Christians we pray for certain things –
peace, joy, faith, hope, healing, guidance in difficult times.
Our prayers reach up and out to God, yet they also reach into our hearts.
We know that the act of prayer – especially the repetitive, pestering kind of prayer –
we know that the act of prayer shapes us, forms us, changes us.
A child who prays everyday with her family at the mealtable –
no matter how indifferent she might act about it at the time –
can’t help but be formed and shaped by this daily routine of prayer.
Years later she’ll sit down at a meal with her children
and say that same old prayer in gratitude for all that she has been given.
When we continually cry out to God in prayer for justice,
we can’t help but be moved by that prayer to work for justice.
When we pray for the sick day in and day out,
we can’t help but visit them, love them, care for them, advocate for them.
Indeed, the Christian life consists of prayer and action,
and as we follow Jesus in this life of faith,
the line between prayer and action blurs.
Our actions become prayerful in and of themselves,
and our prayers lead, invite, encourage, and cause us – and others – to act.
We pray because we have a promise that one day God will come again
and make all things right.
We pray, beg, plead, and annoy God because we have a promise that things will be made new.
We pray so that God’s will be done,
on earth as in heaven,
in this time and in the Kingdom that is to come,
in word and in deed,
in this place and in all places.
Let us pray, dear friends,
trusting in the mercy, compassion and love of God,
and in hopeful anticipation of the Kingdom of God.
Let us pray.