Sunday, October 16, 2022

Nevertheless, We Persist

Luke 18:1-8

I don’t think we can grasp what Jesus’s parables were like to hear in person. We treat them like they belong in a dry, dusty old book, but I feel like this one was a Renaissance Fair skit. 
Jesus begins, ‘In a “certain city” (dramatic pause so they could fill in which city they thought he must be thinking of) there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 
In creeps a vaudevillian character in a long black cloakwith a twisty malevolent mustache. 
In” that city” there was a widow (out pops a sympathetic grandmother type) who kept coming to him and saying, (she turns to the audience and pipes up) “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 

For a while he refused; but nevertheless, she persisted! Finally, he said to himself, (the judge turns to the audience and remarks, finger on his chin), “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow (pointing at her) keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming!" 
(Waves his magic justice fairy wand. End scene).
All that to say, there was a playfulness to Jesus’s storytelling.  And the scenarios and characters in his parables are often exaggerated to make a point.  And thankfully for us, the point is said right up front here. “He told them a story so they would pray always and not lose heart.” 
And friends, I feel like not losing heart is a good goal.  
I feel how easy it could be to lose heart. This week I heard someone quote a scientist who said, “The three biggest environmental issues facing us today are selfishness, apathy and greed. And scientists can’t do anything about those.”  That’s one thing that could make me lose heart, for example.  
And Jesus tells this story of this persistent widow, which is to say – this person without power or voice who refuses to stop asking the person with power, but no character, for justice against her opponent. We don’t know anything about this opponent or, what they have done, or whether her claim is stronger than her opponent’s, or what justice would even look like.  All we are told of is her persistence. And how her persistence ultimately persuaded the jerk holding all the power, who sees no authority above himself and cares about nobody, to rule in her favor. That’s how persistent she was!

And won’t God, Jesus asks, God – who is actually just, who actually love us, who is actually already moving everything toward wholeness and healing – won’t God be far more responsive when we cry out for wrongs to be made right? 
Justice means for wrongs to be made right
Unfortunately, try as we might, we can’t actually make wrongs right.  We can punish, and we can enact revenge, and we can correct imbalances, and we can change laws so things are better in the future. We can acknowledge how wrong things actually are. But we can’t make wrongs right.  Humans are affected by what we do and say to each other and stuck with the consequences of our actions.  And while of course, society needs order and rules, nothing can undo what has been done. 
I heard an interview this week with someone who was wrongly convicted at 20 years old, spent 17 years in prison, and was finally released.  He was given $50,000 for each year he was in prison, and the interviewer asked how that money had helped. He responded that it can’t make up for being kidnapped for 17 years, can’t give him back the college education he was ripped out of, or provide a career’s worth of job skills that he didn’t get to acquire.  He has filed a hefty civil suit against the detectives who investigated the case.  When asked what that money would mean, besides the practical implications, he answered, “It would be justice.”  
But no amount of money can give back the life that was taken from him. It can only win him public acknowledgement of just how wrong it all was, which seems like about the best we can hope for. Making Alex Jones pay nearly a billion dollars to a group of Sandy Hook parents doesn’t take back the horrifying damage his words have done and will continue to do. Even more to the point, it can’t bring them back.  
The gaping losses we experience, the hurt we cause and the hurt we absorb, the terrible disparity we operate within, everyday unfairnesses and the brutality of sheer evil, these are wrong. They are not as life should be. Can any human mechanism we can wield actually make what’s wrong right?  
So, this persistent widow is our model, then. We are to come again and again, crying out for wrongs to be made right. We are to persist in demanding this and not let up.  And actually, this is the way to not lose heart. Because we are joining our hearts with God’s heart that beats for justice, God’s reality that holds the promise of all wrongs being made right.  
Along with our good intentions, we are also filled with selfishness, apathy and greed, and generally human beings are unimaginative when it comes to hope. We don’t really believe wrongs can be made right. Maybe this is what Jesus means when he ends his story with one of those head-shaking, hypothetical questions lifted to the sky: But when the Son of Man comes back will he even find any faith on earth? 
We go by what we can see and do, not by what God does. 
We aim for retribution, but God delivers resurrection. 
We are limited by the confines of this life, barricaded in by death, and we lose sight of the reality that there is life beyond all confines and barriers, beyond what our limited imaginations can conceive of, pulsing always underneath it all. God’s justice is for now and for what is to be.  
God is not an unjust judge, and faith is not a means to an end. 
God is the source of all life, and the energy of love that pours into us and calls us back to what life is meant to be for all.  
But we don’t get to be the powerful one in the story. 
We’re the ones who come in our weakness like the persistent widow, the very weakness God took on and shared with us in Christ. 
By the world’s standards, God’s tools in our hands are unimpressive. They are things like forgiveness, listening, shared suffering, steady presence and hope-filled persistence. They are being, and seeing, and welcoming, instead of winning, or proving, or declaring.  
In fact, these tools of faith have no power in themselves at all. Instead they are gateways to eternity, portals to love and reconciliation, doorways to hope and promise. Because despite what we all fear, death is not the end.

The author of Hebrews calls faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” (Heb. 11:1). And the way to back to this assurance is to pray.  
Praying is not relentlessly begging a disinterested, selfish, and apathetic power-monger for acknowledgment of wrongs committed or retribution against an enemy.  Praying is turning our hearts to the Beloved, surrendering to the magnetic pull back to the source of all life, letting ourselves come in honesty and longing, again and again, to One in whom wrongs are made right.  
And when we do that, we will not lose heart. 
What we will begin to lose is our selfishness, our apathy and our greed. We will begin to see our lives shaped toward the justice we long for, the justice that is promised.   And we will begin to grow into a robust eschatological imagination that lives joyfully and ever more confidently into what is coming.  
And so, now we will do what Jesus told us to. We will be persistent and we will pray.
God, things are not ok.  
Life feel precarious and frightening.  
The earth feels fragile and on the brink of collapse. 
Progress toward equity slips, 
unity feels elusive, 
those on the margins bear the brunt, 
and those with wealth and power hold the reigns. 
Right now, war is raging, 
democracy seems wounded and flailing, 
lies are sold as truth and people we love believe them, 
vengeance masquerades as justice,
and hatred has become justified, 
and, God, if we’re honest,
we’re so weary of it, so exhausted and saddened by it all,
 that apathy beckons to us as sweet relief.  
It sometimes feels like not caring 
might be the only thing that saves us.
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

God, we are not ok.  
There is so much depression, 
so much anxiety, so much despondency, 
so much worry, so much fear.
and we want to fix it and can’t.
We forget that we all just went through the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. 
We forget that the whole human family has been through a massive shared trauma. 
We forget that all of life as we know it was suddenly turned upside down 
and shaken up for nearly two years,
and it’s not even in the rearview mirror.
Effects linger, the impact reverberates, 
the shock hasn’t worn off.
We are scrambling to find a new normal, 
but don’t even know where to begin.
And we’re tired.  
God, everything takes energy that we don’t have.
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

God, we long for things to be ok,
but our senses are dulled
to the beauty, the interconnectedness,
the hope, 
the promise always lurking inside every interaction,
every silence, the laughter and tears, the hugs and hands touching,
the gentle gaze and friendly voice,
the shared quiet and sudden delight.
We’re generally numb to the thrilling potential for resurrection 
lingering around every corner.
Our hope is stunted; our faith is weak.
We aim for sustainable; you call us to life-giving.
We aim for tolerance; you call us to belonging.
We aim for stability, you call us to transformation.
We aim for parity, you call us to abundance.
We surrender our puny aspirations
and our paltry goals, Lord.  
We let them go.
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

You are God. 
You were here yesterday, you’re here today 
and you will be here tomorrow.
There is nothing that is, 
or has been, or will be
that is outside of, or apart from, your love.
We are not alone.
So we ask, Lord, give us your heart
that can’t be lost.
Deliver us from selfishness,
cleanse us from apathy, 
free us from greed,
and release us from fear. 
Restore us to love - root us and ground us 
deep and secure in the love that will not let us go,
will not let this world go, will never let go.
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

God, right here, in the midst of everything that is not ok, 
and everything that is ok too,
point our faces toward the further horizon,
point our lives toward the unimaginable, 
assure us of what can’t be seen, 
make us to know in our bones what surpasses knowledge: 
this “overwhelming, never-ending reckless” love of God 
made ours in Christ, that is saving the world. 
The Kingdom of God is breaking in upon the earth
and evil will not prevail.  
Only love remains.
You are already doing this. 
You are always doing this.
In you we all belong, 
to you we all belong.
Our weary souls and longing hearts belong in you, 
and the energy of your Spirit is what will move us. 
Help us, then, to trust in you. 
Help us, God, to rest in you. 
Help us, Jesus Christ, 
to persist, and not lose heart.

But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.


(Sung refrain from Fool's Gold, by Sandra McCracken)

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