Sunday, October 20, 2019
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24)
Holy One, we lift our eyes to you in hope and awe. Grant that we may reject all apathy of spirit, all impatience and anxiety, so that, with the persistence of the widow, we may lift our voice again and again to seek your justice. Amen.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 31:27-34 with Psalm 119:97-104 or
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 121 and
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and
1. How does prayer shape us?
2. Is prayer a habit (or pattern) for you, or it is constant, or is it occasional?
3. Do you feel that your prayers "bother" God?
4. What helps you to remember "the shape of your heart"?
5. Who might be the "silent ones" in our own society?
by Kate Matthews
By the time Luke was writing his Gospel a generation or so after Jesus died, people were starting to feel discouraged. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to fulfillment, the deepest hope of their hearts. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering.
Our passage this week from Luke is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. However, we've somehow read it more as an instruction to "nag" God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want.
A lesson about God
Of course this parable is really a lesson about God, about how and who God is, not just a "nice" little story about prayer. Jesus--the greatest Teacher of all time--uses the creative teaching method of using the opposite of something--or, in this case, the opposite of Someone--in order to make a point.
For goodness' sake, he says, if an unjust, disrespectful judge who's afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God--the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our names are carved--how much more will that God hear the prayers of God's own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need?
Certainly Jesus is talking about the nature of the God to whom we pray.
Who are the ones without a voice?
Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson. John Pilch tells us that the "word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.' In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf."
So this "silent one" is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it's because she knows that there's a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows, orphans, and aliens are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God's concern.
The powerful feel threatened
We might ask ourselves, then, who "the widows" are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak up anyway in protest of injustice. The recent reaction (a better word in this case than "response") to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, is a good illustration of how the highest and mightiest feel threatened by the persistent and righteous protests of those "little ones" they would like to dismiss.
Greta Thunberg is only one example of many, however: young people outraged by school shootings have marched and organized and spoken up to the powers that be about the risk they take by simply going to school; people who live with disabilities have valiantly protested in the very halls of Congress over injustice and exclusion; LGBTQ people have to continue to march and protest and put themselves at risk every single day as progress made gets unmade; people of color face everyday disrespect and violence, along with economic injustice.
Do we hear the voices of these "widows" in our own time? Are we willing to listen?
Images that inspire us
Jesus speaks often about faith--or no faith, not "more" or "less" faith; he uses the tiny mustard seed as a wonderful image to inspire us. And it does. So does the widow, small and powerless in a society that was structured in such a way that women were usually just one man away from destitution.
In fact, if we look at the many, many references to widows in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we get a sense of their place in the scheme of things.
Widows are survivors, because they have no other choice. They have to work around the angles of their society (remember Ruth and Naomi?), because its very structure is slanted against them. And so they do what they must to ensure not just their own survival, but also the survival of those they love. They cry out from the pages of the Bible for justice, and make no mistake about it: God hears their cry.
At the heart of a woman's faith
The great preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, gets inside this story and explores the heart of this woman. Society may have told the widow that she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that confidence: "She was willing to say what she wanted--out loud, day and night, over and over--whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart…" (Taylor's sermon is "Bothering God" in Home by Another Way).
The shape of her heart: it makes us wonder about the shape of our own hearts and the health of our prayer life, doesn't it?
Why does Luke introduce this story as being about the necessity--our need--to "pray always and not to lose heart"? And why does Jesus end his little story about the widow finally being heard, even by an "unjust" judge, not with a neat little closing statement about "hanging in there" and continuing to pray when we don't get what we want right away, but with a question about the lack of faith among those who are waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of God?
The depth of one's spiritual life
Several years ago, deep within the news coverage of terrible events in Myanmar (Burma), a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Thida, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there.
When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like "vitamins" to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Thida meditated 18-20 hours a day. Can you imagine that? The reporter cited her "deep engagement with Buddhism."
Why do we pray?
Sometimes we have to wonder how many of us Christians are as "deeply engaged" with Christianity. Jesus wanted his followers to do more than pray as a habit or a requirement: "Then, as now," Taylor says, "most people prayed like they brushed their teeth--once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program."
Does that ring true for you? Don't we know, deep down in our hearts, that Jesus wants much more from us as his followers? His teachings go right to the heart of the matter, to who we are. Those 18-20 hours a day of meditating must have had an effect on Ma Thida, on shaping her spirit; perhaps it helped her to remember who she was.
Our prayer life shapes us, too, and helps us to remember who, and whose, we are. It helps to align us with the intentions of God.
How would you describe faith?
In this little story about human nature and about the nature of God, I hear Jesus teaching us--as always--about justice, about prayer, and about faith, which he talks about a lot. How often have we heard him say, "Your faith has saved you. Your faith has healed you. O, you of little faith!" It makes you wonder just what faith is exactly.
For much of my life I've thought faith had to do with believing the right things about God. The faith of our fathers and mothers was handed down in catechisms and religion textbooks, and taught to us in classrooms. Keeping the faith was something we did by guarding a treasure of beliefs and handing them down, intact and unchanged, in a kind of lockbox, to the next generation of believers.
Faith was something that you have in your head, when you believe certain, hopefully correct, statements about God.
Understanding faith as trust
Some years ago, however, I came to understand faith in a very different way: as trust. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg speaks of faith as much more than simply believing the correct things in our head. As he says, "you can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power."
Instead, Borg speaks of faith as having to do with relationship, with giving your heart and your trust, your radical trust, to God. He draws on the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, who says that "faith as trust is like floating on a deep ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float."
He even uses the example of teaching a child to swim and trying to get the child to relax in the water: "It's okay, just relax. You'll float, it's okay." Borg describes faith as "trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being."
The most unexpected teachers
Borg's words on faith and trust, and Kierkegaard's beautiful image, remind me of the person who taught me to float, to trust the buoyancy of the water to hold me up. And I wonder if it isn't true that we adults, who keep going to our heads to figure things out, need to listen to our children to find our way back to the way of the heart.
For the first forty years of my life, I had never even floated. I had never been able to swim. I had never even put my face under water. I was so afraid that I was almost immobilized by the water, but I really, really wanted to learn to swim. One summer, when my son Doug was about ten years old, we took a family vacation at the beach, and there was a pool where we were staying. My children took to the water like little ducks; I might add that I had taken them to swimming lessons so they wouldn't inherit my paralyzing fear.
One afternoon, Doug and I were the only ones in the water, and I was safely in the shallow end. Doug was just a little fellow at that age, and he shivered as he hung on to the side of the pool and decided that that was the day that Mom was going to learn to swim.
He had utter confidence in his own ability to teach me to do something that forty years of fear had prevented. "Mom," he said, "If you close your eyes and hold your breath and relax, the water will hold you up. Just believe me. It works." And he showed me how, of course. He floated there, right on top of the water.
And so I did give it a try. And it worked. I floated there, held up by the buoyant water but also by the buoyant hope and confidence--and persistence--of my own unlikely little teacher who had already gone ahead of his older, more fearful parent and discovered new experiences and new possibilities.
Faith and relationship and trust
Our children often seem to know something we have forgotten: that having faith is about relationship, about trusting in the goodness and reliability of someone more powerful than we are, a power and a goodness that will hold us up when we need it most. Perhaps it has to do with being small in such a big world.
Small, like a mustard seed. Small, like the widow in this story, powerless and yet determined to call the cranky, unjust judge to justice.
Bringing us back to prayer
And that brings us back to prayer, and back to Jesus healing people and saying, "Your faith has healed you." Remember last week's story about the ten lepers, and only one, a Samaritan, came back to say "Thank you"? Jesus said to him, "Your faith has made you well."
I don't think Jesus meant, "You have agreed with certain, correct statements of faith." I think Jesus was talking about relationship, about trust, about radical trust in God's mercy and power. People in the Gospel stories "got" who Jesus was and gave themselves over in trust to God's goodness and healing power, and it transformed their lives.
Faith and healing and justice
But if faith and transformation have much to do with healing, they also have much to do with justice. It seems that religious people, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, down through the centuries of church history and in the very life of the church today, are often tempted to equate "righteousness" with our prayer life, with our "piety" and "holiness," and we could say much on how to define each of those.
However, the Bible always draws us back to a passion for justice, a hunger for, and promise of, shalom, the fullness of peace, healing, and wholeness for all of God's children, including the widows and orphans, the stranger at the gate and the unwanted person knocking at the door.
Measuring our spiritual health
And so, we may measure our spiritual health not by how often and how well we pray but by how much we long for, and work for, justice and healing, making the world a better place for those children who trust us to be reliable, merciful and good.
Today I listened to a journalist ask former President Jimmy Carter why he is so dedicated to Habitat for Humanity, and his answer was both immediate and inspiring, rooting his commitment in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and what it means to be a Christian.
The true meaning of our faith
I actually felt tears in my eyes as I listened to such an authentic and heartfelt testimony that reclaimed the true meaning of our faith. Clearly, this man strives to "bring good news to the poor" through his work, even at the age of ninety-five. It was all so simple and heartfelt, and yet it could change the world.
We might wonder, then, about our own faith, our mustard seed faith that has the potential to move mountains or uproot trees, and ask if we have indeed heard the cry of the "widows" in our midst--including those who have been silenced--and how we have responded to their suffering and their need. We need to listen for the voice of God, calling us to true religion and true righteousness, true piety and true holiness.
A story about God
So this little story isn't really about the persistent widow or the corrupt judge who gave in rather than get "a black eye" (that's what the word translated as "wear me out" really means!): again, it's about God. If this corrupt judge responds to the widow's pleas, how much more will a loving God respond to the prayers of our heart?
Our prayer life sustains us even in the worst of times, and it keeps us close to God: "You are going to trust the process," Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart."
This reading is about God and about Jesus returning to find people who have held fast, through everything, and have persevered in trusting God. Rather than thinking it's a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for, prayer, Taylor writes, "keeps our hearts chasing after God's heart. It's how we bother God, and it's how God bothers us back. There's nothing that works any better than that" (you can read her beautiful sermon, "Bothering God," in Home by Another Way).
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection/discussion:
W. Somerset Maugham, 20th century
"It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is not an old woman's idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action."
James Hudson Taylor, 19th century
"When I cannot read, when I cannot think, when I cannot even pray, I can trust."
Jodi Picoult, Sing You Home, 21st century
"The only difference between a wish and a prayer is that you're at the mercy of the universe for the first, and you've got some help with the second."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance. It is laying hold of [God's] willingness."
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 21st century
"Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world."
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."
Wm. Paul Young, 21st century
"Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved."
Paulo Coelho, 21st century
"Because you believed I was capable of behaving decently, I did."
Edith Hamilton, 20th century
"Love cannot live where there is no trust."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."
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Sunday, October 20, 2019