Oct. 20, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Oct 20, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24C)

October 20, 2019  

There is an often-borrowed story from before the collapse of the Soviet Union by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent many years in Siberian prison camps. (I’d never connected it with this gospel until I read The Rev. Charles Hoffacker’s take on this reading, and so I am in his debt.) The story goes like this:  

Along with other prisoners, Solzhenitsyn worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.  

Finally, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So, he gave up. Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen.  

As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The old man then got back up and returned to his work.  

As Alexander stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against an all-powerful empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the [government oppressing him]. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.  

He slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.  

Two intersecting lines in the dirt by an old man, a fellow prisoner, renewed his hope at his worst moment, and in the parable about the persistent widow and the unjust judge Jesus is giving us the same gift. That cross drawn in the dirt reminded a desperate Alexander that no matter how small and powerless he was, God was telling him not to lose heart, to keep praying and keep going, even if it looked like things would never get better. It’s what we all need, and that encouragement often comes in unexpected ways. That day from lines in the dirt, in Jesus’ day from his telling a parable, in your life something else — and I’d love for us to share those stories today as we gather for coffee and fellowship after the service. What was a sign of hope for you in the darkest of times?   

In our parable the corrupt official acts without conscience or respect for those who offer him no political advantage. The widow who comes before him has done so repeatedly, and he already knows she cannot advance his interests in any way. She’s likely broke since she offers no bribe and has no lawyer, she’s alone with no man to defend her cause — so she speaks for herself and does it again and again; “Grant me justice against my opponent!” she cries out. Over and over she does this, “Grant me justice…!” I imagine her as disruptive, perhaps she has always been known as pushy, loud, or maybe this desperation is newly emboldening. In either case, her refusal to be silenced it getting annoying and Jesus compares her relentless tirade to giving the judge a black eye. This is the reason he finally does grant her justice, this fear of how it’ll look to others, and we who hear the parable are more than a bit horrified to consider this corrupt judge as being likened to God. Certainly, many people see God that way, as petty or vengeful, all powerful and yet unwilling to help the children of God when we cry out again and again. Such a God is only prayed to out of fear of worse fates, if people still pray to this God at all. Does Jesus really intend to compare the one he so lovingly calls “Abba” or daddy, to this horrible idea of a deity? Instead, Jesus has constantly shown us a God of love, of justice and compassion, and not one deaf to the prayers of widows or uncaring about the powerless before him.  

Israel, Mike Moyers, https://www.mikemoyersfineart.com/.

I can learn the lesson that we are to pray constantly, but not to the sort of God one would compare to the judge in this parable. This sort of person has already shown a disregard for justice, for people in need, and even for God—he is closed off to the possibilities that there is any way other than to take what he wants, do what he thinks most advantageous for himself. There’s no room in his life for the possibility of acting with God or using his power as a creative force for good. He knows the answers to his life questions and has learned to look out for himself. This is how some people always look at life. But don’t we all fit this description from time to time? We all have times that we act as if life’s all about us, denying the possibility that God might have a better way forward, a creative way we didn’t think of. In our reading from Genesis, Jacob could have awakened cursing his lack of sleep, or the stranger who wrestled with him all night, putting his hip out of joint (Jewish tradition says this was St. Michael). Instead he asks for his blessing! Having made quite a hash of his life and relationships until then, Jacob, with a changed self-awareness, receives a new name and a new start. If we refuse to let God in, to leave no room for God to work in our lives and transform us, no room for showing kindness and generosity to others, allow no room for anyone else’s way of seeing things, then we too are closed off and our world gets small and stingy. We become more like that judge than we may like to think.   

If that’s true, where is God in this parable? Is it possible that this poor but relentless widow stands in for God here? Isn’t God always trying to break into our closed-up mindset, always trying to get us to hear and act with justice and compassion? I think God is always seeking relationship with us, pounding at our spiritual door until we recognize the Holy One before us, calling out repeatedly until we relent and see what our relationship with God and those around us might be. If we cast God as the widow who wears down that unjust judge, it means we need to be more self-aware, see how easy it is for that judge to be inside each of us. Prayer in Luke’s gospel is always faith in action, not something optional we do when we’re in trouble or need help, not some last-resort tool, prayer is our relationship with God. In the Episcopal Church we say, ‘How we pray is who we are.’ Both are part of the same truth. This persistent prayer is what wears down the callous all-about-me-and-mine judge inside each of us and leads us to show the mercy and justice we are called to exemplify. Prayer is that internal widow’s voice calling us again and again, trying to be heard, and telling us things can be different.  

We might have learned prayer is about asking God for what we need, as if persuading him to fulfill our lists like a sort of year-round Santa Claus. We might have treated prayer as a sort of magic tool and if we ask for exactly the right thing God will grant it, or that we pray to change God’s mind, and if we do so often enough God will relent. I think it’s the other way around – prayer changes us, not God. God already loves us and wants what is best for us, God embodies compassion and unconditional love, justice and mercy. Prayer is our way of saying we don’t want to be like that closed off self-serving judge, we want to be open to that relentless invitation by God, we want to be in relationship with the living God – even if it means hearing cries for justice and action, hearing from those who need us to care. This is the prayer that breaks into the carapace of that unjust judge, leading him to do what is right, and hopefully to keep doing so.   

There’s plenty of ways to shut God out, the internal unjust judge is but one of them. Maybe we think we’re too much of a mess for God to love us, we are too busy, or our own attitude keeps our hearts barred from God’s intervention in our lives. This parable is God drawing the cross in the dirt to give us hope when we need it most.  

Let us pray. O Lord, may we welcome this insistent loving God into our lives, may we open ourselves with prayer to what God can do with us, asking less for what we think we want, and praying more for God’s creative agency and grace. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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