SERMON 16 OCTOBER 2016
What makes a great teacher? I wonder if you can remember a teacher you had who made a lasting impression on you because of the way they connected with you, made facts come alive, made things interesting and relevant. In doing so you knew that they cared both about you and about the subject matter. There are two that I remember clearly: Mrs Williams who taught English, and Mrs Endley who taught Latin. They themselves could hardly have been more different. Mrs Williams was small and rather prim and perched up on her high teacher’s chair. But she was very gifted in the way she made English grammar make sense and seem important, and then poetry and essay writing had great foundations from which to take off. Mrs Endley was rather dramatic with very black hair and red lipstick and a rather fearsome expression. Neither stood for any nonsense, but both treated us with respect, and as we got higher up the school, we began to really appreciate their passion for their subject.
Jesus was a great teacher. Had we been sitting with the crowds that gathered near, listening to him, we would have recognized how he connected up with people’s lives in a way that sometimes comes to us rather diluted by the millennia in between, even though the message is timeless. Today we hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge and the widow. This is one of the parables that is only found in Luke. That means we look out for Luke’s emphasis on the gospel of justice, the lifting up of the poor and needy that is all flagged at the beginning of the gospel in Luke 4. We can also see Luke’s highlighting of Jesus’ concern for women and especially of widows in all their struggles.
So, what did you hear when this was read a few minutes ago? What was the impression you are left with? We have the two characters, the judge, whom Jesus himself described as “unjust” and the widow who persists in her demand for justice. This situation is something that the crowd at Jesus’ feet would have recognised as part of what went on around and maybe to them. But first of all, we should notice how the parable is framed. It starts off with Jesus talking about prayer and not losing heart and ends with a question about finding faith. The parable illustrates the issues involved. Prayer, not losing heart, and faith are things that address us equally here today, for our time, our place, our lives, our world. The widow is almost of symbol of the most powerless and needy in society. She has no-one to advocate for her, no voice, no support. So she has no choice but to keep on demanding that the judge brings her justice. He is portrayed as not caring about her situation, but only protecting himself and his comfort. But, in the face of her persistence, he acts.
There is something of a theme here, because there are echoes of the story in Luke 11 of Jesus talking about the man who knocks on his neighbour’s door in the night asking for a loaf of bread to feed an unexpected visitor. The neighbour only answers the door in order to get some peace so he and his family can sleep. After that story Jesus goes on to say that if unjust parents are still prepared to give their children bread, surely we can believe that God will give generously to God’s children.
In today’s parable we need to draw a line between the portrayal of the unjust judge and any connection with God. The situation could play into some of those lingering ideas we thought about last Sunday, of a God who is rather remote and judgemental, a God who doesn’t really listen to the cries of suffering that are all around. God, in this story, is not at all like the judge, and that is the point. Although we are often tempted to think that God can’t be caring when there is so much suffering – a charge that is often levelled by people as an argument against faith – that is the opposite of where the emphasis is. The story is about injustice and power against powerlessness and the demand for justice. So the issue is, what are we being asked to do? Is it not to stand with the powerless and those who suffer from injustice and to persist in prayer. That persistence wears thin on our own when we look around and see so much need and so little response. This is a call to the community of faith to stand for what is life-giving and just, not to give up because it seems too hard. It is too hard to do this on our own. We need others around us to pick us up when we falter; to join with us in singing our songs of hope; to pray with us when we feel our cries, and the cries of all the suffering are disappearing into emptiness; to hear the stories when we feel alone; in other words, to encourage one another.
Jesus’ story would have been recognised by his hearers as resonating with the stories, the psalms and other writings that they knew from their own history, the stories of people’s struggles down the ages against all kinds of difficulties and life-threatening situations. It also resonates with us from our perspective today because these struggles continue. That very fact, that nothing seems to change, can drain away our persistence. You will all have known times when it seemed hopeless to believe that things could be any different. Just this last week I was involved in a conversation about what is going on around the world, in the Middle East, in the US, the UK and here, and the mood threatened to spiral downwards. But it is easy also to forget that Hitler was defeated, the Berlin wall came down, peace came to Northern Ireland, the Bosnian war ended, and so on and so on. And while getting rid of a tyrant has often left a vacuum that has bred more trouble, we may remember that change does happen. There is always injustice to be resisted. Jesus’ parable reminds us that as we hear the voices of people who cry out now, feeling they are not heard, that no-one cares, that nothing can happen, there is also the responsibility for people of faith not to give up on them but persist in prayer, and so, nurture seeds of hope.
How can we pray “Your kingdom come” week by week if we don’t really believe that it can? How do we keep praying in the face of seemingly overwhelming momentum of injustice and violence? Paul, in his letter to Timothy in Ephesus, was very clear about the fact that the people needed to hold fast not just to the truth that they knew in their Hebrew Scriptures, but also to the example of people of faith they saw around them. When we also hear that, we may see that there have always been people who have stood up for what is right, in however big or small an arena. I often think of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who, at first, castigated his Liberationist priests who sided with the poor and marginalized against the injustice enacted by the establishment. But then he saw for himself the realities of the situation and realised he could not separate his life of faith from that struggle. So he became a champion of the poor and stood for justice against the powerful in the government and in the Church. He was shot dead as he celebrated the Eucharist one morning. He was a man of prayer who changed and lived by what he found to be the truth. How does such change happen except through God by prayer? We do not all have to be Oscar Romero’s , but there are always matters of right and wrong that we are faced with, things that may ask question of our attitudes, things that we discover in the light of God’s grace when we are open to God in prayer.
Prayer is not just about our requests, our cries for God to help, heal, bring peace and justice. Prayer is also what keeps us connected to the vision of God’s purpose, God’s truth, God’s kingdom of love, peace and justice. As Brother Lawrence wrote in the 17th Century, prayer is “practising the presence of God”. Prayer is what enables us to understand how we are part of making God’s purpose and God’s presence real. That purpose and presence is prophetic, as so much of the scriptures that Paul spoke about were prophetic, and as how Jesus’ living, his teaching, his ministry, his death and resurrection were prophetic. They are still prophetic for our time. If we do not persist in prayer, we become disconnected from this and feel the impossibility of change happening because we certainly are powerless to do much.
What today’s parable is about is truth speaking to power. How necessary is that! Again, maybe this seems like a David and Goliath situation because there is so much abuse of power and so many people disabled by powerlessness. Do we turn in the direction of discouragement, or do we make a decision to turn towards the things, however small, that encourage and enliven us, that connect us back in to the vision of goodness, of grace and love, even in our vulnerability? The powerless widow in the parable could have given up, and that would have been the end of hope for her. Jesus reminds his hearers that God is not like the unjust judge. So we also have to deal with the fact that sometimes God doesn’t seem to be doing anything in all the pain of the world. It’s a charge often levelled by unbelievers. How do we believe change happens? Is it not through the persistence of love? One of the hardest things to deal with is that we can see how many generations of people have suffered through pain and injustice and may never have lived to see change brought to birth. For each of us, our moment in history is the most important time because it concerns our lives, it is what we know. Yet, as the psalmist cries out “Who are we that you should care for us?” We may sing “A thousand ages in your sight are like an evening gone”. What we are struggling with is our very humanity and our apparent insignificance.
But this, it seems, was the point of what Jesus was saying as he bracketed this parable between prayer and faith. Jesus was illustrating how each person does matter, and how the injustice experienced by one person can eventually be answered by another, even an uncaring one. Both these characters symbolize something much bigger that is held within God’s purpose.
Our faith is nurtured by what we learn of Jesus and how that resonates throughout our very being. Our faith lies at the heart of our living and so our living is called to reflect that, to be prophetic. We can be prophetic in small ways as much as in big ones. Every day we make choices about how we live. It matters, for ourselves, for our families, our communities, indeed for the whole creation. Each church, each community of faith should be, in some way, prophetic in the way it acts, in the way it worships, in the way it reaches out to help enable the kingdom of God to come and God’s will be done on earth.
It is not just by chance that this parable is based on one of the most vulnerable in society and one of the most powerful. When there is such a divide between the powerful and the powerless, persistence in prayer, not just as individuals but as a community of faith brings heart to our living, vitality to our vision and, above all, puts us in the path of God and the way of Jesus Christ. This is not just our struggle. It is one we share with people all around the world. Here are the words of “A Declaration of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.:
We know our efforts cannot bring in God’s kingdom.
But hope plunges us into the struggle
For victories over evil that are possible now
In the world, the church, and our individual lives.
Hope gives us courage and energy
To contend against all opposition,
However invincible it may seem,
For the new world and the new humanity
That are surely coming.
Let us not be discouraged, but, in full awareness of our frailty, celebrate that God will use us, however little we may feel we have to offer. We can choose to be part of God’s ongoing activity of love, of justice, peace, truth and hope in our world.