Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below
The Long Haul
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor
22nd Sunday After Pentecost • October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Luke 18:1-8
“The time is coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”—Jeremiah 31:31
How much will we do?
Recently our Jewish brothers and sisters observed Yom Kippur, a day of reflection on failings through the past year accompanied by fasting. All faith communities have special observances and rituals. Muslims, for example, pray five times a day.
An Islamic story explains how Muslims came to pray five times a day. It says that when the prophet Mohammed was ascending to the seventh heaven to receive the holy Qu’ran from Allah, he met Moses on his way. They chatted and immediately liked each other and when Mohammed was returning he stopped off to visit Moses. “What did Allah say we must do?,” Moses asked. Mohammed replied: “We must pray 50 times every day.” “They’ll never do it!”, Moses replied, and he told Mohammed to go back and tell Allah and beg for a smaller number. So Mohammed returned to Allah and when he met Moses again, he told him that Allah had agreed to limit the number of prayers to 40 per day. “They won’t do that,” Moses replied; “Go to Allah again.” Mohammed returned a third time to Allah and this time Allah agreed to limit the number of prayers to just five each day. “Well, I know this people,” Moses said, “even five may be too much for some.” How many times a day will we pray? How long will we keep praying?
How much persistence is in us? How long can we be patient, how long can we keep keeping on? We have not been to the seventh heaven with Mohammed; we have not been to the mountaintop with Moses. We weren’t there in the upper room when the Resurrected Jesus walked through the door. We live in the streets and houses of this world where sometimes God seems distant and silent.
Luke is talking to us and the topic seems to be what we will do for and keep doing for our faith. How faithful will we be? Luke is speaking to a congregation which wonders when God will come and right wrongs, when the great banquet of the heavenly kingdom will begin. He is speaking to Christians who are fraying at the edges, whose faithfulness is beginning to fail.
So he imagines Jesus telling this story we’ve read. A widow seeks justice. What a wealth of detail is contained in that simple statement! Women could not go into the courts of the time. Who is this woman? She is powerless; she is poor. She doesn’t have powerful friends to pressure the system for her, she doesn’t have money to grease the wheels. She can’t afford a lawyer; she can’t force a judgement. She has nothing, no lever, no means, no way to get justice from her adversary.
We know this woman
We know this woman. She lines up every week outside the magistrate court, trying to get her former husband to pay the child support a judge so serenely ordered. She comes in quietly to ask for a recommendation: the man who deserted her is now trying to take her children and the Department of Children and Families is acting in that disinterested way that takes no account of how she has struggled to keep a family together. She struggles with incomprehensible forms because she has no one to help her; she misses work and sees the tight lipped look of her boss when she has to go to court or see the social worker.
We know this woman. She has a history. She is one of the mothers de mayo: women whose children were disappeared by the military in Argentina. We called it anti-communism but to her it was a boot breaking down a door, masked men stealing her children and blank stares at the police station when she asked questions. So she joined others and for years she risked her life marching in the capital plaza asking for an answer.
We know this woman. She is a woman of intelligence and wit who cannot vote and is laughed at and called names when she joins others chaining herself in public, making a scene, asking only for the same rights men so solemnly declared in the great documents of her nation.
We know this woman: she is everyone who has persevered, who has persisted, whose faith in ultimate justice has been so strong that she kept keeping on.
And we know this judge. Remember the judge? The story says the widow kept coming to him. It describes him as a man who feared neither God nor men. Now “the fear of the Lord” is the general description the Bible has for those who act according to God’s ways. The judge is not a Godly man. He has a position of authority that allows him to act with complete freedom. He doesn’t care about God; he doesn’t care what others say. He is accountable only to himself. He is powerful, in other words, powerful in a way that almost defies description. I imagine him surrounded by aides who tell him how smart he is, how right he is, how his judgments are so perfect, so apt. I imagine him going to lunch, surrounded by such people. “That was a great session this morning, Judge,” they say, and laugh at the people who come before him. So there we have the two of them: the powerless widow, the powerful judge.
Luke is remembering the questions of all those people in churches who wonder how long it will take for God to come to them. How long will it take for the widow to get justice? Remember the woman: the poor woman, the powerless woman. She can’t go to court but every day she is there outside the judge’s door when he leaves for work in the morning. She follows him to the coffee shop, she puts papers in his hand as he is walking into the court. She waits for him at lunch time, oh, she gets jostled aside of course by his friends but her face is there in the crowd. She waits for him at the end of the day. Perhaps he puts her off: “Yes, well, you should file these”, he says. Later he gets more abrupt when she persists: “I really can’t talk about this now.” But she keeps coming, and after a while he realizes he is looking for her, her face in the street as he goes back and forth, always that said faith, always that same request, made so often he can hear it even when she isn’t present, “Give me justice, vindicate me.” And one day he does: not because of her cause, not because it is just, but just to get her off his back.
Now Jewish sermons often used an argument that moves from the lesser to the greater, from the smaller to the larger. Here the argument is clear: if even an unjust Judge can do justice for a powerless widow if she is persistent, how much more will God who is righteous bring justice to faithful Christians. It is a reason to keep praying, a sermon in a story about faithful persistence. Luke lived when Christians were beginning to fall away, believing God had forgotten them. Do you believe God has forgotten? Do you believe God doesn’t care? Hear this: if even we here on earth can be moved by faith, how much more can God. That is the sermon: that is the lesson.
Turn it arond
But there is another lesson here as well, a surprise. We get used to identifying God with the powerful person in parables but I wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment that it is not the Judge who represents God’s position; suppose it is the woman. Suppose we are the Judge. Isn’t the judge more like us? Surely we live lives in which often it seems we don’t fear God, we don’t take God seriously.
Imagine that God is like this widow. The deep faith of every Christian is that God has come into the world in the person of someone who has given up everything, every power, to live in the world with us and for us. Isn’t the figure of this woman, this woman who is so like us in her frustration, her struggle, her feeling that she isn’t heard just such a person? Suppose the widow is meant to represent God. Now the story is turned around.
Oh, it’s a story about faithfulness still. But it is a story about God’s faithfulness. Here we are, fearing neither God nor men, going about our lives. But God keeps coming, God persists, God keeps calling us back to righteousness. Do you remember the word of the Lord we read from the prophet Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people knew they had failed, had broken their covenant. God knew: God had said so over and over again, called them over and over for hundreds of years. The prophet Hosea described God drawing the people with “cords of compassion”, an image of the leather straps with which Jewish mothers would bind their babies while they worked in the fields. What is God to do with such a faithless people? What will God do with such a faithless people? This: “I will make a new covenant with them.” God will not give up even when the cause is hopeless: God makes new hope, God makes a new covenant. Like the widow in the story, God keeps coming over and over and over.
What is it that God hopes for us? The widow wants vindication. Vindication means admitting someone is right. God wants us to prove God was right to keep trying, right to keep loving, right to endlessly, eternally imagine us living from our best selves. God hopes we will become people who faithfully live our lives as good stewards. God hopes we will create families and communities where care is given to all, widows, children, every single one, every child of God. God hopes we will make our gifts a blessing. That was God’s plan from the beginning; God’s first covenant with Abraham and Sarah was to make them a blessing to the whole world. And that is still God’s purpose, to bless the whole world.
God doesn’t seek consumers: God seeks covenant partners. Patiently, persistently, faithfully God keeps seeking us, hoping to find in us people who joyfully give, who bless the world by their gifts, as God blesses us. The last question in the story is for us: will the Song of God find our faith in God has last as long, persisted as long, as God’s faith in us?