Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 23
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 20, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
A certain judge in a certain town won’t stop and listen to a case involving a certain woman.
The judge won’t do it because, as Jesus says,
The judge has no fear of God and no respect for his fellow human beings,
Which is Bible-speak for the idea that he’s in no shape
To be a fair or equitable judge. That in other words, he isn’t fit to do his job.
(Because good judges fear God and respect other people.)
This widow, though, is so persistent, and the judge is so bothered by her,
That he throws out her case just so he won’t ever have to deal with her again.
Crooked judges have little patience for small-claims cases or small-time players;
He wants to see the back of her, for good.
So her success is due to the fact that she pesters him into finally acting:
She distresses and chafes and perturbs and riles and badgers and bedevils him.
In the end, he can’t get rid of her fast enough.
Many preachers and scholars have made this be all about the widow’s persistence,
And not without good reason --
After all, it says, doesn’t it?, that this was a parable
“About [the] need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
Yet if we exclusively focus there, we might lose some of the other nuggets.
Here’s the logic:
If in the end the unjust judge finally relents and grants the woman justice,
How much more will God, the just judge, give to those who cry out for justice?
It’s the same logic as we get at the very end of the tale of Jonah.
Jonah, you remember, is famously swallowed up by a whale.
This is after he’s told by God to go to Nineveh and tell the people there to repent.
But he doesn’t want to; so he sets off for Tarshish instead.
He gets redirected by the whale, sits in the belly of the great best for three days,
And then is finally spit up onto dry land.
He gets the Lord’s word a second time -- “Get up, go to Nineveh, and proclaim the message.”
Which he now does without a moment’s hesitation,
Because presumably that’s still better than getting swallowed by a fish or who knows what.
He arrives in Nineveh, proclaims the word that they should repent,
And, having done his job, goes out to watch God destroy the city.
He gets a good seat with a clear view in a sunny spot.
Meanwhile, the people of Nineveh have decided to heed his warning.
They put on sackcloth, and not just the people -- even the animals run around in it!
The king sits on a heap of ashes; everyone is commanded to fast.
For who knows? they reason. Perhaps God may change his mind and relent.
Outside the city, Jonah angrily and childishly argues with God.
Why did you bring me all this way to give these people this message
If you were just going to spare them the whole time? he asks.
I knew you were a merciful God and here you’ve gone and proven it.
This isn’t justice; I’d rather die than have to watch this farce.
God appoints a bush to come up over Jonah’s head to cool him from the sun.
Jonah’s happy about it.
God whips up a hot east wind that kills the bush.
Jonah’s mad again.
Mad enough to die, he says.
Here’s the kicker: God says to Jonah,
Jonah, get over yourself: If I care enough about you to make a little plant to give you shade,
How much more do you think I love a city filled with thousands of people and animals?
“How much more?”
If God loves Jonah, wearing all his imperfections on his sleeve,
How much more does God love a whole city like Nineveh --
With dogs and cats and pigs and people running around in sackcloth?
In the same way, if an unjust judge grants justice to the one who cries out,
How much more justice will the just judge give to the many who cry out?
But is it only a matter of proportion?
When it comes to the subject of prayer,
It may be that our ability to maturely interact with this parable
Depends on precisely who and what we think of when we think about God.
On what we think we’re talking about when we find ourselves talking about God.
First of all and most assuredly, God is not a vending machine.
I have a distinct, if distant, recollection of lying in bed at night every year late in the fall,
Well after Thanksgiving -- at ages six, seven, eight, nine --
When piles of yellow leaves were sent swirling around on our lawn --
I recall asking God or Jesus (whichever one was free at the moment)
To ask Santa to please bring me whatever I had on my Christmas list.
Or to ask an elf if Santa was not available.
You will appreciate that in all this, I was not unrealistic:
I usually had just one main item on my list, and it was not overpriced,
Which probably had more to do with the Sears Wish Book than it did with me.
Anyway, it was a system that worked out reasonably well.
All in all, God made a pretty swell errand-boy.
I got a bunch of Star Wars stuff and a boxing bag and some race cars.
But the whole thing fell apart when I aked God to ask Santa
To please bring me a stereo for Christmas,
And instead of a stereo on Christmas morning I got something else which I cannot now recall.
Hm. Well, maybe everything didn’t work perfectly this once; I mean, how could it every time?
So. Eleven months rolled around; I put in another request for a stereo and sat tight.
Christmas morning came, and there was something else, again, under the tree.
I gave it one final, third try, and yet again -- nothing -- or that is, something I didn’t ask for.
I began to suspect that perhaps I’d been doing it wrong, or that the system was rigged against me;
Or perhaps my parents had some kind of veto power during the process;
Maybe they’d get a carbon copy of a work order and could either approve it or amend it,
Then had to have it back by say the middle of December.
I was baffled. Because I knew I’d been good. I thought I’d been good.
At any rate it began to settle in that God had not gone through the trouble
Of breathing the breath of life into me, the dust of the earth,
Just so that I could ask for specific package deliveries at Christmastime.
That God was somehow more than a glorified paper-pusher.
Perhaps, as they sometimes say in adult formation programs in churches,
It was time for me to “grow up my God.”
In a similar way -- similar, only perhaps a bit more sophisticated --
God is not an ideologue or a wonk, waiting for us to fall right in line.
When I grew out of seeing God as being so closely related to Santa Claus
(I could picture them sharing an office on the same floor),
I began to think of God as the Smartest Guy Ever, with a lot of opinions.
My job -- and this is sort of how I read the Bible for a while --
My job was to get the right opinions out of the Bible and into my head,
So that later I would be able to say in all sincerity
That I knew beyond any doubt God was on my side.
Therefore, my opinions were not only well-informed in the best possible way --
There was no way I could be wrong about them!
This is when faith works the opposite of the way it should:
It ought to be spurring us on to greater heights of investigation and prayer and possibility,
When in reality it’s stifling innovation and forward progress.
It should be able to equip us to dance with life’s inevitable darkness and despair,
Because God is bigger than any of those things;
In reality, it narrowed my field of vision.
I remember, for example, thinking that what I thought about evolution or abortion
Had eternal consquences, and that I had better get those thoughts in a right good order.
The watch phrase was, “God will not be mocked.”
Now, if this is your situation, when it comes to showing the persistence of a widow,
What do you ask God for?
Not much! Why? Because of fear. What if you get the formula wrong?!
So I had to grow up my God. Again.
How you imagine God as being, when you think about God,
Is determined by a huge number of factors,
Some of them random (like something someone says in line at a coffee shop)
And some of them very intentional (like a Sunday School teacher talking about God as love).
So God transmogrified as I matured.
God went from being Santa’s buddy to being Poppa and Momma to being the Great Opinionator
To being an Accountant and Grudge-Bearer ...
To being the Wise Bearded Man on the Throne ...
To being the Healing One ...
To being the Expelled and Crucified Incarnate Word,
Jesus, whom we acclaim as Christ, Messiah ...
To being a Holy and Mysterious Presence who defied words and descriptions ...
To being a Wild and Free Spirit who makes everything new ...
To being The Ground Of All Being,
Infinitely present, infinitely accessible, infinitely just,
Infinitely almighty, infinitely merciful, infinitely loving,
Always on the side of life, always forgiving, always beckoning us come closer ...
To being all these things so named, all at once, and something more than them ...
To being Whatever May Come Next, and Next, and Next.
Somewhere along that long and stumbling and beautiful way,
I must have decided, probably quite unconsciously,
That I’d been a Jonah long enough;
And perhaps it was time to live with the heart of a Ninevite:
To simply be present to and thankful for God’s mercy, whenever and however it came.
That process is far, far from perfect, because I’m in it..
Most of the time still I’m right there next to Jonah,
Complaining about my lot, childishly trying to coerce God
Into making the world the way I think it should be made,
Utterly lost as to why God should be merciful at all in the face of the evidence.
And then the world turns a little and I find myself in some earnest prayer for justice --
Whether it’s for my benefit or anyone else’s.
I find myself praying for justice and healing and mercy and insight;
And I think, Well, how am I any different from the rest of this radically imperfect world?
How am I not that widow, banging on that judge’s door at two in the morning?
In fact, I am that widow. Or far less.
But if God is God, then how much more justice will come in God’s good time?
We all need to grow up our God. And yet.
When I turn my eyes to heaven and pray for justice,
It doesn’t matter how I picture God when I think of God;
It doesn’t matter how I talk about God when I talk to God,
Except as we unwittingly teach ourselves and consciously teach our children.
It doesn’t matter because, as our Sunday School teacher told us,
God is love and remains so. Nothing can change that.
God is love: self-emptying love.
In Jesus Christ, God is ego-denying, cross-bearing, justice-teaching, sin-redeeming love.
In our congregation and at our table,
God is love that reaches out to friends and strangers to encompass the gathered
With the body and blood that nourishes us children
And gives us strength and concern for the world.
God is love and remains so;
And love, they say -- “love will find a way.”
Which should be enough.
In the same way, with the same simple faith,
So we always make our prayers.