Sermon for Pentecost +22, October 20, 2013 on Luke 18:1–8
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?”
Do you have faith? This parable ends with a question: will the son of man find faith when it matters? So, if it were now, do you have faith? Or are there things that make you doubt? How easy is it to trust that God answers your prayers?
Do you remember the game from childhood: “do you trust me?” Another kid, maybe a sibling, or friend would do something that looked dangerous, like it might hurt you, and ask you, “do you trust me?” The game is awful because in it, someone does something precisely designed to make you not trust them, and then asks you to go ahead and trust them anyway. It’s completely unfair.
The Trust Game Parable
This parable sets up just that situation. A widow with no clout, no influence, no money, no power (i.e. she’s a widow!) tries to get justice. She might have a shot at justice if the judge she is appealing to was simply a decent person of high moral character, but he is pretty much the opposite.
In this story, he lacks respect for anyone and has no fear of God. He has no reason to respond unless he perceives it in his self interest to do so. The widow has no means to bribe him, she has no men at home to threaten him with retaliation. She doesn’t even have any means to shame him publicly since he just doesn’t care.
So she is like the kid in the trust game who is asked “do you trust me?”: all the evidence she has tells her that there is no reason to expect anything good out of this situation, but she is supposed to keep being persistent.
The parable has a moral: it is that we are to keep praying in the face of evidence that it’s not working, so that when the showdown comes, we won’t be one of those who are guilty of having lost faith. It seems perhaps unfair to find someone guilty of a lack of faith when all the evidence is that there is no reason to.
What makes me doubt my faith
If the opposite of faith is doubt, then this parable brings up the doubt question. So, do you doubt? Sometimes? I do. There are several things that regularly make me feel doubtful.
Evil is the big one. Why God allows it, why the worst of it is not stopped, why so many people suffer. Lots of Jews lost faith after the holocaust – and I can understand why.
Some of you have gone through experiences in which you have been damaged by someone else’
s evil. How does that experience affect your faith?
Another cause of doubt for me is the lack of effect of Christianity, on both a large and a small scale. On a national scale, we have to be honest about the fact that the holocaust was the product of one of the most Christian nations on earth – Germany. Why did Christianity fail to make anti-Semitism impossible? But millions of German Christians were totally seduced. Why?
Germans are not alone. I am constantly appalled
by the seemingly total lack of Christian values in our own national debate. It seems that the more Christian you are, like the public spokes-people on the religious right, the less likely you are to hear the word “justice,” or to hear conversations about ending poverty, or talk about how to ensure that everyone like poor widows, has access to affordable health care.
I’m not speaking of any one proposed solution and whether or not it would be effective. I’m talking about the conversation itself. You don’t hear it as a goal in some circles. It seems to be a hated concept to some very loud American Christians that everyone would be insured. It just doesn’t seem to matter much, to a lot of them, whether or not people suffer needlessly. That seems bizarre to me – as if Christianity itself has failed at a basic, fundamental level. Yes, it causes me to doubt sometimes.
It’s also true at a personal level. I have to admit it that my faith is actually shaken some when a person whom I have respected for many years, who has given all evidence of being a faithful Christian, gets offended, and then finds it impossible to forgive. Forgiveness is basic to Christianity. It is spiritual growth level A. It is is baby-food level Christianity. And when it seems unachievable by seemly mature Christians, it makes me wonder if Christian faith has anything more to offer than belief in Santa Clause.
Prayer and uncertainty
It is true that there are also times when prayer seems to work as we want it to. Some soldiers return safely home; some cancers are cured, some relationships are healed. But there are a lot of times nothing seems to happen – or worse. That’s just the trouble: we are asked to trust, when there is just as much reason not to as there is for persistence. I wonder if you have felt similarly?
It’s complicated. We almost lost our firstborn son. There were problems with the pregnancy. In fact, I had started to prepare myself for the worst. We prayed. So did our church community and family and friends. And we had a beautiful healthy baby!
But other people I have known have lost theirs. Was our happy conclusion a coincidence, or answered prayer? What should we make of the ones who had the opposite experience? It’s complicated even when we are the ones who get the good news.
But I do continue to have faith, in spite of my doubts, and I do continue to pray. In fact, I pray a lot. I’m not bragging; I actually think I cannot help it. It seems so instinctive to me to call out to God when I face injustice or suffering or uncertainty. I almost don’t seem to have a choice.
God: knowns and unknowns
The first is about God. In this almost humorous parable, God is represented by the unjust judge character. The whole point of the parable is that everyone knows that God is not like that. God is just about the opposite of that self-absorbed, unjust, shameless, arrogant person. That’s why it is all the more the case that we can expect God to help us when we pray. If that powerless, vulnerable widow eventually got help from that horrible judge, now much more should we expect our loving heavenly Father to care for us?
There are many things we do not know; cannot know about God. But we know that God is good, not bad; loving not spiteful; caring, not apathetic; and wants our good, as a parent wants the good for her child. If Jesus had any insight into God at all, this was his message to us.
Does that answer all the questions? No; in fact it only makes some of the questions more difficult – like the “why?” questions. But our lack of understanding is not a sufficient reason to think the opposite. Asserting the goodness of God does not lead to certainty, but at least it gives us a reason to doubt our doubts. We don’t know everything, but at least we know this much.
Evil: who’s fault?
The second thing I think about when doubts come has to do with evil. The fact is, God does not shut it down. I am free; free to be good or to be bad if that’s how I want to be, and so is everyone else. The world is a morally real place, not a vast puppet theater.
A great deal of the suffering that makes me wonder if God is doing anything is caused by human evil. If we want to, we can have a world like fascist Germany, which gasses Jews, gays and mentally handicapped people, or not. We can have a world of slavery, discrimination, and sexism, or not. These are the products of human decisions, individual and group decisions.
A lot of the evil on earth, from warfare and violence to gross injustice is caused by humans. God is not on the moral hook for that; we are. In fact, we are all the more on the hook since we have democratic means to make a difference.
Completely unlike the widow in the story Jesus told, we can vote; we can organize; we can write and call and campaign and make our voices heard. We have a lot of responsibility in our democratic times for the conditions that we allow to exist. We can have a just and equitable society or an oligarchy; nowadays, we get to decide.
History: the moral arc of the universe
There are many many things I don’t understand about God or about prayer. Why does it seem to take so long? What is God waiting for? The Psalms are full of the cry “How long, O Lord?” The story is that the Jews cried out to God for 450 years of slavery in Egypt; how long? As Brueggemann says, “Damn long time.”
Nevertheless, it does indeed seem to be true, as Martin Luther King jr. quoted, that the moral arc of the universe, though long, bends towards justice. Fascism did not win in Europe. Soviet style tyranny collapsed. Millions of people around the world now do have access to food, clean water and medical care. Slavery still exists, as we know, but at least it is not state-sponsored anymore.
Discrimination still exists – just ask women, or people of color, or immigrants, or gay people – but we have made tremendous progress. And though it has may gaping holes, there is a social safety net that helps millions of people, from children to the elderly, who otherwise would be suffering even more. On that score, Germany is way ahead of us today. I give thanks to God for all of this progress.
Prayer, in spite
So, no, it’s not an open-and-shut case; doubt is possible because of the way we experience life. In fact, the story-world of the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is rather realistic. For her, persistence seemed to be completely ineffective for a long time, until the judge got tired of being filibustered. But eventually, justice was done.
So I am going to keep filibustering God. I want to encourage you to join me. The last chapter has not been written. It’s not over until it’s over.
What are you going through right now? Health issues for yourself or for a loved one? Depression? Economic problems? Relationship issues? Grief? Aging issues? Maybe doubt itself is an issue. Keep up the filibuster; keep praying. Cry out to God when it hurts, when it looks impossible, when it seems hopeless. Cry out even when you don’t understand.
I believe that God is with us in the pain and in the struggle. God is, in fact, suffering with us, “feeling our pain” – as flippant as that phrase has been made to sound. I believe that God redeems evil. Sometimes the process is long and difficult, but God causes good to come, even out of tragedy.
So join me in doubt, and join me in prayer in spite of the doubt.
And let us join together in being part of the solution, wherever we can. Let us be part of the answer to other peoples prayers for justice and mercy, working to end evil and to promote the goodness that God wills for all God’s children.