Proper 24C Sermon (2010)

Proper 24 (October 16-22)
Texts: Luke 18:1-8;
Genesis 32:22-31


Have you ever prayed and prayed for something really important and either didn’t get an answer, or the answer was the opposite of what you prayed for? A young mother is struck with cancer, and so we pray for healing – but death comes anyway. A loved one struggles with depression or addiction; we pray fervently, but it only gets worse. Millions pray for peace in the world, and yet . . .

Our unanswered prayers seemed mocked when people credit God with answering prayers like making a profit on selling a condo, or finding a convenient parking space. Super Bowl champions thank God for their victory (though we hear little from the losers on the subject). A lottery winner — unemployed, down to his last eight dollars — prays, “Help me, Lord, . . . just let me win this,” and gives God credit for the $150 million jackpot.

Answered vs. unanswered prayer is one of faith’s biggest mysteries – it can leave us questioning our faith in God. Instead of thinking of God as an Unjust Judge like in the parable, it’s tempting to think of God as a disinterested watchmaker who wound up the universe and stands by watching as it winds down. There are no easy answers to this mystery.

Is Jesus trying to offer us an easy answer in this parable? When you’ve been praying fervently for a long-time, does it really help when someone tells you to keep praying and don’t lose heart? To be honest, I would feel almost like the person is taunting me. It’s like trying to finish a marathon going up a hill, losing badly, and someone shouts from the crowd to try harder. That’s not necessarily helpful.

So what is Jesus trying to do in this parable? First of all, he makes this about justice – that word pops up not just a couple times but four — five if you count the negation of justice by calling the judge unjust. It certainly becomes an ironic story about a widow, someone infamously treated unjustly in the ancient world, receiving justice from an unjust judge. And notice the questions Jesus asks after telling the parable. It’s all about God’s granting justice to his people quickly.

What’s happened here? The passage begins generally with telling us it’s about praying always and not losing heart. But by the end of the passage it has become much more specific. It’s not about just any prayer – it’s about THE prayer, the prayer of God’s people for centuries, that God would grant them justice against their enemies. For going on seven hundred years, they had been oppressed by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, and finally Romans. For generations they had not been in charge of their own land, their own commerce, or their own justice. They were subject to someone else’s laws and justice – and they had known plenty of unjust judges. The current Roman governor Pontius Pilate was simply the latest in a long line.

So was Jesus saying that God was about to answer THE prayer? Was God about to hear their centuries of crying day and night and give them justice in their own land? And did Jesus say “quickly”? Was the Messiah about to come and finally grant them the justice God had promised?

The answer, of course, is “Yes,” God was sending the Messiah right at that very moment – the Messiah himself was the one telling them the parable. But that creates a new problem, a new mystery, because the only thing Jesus was about to do quickly was to die. And the way he was to die scandalized faith. He was to die just as powerless as the widow in the parable – not like the powerful judge! And that unjust judge, evil Pilate, would execute him! In just a short time Jesus would be playing out the parable to perfection — except he didn’t even get justice – he was executed! Buried in the ground. How is that justice?

The justice came silently three days later, early in the morning. And it wasn’t the unjust judge finally relenting — Pilate had posted guards. This strange and silent justice came through the Just Judge, the Creator of the Universe, who really isn’t so much a just judge as he is a Prodigal Father — the one several parables earlier who seemingly wasted his joyful forgiveness on his good-for-nothing Prodigal Son. That Just Judge raised his faithful Son to new life as a promise of unconditional love and forgiveness for all God’s children — even the Romans, even Pilate.

But God did not use the swift justice of humans backed by the threat or use of force. This justice is the much slower moving justice of God’s unconditional love for all creatures – slower precisely because it is not backed by the threat or use of force. Our human form of swift justice doesn’t really work, anyway, except to make people dead. It does not raise up to new life and give second chances. It does not have the power of repentance, the ability to turn lives around in new life-giving directions. Only love can do that.

This is why Jesus wraps this parable about justice in the context of prayer. Jesus tells us to pray always and not lose heart because the justice of God’s power of love can take a while to give results. And it doesn’t look anything like our human forms of justice. So what we pray for may bring an unrecognizable answer, one that seems too slow for our human timetables.

We started the video “Race: The Power of an Illusion” today during the Sunday School hour. (Give quick plug.) One of our greatest champions of racial justice, Martin Luther King, Jr., led the civil rights movement based on that power of God’s love, with the hope of liberating not only People of Color, but white people, too. Forty years after he was assassinated — another slow change when love stands up in the face of force — Americans elected their first Person of Color as president. Many People of Color thought they would never see that day. And there is still a long, long way to go in overturning the unjust systems and institutions of racism. But the election of a Black president is a sign that the slow persistent power of love might be working. Prayer in the cases of such important things as the healing of racism needs to persist and not lose heart.

When I used the image of running a marathon and having someone in the crowd tell you not to lose heart, I said that that’s not always helpful. But what if it was a fellow marathon runner struggling right next to you, who said it. Gasping for breath, grimacing with the pain, that fellow runner offers you both a word of encouragement. Is that more helpful? Because that’s what Jesus does, offering us hope and encouragement, grace for our journey, not from the sidelines but from the middle of the race. Christ came to be with us, to suffer what we suffer, and to offer us the promise of God’s strong love while we persist in the race.

What does that grace look like? Sometimes it is to pray for us even when we need to take a break from praying. Jesus also talks about prayer in Luke 11 where he concludes with the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8, St. Paul links life in the Spirit with continued suffering of creation and the role of prayer. Paul encourages us to keep hoping for a glorious end to the suffering, but he also gives us a glimpse of grace for our journey when he says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). When we grow too weary to pray, God’s Spirit will pray for us. That’s grace for our journey. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, October 17, 2010

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