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?”

Luke 18:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Nineteeth Sunday after Pentecost (October 20, 2019) on Luke 18:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So I started writing this sermon a few minutes before the Yankees took the field last night for game six in the American League Championship series. Now, while I was writing, I had no idea how the game would turn out. But I couldn’t help but wonder if my writing about the game while it was going on might, somehow, jinx it. (And I'm sorry.) Even though I don’t root for either the Yankees or the Astros, I have quite a few friends that do. And during every game of this series, many of those friends were busy posting their predictions and arm-chair analysis on social media. Yet there were a few diehard fans who made sure to go the extra spiritual mile when it came to the ALCS. On Friday night, someone I know made sure to bring the biggest fan he knew to the fifth game: his mom. She was there, decked out in all her Yankee gear, except for her hat - which she left at home sitting next to a sacred Jesus candle. She also brought with her what he called her “playoff rosary,” a string of blue prayer beads she could pray through while the game was going on. It’s safe to say that she is a persistent faithful Yankee fan, ready to do all she can - physically and spiritually - to support her team. And it seemed, at least during game five, as if her persistence paid off because by the time they found their seats, her Yankees were already up 4 to 1. 

When it comes to sports, it’s pretty normal to ritualize our persistent support. We might find ourselves, after watching our team win a game that no one thought possible, doing whatever we can to help them win again. But since most of us aren’t actually on the field or able to make any real decisions that might influence the game, we find other ways to support our team. We make sure, for instance, to wear the exact same shirt we wore when they had that amazing come from behind victory. Or, when we’re at work, we arrange all our dust collectors and papers the way they were when we heard our favorite player make that incredible play. We also might find ourselves Tebowing in prayer every time our team takes the field even though it feels a tad weird to ask God to intervene in sports. On game days, ritualizing our behavior is just something we do because being a persistent fan takes work. But that’s also what makes being a fan so much fun. Our life with our team - with all its rituals, celebrations, and even tears - is something amazing that we get to do. 

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke begins in an odd place because it starts with an explanation. Before we even hear Jesus speak, Luke lets us what he thinks the parable was all about. As helpful as that might be, this kind of pre-explanation before we read Jesus’ words might make us miss what God wants to tell us. So one thing I like to do whenever we find a verse telling us what the next story is all about, is to skip that verse. Instead of starting with “then Jesus told them a parable about…,” we can start with “Jesus said.” And the first words out of his mouth was the beginning of a story set in a city where an unjust judge had set up shop. This judge thought he was accountable to no one yet he had the power and the authority to make whatever he wanted - happen. But the only case we hear him pay attention to was centered on a widow demanding justice. Yet all we hear is her request. We never learn the details about her situation or discover what justice, in her case,  would look like. All we know is that this widow who lacked the judge's authority and power, kept coming to him, demanding that he do the right thing. At first, he does nothing because he doesn’t really have to do anything. He can just be his unjust self. Yet day in and day out, the persistent widow made sure to keep interrupting his daily life. He had the power and the authority and the will to ignore her. Yet like every good community organizer or civil rights’ protester, she kept coming back because the persistent demand can sometimes be the most powerful tool we have to change the world. The judge, in the end, does change his mind but only out of a deep sense of self-interest. He gave her justice because he no longer wanted to waste his energy telling her no. In the end, he, like the widow, never stopped being exactly who he was. Yet it was because they were who they are, that, in the end, helped make justice, finally come. 

One of the dangers of a text like this one is that we often misuse it, thinking Jesus was telling his followers to just pray more. Yet I know that many of us know exactly what it’s like to live with persistent prayers that seem to go unanswered. We often find ourselves staying up way too late thinking that if we prayed more, or went to church more, or if we gave money to that televangelist on TV, then maybe the crisis we are currently in wouldn’t have come. It’s normal, and completely human, to think that our prayers should make God do what we want. And to hope that we could, through our persistence, somehow wear God down, so that what we want might finally come true. 

But that approach to prayer isn’t, I think, what Jesus was trying to get at here. It wasn’t only the act of prayer that he was pointing to. Rather, he wanted us to know and understand and fully grasp that God is exactly who God promises to be. And because God is our God, we get to persist in bringing to God every prayer, tear, crisis, and joy that we have. We have, through our baptism and our faith, been united with a God who made sure that Jesus persisted in this world through the whole spectrum of human life. From birth, to growing up, to relationships, and even to death - Jesus lived a very human life. But he didn’t do this because God, somehow, needed to be changed. Rather, God knew that the only way to break the cycle of us trying, and failing, to persistently come towards God was for God to come to us. Jesus came to show us exactly who God is - a God who feeds; a God who heals; a God who welcomes; a God who offers justice; and a God who promises to, in the end, carry us through whatever life might throw our way. We get to persist with our God because we, as we are, are loved. And that’s the kind of love that can hold all our ups and downs, all our rituals and superstitions, and all the times we find ourselves in the top of the 9th down 4 to 2 with our prayers being the only thing we can hold on to. Because our God is, truly, God. And we get to live all our life with God because God has already promised to live all our life with us. 

Amen.