Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C] - October 20, 2013 (Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121)

Many people have been rather moved this week by this story out of Florida about the fifteen-year-old foster child who went to church last Sunday to appeal for a family to adopt him. Davion Only was essentially orphaned at birth, the identity of his father never known and his mother in prison on drug charges. After he got word that she died a couple of years ago, Davion gave up on his hope that she’d ever come rescue him and raise him has her child. Yet even after years of being bounced around in the state foster care system he did not give up his hope that he’d be adopted by some family, somewhere, who would love him forever and make him feel like he mattered. He cleaned up his act, brought his grades up at school, dropped his weight. After hearing somewhere that God might be able to help, last Sunday, at Davion’s request, his case worker got him all dressed up and took him to a local church. After the sermon, the pastor handed him the microphone and Davion made his pitch. “I’ll take anyone,” he said, “old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple, I don’t care. I know God hasn’t given up on me. So I’m not giving up either.”

Apparently people heard his plea: the adoption agency handling his case received over 10,000 offers to adopt Davion this week. Indeed, it appears Davion has sparked an interest in adoption in general. And it also looks like there will be a happy ending for him, although he can’t give up praying and hoping just yet. Mandatory wait periods and red tape mean that even if a family match is made immediately, it’ll still be months before they actually receive him.

Davion’s story makes me think of all of those who come to church as often as they can mainly to ask God for something that they need. Some of you people are here, perhaps, today, silently but persistently praying for vindication in some form. Pray on. There is something especially compelling, I think, about the pleas of Davion, the orphan, that is echoed in the parable today about the widow and the unjust judge. Both are stories of small, vulnerable, easily exploited people with the odds against them, going up against a system that seems cold, unfeeling, unable or unwilling to handle their needs. Plea after plea goes unanswered. It would become very easy to give up hope.

In the parable of the widow, Jesus sets up a classic, if not extreme, David-versus-Goliath scenario here. In ancient middle-eastern Society, widows were about as low on the totem pole as you could go. They had few rights and even fewer people to speak or advocate for their needs. They were often left to fend for themselves, especially if none of their late husband’s brothers wanted to take them in marriage so they'd have a place to live. That’s actually what the local judges and magistrates were for—to make sure these people didn’t completely fall through the cracks—but in the parable Jesus tells, even the system isn’t going to work in her favor. This widow has a dud judge. He cares neither what God nor other people think about him!

Yet the widow comes constantly. Maybe even every day. Sits in the outer office and thumbs through all the same magazines, asks the lady behind the glass window to put her on his daily planner. She begs and pleads and cries for attention, and he keeps turning a deaf ear, asking his assistant to erase all his voice mails each day, shuffling the paperwork around on his desk. It’s the utter nobody against The Man, the powerless weakling versus the colossal overlord. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. However, remember that Jesus’ is telling this parable. And, in his version of the story what little tiny power she does have at her disposal gives her victory. The judge finally realizes that she has the power to embarrass him if he doesn’t do something about what she wants. And so he relents.

Lots of parables are illustrations of what God is like, but this one is an extreme example of what God is not like. Jesus wants his disciples to know that God is absolutely not like that unjust, unfeeling judge who only listens when he realizes he is being shamed into doing so, like prayer is a competition of mental strength. Our Father in heaven, by contrast, responds quickly to those who pray for justice because they are his chosen ones, his beloved. I think Davion gets this. In fact, many people who are powerless, at the bottom of society seem to get this naturally, that God is still looking out for them in spite of their circumstances. Such faith is inspiring.

Yes, it is inspiring, but Jesus is telling his disciples this parable not so much because he wants them to have the type of faith that will take all their private needs and desires to God in prayer. While God certainly hears and cares about the prayers of our hearts, the things that we privately struggle and wrestle with, this parable is more about our collective struggle as workers in God’s kingdom. This parable is about inspiring us to continue in our Jesus-led effort to embody his love in our relationships and to give witness to his power. Jesus wants to build up the disciples’ faith and assure them that God will ultimately be victorious over the evil in the world. Despite what they—and we—observe regarding the brokenness of creation, they should still have confidence that God’s power is devoted toward the triumph of right, that, as Dr. Martin Luther King once said to inspire those in his movement in this country, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In fact, Jesus tells this parable immediately following a considerably blunt sermon about the approach of God’s kingdom and the Son of Man, the term Jesus uses to refer to himself in his second coming. He has a concern: will the opposition to his kingdom, though temporary, be too much for his disciples’ faith? Will the movement of compassion and righteousness he has begun keep going? Will its momentum stop because its opponents in the world—the opponents that lie even in our own hearts—are too fierce and worrisome?

Jesus’ concern has an edge to it: it causes me to ask whether my prayers and my immediate desires are really lined up with this long arc of justice that God has in mind or are they very immediate and personal just to me. God certainly hears both--and cares about both-- but the point about God’s utter faithfulness that is being made in this parable  is about those ultimate kingdom goals. God focuses us on the big picture…not just me and my small view on it.

The point when I finally began understanding the force of this parable—that edge where it asks me to pay mind to what I’m praying for within God’s big picture—was during my internship year in Cairo, Egypt. One of my duties at my internship parish there involved teaching music to the refugee children. The church I served ran the only school that was open to Sudanese and Somali refugee children in Egypt. Only native-born Egyptians are allowed to attend state schools in Egypt, so refugees have no formal way to educate their children.

I’m not much of a musician or a teacher, but I used old camp songs to teach and reinforce English-vocabulary with them. One of the songs I taught them was based on the psalm for today, Psalm 121

I lift my eyes up, up to the mountains
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from you, Maker of heaven, Creator of the earth.


One little girl, for example kept mispronouncing “Creator.” She’d say, “Cree-tor.” I would stop the song and explain what Creator meant and how to say it, how it was another word for our God. Well, a little farther into the song we eventually got to a line that contained the word “rescue”:


So I will wait for you
To come and rescue me
To come and give me life.


I thought: that might be kind of a hard word for this age, so I stopped and tried to explain the definition of rescue. The same little girl looked right back at me. “Oh, Pastor Phillip,” she said. “We know what ‘rescue’ means. We know rescue. We’re refugees. My people have been rescued from our country. We were rescued by this church.” Who was I to explain to them the meaning of rescue?

refugee children at St. Andrew's Church, Cairo, 2002
You see, the refugees I worked among were like the widow. They spent years relentlessly pounding on the gates of the United Nations, relentlessly pounding on the doors of all the American or Canadian embassies…all the powers-that-be who often refuse to recognize them as people with rights, who turn a deaf ear to their pleas and hopes for a better life. They know rescue. And although they’ve been turned down again and again and again, I don’t think I’ve ever met a group of people who, in spite of their circumstances, were more confident in the love and long-suffering care of their Creator and that that Creator’s kingdom was on its way. They had more faith in one little finger than I did in my whole body! The Spirit had given them the ability to distinguish their most basic personal and political needs tangled up, as they were, in a corrupt and broken system that worked against them from the kingdom of God that they knew was working for them.  While they pounded away at the doors of all kinds of dud judges, they never ceased in praying to God for vindication…and they were confident that ultimately they would persevere...that though things look very bleak on the afternoon of Good Friday, Easter morning will surely dawn.

It is in this same confidence that you undertake your own Easter efforts, hosting folks for CARITAS, serving the community through HHOPE, making meals for those in the congregation who are grieving, persisting in your personal efforts of peace and reconciliation in your relationships. Perhaps most significantly, in spite of your hurt and your worry you gather for worship with our brothers and sisters as often as you can, with a heart like that of Davion Only, crying out with each other in praise and thanksgiving that our Heavenly Father has not left us orphaned.

We worship and we wait and we cast our prayers to Him, in the end knowing that justice will be in our favor—that God will come through with 10,000 opportunities to love and serve and show our faith in the meantime.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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