Sermon by Elisa Owens
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2018
Freed to Work for Justice
Luke 18: 1-8
We are now in Eastertide, the second Sunday now after Resurrection Sunday on which we celebrate, year after year, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I’d like to spend the rest of Eastertide addressing the question, so what? That is, so what with respect to the resurrection. God is among the living – God has broken the power of death, at least, for Jesus, what does that mean for us? Does Jesus’ resurrection from the dead changes things for us this very day, or is it a hope that might change something for us after we die, but makes no difference for us now? That will be the subject we will entertain in worship throughout this Easter season, from now until Pentecost.
Jesus tells the story of the widow and the unjust judge so we who struggle to live in Christ’s resurrected Spirit might continue to pray and to act for justice. The story’s point is that if a widow’s perseverance can sway an unjust judge, all the more reason to expect the God of love to answer our cries for justice in this already/not yet time between Jesus’ resurrection and the final culmination of God’s intention for the world. On what do I base that assertion? God heard Jesus’ cries in the garden. And, hearing them, God raised Jesus from the dead. And then, God gave the Holy Spirit to God’s people, us. The same Holy Spirit who makes God as present in the human cry for justice, as God is in its fulfillment. Let us pray.
Crucified God, help us to recognize in the perseverance you showed in chasing we who turn away from you all the way to Golgotha. Your sacrifice shows us the depth and breadth of the love that grounds our faith. And in your resurrection and our learning to recognize the presence of the risen Christ in our world, we come to know fully the One that enables it to endure. Amen
Human beings can be persistent. The question is, toward what end? Take my nephew, Isaac. He loves chocolate. More than 15 years ago now, when barely two, he was disrupting his extended family’s dinner by demanding a treat. He had finished his meal, but the adults at the table were still working on theirs. In addition, he had already had several treats. I mean how many candy kisses can a two-year-old eat without turning into one? But all our dissuasion had failed. We had tried everything. We’d explained that chocolate in great quantities is not good for people. We’d put the candy kisses away. We’d tried to get him to talk about something else. We’d answered every “can I have another treat?” with a clear and very firm, “no!” But the relentless chocolate pursuit continued unabated.
Finally, I took him out into the living room in hopes of distracting him with his toys. I crawled into his blue teepee, with frogs stamped all over it, and invited him in with me. He wouldn’t come until I said, “Isaac, listen, this frog in here has a message for you. Do you know what the message is?” “Which frog?” he asked. Ah ha, I thought, its working! “The red one,” I replied, “come and hear what he has to say.” “I know what he’s saying”, he told me, crawling into the teepee with me. “Oh”, I said. “What is the red frog telling us?” “Give Isaac more chocolate.” He made that statement with a straight face. I had lost my battle to distract him from his cause, to say the least.
Many of you have had similar experience with human centered dedication, your own or someone else’s. A child’s fixation on something she wants. Your own struggle to accomplish a long-term goal. Perhaps you’ve simply, but profoundly, remained committed to people who find it hard to be committed to you. It takes persistence to work toward the fulfillment of our personal dreams and desires. How much more persistence, and of a divine nature, it takes to be tireless in pursuing the realization of the dreams of God?! Especially if and when pursuing the dreams of God leads to a cross standing on the desolate outskirts of the city.
Jesus tells the parable of the widow woman and the unjust judge as he turns away from his earthly ministry and toward Jerusalem, where he is executed by the values of society. Though he has told his followers three times before we hear this morning’s story that “the Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, chief priest and scribes and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9: 22. Compare Luke 9: 44-45, 17: 25 and 18: 31-34), they continue to hope that he will be able to save himself and them by avoiding the cross. But, as we know, Jesus does not in the end choose to avoid the cross that awaits him in Jerusalem. Neither will those who are serious about following him. (See Luke 21: 12-19) The trial of the world’s continuing pain, in fact, the trial represented by the dark side of the cross, makes persistence in Christian faith difficult. And in its very difficulty is its earthshaking beauty. And, in Christ, we come to see as we live out a long obedience in the same direction, that God’s commitment to justice, lived out through God’s followers, is a victory in and of itself. Not the end game mind you – but the essential ingredient through which the realization of justice for all of God’s children will come about. Without a dream of something, a vision of something, how does it ever become a reality?
Christ’s is an obedience that insists on love, all the way to his cross. Jesus of Nazareth’s ability to choose love even in the face of death was no ordinary show of dedication. It was the work of God through the Son, and the Spirit. And, this morning I am hear to tell you what I believe about justice. Even our longing for it is testament to the work of the Christ’s Risen Easter Spirit. It is this Spirit alone who allows us to keep choosing obedience to God’s dreams to the world even when their fulfillment appears impossible. What does this mean to us? That God is present not only when divine justice is present in the world, but also, through the Spirit, in the crying out for it. And, because of God’s presence in even the longing for justice, there is hope even in situations in which we can see none.
Much interpretation of the story Jesus tells about a widow who refuses to accept no for an answer; begins with the assumption that the character of the unjust judge corresponds with God and that of the widow with human beings. Many have pointed out, however, that it is very difficult to equate the judge with God, because he is indifferent to human beings. Even so, readers of the parable have continued the analogy. They have justified this reading using the explanation that the judge can be related to God only due to his position of power and judgment, not due to his character. Maybe, but I have my doubts that this explanation suffices as a reason for continuing to understand the story this way. Especially since the text tells us the unjust judge is the polar opposite of a righteous judge as one is described in the Bible. (Fred Craddock. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press: Louisville, 1990. p. 181) Besides, thinking of the judge in relationship to God encourages us to continue to imagine that God is indifferent to human concerns. But, that is not the God we have in Christ. But, the main reason I am persuaded to try and flip the traditional understanding of the story is so that it might lead us to a deeper understanding of the indomitable persistence of the risen presence of Christ in our world. I am persuaded to hear the story “upside down” because the superhuman perseverance of the widow points to a God who, through the Holy Spirit, has not and will not abandon his people to a world of injustice. The widow’s steadfast knocking on the door of the judge, her refusal to back down from her mission to have the justice for which she hungers and thirsts, points to the God we have. The one who will not rest until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
What makes me think the widow is an image of the presence of God in our world? Without the persistence of God’s Holy Spirit working through her, it is inconceivable that this widow would have stood up to such a powerful figure the way she does. In first century society, a widow would have been lowest on the societal totem pole. The position of women in that society was largely determined by the position of the men they married. A woman whose husband had died would have even less social status than the least regarded man. Where did she find the strength to keep pounding on a door that she had every reason to fear would never budge? The parable of the unjust judge reflects a world of bribes, and brutality and of injustice for the poor and the weak. (Arland Hultgren. The Parables of Jesus. William B. Eerdman: Grand Rapids. 2000. p. 258. ) But, it also reflects the reality of the indomitable Holy Spirit of the God on whose cross the world of bribes, brutality and injustice for the weak was definitively judged.
You see, we might expect the weakness of the widow to be exploited by the powerful of society; we might expect the judge to ignore her pleas for justice. This is not source of the parable’s shock. The shock of the parable is that this one on the margins of society will not stop demanding her right to justice. Hers is the sort of insistence that makes us believe the reign of God might come after all, in spite of the crookedness and the indifference, the darkness, we fear will ultimately overcome us. Despite the human temptation to succumb to despair, this widow bangs on the door of indifference as if she expects the reign of God to break in at any minute. Do we? Sometimes my friends. Sometimes.
This week Carol Mead gave me a book by Henry Nouwen called Love in A Fearful Land: A Guatemala Story. As you know I will be part of a team from Crescent Hill visiting there this coming week. The setting of the story is the Guatemalan Civil War, which raged for 36 years, from 1960 to 1996. During that long war, the Guatemalan government, with the support of the United States, attempted to quell a “rebellion.” The locus of this “rebellion” was in areas populated by the rural poor. The uprising found legs after the democratically elected land reform minded president was ousted by a U.S. backed coup in 1954. The rural poor in Guatemala are largely Ketchi, the native Mayan people the Spanish found when they arrived in the 16th century to colonize the land. People of Ketchi origin are the majority in the Presbytery with which our church has its partnership.
During the uprising, many religious people, including Roman Catholic priests and nuns, made the decision to stand with the Ketchi people they had been sent to serve. The Guatemalan government has been charged since with trying to systematically exterminate the Mayan population in Guatemala in order to protect its own illegitimate power base. In 1968, in the middle of this conflict, Stan Rother was sent to the parish in Santiago Atitlan, to a large colonial church the Fransciscans had built in that town in the 1560’s. In 1981 he was murdered in a room of that church for attending to the needs of the people there as their pastor. 3 years after his murder, as the war still raged, John Vesey accepted a call to take Stan’s place in that parish. No doubt the Guatemalan people were in more danger then these priests, and had a lot less choice about the dangers they exposed themselves to. I was still quite moved by the dangers Stan’s faith exposed him to, and by his decision to stay put as the threats on his life mounted. As Nouwen puts it, “this is the story of Stan and John. It is also the story of the mysterious presence of a faithful God in the midst of a country ravaged by violence, torture and assisination.” Stan’s gravestone reads, “there is no greater love than that a man would lay down his life for his friends.” It also calls him a martyr for his faith. Do you know what the word martyr means in Greek? Witness. Nothing more, noting less. Witness to the power of the Spirit, who is risen.
If you would like to travel with us this week, spiritually, I invite you to read a bit about Rigoberta Menchu, another tireless voice for justice in Guatemala. She won the Nobel peace prize in 1992 for standing with her people and advocating for them even after she was forced into exile. Yes, she is a Ketchi Indian. She has numerous books about the Spirit of Justice who will not be silent and who speaks through her persecuted people. A way you could pray for us and our partnership with people in this region of the world, in fact, is to read, or read again, I, Rigoberta Menchu.
When we catch glimpses of those who refuse to give up on the dreams of God – dreams of justice and peace, dreams of steadfast love even for those who are difficult to love, this parable invites us to see in their dedication the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of the God who raised Christ from the dead. Because of God’s continuing presence in the world in the Holy Spirit, there is hope for peace in the Middle East, for an end to environmental exploitation, for the healing of our own broken relationships. In Gethsemane, Jesus made the choice to see God’s presence in his own steadfast obedience, even though his prayers had become the blood he sweated, and then shed, for love of us. By his Holy Spirit, we too, learn to see our faithfulness to Him, especially when that faithfulness is very hard to sustain, as evidence of God’s continuing refusal to let the world turn a deaf ear to God’s tireless knocks on its heart.
In the name of the risen One, who is present in and with us through the power of the Living Spirit. Amen.