Monday, October 21, 2019

Perseverance Wins the Battle

'Jesus told his disciples 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

Mom!  Momma!  Mommy!  Mother!  Ma!  Hey you!  If there is anything I learned as a very young child it was that if I kept bugging her long enough, my mother would respond to me, and if I pleaded for something long enough she would eventually cave, giving in to my cries for attention and irrational 5-year old demands, mostly because she just wanted me to finally stop bothering her.  I'm sure those of you with kids know exactly what I'm talking about. In households with multiple kids it’s even worse because then they can double-team, as my sister and I sometimes would.  It’s like a war of attrition, wear them down enough and you’ll get what you want.  Perseverance wins the battle when it comes to kids vs. parents.

Not me, I swear.

We talk about God as our parent, right?  So if that is the case, does it mean that our relationship with God is like this?  Are our prayers really just a means by which we bug God enough until God gives us what we want?

Jesus faced this issue with his disciples and gave them a parable to teach them, as Luke says, about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  In the parable a widow seeks justice from a heartless, unjust judge.  She never leaves him alone, like a child pestering her father.  Eventually, the judge caves, not because he fears God or has respect for anyone, least of all the widow, but because she won’t stop bothering him he will grant her request, lest she wear him down—or as the text is literally translated, so that she won’t give him a black eye!  So is the point of the parable, then, that we should pester God until God eventually, out of frustration, gives in to our demands?

In short, no.  What’s unique about this parable is that the judge is not meant to be a stand-in for God, but rather a contrast to God. Early Christians especially appreciated this parable because they understood what it meant to live under oppressive regimes, where those with power cared little about them and their needs.  This parable offered hope that if an unscrupulous person like this unjust judge could give in to the pleas of the widow—a person, like them who was without any special social status—then certainly God would hear their cries.  God, they knew, was not the unjust judge, but rather the complete opposite.  The point of the parable is that God hears the cries of God’s people, and unlike a heartless judge or a parent at the end of their rope, does not answer those cries with the wave of a hand as if to say, “Now go away and leave me alone!” God’s heart is always eager to hear the cries of God’s people, no matter who, no matter where, no matter when. 

Yet we cannot deny the fact that we have all gone to God in prayer and been left with the experience of the widow or the small child who has asked for something, only to be ignored.  We have been faced with the questions about what we are to do when we are dealing with the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or the diagnosis of a disease.  While there is a message here about the importance of perseverance, it is not about perseverance “winning the battle,” that is, wearing down God until we get what we want.

Nancy Rockwell's The Persistent Widow and the Heartless Judge

The widow is a model for all of us.  She teaches us to exercise perseverance in our prayers, to never lose faith in a God who loves us through every crisis, every moment of despair.  Prayer, therefore, is not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays have failed us, rather prayer must be so persistent, that each moment of our lives should be grounded in it.  When our eyes open in the morning, when we’re in the shower, when we’re at work, when we’re having our meals, when we wind down the day with our families, when we lay our heads down to sleep, and all points in-between prayer is the foundation of every single moment of our lives.  Imagine having a prayer life that was characterized by the kind of perseverance seen in a 5-year old desperately trying to get what they want.  That’s the kind of prayer life, the kind of faith, exemplified by the widow in this parable.  Persistence is the quality that should define prayer and lives of faith.

But we must also remember that the widow's request is not for something juvenile, like what I might ask my mother for at five years of age.  What is it that the widow wants in the parable?  It’s justice.  We are given no clues as to what that means exactly—maybe she is being taken advantage of by someone since she says, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”—but we do know that her request is for that precious gift that God promises to all of God’s people: justice.  The prophets of old cried out for it, and throughout his ministry Jesus does so, as well.  It is God’s dream for all of God’s people. So the lesson here is not only for us to be persistent in our prayers, but to be persistent in our pursuit of justice, like the widow in the parable, knowing that while unjust powers and principalities of this world may only give in after countless hours of pestering—like the unjust judge in the parable—God, the lover of justice, is eager to see that dream fulfilled for all people.  Whether it is the teenagers who organized the March for Our Lives, who are calling for justice for victims of gun violence, or Greta Thunberg, calling for environmental justice in the face of climate change, or the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, who championed justice for all Americans until the day he died last week, we have plenty of examples in our world today of folks who pursue justice in all of its forms with the level of passion and drive that we see from the widow in Jesus’ parable and who invite us to join them in that pursuit.  

 The students of Parkland, who organized the March for Our Lives and are calling for justice for gun victims.

So there are several lessons for us to take from this parable.  The first is that we must remember that God is not like the unjust judge and is always eager to hear our prayers.  The second is that perseverance must be the quality that defines our lives as people of faith, persistent in prayer every moment of every day, The third is the invitation for us to pursue justice in our own time with the same persistence as the widow in the parable.  Still, there is one more lesson that I would invite us to ponder.  The judge in the parable is someone with great power but who wields it irresponsibly, who does not use what he has in the pursuit of justice until this widow finally wears him down to the breaking point.  Likewise, there are those of us with the means to effect real change in our communities, those of us who do wield a certain amount of power, perhaps not like the judge in the story, but power nonetheless.  And so the final lesson for us in this parable is a call not to be like that judge, unwilling to use our gifts or the positions we wield in the service of others, but to remember—as the great comic book sage Stan Lee reminds us—that with great power comes great responsibility. 

May our faith be persistent.  Sometimes we will wrestle with God throughout the night, like Jacob in our story from Genesis.  Sometimes we will feel like a child pestering God because we are not getting the answers we are looking for.  Sometimes we will wish that those seeking justice would just leave us alone.  But we are a people who know, love, worship, and serve a very persistent God.  Our God is like the widow!  Our God pesters us and never leaves us alone.  Our God is relentless.  Shouldn't we be, as well? Shouldn't our faith reflect the God we know and love?  Be persistent in your prayers, brothers and sisters.  Know that God is always eager to hear you.  Pursue justice with the abandon of that poor widow.  And always be eager to use the gifts God has given to you in service of others. If we can live in such a way, then I am certain that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on this earth. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Lessons from Francis and Casey

I found her on the side of South Fork Rd., about two miles from my home in the mountains of Virginia the day after Christmas, 2007.  This little black dog was shivering when I got out of the car, looking up at me with those big brown eyes that longed for someone to pet her head or give her a bite to eat.  I had no food to give her.  But as I started to kneel down toward her, she jumped on my knee.  Before I knew it, the door of my car was opened and she was in the passenger's seat, sitting straight up and looking at me as though to say, "We're going on a journey, aren't we?"  Yes, little girl, we're going on a journey.  

The little girl in 2015

I named her Casey, because my family has a penchant for giving our dogs baseball-related names, and though my father took care of her for about a year and a half, I vowed to her that day on the side of the road, that she would be my companion when I moved to the New York City for seminary and this journey of discovery and call together.  Now we're inseparable: as she did in seminary and my first church in Kentucky, Casey accompanies me most everywhere we go.  And everyone she sees she greets with the same big brown eyes, sweet demeanor, and a belly ready to be rubbed.  She shows absolutely no partiality, as most of you can attest. 

What is it about our four-legged friends that brings us so much joy? Perhaps it is because they remind us, probably better than we remind each other, of the never-failing and, unconditional love of God, which knows no bounds, asks no questions, does not judge, and is always readily available.  After I seriously bombed a midterm during my first year of seminary, a classmate saw me walking Casey with a visibly distraught look on my face.  Her words still echo with me:  "you know, she doesn't care that you failed; she loves you no matter what."  Is that not the same love that God has for us?  The kind of love that does not care about anything superficial, but only wants to be in relationship with us. That's what our animal friends do, I think:  they embody the love of God and share it with us.

I suspect that one reason why our animals friends show us this love is the fact that they are still in the Garden.  I don't think of the Garden as a physically place that we were kicked out of, but rather a psychological, spiritual, and emotional state of being, and somewhere during the evolution of humankind we chose to no longer exist in a perpetual state of being that knew the ever-present love of God and the connectedness of all creation.  Our animal friends always live in that presence, knowing God's love on a level that we cannot imagine and reflected it back to us.

One individual that seemed to live his life as if he was still in the Garden was Francis of Assisi, the saint that many of our churches celebrated recently with our Blessings of the Animals.  He preached to birds, made peace with wolves, and supposedly on his deathbed thanked his faithful donkey for his years of service. These and other remarkable stories of Francis’ life are found in the food Fioretti, or The Little Flowers.  This simple friar, who had at one time sought great wealth and military glory in the late 12th century, saw something in creation that we don't always see:  he saw the ever-present love of God in all created beings, and he had to be in the midst of it, to be known to it, and to make it known.  That’s why, unlike previous monastic orders, he and his brothers in the Order of Friars Minor, traveled the countryside and cities, taking the Gospel message with them wherever they went.  And that message was this:  all things come from a good and loving God, and all are linked together in relationship.  Thus, humans, dogs, cats, sun, moon, trees, and rain are all siblings of one, loving Creator.  

Francis of Assisi

What would our church, our world look like if we lived our lives like Francis?  Not necessarily giving up all of our possessions and arguing with Popes the way he did, although you’re welcome to do both of those things if you want, but knowing that all things really are connected because they all belong to God?  I suspect we would be more gracious and grateful, more accommodating to each person we meet, more understanding of the struggles our brothers and sisters face and more eager to offer God’s abundant welcome to them.  

In other words, we may start seeing the world the way that Casey and our other animal friends see the world.  Casey does not fret over what she does not have; she does not make distinctions between stranger and friend; she lives for each moment of each day; and she is always excited to share her love and her own form of welcome with those around her.  

I suspect this is why Francis referred to the animals as his brothers and sisters, because he saw the world through their eyes, saw the world for what it is, one great big gift from a great big loving God.  

Some of you have heard me call Casey my little sister.  What Francis invites us to do, and indeed what Christ invites us to do, is to see the connectedness of all things.  When we do this the barriers between us begin to dissolve, our own self-projections fade, and all that remains is the love of God, present in all creation, all people, all animals, all things bright and beautiful.   And knowing this love is what surrounds us and binds the universe together, can inspire us to care for our brothers and sisters in our human family, our animal family, and our creation family.  We will no longer have need of the “vanities of this world” as the Collect for Francis says, for we will only know God’s love made manifest in this world that God loves so much.  

So may we see the connectedness of all things.  May we take care of those people, the animals, the environment, and all the things that God has given us to steward.  May we show that same hospitality and love to others that Casey and all of our friends shows to us.  And may blessed Francis pray for us.