parables as subversive act: “wait a minute! say what?,” november 13, 2016

Introit
Eliza Gilykson, “The Great Correction

Responsive Call to Worship
We gather for worship
having voted this past week
for our country’s next president.
Some of us voted for one candidate,
others of us for another,
others of us for still another.
It’s real, and it’s messy.
Some of us are more scared, some less,
some more angry, some less.
It’s real, and it’s messy.
We acknowledge that everyone we voted for is flawed.
It’s really messy.
We’re all aware of the difference
between campaigning and governing.
We all hope it will be better than we fear.
But in the midst of it all,
we also know our clear call
to work for justice,
to love righteousness,
to be humble with our God,
to look for God and to find God
in the least of these,
and to be faithful stewards
of God’s creation and God’s way.

Meditations
Obedience is frequently the opposite.
It is a jump into the unknown.
A move based on trust, not in a certain future,
but in a dependable God.”
—Ken Wytsma, The Grand Paradox:
The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God,
and the Necessity of Faith

When justice and love are rightly understood,
love is not in conflict with justice
but love incorporates justice.
—Nicholas Wolterstorff in Ken Wytsma

We don’t stray away from good doctrine or truth
by focusing on justice and compassion for those in the margins—
rather, we find Jesus and truth in the margins.
—Ken Wytsma

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Psalm 85:6-13
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 18:1-8
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?’

Pastoral Word
There is a lot of raw feeling in this room.
And it’s not the same raw for all of us.
Some are scared, some angry, some defensive.
Many feel misunderstood.
Some feel concerns are being underestimated;
some that they’re being overestimated.
And we risk being isolated from each other
as we wait to see how things will continue to unfold.

I have prayed and struggled this week with what to say—
as someone with my own fears and frustrations,
and yet as pastor to the congregation,
who values how each one of you is feeling.

The election is over.
I do not condone protesting that becomes violent or even threatening.
I can also not condone just telling people to get over it
to just come together—as if we have had that modeled for us.
I affirm a peaceful transition of authority.

It is abundantly clear that Mr. Trump spoke
to a large number of people with economic concerns—
with an enormous amount of frustration with the status quo
and with our systems and their insiders—
the political system, the economic system, the media system—
with no hope of a better tomorrow.
I get that.
I share that.

I hope and pray he will bring constructive change to those systems,
even as he now works within one of them.
God knows they need it.
I will pray for him,
and I say to you it is up to all of us
to respect the office of the president
in the days, months and years to come.

It is also obviously true that Mr. Trump reached his position
by opening the door to vile language and behavior
that cannot and must not be condoned by anyone of decency or faith.
His rhetoric, if not his intent, has not just put people at risk,
people have been hurt.
Newspapers across the board and across the world
are reporting an uptick in hate crimes,
and I say to you it is up to all of us
to respect God’s call to care for the least of these.

This must be a safe place for all.
That is our understanding of sanctuary—
which means we can gather with our different raw feelings
and commit to work together to be together to work and worship together—
which means we offer all the love and support we can
to each other—
naming for each other what it is we hope for,
not just what we’re against,
and also naming for each other what we will not tolerate—
what we will resist.
And remember, we started saying “We are the resistance”
long before Mr. Trump ever announced he was running for president!

We offer all the love and support we can
to each other,
and to those who are scared—legitimately scared—
be they business owners in the path of protestors,
people trying to get home from work and scared to go through the city,
be they of another religion—another color,
another sexual orientation—another gender,
another nationality—another socio-economic status.

You will be respected here, we affirm.
You will be loved here, we proclaim.
You will, if need be, be protected here.

This is hard. What I’m asking of you is hard.
But we can absolutely believe there are very different ways
of working toward what is safer than what we now know—
and better and more right than what we now know—
and more hopeful for more people than what we now know,
but we must also unite in loving our sisters and brothers along the way.

It’s always easier just to be with people who all agree
but I believe this challenge to us as community—
this hard part of what community means—
is also of God.
So may it be so—
even here and now in and through us.

Hear now this prayer by Carrie Newcomer—
not just as a prayer to God,
but also as a prayer we can each one of us answer
for another one of us:

 

Witness of the Living Word
Our text begins with a word from Luke about the parable:
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always
and not to lose heart.
So we’re told before we hear it—read it,
what the parable means.

Then we’re introduced to, the judge, an authority figure,
who did not fear God and had no respect for people.
And right from the outset, we’re predisposed not to like this judge.
This is Luke, after all.
And in that same city there was a widow,
and from the outset, we’re predisposed to like her.
Yes, because it’s Luke.
And she kept coming to the judge saying
(over and over and over and over again the verb tense implies),
“Grant me justice”—
which is entirely in keeping with our idealized view of widows in Luke

… except it’s not “justice” she wants.

If you have your own Bible here, cross out that word.
Cross out the word “justice,”
and write in the word “vengeance.”
The widow cries, “Grant me ‘vengeance’ against my opponent.”
Amy Jill Levine points this out in her book short stories by jesus
(Amy-Jill Levine, short stories by jesus
[New York: HarperCollins, 2014] 224)
and a quick look at the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1964] 442) confirms this.

And that changes things.
Even positively predisposed to like the widow,
that changes things.
She’s not asking for legal help in the pursuit justice,
she’s asking for a legal justification for vengeance.

And so we realize—it dawns on us,
we really have no idea where the justice is in all this.
Maybe she was unjustly treated.
Maybe she didn’t like the way she was treated.
Maybe she was poor, powerless, and oppressed.
Maybe she had enough resources
to be able to afford to spend time
day after day after day badgering this judge—
which doesn’t necessarily sound like someone in dire straits.
Someone in dire straits doesn’t typically have time
for much more than simply getting enough food for the day.

For a while the judge refused her,
and since we don’t have any idea of the justice here,
and since vengeance is the Lord’s (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19),
that may well have been the right thing to do.

But then he says to himself,
“Well, I don’t fear God,
and I don’t respect people,
but I am getting awfully tired of this widow
pestering me.
So I will grant her her vengeance.”

Nothing about having assessed the evidence—
the validity of her claim.
He’s just sick of her presence—
tired of being bugged.
“So she doesn’t wear me out.”
You might want to cross that out phrase too, actually—
“wear me out.”
The Greek phrase is an idiom from the boxing world, actually.
Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 9:27, writing of athletic discipline
and commitment—of “punishing” his body reads our translation.
“Literally it means ‘so that in the end she may not come
and strike me under the eye’ ” (R. Alan Culpepper,
“The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 338)—
“so she won’t give me a black eye.”

Now the widow’s probably not literally
going to give the judge a black eye,
so most scholars take this figuratively—
so she won’t embarrass him.
But we already know—we’ve been told,
this judge doesn’t respect people.
Why would he care about a little embarrassment?

And that’s the story.
A judge we’re predisposed not to like
initially does the right thing,
but then ends up doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
And a widow we’re predisposed to like
asks for the wrong thing,
goes about it in the wrong way,
and ends up getting it anyway.

We start off thinking we know who’s who,
and then it’s like they’re wearing those mission impossible masks,
and though you think you know who you’re dealing with,
they tear their masks off and turns out they’re someone else!
And we don’t end up admiring anyone.
We end up without anyone as an example.

And it is the parable thing of everything getting turned upside down,
but it doesn’t fall into what we might recognize
or name God’s way—God’s kingdom of heaven.
We don’t have created or recreated or established or affirmed
a better order—
an upside down as a corrective—
an intervention that makes more sense
from the perspective of our faith affirmations.
No, what we have is a mess.

And maybe—maybe, we hear Jesus asking, with a smile,
“Well now honestly,
how often do things fall into a neat order for you?
Make sense?
Or is it really all more of a mess?
And how often do the real people you know
fall in line as those who are all good or all bad?
Or are we really all more of a mess?”

It’s the mess, isn’t it?
And there’s no “it’s God’s will.”
There’s no “God’s in charge.”
There is no rhyme or reason—
no explanation.
Just the question will God find faith within the mess?

Not when things are good.
Not when things are easy.
But when life is challenging and stressful
and hard and scary.
Will God find faith?

And so, given the story, Luke’s opening verse makes sense:
pray always and don’t lose heart.
Keep the faith.
But the closing verses are a bit more challenging:
as mixed up, confused and confusing set of sentences as I’ve heard.
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?

That’s another sentence to scratch out, by the way:
“Will God delay long in helping them.”
The Greek would more literally be translated
“Will God be patient with them?”

So, will not God grant justice to those who cry out day and night?
Will God be patient with them?
Though if they’re the ones crying day and night,
wouldn’t the question be will they have patience with God?
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
Quickly?
What about the crying day and night?
What about the patience?

And then, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

This makes no sense to me …

which is great; I love that!
We have some problems to think through:

a/ We have a theological problem
with the lousy theological idea
that anyone would have to badger God
into answering prayer;

and b/ the assumption made is not valid.
Will not God grant justice to the chosen who cry out day and night?
God will quickly grant justice.
Well, we know that’s not true.
God will quickly grant justice to them?
This is the tradition of the people in the wilderness
wandering for forty years.
This is the tradition of the people of the exile;

and finally c/ it’s still that word “vengeance” not “justice.”
“Will not God grant ‘vengeance’; God will quickly grant ‘vengeance’. ”
It’s still a vindictive story—
not a transformative one.
So it’s not what I would consider godly.

It makes no sense—

unless—
unless,
what if Luke’s “Listen to what the unjust judge says
is not a reference to an old quote
but an introduction to a new quote?
What if it’s not remember what the unjust judge said (past tense) back in the story:
“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.”

But what if we have remember what the unjust judge says
(and the verb is actually in the present tense),
and then a new quote such that what the judge says is:
“And will not God grant vengeance 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 vengeance to them.”

What if it is (because it sure sounds like it could be)
the judge justifying himself and what he did.
“Hey, doesn’t even God give vengeance to those who pester God?
And God does it quickly, right?” So did I.

I went to my Greek New Testament by the way,
to verify what I suspected,
and it’s true,
there are no quotation marks in the Greek.
So deciding what the judge said
is another one of those aspects of translation that is interpretation.

So no.
The way I’m reading … interpreting …
God does not grant vengeance.
No matter how much you pester God.
No matter how persistently you pray.

And life remains a mess.
And people are a mixture—a combination
of better and worse.
And people do good things and less good things and bad things—evil things.
And just when you think you know what to expect
the mission impossible mask comes off!

Michelle Bachman and Franklin Graham
are the only two whose pious sounding self-serving words of faith
I’ve had the misfortune of hearing or seeing this past week
that undid me.
And I’m sorry if any of you appreciate their theology,
but you need to know, from all I know, it’s a particularly cheap,
shallow, and perverse theology they espouse
that has God manipulating the presidential election.

Any of you remember the story of Israel first demanding a king?
The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to God
who said to Samuel, “Listen to the people.
They have not rejected you; they have rejected me”
(1 Samuel 8:7).
God does not pull the levers of politics.
Life does not proceed according to plan—
not even God’s plan.
It’s a mess.

And I tell you true, in all my years of pastoral ministry
(which are adding up to almost three decades now …
yikes!),
I have never ever found it helpful
to tell anyone going through their own hell
that there’s a reason for it—
a plan within which their hell is unfolding as planned.

I got a text early Friday morning from a pastor friend,
one of whose teenage youth hung herself.
You can probably imagine with me,
the last thing her loved ones need to hear is
that there’s a reason for such a senseless tragedy.

Now to get your continuing education certificate in pastoral care,
you also need to know never to quote Romans 8:28
to someone going through their own personal hell.
All things work together for good?
You run the risk of someone in pain hearing you say
that what happened to them happened so that good could come of it
instead of the much bigger and truer affirmation
that good will come again in spite of what happened.

Because so often what happens is just a mess.
And people are a mess.

So will the Son of Man find faith—
in the midst of the mess?

This is not a parable about persistence in prayer
to undo the mess,
but about persistence in faith
through the mess.

Do you keep the faith
when it doesn’t make sense—
when nothing makes sense?

This parable is about overturning the idolatry of sense and circumstance—
the fallible foible of a fable
that God is in charge
in a way that suggests circumstances are divinely manipulated—
that there’s a reason for what happens—
that life isn’t a mess—
that we aren’t messes.

It is; we are.
Our hope is not in a plan but in a presence—
not in what God will do in spite of us,
but what God does in and through us
who keep the faith.

That is the good news.
That is the hard news
for us today
in the mess.
Amen.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Peter 1:6-9
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while
you have had to suffer various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith—
being more precious than gold that, though perishable,
is tested by fire—may be found to result
in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Although you have not seen him, you love him;
and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.

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