Pentecost 22C – Proper 24 October 16, 2016
“Not losing heart”
A sermon preached by Rev. Beth Orling (Lutheran) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
A young veteran put on his red-hooded sweatshirt and walked to the store to buy a soda. A few blocks over, someone in a red-hooded sweatshirt committed a crime and fled the scene. Later, that person committed another such crime and got away.
The police picked up the young vet, questioned him, and a judge and jury eventually convicted him of the two crimes. He spent almost 20 years in prison. Therapists tried in vain to get him to admit his guilt.
A young Innocence Project attorney, Aliza B. Kaplan, signed up to investigate the young man’s case. She faced formidable hurdles, but she believed the man’s words, “I didn’t do it.”
She beat on the doors of police stations, courthouse storage areas; she petitioned and requested DNA samples for ten long years. She did not lose heart. The veteran insisted, “I didn’t do it.”
There are lots of ways of looking at Jesus’ story about the judge and the widow.
No one quite dares to equate the unjust judge with God …really. But some have suggested the judge represents God, but that God is a good judge. The logic is that if an unjust judge would finally grant justice to the widow, how much more would a just God do the same or more for us?
One could see God as a good judge, but since justice – the coming of heaven on earth — is delayed, we are encouraged to keep on believing and keep on praying.
Then there’s the widow. She is a vulnerable person carrying a petition with just one signature. Widows, tragic figures in Jesus’ day, were equated with orphans and aliens in the land. Those better off were supposed to take care of them, for in those days, the inheritance of a deceased husband went to his children or brothers, not to his widow.
This widow, however, believes she has rights to claim. She’s assertive, she’s a determined, intelligent woman of courage, who, at length, persists against injustice. She knows what is right and does not waver. Aliza, in the Innocence Project story, reminds me of her.
Rather than trying to bribe or flirt her way into the judge’s favor, she persists – like the widow in Jesus’ story — even to the point of being obnoxious, annoying to the authorities who protected the case against the young veteran and kept him in jail for 20 years.
Like Aliza, the widow in the story didn’t just pray. She acted. She bothered the judge persistently. She had the courage to move out of her comfort zone, out of the “poor-me” role that first century Palestine put on her.
Jesus once said when we cared for those who were hungry, sick, or imprisoned, we were caring for HIM. God or Goodness empowered Aliza to try to free the unjustly imprisoned young man, the Christ figure in the story.
Today’s Gospel story also works upside down. God is the widow pounding on the closed doors of our hearts, on the closed doors of those who fear neither God nor respect others. Offering love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. God the Spirit does not lose heart, nor give up seeking goodness for the world.
The Gospel writer says the parable is about prayer and faith. He says Jesus wanted us to pray always and not lose heart. At the end he questions whether there will be faith found on earth.
A good question.
In this story, not losing heart is equated with faith. Prayer will cause there to be faith on earth – even when our prayers are not answered the way we want them to be. All people of good will are still called to persist today in yearning and working for justice. In that very yearning, and in that suffering, people are keeping the faith.
Faithful prayer is not praying to hit the jackpot, but praying because “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Faith is being connected spiritually to the God of the cosmos, to the divine yearning, and to the cosmos itself. Faith is trusting, knowing, living the Word of eternal life: Jesus the Christ. No matter how bad things seem.
Faith is yearning for “heaven on earth,” not here yet, but already present in places such as a fair courtroom, an inspired classroom, an honest workplace, a healing conversation, a compassionate medical practice, a choir of faithful singers, at “Just Soup,” and in our hands and on our lips at the Eucharist.
While waiting for “heaven on earth” in its fullness, we are called to stand with the widow in her plight, adding our names to her petition.
While waiting for “heaven on earth,” we are called to pray and to not lose heart when the world is not right. To pray for judges, for justice between Israel and Palestine, for justice between police officers and people of every color, for justice and peace in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, for family courts, for fair elections, for honest leaders.
Most of us–may be not all–but most of us know how to pray. But if you’re like me, it is sometimes easy to lose heart, to give up hope, to forget that Jesus, the incarnate word of God, also yearned, also suffered, also prayed….and comforts us in our yearning, suffering and prayer. He taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come.” something he trusted and faithfully expected.
God empowers us to keep the faith – because God’s kingdom DOES indeed come, and comes even without our prayer.
Aliza eventually prevailed. The DNA evidence did its work. And the no-longer-young man, no longer wearing the red-hooded sweatshirt, was released from prison almost 20 years after his wrongful accusation. He found a job, he is grateful for his freedom, he is slowly making a life for himself.
Let us not lose heart, but rather pray – and act as we are able — for all in such circumstances, children, homeless people, people afraid to hope, people taking refuge from war, people losing heart, people beating on unjust judges’ doors
until their knuckles bleed
even as Jesus’ knuckles and hands bled
for the sake of the gracious and life-giving reign of God: heaven on earth.