Ordinary 29C, October 20, 2013

Staying Connected

Luke 18:1-8
 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus’ parables can occasionally frustrate me beyond belief, but these quirky stories are still my favorite texts in the Bible.  And I don’t know if it has something to do with the way my mind works, but every time we get to a parable, I am almost always fascinated-bordering-on-obsessed by the supposed villains in the story.   Perhaps I am just being deliberately contrary, but I’ve spent enough time wrestling with these characters in the parables to know that they can bear multiple interpretations in which a reading that seems sort of obvious suddenly isn’t.
Because parables aren’t about revealing a single, simple moral statement that can be slapped on a bumper sticker.   Parables are about truth – hidden, unyielding disruptive truth.  It is as if the gospel writers have deliberately constructed an open space in these stories so that readers are pretty much forced to grapple with the mystery of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus and in relationship with other human beings.  And the human part of that equation is what always trips us up when reading the parables. 
For example… in today’s parable from the gospel of Luke, we just KNOW that we’re supposed to be more like that persistent widow, right?  We just know when we read this parable that we are supposed to model our faith on the example of that plucky, scrappy little widow who keeps going and going at that judge like an Energizer bunny.  We are supposed to be tireless advocates for justice, railing against powers and principalities to receive vindication for our cause.  We are to pray every single minute of every day and keep the faith and never lose hope that through our single-minded tenacious dedication to prayer, we’ll somehow wheedle our way into a reluctant God’s super-good graces and get exactly what we want. 
But we know better.  You know better.  Faithful people have worked and worked for justice for centuries, yet there is still so much brokenness in the world.  Saints and mystics and other good people have prayed faithfully and well, bugging God on an hourly basis to bring justice to a situation or a person or a group of people and despite all of it, justice remains out of reach.  When bad things in our lives drag on and on despite a whole lot of patient, passionate prayer, we begin, in our heart of hearts, to feel a little bit resentful, a wee bit cheesed with God, and sometimes we just give up.
If we cannot bear to blame God, we blame ourselves.  We feel guilty and obsess about that one hour or that one day when we were distracted by something else and forgot to be a good prayer warrior. And now everything is falling apart and we’re pretty sure it’s all our fault, which we know is complete nonsense, but we still carry the awful burden of feeling like we didn’t do enough. We didn’t pray hard enough.  We weren’t as plucky and persistent as that widow, so our prayers have failed and everything is ruined.
This is a rare parable in that for once, Jesus tells his followers right upfront what it’s about.  Luke writes, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  I think we need to take Jesus’ statement seriously.  But what we also need to do is imagine what the purpose of “praying always” actually is.  Is it to get what we want?  To get the justice we think we or another person needs?
One of the strange and wonderful things about being a minister is that people ask me to pray for them all the time.  All sorts of people, many of whom seldom or never set foot in a church.   Some of the people who ask me to pray for them are very much like the judge described in the parable – they do not have a particularly close relationship with God and their human relationships are fractured.  I think of them as sort of “disconnected” people.  In fact, I often imagine the world not as “saved” and “unsaved,” but rather “connected” or “disconnected” people, and many of us can drift back and forth between those two categories on any given day.   I know I do and I can identify it when it is happening. When I am living as a connected person, I can find beauty in difficult people, grace in terrible situations and patience in frustrating circumstances.  When I am in period of disconnection, I am angry, irritable, lethargic and prone to despair.   
When I receive a prayer request from a “disconnected” person, it is almost always because their back is up against a wall and they don’t know what else to do.  But I always honor their request and pray on their behalf.  And I have realized what prayer does is connect that person to me through God, and connects that person to God through my prayer, even if that person has lost heart and cannot pray for themselves.  Prayer creates this holy connection, stronger than Super Glue, more powerful than the most souped up Energizer Bunny. 
The person who asks me to pray for them may imagine I will hold them up to God and say, “Fix this!”  And in a sense, I am doing that.  But that’s not all that’s going on when we pray.
Praying creates a holy connection and I am forced to pay attention to and become involved in what God is already doing.  That is not to say that my prayer will get anyone a job or cure the cancer or fix someone’s marriage.  The church is not an employment agency or a hospital or a counseling center.  It is a sacred space, a sacred gathering where we connect with one another and connect to God through prayer.  The more we pray for one another, the more connected we become to the suffering of one another, and the more connected we become to suffering, the more connected we become to the living Christ among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Maybe this parable is not about our persistence and that’s a good thing.  You don’t have to live very long to realize that counting on inconstant human beings is always a gamble, even on a good day.  Maybe we are all disconnected judges who walk around without a clue, and perhaps the persistent one who keeps bothering us with cries to pay attention to a broken world is God.  Maybe we are finally worn down by a persistent God who longs for justice and won’t ever give up on getting us into the hard work of being connected to the persistent longing of our Creator and the deep needs of one another.   
Fred Craddock says that being pursued relentlessly by God is a process by which a person is being hammered through long days and nights of prayer into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes.  And if you think that sounds way too painful, you may not want to hear this little tidbit of information from folks who are much better translating the original Greek of this text than I am.  Those smart people say that what the judge was really worried about was the widow punching him in the face and giving him a black eye.  Even if we wind up worn out and even a little bruised in our spiritual hide and seek with God, the answer to prayer always comes, even if it’s not the answer we wanted.  And that answer can hurt a little, or maybe a lot.  But it is God’s answer for us and God will not leave us alone until we get it.
For Luke’s community who received this parable, 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, this image of a persistent God and constant prayer and not losing heart was crucial for a group of people who were, frankly, feeling a little scared about this whole being a Christian thing.  I can just imagine those poor souls praying, day and night, for safety, security, protection from those who would persecute them.  Mostly they prayed for Jesus to hurry up and come back to them.  And if you know anything about those early Christian communities, you know they didn’t receive any of those things. 
But through their prayers, the early Christians stayed connected – to God and to one another – and through those connections, they received the strength and resilience and fortitude they needed to stay alive, against considerable odds.   It’s easy for us to see how that all worked out in retrospect, but I’m sure the point of praying always was not entirely clear to Luke’s community.
Jesus tells this parable knowing it is incredibly hard to stay connected when things are falling apart.  Jesus knows the anatomy of our stubborn human hearts well enough to know that sometimes it takes the joys and sorrows of an entire lifetime for the hardness to soften and melt.  Jesus knows that we get scared, discouraged, tired and stupid.  Jesus knows that our human experience includes crushing disappointments, crippling betrayals, unbearable pain and grief. So it is small wonder that the parable ends with Jesus looking around at the disciples and Pharisees and all the broken people following him around, shaking his head and saying out loud: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Given what we know about human beings and looking at the wreckage of human history, the answer I’d give Jesus right now is that it doesn’t look very likely that we will be any further along when he finally gets back here than we were 2000 years ago.
But like the plucky, persistent widow, God doesn’t give up pursuing justice and goodness.  God keeps God’s covenants with God’s people no matter how reckless and feckless we become.  God does grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.  God will not delay long in helping them.  The evidence of God’s unyielding truth are all around you.  These brothers and sisters in this community of faith are our answered prayers.  Those beautiful and broken people we call our family, friends and co-workers are our connection to divine grace.  The ministries and missions to whom we give Hungry Jack casseroles and chunky soups and money and time are how we receive God’s mercy.  All of these are evidence of how God grants justice and mercy to us and equips us to do justice and mercy for others.  It is through ordinary experiences and people that God pursues us and helps us, day in and day out, through connections that just won’t let go of us no matter how hard we try to stay distant.  The Holy Spirit practically shoves us into places where we cannot stand aloof like the unjust judge and be unaffected by the need for justice for those around us or uninvolved in God’s healing of everything that is broken.  Prayer is the thread that connects us to one another and stitches our whole lives into the crazy quilt of God’s tender love and mercy.
That is why, I think, Jesus says all those really outrageous things like, “Pray for your enemies.”  Because when you pray for the enemy, the prayer reminds you that God created and loves that person you cannot stand, and you learn something about grace in the process.  And it reminds you that you are someone else’s enemy – I guarantee that you are — and you are just as needy when it comes to forgiveness and healing.  If you can capture an image in your mind of that person you’ve hurt in prayer for you, you can catch a glimpse of what God’s grace really, really looks like. 
This kind of connection in a world of western individualism and alienation is really, really hard.  I think that is part of the reason that there are so many people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.”  They sort of want the connection to God, but they do not want to complete the circuit in dealing with the difficult work of being in relationship with God’s people.  Or the even more difficult work of praying always and going to church and trying to be a good person, and still not having a shiny, happy life.
I read about a pastor who conducted new member classes in a way that made the leadership of her congregation really, really nervous.  In addition to telling potential members that a healthy faith community requires a significant commitment of people’s time, energy and money, she also said that although this totally wonderful church seems so awesome to them right now, eventually something will happen to completely disillusion them and they will lose heart.  Sometime, somebody at church will say something inappropriate, hurtful or offensive.  A decision will be made by leadership, which they will find unacceptable.  Or they will begin to feel spiritually bored or uninspired and begin to imagine the church down the street has greener grass and nicer people.  She said that her church is not shiny, perfect place, but as broken and human as the people gathered there.  The church is not God, but a messy and fully human place where fully human people gather in expectation of God’s presence and where God sometimes actually shows up.
Do not lose heart.  Pray always.  Stay connected to the source of all justice and mercy.  Jesus’ voice, filled with love and grace, reaches into our troubled hearts and scattered brains.  We are called to do this work, and given all we need to do it for the sake of the world.
When I am too beaten down to pray, I do not lose heart because your prayers keep me connected.  And when you are falling apart, the prayers of your brothers and sisters will your stitch your weary heart back together and lift you into the light of all healing and mercy and justice.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.