19th Sunday After Pentecost – October 20, 2019
Our current sermon series is called “The Four Virtues of a Joyous Life.” I thought that for this year’s stewardship campaign we could focus on the elements of our living that help us to be the most alive, the things that bring us joy and that cultivate in us a sense of generosity that makes us want to share the good things in our lives because we are so grateful for them. So far, we have covered the virtues of gratitude and faith as facets of a joyous life. Today, we will examine persistence, and we will conclude next Sunday, Reveille Day, with humility and how it can enrich our lives and fill them with joy.
The 1967 Academy Award-winning film Cool Hand Luke is a prison movie known for for many things including its Christian imagery. To name but a few examples, there is a scene where Luke, on a bet, attempts to eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour and afterwards lays abandoned on a table in a crucifix pose. There is the closing scene where the camera pans away from two rural roads in the shape of a cross, and there is a scene towards the end where Luke, desperate and out of options enters a church and prays to God, who he refers to as “Old Man.”
Luke is, of course, played by Paul Newman. He is a derelict sent to prison in Florida for sawing the tops off parking meters. Luke is a nonconformist with an unquenchable spirit, who repeatedly tries to break free from the prison camp and who refuses to obey the rules of the prison, even at great cost to himself. Even if you have not seen Cool Hand Luke, you are likely familiar with the film’s most famous line, a line uttered by the prison boss early in the movie, the same line that serves as Luke’s final words: “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
Having watched this film several times over the years, I have come to the conclusion that, in a story so rich with Christian imagery including prayer itself, it is not a coincidence that the most famous line would be one about communication. If we are honest with ourselves, I believe that we would have to admit that our prayers, our communication with God, sometimes sound a bit like Luke’s. We sometimes find ourselves in a tight spot, and we find ourselves talking to God, and then looking out of one eye to see if God has answered us. Sometimes in our prayers, we behave like we do at work, when we send an urgent e-mail and then start clicking SEND/RECEIVE again and again, wondering why this person has not responded yet. Like Cool Hand Luke, we perceive God’s lack of an immediate response as evidence that God is not listening at all, or that God does not care, or that God does not exist, and so we stop praying, and as a result, what we have is, well, a “failure to communicate.”
In this morning’s text, Jesus is telling us that there is no reason for us to have a failure to communicate with God. He makes the point that if this widow, considered one of the most vulnerable people in his day and culture, could successfully communicate a need for justice a powerful but corrupt judge, than how can Jesus’ disciples, who believe that God hears and answers our prayers, pray without faith, or fail to pray often?
In Jesus’ day, women did not appear in court, men appeared for them. Thus, the widow in this parable would only have been in court because she had no husband, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin or son who could appear for her. She was simply among the most vulnerable category of adults in her society. Jesus’ hearers would have known better than we do the religious commandments of Judaism regarding widows.
Exodus 22:22-24: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
Deuteronomy 10:17-18a: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow.”
Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”
Now, it is easy to hear this and think to ourselves, “Well, no wonder the judge gave her justice. He had to.” Yet Luke tells us that the judge, by his own admission, had “no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” So we assume that because she bothered him so much, he eventually gave in, if only for the peace and quiet. Not a bad assumption. The dishonest judge says “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
Christ then concludes the parable with this lesson: “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.” “Aha!” we think, Jesus has confirmed that we are correct in believing that the secret to prayer is to do it often. This parable almost sounds like it is saying to us that prayers can only fail if we, his chosen, fail to call out to God day and night.
Of course, this raises more questions than it answers. Healing eludes the faithful one who persistently prays and comes to the person who does not pray at all. It plays into the argument of the atheist who asks us as believers why a good and benevolent God needs to basically be cajoled and goaded into doing that which is right. Sometimes healing, when it comes, comes only at the end of a difficult and painful road, which leaves us feeling like our e-mail makes us feel, when we send that letter and sit there clicking SEND/RECEIVE again and again, waiting and waiting in the midst of so much instantaneous gratification for an answer that never seems to come. Does our God will abundant life for us or not? Did not even Dr. King write that “justice too long delayed is justice denied?”
Perhaps the point should be that God is one with a sense of perspective that goes beyond mere obedience to the law. Perhaps God, in this parable, desires more than this widow simply getting her judgement. Perhaps God was interested in forming this woman into the kind of person who seeks justice, and in so doing, God is present in those long, difficult, and painful gaps between the “now” and the “not yet.” Perhaps our prayers should not merely be for God’s will to be done, but for the stamina and faith to bear that will, come what may?
The dishonest judge simply dispenses justice around a singular issue. God, on the other hand, is interested in forming people and communities of people who work for justice. The kind of justice that we hear described in those Old Testament texts is enacted and lived by the community of faith. Our God, who, for example, “executes justice for the orphan and the widow” does so through the lives and everyday choices of people like us.
Before being appointed to be your lead pastor in 2014, I served for nine years at the foot of Afton Mountain in the little village of Crozet, serving in a small but rapidly growing church on a corner of two of the main roads in town. While I was there, the state decided to widen one of those two roads, which would result in our losing a significant amount of land — the smaller of our two parking lots.
This truly upset me, especially when I considered that the real reason they were taking our land and not the land across the street was because the land across the street included a small, enclosed junkyard which would have cost a fortune to clean up, despite the fact that we were repeatedly told that the land across the street was preserved because it was “historic.”
Church leaders and I wrote letters, and even once were interviewed by the press. We met with the county board of supervisors. We met with county administrators and administrators for VDOT, all in an ultimately futile attempt to preserve our precious land.
Now, it so happened that this all occurred during the last great recession, which was a time when we covenanted as a congregation that in both of our worship services each Sunday, during the prayers of the people, that we would pray for the unemployed and the underemployed. We did this month after month, year after year.
When the construction finally started, I was standing in the glass-walled fellowship hall one morning watching it. There were probably forty or fifty workers out there, men and women, some with shovels, others with sledgehammers driving rebar, still others driving heavy equipment. Forty or fifty men and women, including an out-of-work architect in our church we had hired to manage the project on our end.
And standing there, watching all these people work is when it hit me, like the Spirit of God saying to my spirit, “Is this not what you have been praying for all these many months, for people to have work to do and an opportunity to do it? You persistently prayed for things to change. How far are you willing to go, how much are you willing to give so that you were wholly available to be a part of God answering your persistent, earnest prayers? Were you praying with hope, or were you praying with expectation?”
In other words, what I had was a failure to communicate. The failure was not my failure to communicate with God, it was my failure to listen to God’s communication with me.
Each Sunday at Reveille, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done. Most of us pray each day for this. Yet how are these prayers answered? How does God’s kingdom come? How is God’s will done, on earth as it is in heaven?
In his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” Dr. King wrote, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability, but it comes from the tireless efforts of women and men willing to be coworkers with God.” Part of the answer for the coming of God’s kingdom is to do our respective parts to work for God’s kingdom, to persist, to hang in there with God even in the difficult times, to keep praying, asking working, serving, all the while trusting that God is with us helping to bring good things to bear. In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that the devil’s cause “is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our [Jesus’] will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Last night, Virginia Tech played the University of North Carolina in Blacksburg, and the game was decided not in regulation and not in the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth overtime, but the sixth round of overtime. I did not even know sextuple overtime was a thing. It was an amazing back-and-forth before Tech finally pulled it out.
I believe there is a lesson here, and this is it: when we are ready to quit, to give up; when it feels like we are completely out of perseverance, hang on and don’t give up. Trust that God is with us, for we never know which overtime we are in, do we? I have had days and I know you have as well where all all I felt like I had to offer to God was one more day. One more day, Lord, that I will not stop believing. One more day, Lord, and I will not quit on you. One more day, Lord, I will hang in there and trust that you are making a way. One more day.
And by the grace of God, on most days, that is enough.
At the end of Cool Hand Luke, when Luke is at his most desperate, on his knees, hands together, eyes closed praying for God to send him some sign, some measure of help, suddenly one of his fellow inmates walks through the door, the inmate called “Dragline,” played by George Kennedy who won an Oscar for the role. When he does, Luke laughs, looks at the ceiling and says to God, “Is that your answer, Old Man?” before smiling and saying “You’re a hard case too, ain’t you?”
Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the answer to those persistent prayers is something that surprises us, something we would not choose or even expect, and the challenge is for us to be open to the mystery of God is doing in our midst to answer those prayers as we hang in there in all of our trials of faithfulness.
What if the only failure were failure to communicate, failure to lay our blessings and our burdens at the feet of God, the good and righteous judge, the one who loves us, cares for us, and who works in ways seen and unseen? And what if our lives, our offerings, even what we put on those estimate of giving cards were a willingness to be a part of God’s cultivation of joy in our midst, in our lives, in the life of the church and community, a willingness to be a part of someone else’s answered prayer. What then?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.