On the need to pray, and not to lose heart

A sermon at the Church of the Epiphany, October 20, 2019 (Year C Proper 24). The parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8)

Who does the judge in the parable represent?

You’re right: it’s a trick question.

After more than two thousand years of worshipping a God whose power is love, whose example is humility, who identified with and as a zygote in order to come among us and help within our helplessness, who was condemned as a criminal and sentenced by a most unjust judge, and who didn’t lift a finger to countermand his enemies but instead subjected himself to the powers that be in order to overturn them, in order to teach evil that it will not overcome love:

After more than two thousand years of this lesson, still, when we read a parable of Jesus Christ, we often leap like lemmings to looking at the one sitting in the position of power in the parable and seek to assign to him the authority that rightly belongs only to God.

But there are red flags all over this story:

He is an unjust judge. My God, do not call our God unjust!

He has no fear of God nor respect for anyone. My God, Jesus treated even the leper with dignity, the smallest child with the greatest and most tender respect!

He grows weary, while our God neither slumbers nor sleeps, as the Psalmist says, so that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night, for God will keep you from all evil, your going out and your coming in, from this time and for ever (Psalm 121).

Does this sound like the unjust judge of the parable?

Of course, the judge in the parable is an illustration of exactly what God is not like. God does not need our nagging to do what is just and what is right and what is merciful. God is not like a council president worn down by a succession of constituents to the point of appointing an investigation into deadly police actions.

God does not need our reminding to keep God’s covenant of steadfast love and faithfulness. God has already vindicated the widow and the orphan, the poor and the helpless, the abandoned and the lost sheep, throughout scripture, throughout the prophets, throughout the life of Jesus, who will himself appear before an unjust and unrighteous judge on the Pavement before he is crucified, a falsely accused man executed by the state for the sake of an unjust and unquiet peace.

The story does not end there.

But if the judge is more like us than like God, what about the widow? Who does she represent, in this parable about the need to pray always, and not to lose heart?

What is she petitioning for? She is not seeking a parking space or good weather nor even good health or a miracle cure. She is looking for justice.

I read a wonderful quote this week, from a very old letter by John Fischer in Harper’s magazine, which out of the blue and out of context reminded me of the determination and steely hope of Jesus’ message to his disciples, and the strong spine of the widow:

“The only corruption you really need to fear is the corruption of despair.”

The book in which I found the the letter quoted was written by one Charles E. Fager in 1967, and addressed moderate liberal critiques of the Black Power movement. It has been immensely striking, reading it today, to notice how many of the same arguments are still in currency, criticizing, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, as being too loud, too divisive, too bold while overlooking the fact that the people involved, that the widows and the bereaved Mothers of the Movement and the orphans and the unjustly arrested are still knocking on the doors of some unjust judges, awaiting justice.

If the widow in the parable is a model of persistent justice-seeking, then we should imagine her marching the streets demanding justice for the victims of gun violence, skipping school to protest government involvement in and inaction over the climate crisis, lobbying for a living wage, and unmasking sexual abuse in the workplace and even in the churches. The widow is a woman who deserves vindication – and while God has already vindicated her in her heart, she is persistent in demanding that the world recognize her worth and her words.

She should not need to advocate for herself, if we lived in a more just world. She does it anyway, until that kingdom come.

Do not lose heart, Jesus admonishes his disciples. Keep the faith. Resurrection is coming, and the justice of God is already at work in the world, despite the unjust judges, the uncaring and corrupt forces that profit from their unequal power. They will not forever resist the importunings of God’s righteousness.

Do not lose heart, Jesus encourages. Keep the faith. Resist the “corruption of despair.”

Of course, the word “corruption” has been in the news plenty recently; but it also always reminds me of the Psalmist, quoted by Luke in the book of Acts to prove the resurrection:

“You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience [the] corruption [of the grave]” (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27).

I don’t know about you, but I find myself quite capable of harbouring both the widow and the unjust judge within my internal narrative. I argue with myself over how much I am responsible for the injustice of the world, where I am a victim of it and where I am complicit in it. I want to justify myself. But that is not how grace works.

My internal unjust judge has a nasty habit of looking out from her bench and assessing everyone else in sight, instead of examining her own conscience and her own unrighteousness.

Jeremiah writes, “All shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30). Jesus says, “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

In other words, pay attention to your own conscience before God, rather than judging anyone else’s.

My internal judge takes some wearing down. I put up defences for my actions and inactions, for my inherited and adopted attitudes, for my self-centredness and my self-protection, for my privilege. Sometimes, when I am angry beyond reason or resentful of someone whose gifts are demonstrably greater than mine, when I am careless of the needs of others, preferring to protect my own interest, I worry that the unjust judge within me will get the final word; that my heart is too hardened for change.

But the widow, in my internal narrative, is the voice of mercy, insisting on having the last word, insisting on being heard.

The unjust judge in the parable has fallen prey to despair. He no longer fears God nor cares about the opinion of anyone else. He has given up on the very idea of justice. He has given up on the hope of God’s mercy. He has compromised his own faith and the faith entrusted to him by giving in to despair. But the widow, by her very persistence, awakens at least some spark within him, some ember that turns him back, ever so slightly, towards justice. God’s justice. God’s mercy. God’s grace.

Sometimes I worry that the unjust judge within me is too far gone for mercy; but the persistence of that widow, that icon of God’s compassion and care for the world nags me back to prayer, insisting that God’s righteousness is the only kind of justice worth having; reminding me that even through death Jesus place us within reach of resurrection.

This is why it is so important for me to pray at all times, so as not to lose that heart of God that keeps insisting that justice is possible, that mercy is reasonable, that resurrection is coming. I pray, not so that I can change anyone else’s mind, let alone God’s, but so that God, by her insistence and irritating persistence can change my own heart and mind, bringing them more in alignment with the will and word of God. I pray so as not to lose heart, to hear over and over and over again that widow’s word that God’s justice is eternal, preexisting, loaded with mercy, and final.

I pray to avoid the deadly corruption of despair; remembering that every lost sheep will be found by the persistent shepherd; that God, like the widow of the parable, will not rest until I admit that there is more to God’s justice than justification, and that I am not abandoned in the corruption of my sin, but saved from despair by the grace of God.

John Fischer’s “Letter to a New Leftist, From a Tired Liberal” (Harper’s, Vol. 232, No. 1390, March 1966), is quoted in Charles E. Fager, White Reflections on Black Power (William B. Eerdmans, 1967)

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I should get out more

“Don’t you remember me?”

I needed a few things from the store for my afternoon session, and the day was long and bright, so I walked. In my collar, I notice people respond to me passing them by, for better or for worse. I smile, pass the time of day. Then someone stopped me short:

“Don’t you remember me?”

I took a second look. “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I know you look familiar, but you’ll have to remind me.”

“I stopped you in the supermarket parking lot …”

That was nearly a year ago. The weather was colder, the days shorter. There was a little rain in the air. A parishioner of mine was drawing circles on the striped lot with his bicycle, keeping an eye on our exchange until I sent him away, assuring him that all was well, that it was my habit and vocation to talk to strangers in the street. I remembered.

“How do I look to you now?” they asked me. That one was easy. “Well,” I said, “very well.”

“You saved my life,” they told me, “stopping to talk with me that day.”

I knew that they meant it kindly. I know that it’s dangerous flattery, that it taps into my temptation to hold the world together. I knew, too well, that it wasn’t true. I remembered that day. I had done nothing but stop, and pray.

But the Spirit of God, brooding from before creation, has a habit of hatching something out of nothing: like the absence of the right words on a cold day that renders each breath visible, writing on the air; like the blank space I wear around my neck, between my blood and the world.

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What are we worth?

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid and Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2019

What is our place in the economy of God’s grace? Are we beloved children, lost lambs, or worthless slaves? Which is it to be, Jesus?

Text is famously lacking in the ability to convey nuances of tone (although writers and poets try their best). I sometimes wonder if the red letter editions of the Bible – the ones that highlight Jesus’ words – could use an additional colour or a pull-out fancy font particularly for irony. Because I get the feeling that this hard saying of our Lord and Saviour is full of it.

I grew up, as I suspect did a number of you, saying the Prayer of Humble Access before Communion (and even before I was allowed by Confirmation to receive Communion):

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy …

Soon afterwards, we responded to the invitation to draw near and receive the incalculable, indescribable grace of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood with the words,

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Elsewhere, Jesus told his first disciples,

“Whoever would be first among you must be your slave; for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:27-28)

There is so much work to be done, and when it is done, Jesus suggests, we should say,

“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:10). 

This morning at Epiphany we wore orange stoles in lamentation and honour of the young girl who was asleep in her family home where she should have been, and where she should have been safe yesterday morning when bullets from the street invaded her bedroom. She was shot in the head and she died. Lyric Melodi (such music in her name) was six years old, and she lived and was killed three miles from our church. 

We have certainly done no more than we ought to have done to deal with the gun violence on our streets, to protect our children, the children of God. Whatever we do at this point to combat gun violence, and to get guns off our streets, is no more than our Christian duty. No matter what we do, from lamentation to consolation, from activism to serious self-examination and the rooting out of anger and violence from our own hearts and lives; no matter what we do, it is no more than Christ has ordered us to do, no more than our baptismal promises to resist evil, to strive for justice and peace among all people, to respect the life and dignity of every human being; to become slaves to the love of God and of God’s family in creation.

But, “worthless”? God has numbered every hair on every body’s head, and knows each sparrow that falls. (Matthew 10:29-30)

That sentence that I used to say before every Communion, “I am not worthy to receive you…” comes in the gospels from the mouth not of a slave but of a centurion whose servant was sick. When Jesus offered to come to his house and heal the slave, the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” And Jesus answered him, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” (Matthew 8:5-13)

The Prayer of Humble Access itself alludes to the story of the foreign woman whose daughter was sick, who begged Jesus for healing, who abased herself, arguing with him, “‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’”  Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’” (Matthew 15:21-28)

Both instances come from petitioners who knew their dire need of mercy, who were prepared and willing and eager to humble themselves before Christ, but who also knew, or believed, or had faith that their child, their servant, their daughter, their slave was worthy of Christ’s compassion, his healing grace, his notice, and his love. They trusted in that love to overcome any unworthiness they themselves may carry.

In this vignette, this parable as it may be that we hear anew in today’s gospel, Jesus paints the picture of a landowner waiting for their meal, and the slave coming in from the fields after labouring over the stewardship of the land and its creatures. Perhaps we might call to mind the image of God in the Garden at the beginning, creating the heavens and the earth, and then setting the human to work to tend them.

If you were the landowner, then, asks Jesus, would you say to your underlings, “Come here at once and take your place at the table;” sit down, eat and drink? (Luke 17:7)

Maybe the slave has been plowing, Jesus says. Elsewhere, he has told his disciples,

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 7:26)

Your heavenly father feeds the sparrows. Come, sit down, eat and drink.

Or maybe the slave was tending the sheep, Jesus says. Elsewhere, he has told his disciples,

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?  (Matthew 18:12)

And elsewhere he exclaimed, How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! (Matthew 12:12)

And what’s more,

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36)

and he told the crowds with a claim upon his compassion to sit down upon the grass, and he fed them on bread and fish until they had their fill. (Matthew 14:13-21 and elsewhere)

There is nothing we can do to earn our worth in the economy of God’s grace. It is too much. We can work our whole lives toward the gospel, plowing the fields, sowing them with justice and mercy as we are able, labouring toward the harvest, tending the sheep and the little lambs, even the sparrows with as much loving care as we can muster, and we will only ever have done what we already owe to God and to Christ and to one another. There is nothing we can give or give up or create to compensate Christ for his sacrifice, the offering up of his body and spirit for us and for our salvation. We are unworthy.

And yet time and again he comes to us in our weariness and our worthlessness and our work and our worship and he upends the heavens and the earth, inviting us to his table, serving us with his Body and Blood, feeding us with his mercy and the kind of justice that makes no sense in this world.

Here’s the dripping irony of Jesus’ words to his disciples,  to us. 

“Who among you” [asks Jesus] “would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” 

But the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

And on the night before he died, having loved his own who were in the world – he loved them to the end – Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:1-5), and afterwards he told them,

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you slaves any longer … but I have called you friends.” (John 15:14-15)

“Come here at once, and take your place at the table.” 

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Lyric Melodi Lawson’s name.

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To move mountains

When she was old and fading –

her gray hair paling,

her skin thinning and softening –

my grandmother painted watercolours.

A mustard seed of memory

shuttled yellow clouds across canvas,

stilled storms, swept the earth into peaks:

with her paintbrush, she moved mountains.

From this Sunday’s gospel (Luke 17:5-10):

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

On the way home I heard a piece on NPR about the late artist and personality, Bob Ross. A participant in a Bob Ross Certified Instructor’s painting class, Susan Rossi, told how Bob Ross’s painting opened up a world of possibilities for her after a stroke changed her life:

You think, wow, no limits. You can move clouds, you can change mountains …

I received the sudden (and not altogether mountain-shattering) revelation that mustard-seed faith is really in league with breadcrumb imagination to re-create the kingdom of heaven …

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Word and deed

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany. In the country, impeachment has been mooted in the wake of a whistleblower report. In the world, governments are as confused as we are (Brexit, prorogation, Afghan elections, Israel’s indecisive election fallout). The global climate crisis prompts a child to scold world leaders at the UN. In the lessons of the day, the rich man regrets his neglect of Lazarus at his gate, and Jeremiah prophesies from prison in word and deed.

Words have power. We see it at the beginning, when God says “Light,” and light is created, and when God says, “Night,” and the day turns away.

God’s word is not empty. Words have power. But this is not magic. To unlock the power of our own words, we need to join them to creative action, to act in the image of God.

In this morning’s reading, Jeremiah is in prison. Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians, against whom it has been struggling to stand for some years. A brief relief in the form of intervention by Egypt, an unreliable ally itself, has given way to renewed severity of the siege of the city of Zion. The king, Zedekiah, will preside over the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the political and ruling classes to Babylon. Jeremiah, the prophet, refuses to give oracles that will tell him otherwise.

Prophets, true prophets, are truth-tellers. They are not in the prophecy business for popularity. Unlike politicians, their constituency is not power brokers but the poor in spirit, the people of God who seek hope not in empires and armies but in the word of God, God’s promise to their ancestors to walk with them and not to leave them lost and alone.

So Jeremiah refuses to give the king the comfort he seeks, a false prophecy that all will be well and that God is on his side. Jeremiah does not promise a magical deus ex machina that will rescue Jerusalem from its impending exile. Those would be empty words.

But Jeremiah does offer something else. And this is where it gets interesting.

The word of God came to Jeremiah, that his cousin would ask him to buy a field, to keep it in the family. The right of redemption was a line of inheritance that meant that if property was on the brink of falling out of the family – through death or debt or bankruptcy – it must first be offered for sale to a relation, who had the right of first refusal to keep it in the family.

It might be thought that Jeremiah, imprisoned by the king and knowing as he did that the whole city, the whole country was about to fall, might have better things to do and to think about than to buy his cousin’s field. But Jeremiah was a prophet. And when prophets prophesy, they do not only use words. A prophecy is not a scroll, but a seed. A prophecy does not only tell you the word of God, it enacts the word of God. And as the word of God has power, so the prophet does not only speak of the will of God, but he or she brings it to life.

Jeremiah knows that Judah has betrayed its duty to God and to the people, turning to idols. He knows that they have debased themselves such that they are low enough to be overrun by their enemies. But he knows, also, that the mercy of God endures forever; that the love of God will not leave God’s people as long as God lives.

So Jeremiah performed a prophetic action. He bought the field. He went through the ritual transaction that conveyed the property from his cousin to his own hand, and he handed the deeds to the scribe, Baruch, and charged him to place them in an earthenware jar, to protect them and preserve them, for, he said, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

In prison under the guard of a king in a city under siege, Jeremiah performed the prophetic action of seeding the future with a piece of land that his family could inherit again; protecting their place in the promised land; trusting in the unbroken covenant of God and the redemptive mercy of God’s grace. He made the prophecy literally not with words only, but with deeds. He spoke the word of the Lord and he acted it out.

Jesus was more than a prophet. He was, he is the very Word of God. And that Word is powerful and active. Jesus did not come only to preach and to teach. When he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” he demonstrated the inbreaking of God’s rule of mercy and grace, healing the sick, bringing good news to the poor and to the poor in spirit, those in need of forgiveness and redemption. He raised the dead. He not only prophesied self-sacrifice, but he performed it. He not only prophesied resurrection, but he embodied it.

If you read Morning Prayer regularly, which is a practice I recommend, and one which I am happy to help you learn if you need some help, well then you are familiar with the Second Song of the prophet Isaiah:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty:
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.

Thus says the Lord.

My word will not return empty, but it will accomplish that which I have purposed. The word of God is pregnant with power. It bursts upon the world with the power to forgive sins, redeem the irredeemable, sow repentance in the stony soil of the hearts of humanity, seed the suspicion of mercy among us. It raises the possibility and the promise of resurrection.

Jeremiah was not in denial about the state of his world when he bought his cousin’s field, but he knew that the ultimate reality, the best bet in the world, was on the mercy of God. He invested in that hope, word and deed.

We know that we live besieged by sin, which whispers through personal temptation to love our neighbour less than ourselves and our own interests; to love God with something less than our whole bodies, minds, and souls, keeping something back for ourselves. We are imprisoned by systemic evils that bind us, through the idolatry of greed and power, racism, sexism, phobias and prejudice. We are seduced by alternative sources of salvation, putting our trust in idols and empires, heroes and Pharaohs, great armies and grand schemes.

Yet, even when we think we do not know which way to turn, we remember that with God all help is possible. Jeremiah said, “Nothing is too hard for you.” Paul wrote, “With God all things are possible.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and I am life.”

From the heart of the besieged city, Jeremiah prophesied redemption, and he acted upon his word as though it were true. In word and in deed he proclaimed the goodness, the faithfulness, the mercy of God, calling the people to repentance and promising that it would be worth it.

We have promised at Baptism to proclaim by word and example – by word and deed – the good news of God in Christ: Christ who healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave the needy, withheld revenge from the enemy, loved the doubtful, raised the dead. If we proclaim the good news of God in that Christ, the Word of God, then we are called, too, to provide examples from our own prophetic actions, demonstrating mercy, illustrating grace, promising redemption, not shying away from the cross. We are called to live prophetic lives, exemplars of repentance and redemption.

If that sounds hard, trust me, I know it. But we are called the Body of Christ. We have inherited the Incarnation of the Word of God; and God’s word does not return empty, but accomplishes that which God has purposed, and prospers in that for which God sent it. Like Jeremiah, we are called to invest and enact the promises of God that we have understood: that nothing is too hard for God; that no one is beyond the reach of God; that God’s mercy endures forever.

As the Body of Christ, we embody the gospel that we have received. With God’s help, may we act like it.

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100 orange stoles

In 2016, in the run-up to the second annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day, I began making orange stoles to bring the #WearOrange movement, with its focus on life and hope, back to church.

It wasn’t exactly nor entirely my idea. As I prepare to send out the 100th orange stole, Sojourners takes up the story:


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How to read the Bible

There is a section in one of my church Bibles called, “How to read the Bible.” My curiosity says I ought to check it out; my concern wonders if it isn’t a bit late for that by this point in my Bible-reading career. If I get around to it, and find out something astonishing, I’ll share it here. In the meantime, here’s a brief, light-hearted, but heartfelt guide that I published this morning at the Episcopal Cafe:

How to read the Bible:

Alone in the dead of night, with only the owls for company;

Bravely, when the text takes a terrifying turn;

Curiously, open to giants, sea monsters, miracles, and talking snakes;

Daily, as a discipline and a delight;

Eagerly, panting as the hart for living water;

Fearfully, and with trembling, since such is the beginning of wisdom;

Gregariously, as they began, reading the scriptures in faithful company;

Halfway, allowing yourself to be arrested by a verse or a word before the reading is done;

Intently, seeking the marrow of the meaning;

Joyfully, in the knowledge that God’s love is disguised in its ink;

Knowledgeably, seeking out the wisdom of the ages and contemporary scholarship;

Loudly, proclaiming good news before the assembled company of worshippers;

Moderately, with a good but not a gluttonous appetite;

Now, and then, and tomorrow;

Openly, without prejudice and with an ear to the Holy Spirit;

Prayerfully, before, and after, and always;

Quietly, with a calm spirit, or one at least that seeks the still, small voice beyond the storm;

Rowdily, when the occasion calls for it;

Stealthily, at other times;

Truthfully, allowing the text to interrogate you and answering honestly;

Usually, creating a habit of devotional reading that endures;

Valiantly, doing battle with the distractions of the world and the devil to keep your word to the word;

Wistfully, with a heart for heaven on earth;

Xylophagously, (metaphorically) devouring and inwardly digesting the scriptures;

Yawning, falling asleep mid-sentence that revelation may haunt your dreams;


Photo: The Creation: The First Eight Chapters of Genesis. Woodcuts by Frans Masereel. On display at the Library of Congress, from its Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

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