Building up

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, on Year C Proper 27, including Haggai’s instruction to the people returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.

It is tempting to read Haggai’s prophecies as an allegory for our times. We could imagine him coming into this space, our space, and asking, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now?”

I have heard you, when you reminisce about a church full of families and bursting Sunday School classes. How would you answer Haggai?

He prophesies to the people of Jerusalem, “I will shake the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. … The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”

Haggai proclaimed his prophecies in 520 BCE. They were not allegorical. They addressed a real, historical situation and a people struggling to find their faith after a faith-shattering event – even a faith-shattering generation. The nations of Israel and Judah had all fallen to a succession of assaults from powerful armies and empires. At the nadir of their experience, the Babylonians had routed Jerusalem, razed the Temple, and taken the ruling classes into exile en masse in order to defeat not only the fight but the faith and the fire of the Jewish people.

Then as now, Jerusalem lay among troubled lands.

But Babylon itself fell to the Persians, and their new overlord, Cyrus, returned the Judean captives to Jerusalem and even encouraged them to rebuild the city walls and the Temple. Of course, there was a strategic advantage to Cyrus in having a strong state restored between the Jordan and Egypt, especially one full of grateful subjects in a protectorate state. But the biblical writers also see the hand and Spirit of God afoot in the change of circumstances for the exiles. Since the hand and Spirit of God are always afoot, we may agree with their dual diagnosis of the situation.

Still, for another eighteen years after Cyrus’ decree, the people who returned to Jerusalem and the people who had never left disagreed and dithered and stalled over the rebuilding. It is not easy to find a way back when the world has moved on, and new neighbours have moved in, and the footprint, the foundation upon which one’s life was once built has shifted and cracked.

So it is that in 520, shortly after Cyrus was succeeded in the empire by King Darius, Haggai and Zechariah take the people to task, by turns blasting them for their lack of progress on restoring the Temple and its worship, and assuring them of God’s favour on the project, as prophets tend to do. Zechariah is more of a visionary, describing dreams of angels and oracles of success; while Haggai is more direct, addressing the governor and the high priest and telling them, quite simply, to get to work.

The new Temple was dedicated in 515 BCE. There is no record of Haggai attending the celebrations, nor does his book of prophecy extend beyond his initial promptings that were successful in goading the powers that remained into rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. While we have no absolute knowledge either way, commentators suggest that if Haggai had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophetic commandments, he might have had something to say about it.

Instead, he seems most likely like Moses to have led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, which they entered without him, burying him within sight but not touch of the holy city.

The second Temple was extended by Herod the Great, around the time of the turn of the eras, and destroyed once again by an occupying empire, the Romans, in retaliation for Jewish independence and uprisings in 70 CE. It was here, in the decades between Herod’s construction and the Roman destruction, that Jesus encountered the Sadducees and others. It was here that he threw over the tables of the money changers. It was this Temple of which Jesus was accused of saying, “Destroy it, and I will rebuild it in three days.”

Although his disciples later understood him to be speaking, allegorically, of his Body. (Mark 14:58; John 2:19-22)

If Haggai’s Temple-building prophecies were to be an allegory, or a parable, for our times, there are a few messages I would suggest we listen for in his sermon.

First, we neglect the worship of God at our peril. If we become disconnected from the source of our inspiration, creation, redemption, preservation – if we let our prayer lives lie in ruins, we will find that there are consequences. If we allow outside forces to dissuade or discourage or prevent us from preaching the gospel, we will regret it. If we have suffered even a faith-shattering earthquake, there is a call upon us to rebuild our relationship with God, to find God near to us. There are no excuses not to come together to pray.

Next, while Haggai promises prosperity and splendour such as the first Temple never saw, he also mentions, at least in passing, that all of this glory, all of this majesty, richness, and renown belong really and solely to God.

“I will shake all the nations,” says the Lord, “so that the treasure of the nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.”

All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thind own have we given thee.

If we consider that we are building up the church for our own ends, for our own preservation, security, sustenance, we are missing something huge. Something transcendent. We are missing God’s point. Some of Haggai’s people did, too; they forgot that always, in the Bible, in God’s words, Jerusalem is built not for the sake of the people within its walls alone but to be a beacon to the nations, the source and sign of God’s comfort to all people, God’s promised mercy and steadfastness to all who have been created in God’s image.

There was a quote making the rounds this past week, attributed to William Temple on his feast day, to the effect that the church is the only institution founded for the benefit of those who are not its members. To quote Temple more closely, but to omit some of his narrowness,

Certainly the Church, consisting of men and women whom God of His sheer goodness has delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of His dear Son, will find its first duty, as also its first impulse, in an abandonment of adoration. But if the God who is worshipped is … the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, this love and adoration of God will immediately express itself in the love and service of men, and especially in the passionate desire to share with others the supreme treasure of the knowledge of God. The Church, like its Master, will be chiefly concerned to seek and to save that which is lost, calling men everywhere to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. Worship is indeed the very breath of its life, but service of the world is the business of its life. It is the Body of Christ, that is to say, the instrument of His will, and His will is to save the world.

Thirdly, like Haggai we may not live to see the results of our service; at least, not to their completion. If is the will of God to save the world, that work will continue long after we have hung up our hymnals and put down our hands. And yet we see all around us that God is not still, that God is not to be denied, that God is saving the world through Christ, as quickly as any death can try to destroy it; because we have hope in the Resurrection, and we will not let that hope be extinguished. To quote William Temple once more,

The spiritual life of men is not limited to this planet, and the fulfilment of the Church’s task can never be here alone.

Finally, even if we build something only to see it crumble again, like the second Temple of Jerusalem, we have the word of Jesus that Resurrection is coming. Destroy it, he says, and I will raise it up in three days. He is speaking of his body; and you are, we are the Body of Christ.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Church and Nation: The Bishop Paddock Lectures for 1914-15, Delivered at the General Theological Seminary, New York, by William Temple (Macmillan and Co, 1915), Lecture II: Church and State, via Project Gutenberg

Prayer “For the Parish,” Book of Common Prayer, 817

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For all the saints

A sermon for the Sunday after All Saints, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

My parents moved, while I was at college, to a small Welsh village with one pub, one primary school, and one Norman church, built by actual Normans about 1000 years ago: St Michael and All Angels. We were married there, Gareth and I, even though I had never lived in the village, because we hadn’t quiet got around to living anywhere yet. On the night before our wedding, the bare stone structure was filled with daddy-long-legs, presumably at prayer, which kind village women vacuumed up by the dozen.

Over the years, it became a home from home base when we visited from Singapore, or Reading, or from here. The priest at St Michael’s (not the one who married us – long story) buried my grandmother, who also never lived in the village, and then my mother, who did. The priest and my father together dug my mother’s ashes into the church graveyard. The marker that she said she didn’t want is just to the right of the porch door as you approach down the gravel path.

It is not the church where I grew up, found Jesus, heard the whisper of the Spirit, scary and exciting. That one was called All Saints.

One Sunday, long after we’d moved here, after my mother had died, after too many other beloveds were lost to me, I went to the churchyard at six o’clock in the evening, because my father swore that’s when the service would be (the small village shared its priest with a couple other small villages, and services were movable feasts).

There was no one else there, but the door, normally locked, was open to the empty church. I took that as an invitation anyway, stepped inside, took a front pew and a Book of Common Prayer.

In the silence, watching the dust motes dance through the air like angels, I read the service silently. I felt that prickling – like a woollen sleeve responding to static electricity – of all the people behind me: the people at our wedding; the people at my mother’s funeral; the few, the handful of faithful parishioners who knew the proper service times and had been there earlier that day, sharing in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. Between them sang the ghosts of the Normans and their descendants, centuries of invaders, settlers, and local shepherds. Behind them were the travellers, spreading the stories through the countries and the counties, and behind them, sending them out as evangelists to the world, the truth of the story, Jesus.

I knew, in that slanted summer afternoon, its light filtered through stone, the solidity, the subtle but strong presence of the Communion of Saints.

On Tuesday evenings since the summer we have been gathering in the Choir for Centering Prayer, and a couple of you have commented on the apprehendable presence at those moments of the Communion of Saints that populate the pews where you now sit. We are connected, through life, through death, through the Resurrection promised by Christ’s death and Resurrection, beyond our imagination.

Those of us who have stayed on those Tuesday evenings recognize some of the language we heard from the book of Daniel a few minutes ago, from reading the Revelation to John which borrows from and expands upon Daniel’s visions of the apocalypse, the uncovering of the hidden realms of hope in which the saints of God worship day and night before the throne, and the powers of evil are defeated.

The four beasts of the sea, aficionados of our Revelation Bible study know, as well as actual kingdoms represent the created order in all of its chaos and disobedience, its separation from the Eden that God created us to live in, and that we, unfortunately, polluted with our pride and our gullibility. But the four beasts, the four kings, the empires that govern the earth with corrupt power and impure motives, they are no match, in the end, for the justice of God. It is made clear from the start of creation that victory over the chaos of the dark seas, the kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God.

Daniel and John each write out of their own experience of a difficult and morally compromised, powerfully corrupted world. They each address their own times, centuries apart, and is it not telling that even so, they have so much in common? There is nothing new, another visionary writes elsewhere in the Bible, under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The trials that Jesus describes to his disciples as conduits of God’s blessings – hunger, grief, worry – are common to all people, in all times and places, even when they come in different clothes, different fashions, different disguises.

Daniel and his fellow apocalyptics have this, too, in common, that they practise their religion under persecution by a foreign power; that they are exiled from their homeland and from their religious community; and that they have nevertheless a fierce and slightly scary faith in the ultimate justice and victory of God. The holy ones of the Most High, the saints and the elders gathered around the throne of God, will not be denied their reward. So it is that Jesus can bless those who mourn, and who are persecuted, who grieve and are lonely, who are starved of righteousness and justice, because the victory of God has already been won.

Keep the faith, then, Jesus encourages his disciples. Do good even when evil seems to have the upper hand. Be generous even when it seems foolish. Be gentle, even when the world is ungentle. You are blessed as you do so: you are holy, for so were the prophets and the saints who went before you. Do not deny the righteousness, the merciful justice of God.

Even your tears are formed from living water. Even your hunger is a sign of God’s blessing, a sign that you know, deep in your belly, that God has more for you, that God intends you for greater satisfaction. That is the faith of the apocalyptic visionaries: that already, God is making all things new, that death’s days are numbered.

When we pray in an empty church, we are not alone. When we miss those who used to sit between us, behind us, even through our grief for those who have gone before, even though we know we are no saints, and neither were some of them, the Communion of Saints surrounds us, their echoes lifting our hymns to heaven. And we are a community, a communion of saints within ourselves. When one is away, or sick, or in heaven we know them by their spirit still stirring among us. It is with them, and with the angels and archangels, that we continue to sing Holy, holy, holy.

Blessed, you are blessed, says Jesus, whether surrounded by saints and angels or alone amongst the cold stone, because Jesus has been there, too, and layered beneath him the history of creation and the repeated and unrepeatable, revelatory and irrevocable covenants of God’s grace; and he has seen Resurrection dawning.

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All Souls

O eternal Lord God, who holdest all souls in life … (Book of Common Prayer, 202)

If tomorrow is Hallowe’en, then Friday is All Saints’ Day. It follows, then, that Saturday celebrates All Souls. Even now that I am older, I count off the days like a younger woman following discreet symbols on her calendar.

November 2nd, All Souls, is not the day that my first love died. It is only the date upon which its demise was definitively confirmed, and its remains removed from my womb, which had refused till now, in its grief, to give them up. It was as though my flesh and blood themselves held out hope of a miracle, despite the signs already apprehended by my rational mind.

Was it too early to consider it a soul? For the longest time, ensoulment was presumed to take place at the quickening – the first movements of the foetus felt by its parent. These, in my informed imagination, were the signs of God’s intention toward adoption of the unborn child, the echo of the breath poured into God’s first child, formed of the earth and set in motion by the Spirit. This one left long before that could happen, but if its soul was held back in heaven, never to be inserted into the tiny, textbook form on the disrupted black screen, I was convinced that there was time yet for some reunion with my flesh and blood, glowing, unformed bone, untold name, ungrown infant.

Although my body still bears grief, stumbling into November with its ash and bonfire embers, the ghost of that fist of flesh contracting as though still holding fast, I reason with my bones, there is no reasonable cause for sadness, if this slight soul never left heaven, never fell, never bruised, nor ached. I imagine that it waits, as does my body, for our first meeting, one day when our souls will substitute for sight and know one another by the resolution of a long-suspended chord.

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Fight the good fight

A sermon for October 27th 2019 (Year C Proper 25) at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. Readings include Paul’s letter to Timothy, in which he reflects on fighting the good fight, finishing the face, keeping the faith, as he faces his impending end in Rome.

This week’s hymnody is a trip down memory lane for me. “Fight the good fight” (Hymnal 1982 #552) is a hymn that I haven’t heard or sung in decades. I remember learning it in elementary school. We sang it to a different tune – one that was light and not much like a fight song.

The language of fighting is not the language that I would choose for my own prayer or worship. We’ve known each other long enough now that you might guess that I’m something of a pacifist, at least most of the time.

So I found myself wondering what it meant to Paul to fight a “good fight.” You may not know that in Arabic, that phrase is translated as jihad – a shock to western ears, perhaps; a sign of how complicated the world has become. What defined the good fight for Paul, as he sat in his prison house in Rome, awaiting the penultimate judgement of the empire, his almost certain martyrdom, still supremely confident in the final judgement of Christ?

The good fight, it seems, is not necessarily one that one would win, at least in the eyes of the world.

While Paul was responsible for the planting and nurture of countless churches in numerous cities and countries across the empire, and while his legacy remains with us today in the form of his letters, his theological influence, and the descendants of those many churches, he ended his life almost certainly in martyrdom, having failed to persuade the powers that be of his justification, of Christ’s Resurrection.

But Paul, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, was not disappointed. As a Jewish man deeply familiar with that psalm and its promises, he was claiming his reward, and planning his habitation in the house of the Lord, forever.

We know surprisingly little about Paul’s life. He is introduced in the book of Acts as a young man, going by the name of Saul at this point, and intent on the destruction of the new sect of Christianity. Instead, he finds himself confronted on the road to Damascus by a theophany, an in-breaking of the direct, discernible, and unmistakable presence of God in the person of Jesus, who demands to know why Saul is persecuting him. (Elsewhere, Jesus has spoken of his identification with the suffering, the hungry, the imprisoned, the persecuted (Matthew 25).)

Henceforth, Saul considers himself to be an apostle, an eye-witness of Jesus’ power and resurrection, and one sent out to preach that Resurrection to all people. He argues, according to Acts, for the extension of the gospel beyond the confines of the synagogue and the Jewish community to the Gentiles.

A.N. Wilson, the secular, not to say sceptical, historian and biographer, suggests that were it not for Paul, we would not know the stories that most influenced us growing up. If Paul had not broken Christianity out of the Jewish mold, Wilson argues, then it would have remained a minority, Jewish sect, and we would be as sketchy in our knowledge of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Jonah and the big fish, Noah and the ark as most of us are with the Maccabees, and the story behind Hannukah (Wilson, 14).

We owe our conversion and our entire culture, our knowledge not only of Christ but of the God of Abraham, Isaiah, and Esther to Paul; hence his confidence in the face of the executors of the emperor.

Paul has come a long way from the zealot youth who nodded approvingly at the execution of those whom he considered dangerous heretics and irresponsible infidels, who even volunteered for persecution duty. He has learned finally what the prophets had been telling him all along: that God’s loving-kindness extends beyond our reckoning, and that true religion loves mercy, does justice, and is overall humble, not seeking to outdo, outrun, nor second-guess the righteous love of God.

For the sake of that righteousness, Paul has endured with gladness (or at least without losing faith) shipwreck, snakebite, arrests, imprisonment, abandonment, assaults, and exile.

The good fight, Paul has learned, is the one that he doesn’t mind losing, so long as he may keep his martyr’s crown, so long as he has hold of the hem of Jesus’ robe.

After all, Jesus himself faced the same judgement of the empire, and the same ignominious, criminal execution at its hands. His enemies thought that it was a defeat. They were wrong.

It’s interesting to wonder – and we will never know, in this lifetime – what Paul’s role was in that event, whether he did, in fact, participate in the first persecution of Jesus in the flesh. Paul never mentions having seen Jesus before his vision on the road to Damascus, and it is commonplace to assume, as my old teacher E.P. Sanders does, that the two men’s paths had never crossed (Sanders, 10-11).

But Wilson notes that at the time that we first encounter Saul in the book of Acts, he seems to be employed by the chief priests as some kind of a police officer. Is it too much to imagine, Wilson wonders, that he might have been in that same job a couple of years earlier, when the police force of the chief priests arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they flogged him before handing him over to be crucified (Wilson, 54-55)?

If so, Paul’s fight is also one with his own conscience – the unflagging campaign to claim for himself the extremes of Christ’s mercy declared even from the Cross, his forgiveness even for one who participated in his crucifixion. It might explain why the man was so driven, throughout his biblical career, to fight for the gospel of Christ’s salvation, the redemption of the Cross, the reality of Resurrection.

We know so little about Paul’s real life and inner workings. We have only hints, letters to communities we cannot see, reports from journeys we can barely imagine. But his experience of grace, of conviction, conversion, repentance, reassurance; his lifelong fight to embrace the grace offered to him even on the road to Damascus – that is a story we can understand.

We don’t want to fight. We know that we are as divided now as the world through which Paul travelled. On the anniversary of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we continue to reckon with the inheritance of anti-Semitism, which would make no sense to Jesus or to Paul, but which is perhaps our very Christian original sin. We continue to use “Pharisee” as a curse word, while Paul was proud of rabbinical education, his background immersion in the timeless stories of God’s covenant with God’s people. We are suspicious of unexpected friendships. We have forgotten how to love our enemies.

But if we take Paul’s model for the “good fight,” we find one rooted in love; one that involves repentance; that lets go of success or worldly outcomes in the service of love; but that persists, “sticking to its guns” (strictly metaphorically speaking) in the face of injustice; one that stands strongly in defence of those outside of the camp; one that involves personal investment and self-sacrifice, as all good fights must. We are encouraged not to be afraid to take on the unwinnable battles.

If we learn anything from the ends of Jesus’ and Paul’s lives, it is that we are always to be defeated by the abiding and abounding mercy of God, which the empire still fails to recognize, which the world still fails to reward.

We each have a holy war inside us. It reflects the hope and the struggle of our prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done. The good fight is the fight to maintain hope in the face of certain despair, and the promise of life in the face of certain death. It is the determination to do what is right at the expense of what is profitable, even when the world sees it as wrongheaded and foolish. It is an obstinate insistence on the value of forgiveness, and the staunch resistance against injustice. It is the declaration of the gospel to those who might otherwise never know that there is an alternative to the world’s win or lose strategy; because after the Cross, after the tomb, after the death even of all that is holy, in the morning, there is Resurrection.

But the good fight surrenders to the superior firepower of the Holy Spirit, the heat of love, and the overwhelming might of a peace that passes understanding, for all who rely on their own strength will be humbled, but those who humble themselves before the Prince of Peace will overcome.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Brief Insight (Oxford University Press, 1991)
A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (W.W. Norton, 1997)
Featured image: Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, by Hans Speckaert [Public domain], via wikimedia commons

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I’ll eat my words

Today, instead of writing

I consumed words like cereal,

inhaling through my ears

the opinions of the radio,

rolling words of fiction

between my teeth to see

if I could taste the lie,

drowning D. H. Lawrence in the bath.

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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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