Sunday October 20, 2019

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2019c

Old Testament – Jeremiah 31:31-34

New Testament – Luke 18:1-8

Chasing After God's Heart

INTRODUCTION: A few years ago two judges in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, suddenly found themselves in some hot water.


You see, the two men, Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, were deep into a scheme that became known as the “kids for cash” scandal. Apparently, the two men had secretly made a deal with a for-profit juvenile detention center. And the deal, believe it or not, was this. They would impose overly harsh sentences on juveniles to keep the occupancy rate super high at the detention center, as well as other extended programs run by the same folks. In return, the two men got cash kick-backs.


Yep, thousands of kids, it turns out, were sentenced to unduly harsh stays at a detention center, and other related programs, all so two grown men could make a few extra bucks on the side. One 14-year-old boy, for example, caught stealing loose change from unlocked vehicles in his neighborhood was given a nine-month sentence. Another one, who made fun of an assistant principal on social media, was shipped off to a wilderness camp for troubled teens for several weeks.


Needless to say, it was shocking stuff for the residents of Wilkes-Barre, PA. Judges, after all, are supposed to be above such shenanigans, right? They are supposed to be impartial when applying the law and above reproach. Especially, one would hope, when the legal matters in question involve kids, who are reliant on adults to look out for them because of their age and overall dependency.               


So in an ironic twist, the two judges eventually found themselves facing their own long prison sentences. Conahan eventually pled guilty and got 17.5 years in prison. Ciaverella, declining a plea agreement, went to trial and ended up with a 28 year sentence.


Of course long before Conahan and Ciaverella ever got around to making a mockery of the judicial system, the judge in Jesus’ parable was also hard at work doing the same thing.


Just like today, judges in Jesus‘ day were supposed to be impartial and even-handed in their decisions. In theory, they were supposed to apply the law equally to all without favoritism or prejudice. But just like with the “cash for kids” scandal, there was the theory as to how judges were to fulfill their duties, and then there was the actual practice. And the judge in Jesus’ parable, well, he was into his own shady dealings. 

You see, in the ancient world, widows lived a precarious existence. Since a husband’s wealth and land reverted back to his family at his passing, widows were dependent upon their in-laws for their security and future. Unlike today, widows had no rights when it came to a husband’s inheritance.


The matter was of such concern God even went so far as to make a special note of the problem in the Book of Exodus. Or as chapter 22 of Exodus likes to put it: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn…” And yet even with such dire warnings, it wasn’t uncommon for in-laws to drop widowed daughter-in-laws like a hot potato.


And so the widow has gone to the judge to seek justice. But the judge? Well, he appears to have taken a bribe from the widow’s in-laws to ignore her case. She has been dumped by her in-laws with her husband’s death, and unfortunately for her, the same in-laws have lined the judge’s pockets in an effort to make sure she doesn’t get a fair hearing.  


And yet, the widow keeps at it. Day after day, she shows up in his courtroom demanding justice.


And this is one of the cases where the way the passage is translated isn’t very helpful. For the judges’ lamentation that the widow is going to wear him out with her continual coming, well, what the judge really means is that he is afraid she is going to give him a black-eye!


No wonder the judge finally decides to give in and grant her justice. For the widow is far from some meek, spirit-broken, and abject woman just begging for justice as tears run down her cheeks. Nope. She stands in front of the judge everyday with a baseball bat propped against her shoulder wanting to know when he is going to address her case.     


There is this great story about Mother Teresa and a visit she once paid to Edward Bennett Williams, a high-powered Washington attorney in charge of a charitable foundation. Although Mother Teresa was seeking money to fight AIDS, Williams and others felt the foundation they were overseeing needed to have a different focus. So their plan was simple. They would listen to Mother Teresa’s speech and then politely decline her request.


Well, the day of the meeting arrived and after making her presentation Williams said, “Thank you, Mother Teresa. But at this time we can’t help you.” Mother Teresa apparently responded by saying, “Let us pray.” And after she had prayed, well, she launched into the exact same presentation she just made! Once finished, Williams one more time said no, only to have Mother Teresa say again “Let us pray,” and start all over for a third time. Realizing she wasn’t going to go away, Williams reportedly wrote her a check right there on the spot.


And so it goes for the widow and the corrupt judge. Realizing she’ll never leave him alone, the judge finally gives in and grants her request just to get rid of her. Incorrigible, the widow finally wins the day.


The parable, of course, is meant to be a word of encouragement and hope for any and all who long for a better world, right?


For if a corrupt judge can finally be convinced to grant a helpless widow’s request for justice, we can be assured it is only a matter of time before God’s justice is also achieved. Or as Jesus puts it, “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?”


You see, in the Bible, God is also frequently described as a judge. But unlike the corrupt judge who is uncaring, callous, and quick to take a bribe, God is described as being just the opposite. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,” we are told in the Book of Deuteronomy, “the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow…” 


God, it turns out, is also a judge, but a far, far different one than in Jesus’ parable. While one is negligent and indifferent, the other, we are assured, is attentive and concerned. While one is remote and unsympathetic, the other is ever present and full of empathy.


And so Jesus parable is meant to be a source of encouragement and hope for all who long for justice. For unlike the unjust judge in the story, who must be harangued and hounded by the widow, God is actually a just one - always seeking and working to bring his kingdom to fruition. So keeping praying for justice, says Jesus. Keep praying, knowing that justice is at the heart of, well, God’s heart and his plans for the world.  


Of course, in persistently praying for the fulfillment of God’s plans for the world, it’s only natural for us to be reminded of the ways we too can be part of God’s unfolding kingdom.


Yes, God is at work renewing and recreating the world. But we can forget that it is through us that much of God’s work tends to be done. For ever since that day when water was dribbled down our heads, or we were pulled up from it soaking wet, with our baptisms God’s Spirit has been at work in our lives. God’s spirit has been at work slowly attuning our lives with his life drawing us ever more and more into his purposes.


Can God’s Spirit work in other places, in other ways, and in other people? Of course. And no doubt such work by the Spirit is occurring even now right this very moment. For who can actually control God’s Spirit?        


Barbara Brown Taylor, a minister and well-known writer, has a seven-year-old granddaughter named Madeline. According to Taylor, she often spends time rehearsing responses to questions that she knows Madeline will one day ask her as she grows older. And when the day comes and Madeline asks her outright if prayer really works,Taylor claims her response will be this: “Oh sweetie, of course it does. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that.” 


C.S. Lewis also has a famous bit about prayer that many of you might know. It is similar, I think, to what Barbara Brown Taylor claims she will one day say to her granddaughter. Lewis’ line runs like this,  “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.”                      


CONCLUSION: So let us pray without ceasing, my friends. Let us pray persistently so we can chase after God’s heart.


For in chasing after God’s heart, we have our own hearts changed. They become attuned, more and more, to God’s, and God’s wishes for the world.


For God is at work in the world, day-by-day, bit-by-bit, bringing his kingdom to fruition. God is at work slowly making the world right and true and whole. And for some crazy, mysterious, odd reason, God’s preferred method for getting that job done is through you and me. 


And now to the God of all grace, who calls us all to share in God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power forever and ever! Amen.