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The sermon for week October 20, 2013

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Prayer, Faith, and Justice

Every morning she would wake up and reach for someone who was no longer there.

Every morning started in profound sadness. Yet this would pass and something else would take its place. It was a quiet rage about her situation.

It wasn’t until she started to pray before bed and after she woke up that she understood what to do with this rage. And after getting inspired through prayer, she would put on her black outfit. She would brush her hair. And she would go to the unjust judge and say “Grant me justice against my adversary.”

In my line of work, one tends to meet a lot of widows. It is good to see that Jesus did, too. The parable of the persistent widow should be one that’s easy to understand, but as I have lived with it, and lived in it, I find myself very confused about it, and I can’t quite figure out a story to help us understand this scripture for our day.

Maybe I could tell the story of Lilly Ledbetter who began working at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1979 and discovered 19 years later that her male colleagues were being paid significantly more than her. The difference was anywhere from $559 to $1,500 more per month. In 1998, she filed charges and persisted in her pursuit of justice all the way up to the Supreme Court. She thought she had won all the back due wages, but Goodyear got out on a technicality and only had to pay the last 10 years. So Lilly Ledbetter is still persisting. She is a very persistent widow.

But wait, this isn’t a story about persisting in justice, is it? “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” See, this is a parable about prayer! You can’t talk about a widow fighting Goodyear here! Jesus is telling us to persist in prayer and pray unceasing to God. God who isn’t like that corrupt judge, who will hear and answer our prayers because God is love.

No, no, no. Jesus chooses two very particular people in this story: an unjust judge and a widow. Now a widow in Jesus’ day was one on the edge. If you lost your husband, as a woman you could lose everything. You were one lawsuit away from losing your land. And Rome was very interested in your land. Thus you could be very badly treated if you were a widow. So it was important for her to win the complaint against her adversary, whatever it was. And 4 times Jesus says the word “justice” in this parable. Just as in “right relationship between people.” Goodyear’s relationship to Lilly wasn’t right.

No, no, no. It’s about prayer! While that’s a nice story about Lilly, did you hear the last line of the parable? “And yet when the son of man comes will he find faith on the earth?” This is a text about prayer. Well, it is also about faith. For it is faith that prayer leads to. Preaching about justice is often divisive and may cause problems.

So which is it? Prayer or faith or justice? Who votes for prayer?

Maybe Jesus is saying that we need to keep all of these together: prayer, faith and justice. If we pray, but neglect a faithful commitment to it, then it’s just treating God as a “cosmic bell hop.” “Dear God, gimmie gimmie gimmie, Amen.” You wouldn’t want a friend who calls you up just to ask for stuff. You might have a friend like that, but don’t we wish for just a little bit more? More conversation, more one on one contact than just a “Hey, I need something from you!”

Faith is that commitment over the long haul. Yet if we don’t work for justice, then what good is our faith? The letter of James states that “faith without works is dead.”

If we work for justice but don’t pray, then we may think it’s all on our shoulders. If we work for justice but have no faith, we will quit at the first adversity that comes our way. And if we pray and don’t work for justice, then our prayers are empty.

It’s a tricky thing, this prayer, faith, justice balance. We need to hold them all together. Because justice doesn’t come easily or quickly. There’s a lot of faith and prayer that needs to go into this.

Where are you in this parable? For me, I find that the widow and the judge both live inside me. I can yearn for justice just as easily as I can be immune from it. Why should I bother with immigrant or transgender rights? Why should I care about Medicaid or Medicare, cause I’m neither poor not elderly? We find ourselves in a world filled with unjust judges, people who don’t fear God or care what people think. Well, they don’t care about what people think in matters of faith, they do care about what people think in terms of appearance and honor and power. And yet, here’s what the church does-- day in and day out: the church is a place to know one another’s stories, and be welcomed. Here you need not fit the mold of beauty, you don’t need to be famous, we take young and old and middle aged. You don’t need to be hip on the current lingo; or listen to the music that’s in. Yet at church, you’re known by name and welcomed.

Do you know the power of knowing all of that? Knowing someone’s name? Knowing their story? Have you felt that power yet in this place? If not, I sure hope you find a place here: maybe a small group or 9:20 class to share parts of your story, to learn others' stories. We have a great Wednesday Night Bible Study that is open to all. They helped write this sermon. If you think this sermon is boring or you could do better, it’s every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. And there we talk about how we hold that balance of prayer, faith, and justice.

My next door neighbor is a widow. I often see her walking around her yard. She does laps to get exercise. She couldn’t walk around town or at the mall like she used to because she gets tired. Here she is persisting. She gets outside, she still talks to her neighbors and laughs with Sam and Eve as they play in the backyard and tell her stories of what they’re up to. She was a teacher by profession. And she’s still teaching. She’s teaching my children how to be good neighbors and the importance of exercise. And she’s teaching me so much.

She teaches me that there’s more to life than my current state. There’s life beyond the 30s, beyond having kids in the house, beyond career, beyond having a spouse. And yet she’s teaching me about the importance of this stage of life. She has widened my worldview and in doing so, has done justice to me.

This is what church does. This is the power of us gathering Sunday after Sunday, in worship and during the week in small groups. We are knitting ourselves together. We are loving those who the world may not value. We are loving other broken people and we are loving ourselves in our brokenness.

There is a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the reluctance of German intellectuals to stand up to the Nazis. It reads:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Martin must have read the persistent widow. This is what the world looks like with only unjust judges in it. Jesus is asking for a faith like that in our world. Fewer corrupt judges who care for no one but themselves and more widows who persist in justice, prayer because of their faith. That means, at least in my reading of this text, that we are to know one another’s story. And when we know the story, we are more willing to fight for justice. So that means we must know a communist, or social democrats, or trade unionist, or Jewish people and that can be very uncomfortable at first. Largely because we don’t see the person, we see the ideology, the belief. Can we see each other beyond the label? Can we be more than just a white or black person? A widow or widower? Young and old?

It is my thought from reading this scripture that knowing the stories of others, the background, and loving them, as people, sometimes in spite of their belief, well that leads us into the work of justice on their behalf. And justice anywhere benefits people everywhere. What work are we being called to do as a congregation? How do we as a congregation balance prayer, faith and justice? I think those are questions in front of us this day. What work are you being called to do? I think that’s a question that should be in front of each of us, every day. May it be.

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