Rev. Sarah Buteux

October 20, 2019

Luke 18:1-8

Proper Year C

(Click here to watch)

A few weeks ago we had a half day planning retreat here at the church and Todd and I thought it would be a good idea to have us all begin by talking about where we were at spiritually. 

So he led off with the question: “Where are you growing in your faith?”

And the people at my table all looked a little bit stunned. And I thought, O gosh, what were we thinking. Who asks a question like that to a group of mainline protestants on a Saturday morning. 

“Where are you growing in your faith?” 

I think half the people in the room would have felt more comfortable talking about their net worth or using a group-on for simultaneous root canals. New Englanders just aren’t the sort of people who sit around talking about how our, um, “walk with the Lord is going,” if you know what I mean. 

Not because we don’t have one, but because faith for people around here is personal, and even if it’s going well – maybe especially if it’s going well – then it can feel even more personal still. 

Once, in a church up in Maine, I found myself at the back of the sanctuary at the end of the service. A tiny old woman appeared out of a little door in the wall that contained a hidden staircase. Huh, I thought.“Was that you up there playing the organ?” I asked. “Ayuh,” she said, “but I’m not bragging about it.” 

That’s kind of how we are about our faith. We don’t like to brag about it.  But our little group muddled through. I immediately reframed the question to talk about how I was struggling in my faith and that seemed to set most of us at ease. All of us, that is, except for Manny. And I have his permission to share this with you, but the truth is, Manny got pretty agitated. 

He said, “Pastor Sarah, I gotta tell you, I don’t think I believe in anything anymore. The Church – not this church – but the church I grew up in – they lied. The Church has lied to me my whole life. They lied about God, about history, about the Bible. It was all lies.  They lied about everything.” 

And those words cut right to my heart because I understood exactly what Manny meant. I know that pain well, as do many of you, because I think a lot of us grew up in churches that lied to us whether they realized it or not.  A lot of us grew up in churches that didn’t think we could handle the truth, right? – about things like evolution, historical criticism, or discoveries like the gnostic gospels, if they even acknowledged that such things existed at all. 

Others of us grew up in churches where we were taught that although all people are created in the image of God, certain people are apparently created in God’s image even more so than the rest of us.  Which didn’t just mean that those people got to be the pastors and the elders, but also the principles, CEO’s, and town mayors, the lead actors and the main players. 

And that was a hard claim to question when every image of God surrounding you – from the Sistine Chapel to the Jesus on your Sunday school wall, was a white, presumably heterosexual, cis-gendered male. 

Some of us were taught the good news that God so loves the whole world that he sent His only son to save all of us… except for the people who don’t understand, believe in, or follow God exactly like us, which – if you’re keeping score at home – actually turns out to be bad news for an awful lot of people. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, others of us were taught a version of the gospel so anemic that an acquaintance of mine once summed up the faith he learned in the U.C.C. as basically “be nice and recycle.” 

Some of us were taught that with enough faith we could pray away the gay or the depression or the addiction or the cancer, and that if those things didn’t go away it was on us. Others were taught to love the sinner but hate the sin, that no self-respecting Christian should ever vote red, or blue, or discuss how they vote at all. And we were taught that sex – Oh my goodness, sex – is the greatest, most beautiful, dangerous, blessed but forbidden yet necessary gift/curse you could ever hope for but shouldn’t want…too much. Or something like that.  I don’t know. When it came to sex, things got very confusing.  

But what I do know, is that we were taught that the justification for all of these things could be found right here, in this book –  the Bible – a divinely dictated infallibly consistent document full of straightforward answers to your deepest and most pressing personal questions as an American living in the late 20th/early 21st century. 

“Well aren’t you special.”

Manny was right. They lied. Maybe not intentionally, or possibly with the best of intentions, but the end result was the same. And for many of us, they stole as well, stole the Bible right out from under us. All too often and for far too long, the Church has taken this book full of the most spell-binding, disrupting, life giving truth you could ever imagine and managed to weave it into a justification for oppression, a means of control rooted in fear, or pablum for souls too comfortable or callous to care. 

And as a member of the church and the clergy, I want to say both that I’m sorry and that I get it. I’m sorry the church has messed up and misused the Bible as much as it has. I’m sorry for the damage that has been done in its name, damage I have both inflicted and suffered. 

And yet, I get it. I get why it’s so hard for the church to get it right. And it’s not just because our history is littered with a surprisingly large number of megalomaniacs given our savior’s embrace of poverty, non-violence, and self giving love.  

It’s because the Bible really is hard to understand and incredibly easy to misuse, especially when it comes to making it say what we want it to say. It doesn’t always yield a straightforward message that is true for all people at all times. I would never get up here and willfully mislead you about what I think it means, and yet I rarely preach the same sermon twice because I’m always learning and seeing new things in its pages. 

For instance, the last time I preached on this passage, I focused in on the apparent powerlessness of this poor old widow. And let me tell you, I milked that theme for all it was worth. I even made myself cry.  But I’ve been reading a lot of Amy-Jill Levine these days, and she has completely upended what I thought I knew, namely that just because this woman was a widow did not mean she was by extension powerless, poor, or even old.   

“Parables,” Levine says, “are designed to shake up one’s worldview, to (make us) question the conventional. If a manager can be dishonest, a tax collector righteous, a landowner generous…, and a judge (feckless)…” then guess what? A widow, can be dangerous. Yeah. You didn’t see that coming, did you? Neither did I.

You may remember that throughout the scriptures God’s people are continually reminded to provide for widows and orphans, which reinforces the idea that they were all weak and helpless.  But when you think about the widows who actually appear throughout scripture –  women like Tamar, Ruth, the widow of Zarephath, even Jesus’ own mother – you start to realize that widows in scripture are often a force to be reckoned with. They are brave, resourceful, ingenious, and not to be underestimated. And the widow in today’s parable is no exception. 

Jesus tells us a story about an unjust judge who neither feared God nor respected men. “Booooo,” the crowd would have said, because this man is clearly a villain. And then along comes a widow and – please note, there is no mention of her hobbling up to the courthouse in rags begging for mercy. 

No, this lady has got resources. She’s got stamina. And she’s got hutzpah. Levine speculates that she is most likely well off because she has access to the courts, she speaks to the judge in the imperative, she lives in a city, does not work, and can afford to come and confront the judge day after day after day.  

But it’s what she says, that really makes her interesting. Because this widow is not just asking for justice – the most literal translation of what she is asking for, is vengeance. “Avenge me against my adversary,” she says. And eventually, the judge does, not because he cares about doing what is right. He doesn’t. But because he’s afraid of her. 

The phrase “wear me out” here is actually better translated “give me a black eye.” The unjust judge paves the way for this widow’s vengeance because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t she’s going to beat him up. If Levine is right, then this widow isn’t some lifetime movie cautionary tale played by a Betty White. She’s more like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.”  Which is funny. But what does it mean?  

Are we to be like the judge, take the easy way out, and save our own skin no matter who gets hurt? Is it ok to be like the widow and fulfill our own desires for retribution, even as we wait for God’s final restoration?  Does this parable give us permission to take matters into our own hands?

You can see how even a fuller understanding of the history and language of a story can take you down a bad road pretty darn fast. If you’re looking for an excuse to put yourself before others, you can always find it, in scripture or anywhere else. Which is why it’s always so important to keep these words in context and remember who is saying them.   

Luke tells us that Jesus shared this parable with them so they would remember to “pray always and not lose heart.”  And if you look at it in context, you realize that Luke places this story near the end of Jesus’ ministry. He has come to start a movement to bring God’s kingdom to earth and he plans to come back someday to see that vision to completion, but he also knows his earthly days are numbered and that there’s going to be a big gap between his ascension and his second coming. So what are people supposed to do in the meantime? 

We know that when God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven that the world will be a just, peaceful, wonderful place. But that is not the world we live in right now. So what does it look like to be faithful in the between time?  Does it look like going along to get a long, and trusting that God will sort it all out in the end? Is it ok, while we wait for God, to satisfy our own need for revenge or indulge in our desire to punish? 

We could read this parable that way, I suppose. But if we’re honest, we can already see what a world full of people who behave that way that looks like, and it’s no Kingdom of God.  Not by a long shot.  

Or we can listen…“Listen to what the unjust judge says,” just like Jesus tells us to do, and realize that if these two corrupt characters can hear each other and collaborate in their own warped way to achieve vengeance, how much more can we work with a God who hears us day and night and longs to establish a world full of peace and justice. 

Yes, that world is a long way off. Yes, it will require prayer and persistence, a single minded focus, and all of our resources. But if those two people who despise one another can work together to create a world full of pain and retribution, how much more can we conspire with a God who loves us to re-shape and re-make the world into the place God longs for it to be?

Which brings me back to Manny. Manny whose pain and anger were palpable as he sat across from me at the table a few weeks ago. Manny whose sense of betrayal was so strong, he no longer knew what to believe in.

“Where are you growing in your faith?”

“I don’t think I believe in anything anymore.”

“Manny,” I said, “I hear you. I understand all about the lies. But listen to me for a moment. What if faith isn’t about knowledge; what we know or believe is true? What if faith is about hope…what we hope is true?” 

I looked him in the eye and I said, “Manny you believe that the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, right?”

And he said “Yes.”

“And you also believe that justice deferred is justice denied.”

“Yes.”

“And you know as well as I do that we live in between those two truths right now. We live in a world where we are hoping for justice and working for peace even though we see violence and injustice all around us. 

But Manny, what I see when I look at you is someone who shows up in that between space anyway. I see a man who keeps throwing himself out there, marching and singing and protesting and working for a better world that you continue to believe is possible in spite of the broken world all around you.” 

That is faith. That is persistence. That is prayer.

Sometimes faith is holding hope for a person who is too sick or grief stricken or confused to hold it for themselves, trusting that you can get them to the other side. Parents, teachers, therapists, healers, you do this for your children, your students, your patients, all the time. 

That is faith.  That is persistence. That is prayer.

Sometimes faith is coming back to these scriptures that have been so mishandled and abused and searching once more for the voice of God – not to justify ourselves at the expense of others, but to challenge and equip ourselves to love others all the more. 

That is faith.  That is persistence. That is prayer.

And sometimes faith is having the courage to try just one more church, because you still believe, deep down, in spite of all the lies, that God is real, God still loves you, and God has work for you to do.

That is faith.  That is persistence. That is prayer.

That’s the sort of faith I saw sitting around my table a few Saturdays ago. And that’s the sort of faith I see in all of you sitting here before me right now. 

I’m not bragging about it. But I will say that thanks to you, when Jesus comes, he will find faith here upon the earth. 

God bless you.

Amen.