Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Mrs. Obrien: I just want to die, to be with him.
Preacher: He’s in God’s hands now.
Mrs. Obrien: He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?
– From Tree of Life by Terrence Malick
As the liturgical year draws to its close, the lectionary readings make an eschatological turn, looking ahead to our own end and of things as we know them. It’s a shift in tone that flows seamlessly into Advent, where the church learns once again how to live as Jews, suspended between a ruin and a hope. Signs of ruin are everywhere: a planet we’re quickly making uninhabitable, collapsing world order, a country too divided by corrosive political rhetoric to reckon with pressing fundamentals, churches reeling from self-inflicted humiliations. Amid the rubble of a world plundered and a church betrayed from within, hope can grow hollow and brittle, like dry stems in autumn. What’s to become of our planet, our country, our church, ourselves?
In the fall, the season sharing its name with humanity’s turning away from God, such thoughts may arise simply from observing the natural world’s dying back in anticipation of winter. Sometimes we require some rather more direct reminder. During the now abandoned coronation ceremony for newly elected popes, the master of ceremonies would stop the procession three times to set alight a strip of flax. As the fabric burned into smoke and nothingness, he would address the new pope in a loud voice, saying, “Sic transit Gloria mundi,” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”), reminding him of his mortality and the evanescence of earthly power. Read more
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Today’s Gospel is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a parable of two men with two very different prayer styles. God’s judgement is here, but I think it is not the kind of judgement that usually strikes us on our first reading. Rather than seeing the Pharisee and the tax collector as offering opposing prayers, one of which is “good” and the other of which is “bad”, I suggest that we see both as offering prayer to God, and being made righteous through God’s mercy. That alternate reading helps us to think about how we proclaim Christ’s peace in our contemporary divided culture. Read more
For peace in Northern Syria, and protection for the Kurdish people who find themselves trapped between the economic and political interests of warring nations.
Lord, have mercy.
For a world where black men and women are safe in their own homes, and that the family of Atatiana Johnson knows peace.
Lord, have mercy.
For the teenagers who cry out to be healed of their same sex attraction might know themselves to be fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the congregations who have made them believe they could be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord repent and be made well.
Lord, have mercy.
For the refugee fleeing the violence and poverty of her homeland to be safe in her passage and find hospitality at the end of her journey.
Lord, have mercy.
Over the last few weeks (ok, who am I kidding…years) my prayers have taken a variety of tones. Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is straight up bossy-pants, as if God got distracted like my 10-year old son on his way to take out the trash and simply needed a stern reminder of God’s current and most important job. These directive (and sometimes salty) prayers are often accompanied by such imprecation against the enemies of justice and peace as to make the Psalmists proud and your local church-ladies cringe.
Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is the more desperate pleading of a soul at the end of her rope with no place left to turn. Like the writer of the 121st Psalm, my hungry eyes search the hills for any sign of salvation coming over the horizon.
On other days, my soul can’t even form words as I lay myself bare in the silence, trusting God to understand the groans of my heart for a world made new.
The parable of the persistent widow is a gift sent to us by the lectionary for days like these when we might look around and fear that God has fallen asleep at the wheel and simply cannot handle the mess we’ve made of this place. Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the people of Israel in exile before her, Jesus’ invocation of this widow in a parable whose lesson is the need to remain steadfast in faith in the midst of trial reminds us that hearing–and responding–to the cry of the vulnerable is one of the best and chief characteristics of God. Perhaps Jesus tells this parable because he recognizes that patience and persistence are not among humanity’s best and chief characteristics.
The widow also extends to us a challenge about the true nature of prayer. She pulls us beyond whispered conversations in the dark of early morning, out of the pages of our journals into action. See, this gal is doing more than simply writing or speaking her truth. The heroine of Jesus’ story this week is an easily overlooked, readily dismissed widow who receives the justice of her cause through her willingness to make herself a thorn in the side of the establishment figure who holds power in this situation. Her faith in the rightness of her cause has voice. It has legs. It is an action. In her resistance she becomes the answer to her own prayer. She becomes a living prayer whose very persistence shows the powers of this world for what and who they are.
Being among those in this world who desperately want to be liked, and emerging from a denominational tradition that seems hell-bent on always finding a middle ground where no one is offended, the widow is a good model for a life where seeking God’s peace and God’s justice might require putting one’s reputation and livelihood on the line. Living out of a faith that believes that God’s preferred future is not just a possibility but a guarantee for all creation will set one against the powers of this world. And, sometimes, yes, those powers live inside the people and institutions who believe they speak for God.
Fredrick Baldwin said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In the black church tradition, the statement “Won’t God do it” is equal parts question and affirmation of faith in the one who saved Israel from slavery and raised Jesus from the dead. Friends, this, too, is our God and so may this be our faith. Though we live and work in a world where the horizon of justice may be beyond us, we do not give up hope in God’s ultimate triumph. Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus’ teaching on prayer has been consistent: to pray is to actively seek God and God’s will. As with other parables, the key to this parable’s interpretation lies not in complicated exegetical leaps, but in returning and holding fast to a few basic affirmations of faith: God knows, God cares, and God triumphs in the end for God has already triumphed in Christ. The fate of the powers and principalities of this world is like that of the unjust judge: they cannot endure when the people of God rise in power against them.
All through history there have been feisty women (and men) like this widow who have refused to rest until justice was won. Standing alongside these saints, may God make of us all like this widow: bossy, desperate, and living prayers until that day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Image Credit: Fr. James Hasse, SJ