Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Widows, widowers, unjust judges, and parish finances . . .

     I found myself this week engaged in quite the discussion about this passage in Luke.  Thanks to Robin’s work in the office, I can get out and do different work during the week, rather than wrestling with that possessed computer that gave us this reading a couple weeks ago.  This week, I was invited to a local assisted living facility to lead worship services.  As it was a Lutheran home and I am an Episcopal priest, I decided rather easily to hold a Eucharist.  As it turns out, a few residents had not had Communion since Easter.  Not all those who attended worship were raised in a liturgical church, but for those who were, the Eucharist “hit the spot.”  What hit the spot for the non-liturgical members was the priest’s  willingness to engage them after the service about the homily.  You all would have been proud.  Heck, many of you would be envious.  I gave a short three minute homily reminding them that the passage is about the persevering faith of the widow, that Jesus realized such a persevering faith was not easy, and that they all still had work to do loving their neighbors into the kingdom.  After the service, of course, was where the discussions got good.
     Apparently, it has been the custom of some preachers to preach this passage, or at least for their congregations to hear, that we should nag God for the things we want.  For some present, that was clearly the take away from this Gospel passage in Luke.  We can wear God down with prayer, much in the way a child can wear a parent down with constant pestering.  It might not surprise you too much to learn that there were a dozen widows and 1 widower in that group this past week.  I really expected pushback about the work to do loving people into God’s kingdom, but no one said anything about that other than it was nice for someone to acknowledge that God clearly had a use for them.  No, what concerned them was the idea that we could not nag God into doing what we want.
     Is that the kind of God we think we worship?  Is that the kind of God we think we want?  Is that what prayer really is, nagging?  If pastors are teaching that we can nag God into doing what we want, think of the implications.  Scripture reveals that God is a loving Father who wants what is best for us.  If we could nag God into changing His mind, would we always get what is best for us?  Or would we, instead, merely get what we think is best for us?
     Nearly all of us present have been parents or children at some point in our lives.  I wonder whether all of us were really kids once, but we have all found ourselves on one side or another of the “nagging equation.”  I daresay more than one of us convinced a parent to give us what we wanted when we were younger.  I am probably safe in assuming that many of us have given in to our children’s nagging on one or two occasions, just as did the unjust judge in our reading today.  Do we really want God to be like our parents?  Do we really want God to make decisions for us in the way we do for our own children?  Sobering thought, isn’t it?  Yet that is precisely why this passage had nagged so many for so long.  The “take away” of the passage for them had been that we had to nag God to get what we want.
     I am a bit ashamed to confess to you all this morning that I used myself as an example.  You all know I do not do that very often, as I want the focus to be on God and not me.  I found myself, however, trying to forge a new relationship with some very elderly folks.  As one lady put it during my apology for using this example, “Pastor, we are all old.  We might meet God any minute.  Why don’t you explain why the nagging is bad as best you can.  Then we’ll worry about repenting.”  So I took her advice.
     As most of you all know, I used to pray a lot for that winning lottery ticket.  My thought was good.  I’d put away some money for the kids, give my extended family a bit of a cushion, and I’d spend the rest on the church or church-related activities.  Back then, I only had five kids, and I worried how St. Alban’s would ever be able to afford supporting my family.  I may not know who pledges what, but Rex and Rick and Annette did a good job of keeping me in the loop as to what bills were getting paid and what bills were not.  I used to think a winning lottery ticket would really free us up, as a community, to do some incredible work.  Now, keep in mind this Lutheran home group had never met me or heard of us before this week.  I laughed at myself over that last statement, and they asked why I was laughing.  I asked if they had heard of Angel Food or now SmartChoice.  Crickets.  I asked if they had heard anything about our work in Human Trafficking.  Blank stares.  I asked if they had heard of the Underwear Because We Care effort.  One voice said she’d read about it in the Dispatch last week.  Worker House / Community Meal?  A few hands or verbal acknowledgements.  Winnie’s Place and Winnie’s Wishes?  Silence again.  AA?  Finally, I hit on something they all knew.  Anybody had volunteers drive them for cancer treatment?
     As my list of questions built, one of the ladies asked me what kind of work did I think my church needed to be doing to need a winning lottery ticket.  I gave her a couple more answers that seemed, at least at the time, to be constrained by finances.  So she asked how long it took me to figure out we were busy enough and that that was why God was not giving me a winning lottery ticket.  I admitted it was too long as we chuckled.  I also told her I had realized something else along the way.  My financial worries made me a better pastor to those whom God had placed in my cure.  I shared with them that we are a strange Episcopal parish.  We are very blue collar and have no accountants, lawyers, doctors, politicians or any other “white collar” types attending our parish.  After some back and forth, I went on to explain how many of us are just one medical emergency away from losing everything this world claims is important.  I told them it took me a couple years, but I eventually realized that very few in my cure were worried about death.  Most were certain where they were headed.  What frightened them more was the question of living, things like provision and health and other important needs.  If I am in here too long, I’ll get fired.  If I miss to many days because of this lingering illness, the boss will find someone to replace me.  How am I going to ever pay for my care?  The company cut my hours back, and I can’t afford healthcare.  I shared with that congregation that dying was not nearly as frightening to many of us here as living.
      Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you the floodgates were opened!  Stories that took you years to share, they began telling me right then and there!  One lady managed a business until her health declined.  Thirty-eight years!  I gave them thirty-eight years.  What did I get for my loyalty, for never calling in sick, for covering whenever they needed covering?  Downsized.  I got downsized because I ended up in the hospital for a week and needed a few more days to recover.  There were, as you might imagine, murmurs of agreement.  For five or ten minutes, those present shared their stories.  Like  many of us gathered here today, they found living a bit more challenging than dying.  Some of their fears are shared here.  A couple worried that body parts were just going to start falling off.  A couple shared their fears that they would lose their minds.  A few were afraid they would die alone, that their families would tire of visiting them.  One, who would fit in here well, was worried she was never going to get to be the oldest resident there because a couple of them seem like they might live for forever!  In the midst of that discussion, some rueful and some sincere, one lady asked me why I thought I was a better pastor for my financial worries.
     I told her I was in the exact same boat as my parishioners.  Just as they were one illness or accident away from losing everything the world values, so was I.  I knew precisely what it was like to know that I could not control so many things that impact my life.  I might do everything “right” like the lady with thirty-eight years of loyalty, but I was an inattentive driver away from losing some of those whom I love or just a minivan.  My support is based on your support of the parish.  When you put other bills ahead of the church, it impacts me and mine.  And when bosses fire loyal workers after thirty-eight years over an extended illness, I know what it does to parish finances.  We value every penny of support we get.  Our treasurer has to make the call as to what gets paid and what does not.  Sometimes it’s the utility; sometimes it’s the priest.  That’s the reality we live in at St. Alban's.
     The lady who initiated the conversation got it.  Wow.  How many times do you think you nagged God for a winning lottery ticket, Pastor?  Who knew (besides God)?  What if He’d given in?  How would it have impacted your church and you?  And I shared.  I told them that had the money come in that way, we might have gotten a bit self-righteous.  We might have thought we deserved the riches because we were special.  As it was, we were driven to our knees each and every day to ask for provision and to discern His will.    It also probably would have created a chasm between us and those whom we try to serve.  Whether we are helping a struggling battered woman and her children or preparing a sit-down meal for the homeless and struggling, many of us recognize we are just a bad break from their situation.  We are better ministers to them because we see them as a possible outcome of us.  To mingle the readings from a couple readings ago, we know that we are Lazarus, too!
     So, by not giving you that winning lottery ticket, He gave you what you needed?  Being a good Lutheran, she wanted to explore the end of the homily and this sharing.  I told her I was absolutely convinced that was correct.  How has it changed your prayer life?  I shared with her my prayers are simpler.  I pray for provision for all my flock.  I pray for strength; I pray for vision; I pray for faith.  And I pray that when we are praying for something for a while and His answer seems “no,” that we would be given the eyes, ears, or heart to understand what He wants--and then to pray for that.  Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow?  Exactly.  I just need to get through today.  The baptists and non-denoms led the Amens.
     Brothers and sisters, this passage is all about how hard it is to live a life faithfully.  Our heroine in the story, a widow, stands in accusation of the society around her.  Whenever the Lord mentions His character in Scripture, He often mentions He loves the widow and the orphan.  Israel was supposed to care for widows and orphans as part of their devotion to God.  That someone would seek to take advantage of her is evidence of their collective need for a new heart.  For all their special relationship with God, for all the lessons of the exile, they still have not yet learned how God cares for the widow and the orphan.  Though the stories of Naomi and Tamar and even the widow of Zeraphath have been included in their history, their hearts have not yet been circumcised.  Even the judge, the one who is supposed to know and arbitrate the torah, tells us that he grants her justice only because she is nagging him, not out of a sense of thankfulness or duty to God.
     Imagine how she felt.  She had lost her husband.  She seems to have had no son.  She has no man to advocate for her, to protect her, to provide for her.  And her neighbors seem indifferent to her plight.  Still, day in and day out, she nags the judge.  Each day she sees him and begs him for justice.  Day after day he walks by, ignoring her complaint.  Nobody else took up her plea.  Love your neighbor?  Who has time for that?  Still, she seeks justice each and every day until even the unjust judge is moved to give her justice.  
     Where in your life do you relate to the widow?  Where do you feel like God, and the world, is ignoring your needs?  Brothers and sisters, we claim to serve a God who wants us to think of Him as a loving Father.  We might inadvertently give scorpions instead of eggs to our children, but He makes no such mistakes with His gifts or His children.  What prayer of yours seems to go unanswered?  Where have you become more of a nag and less of a disciple?
     Prayer is supposed to be a holy conversation with God.  If we are constantly nagging, we are not really in conversation.  We need to be listening from time to time.  Actually, as your mom taught you years and years ago, we have two ears and one mouth.  We need always to be paying attention and listening.  If you are praying for something that you know God wants you to have, like the widow and justice, keep it up.  But if, upon reflection and discernment, you realize that what you are praying for might not be what you truly need, ask God for what you should be praying.  Then listen.  You might discover that all along you have been asking for something which would harm you or damage your witness to those in your life.  Miracle cures are often cool; but sometimes it is the patient suffering that really reaches into the lives of others.  Winning lottery tickets are great stories; but sometimes it is the daily trust in the Lord’s provision which brings the Gospel to life in those whom you might be called to serve.  Put differently, faithful struggles often have a bigger impact on those around us than the flashy miracle.
     Discipleship requires both patience and perseverance.  We are called to live a life expecting our Lord to return any moment, but hopeful that He will give us more time to reach others.  It is a struggle to maintain our faith when the world so testifies against it.  Jesus realizes this.  In fact, that prompts Him to ask if He will find faith when He returns.  But remember this section comes at the end of a teaching about faith and the sign of the end times.  The Apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, and he teaches them that faith the size of a mustard seed is enough.  The Pharisees ask for those momentous signs of the coming kingdom of God, and Jesus tells them they will not see them.  The momentous signs for which they look will not be there.  Instead, there will be individual responses to His Gospel.  Some will hear and repent; others will hear and reject.  But we are called always to remember that our Father in heaven loves us and wants only good things for us.  Nothing that happens to us is beyond His power to redeem.  Nothing.  No matter our immediate need, He has promised to redeem all things to His honor and glory.  And so we can trust, as did our Lord when He walked on the earth, that our sufferings, our trials, even our injustices will one day be redeemed.  In the end, justice and mercy have kissed in Christ.  He died that we might be reconciled to our Father and to one another.  All that we have done to dishonor Him has been borne by our Lord, just as all that has been do to us.  Pray that when He does return, He finds that kernel of faith in you and all of us gathered here today--that kernel of faith which falls to the earth in His death and bursts forth in amazing life with Him, bearing much fruit for His kingdom!


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