Sunday, October 20, 2013

Unremittingly Repeated

Unremittingly Repeated
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 20, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 18: 1-8
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

18 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [1]  

I'll tell you it really helps when the gospel writer tells you what the parable is about beforehand. It puts it all out there and makes sure that the point is not missed. Look at verse 1 here in chapter 18, "then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart." Great, we're done. That is all we need do this week. We need to pray and keep on praying, repeating our prayer. The squeaky wheel is the one that gets the grease, as the famous proverb goes. This parable echoes other parts of the Gospels, that depict Jesus saying the same thing. There is the famous, Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find. There you have a perfect tense verb, which suggests that it isn't just an ask once deal, or a seek once deal, but an ask and keep on asking, and a seek and keep on seeking. It all seems simple enough doesn't it. Just keep praying, pray and pray and pray, and to quote Jesus here, "will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?"  And then the second part of it all is that not only are we to pray and pray and pray, we also are not to lose heart. Aye there's the rub, and just as if Jesus knows our issue, knows what continually causes us to lose heart, he casts in his parable an unjust judge.
This is where the parable becomes interesting and takes shape around more than just prayer, but also about human relations and the continual cause of our grief--politics--again and again. I looked up the word politics in the dictionary, and this is what I found: "the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, especially those relationships involving authority or power." It's derived from the Greek word, polis that means city, and is found in this text, saying "in a certain city" there it is polis. So politics is all the working out of human relationships where differing power and authority comes into play, not just what we are bombarded with on TV, and on the Radio, in Newspapers, and on the internet, it's everywhere, but also that it's political in our work places, when the boss plays favorites, and makes decisions that may upset us, it's political in families, when holidays happen and there is a battle over who stays where, and what meal is served, or at a wedding when two different families come together and decisions need to be made about all kinds of festivities, its political when figuring estates, its political on my football team when we are trying to figure out who plays, and where. And of course it's political here in church, it has to be by definition. In all these scenarios tons of factors come into play and decisions are and have to be made, and often some people are happy about the decisions and others are not. Again that's politics. I remember trying to explain when I was in high school to someone why I was cut from the JV baseball team my sophomore year, and my answer was always, well it's political, the new coach wanted guys he knew and though I played last year, I just didn't make it this year. Was I better than the other guy though, who knows, but the "it's political" line was a convenient excuse. People always knew what I was talking about because they had experienced it, the same thing,  at some point in their lives, too. It's all around us. Politics. Complex aggregate of societal relationships.
So in this parable, we have a poor widow, and she has been hurt in some way I guess, it doesn't really say. It just says she comes to the judge for justice against her "opponent," the word in Greek is antidikos, adversary, or opponent as in a trial, Literally it is "against word." The one who speaks against. Now we get no information about the woman, other than she is a widow, we don't hear what her suit is, we don't know how she is injured, we don't know what justice would look like were she to get it, we just feel sympathy for her, maybe because she is a widow, we feel she is a victim of politics, and we are strengthened in our preconceived notions of this because of how the judge is described. The judge does not fear God and had no respect for people. It repeats this pattern of description twice, no fear of God and no respect for anyone. Great combination of traits for a judge, right. It sounds familiar to us. You may be asking  yourself how a person like that could become a judge in the first place, and there is only one answer that can suffice, yup, you guessed it, it was political. But even he, will give her justice if she bugs him enough. The Greek again is so much more vivid than our english translation. The word for bothering, is a word that describes someone coming at another person in a fight, or to slap someone in the face, and then "the wear me out" line, reflects the same image, someone who has been beaten repeatedly, as in by a fist, in a fight. It's certainly an interesting image, especially if you picture the widow to be a sweet older lady. She just keeps coming at him and won't give up. Again we are called to be like a widow, in the face of injustice, much like the widow who gives her offering out of her poverty, this woman will not give up, she is fighting against the unjust judge, and because of her persistence, she wins.
How easy it is to lose heart, though. How often do we become the ones worn out? How often does it seem like it's the world that is slapping us in the face, and wearing us out, leaving us broken and beaten, defeated and cynical, so sure that none of it matters, that none of it will ever change anyway if it did matter, and there just is no hope. We feel that way because the other message is repeated to. The idea of injustice in the world also slaps us in the face again and again. It seems to work both ways here. It may be true that constant prayer will result in justice, but there are constant in our face repeated phrases and examples of injustice unremittingly repeated in our ears, again and again. The political forces know that repetition works to get points across. We live in a  world of soundbytes and talking points, where image is everything. Sure it happens in Washington, that's on the news all the time, but it also happens in all of the other levels of politics, defined again as the aggregate of our societal relationships, sure at work, family, school, church. All of them are fraught with this, image first mentality.  It seems to not matter what truth is, it just matters how you can spin an event, and if you repeat your spin enough, you can get people to believe it. There is a deep chasm in this country between people who do not seem to be able to talk to each other, not because they don't want to come together, but because they are not speaking the same language, they are not dealing with the same reality, they are not dealing with facts anymore, but on spin and talking points, there is no critical thinking, just unremitting repetition, a bombardment of repeated lines, slapping us in the face again and again, and you can either buy into it or become completely cynical, sure that nothing can ever be changed. It's just the way it is. That is losing heart isn't it. Now I've used that title unremittingly repeated a few times, and it is the title of this sermon. It is not my own phrase, but one that comes from Adolf Hitler: he wrote in his diabolical work Mein Kampf, "By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell -- and hell heaven. The greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed." Do you hear that? Talk about an unjust judge, perhaps the worst in history, at least the most recent and infamous, talk about politics run amok, talk about talking points and spin rather than reality. . . how can it be reversed? How do you combat shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated? Truth Unremittingly repeated, and I don't mean necessarily in the arena of idea, screaming louder and more often, joining the fight, using the world's tactics to further the Kingdom of God, but rather something more personal, Jesus' world is like ours, and he says to pray and not lose heart, connecting the two.
Prayer is talking with God, going to God, hearing from God. Talking to God will remind us of reality. Talking to God will connect us again to the truth. Talking to God will remind us that this world is made good by Him, in his control, under his care, and that justice will rule, no matter how loud the injustice is, no matter how many times it's repeated, no matter how far apart the voices are, God is truly the one in control. And so we need to pray and pray and pray, to be constantly reminded of that, so that we can hold fast, have faith, and not lose heart. Though the creeks will rise, though the rains will fall, though it seems like we are spiraling out of control, though the chasm between the voices grows wider, though it seems like it's time to give up, like there just is no hope, day and night without ceasing we need to pray and be reminded. It is an act of faith, and it is such like we said a couple of weeks ago, when the disciples asked for their faith to be increased, and Jesus reminded them that faith is of the kingdom, it's that mustard seed, and a mustard seed, overgrows the weeds, firm, fast, and complete. Instead of shrewd lies repeated, let us pray, and get connected to the truth, not to be convinced that heaven is hell, but to have faith that the kingdom of God is truly a reality, and will come, as God's perfect will is done, creating true, justice.  It is this scenario I believe Jesus has in mind when he says, "and yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on Earth?" I watched Hoosiers the other night, the great old movie about the Indiana small town basketball team who wins the state title, Gene Hackman, the coach is asked by the press at a state tournament interview, whether he will return to coach at Hickory next season, he evades the answer, but then Barbara Hershey, the school's principal, and his sort of love interest grabs the cheerleading megaphone, and says, "It's a good question!" And they laugh and blush, and he walks off. . . That's how I respond to Jesus's question, "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on Earth?" It's a good question. . . Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 18:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.