“A God Who Spars.” Luke 18:1-8

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

          That’s what this parable is supposed to be about.  The need to pray, and to not lose heart, but the parable itself is enough to make one wonder!   It’s a difficult story to follow.  

          A widow who is persistent.

          A judge who has no respect for anyone, and no fear of God either.

          Rough and tumble action and language throughout, some of it borrowed from the boxing ring. 

The widow is “sparring” here, continually coming at the judge with verbal and physical jabs.

          The Judge complains that this widow will literally (in the Greek) “give me a black eye” – “wear me out” with her continually (sparring,) coming at me!”

             This is what Jesus commends to us?   An existence of coming at God until God finally relents, not because God cares or because it’s the right thing to do, but rather simply because all this persistence wears God down until justice is given?

          That’s how this parable is often interpreted.

          That’s a problem.

          It’s a problem because we don’t much care for the image of God when it is interpreted in that fashion. 

          A God who doesn’t care?

          A God who is aloof, and unconcerned?   Detached from God’s duty to protect and advocate on behalf of the helpless?

          A God who has to be cajoled into action like some absentee landlord.   “Oh fine, I’ll fix your furnace, just quit showing up on my doorstep and calling the television stations!”

          I don’t like that image of God much, do you?   It doesn’t do much for making me want to pray!

          But what if we’ve gotten the interpretation of this parable all backwards?

          Jesus does not identify “God” as any of the players in the parable.  The parable is instead told to remind us of the need to pray and not lose heart.

          What if we played with where we see God in this parable?  Where might God be?  Who might that judge be if not God?

          When you begin to play with the location of God in the parable the possibilities suddenly begin to open up. 

          We make God to be the judge here, that’s the “role” we assign God, historically, and theologically. 

I suppose we do that because the Creed we recite weekly reinforces that viewpoint.   “He will come to judge the living and the dead.”  

So, when we hear about a judge referred to in the parable, we are the ones who put God (or Jesus) in the role of judge in it, and that is what causes our confusion.

          But, what if WE are the judge.

          This makes a whole lot more sense if you think about it.

          We are the ones who quite often have no respect for people. 

We label people all the time, assign them their identity, belittle them if they are different from us, in skin color, economic status, orientation or outward appearance.

          We judge people all the time, do we not?  Often unjustly because of where they live, who they are seen hanging out with, or what they get caught up in at the moment.  

We cannot help ourselves really.   Our background, the household, culture and environment from whence we originated, conscious and unconscious bias, all enter into the way we look at others.   

          Now judging (the ability to compare and size things up) is a useful tool for survival.   You want to be able to pay attention to when the hair stands up on the back of your neck in some instances. 

          It’s not a bad thing to be aware of one’s surroundings, of potential threats and dangers.  You live longer if you do!

          You might even argue that judging is implicit in how God has created us, going back to the creation stories.  Humanity “names” the animals.  Humanity discerns the light from dark, can tell day from night, what is good to eat and what is to be avoided.  (Although we turn out to be not so good at that.)

          But those same skill sets of judging circumstances, events, and differences can also lead you astray, and can cause suffering.   Unjust decisions can be made, harsh and unkind words spoken, and actions taken.

          We are the ones who quite often have no regard for God.  We live as if God is no longer around or concerned with our actions.

          We live as if the words of Jesus were just a polite suggestion made, instead of a mandate.

          “Love your neighbor as yourself?”   Yeah right, Jesus, maybe you could, maybe in your world, but we live in the “real world” here and it’s dog-eat-dog and “get what is yours while the getting is good, and more if you can.”

          We read the scriptures and hear those calls by God throughout history to work toward justice.   God gives means of easing income inequality, establishing the year of Jubilee, erasing debts for the sake of a just community.  We hear God command that there should be a returning of the land to those who once inhabited it in every generation, and we read all those scriptural prescribed ways to reset economic justice.  In Acts the community is instructed to hold all things in common, to provide for one another, and to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves while encouraging all to work and have value.

What do we do with those prescriptions found in scripture?

We scoff at them.

          “That’s not the way OUR world works,” we say, “never has and never will.”

          That’s having “no fear of God,” isn’t it?

That’s saying that we don’t believe that God will someday act decisively on behalf of those who are denied justice.

That’s saying “we don’t believe that there will ever be an accounting, a reckoning.”   Or at very least it is saying that such a reckoning won’t come in our lifetime or won’t be held against us in the life to come

Scripture records time and again stories of God letting the forces of our own stubbornness play out.

Scripture talks about how God withdrew God’s favor time and again when God’s people ignored the plight of the widow, the orphan, neglected hospitality or pursued greed. 

The words of the prophets are filled with warnings about how God will use the neighboring nations as a rod to discipline those who have forgotten the commands and ordinances of God, the commandments and the rules of hospitality.

We are the ones who live quite often as if God is no longer capable of action, with no fear of God.

          Look at the parable with these eyes, that the judge is not God, the judge is us.   We’re the ones who disregard, and who quite often only act when we’ve been sufficiently bothered, worn down, or put in our place!

          And then, pay attention to the actions of the widow!  What is it that she is doing?   She’s relentless in her pursuit not only of justice, but of this judge!

          She will get this judge’s attention!

          She will keep at it until justice is obtained, and the world for her is changed!

          You want to see where God is in this parable, what should make you want to pray and not lose heart?   God is found in such persistence!

          Isn’t that what God in Christ Jesus shows us, a God who is persistent at coming to find us?   A God whose words are not always appreciated, whose call and command to us to live a new life is often met with resistance, and yet still God comes!

          Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God arriving in our midst, and we chafe at what he says. 

          Jesus calls us to love unconditionally, unreservedly, and we cringe and point to all the reasons (usually good ones) why we “judge” not to do that.

          Still, Jesus comes at us with God’s word and meets us in the sacraments and offers himself to us until at last we are simply worn out and can no longer refuse.

          “Oh, o.k. Jesus, I’ll TRY loving my neighbor….”

          “Oh, o.k. Jesus, if you say I’m forgiven, I’ll just have to trust you and live like that’s the case.”

          “Oh, o.k. Jesus, if you say the Kingdom starts now, I’ll just have to start behaving like it indeed has.”

          And, in the midst of relenting finally to God’s insistence and persistence, justice happens, and the world is changed for us all!

          This is the reason to pray always and not to lose heart, God is unwilling to give up on us!

          This is the reason to pray always and not to lose heart, God is indeed a “sparring partner” with whom we must continually contend, and God spars with us such because God has created us and knows us to be capable of doing what it is that God has commanded, urged, loved us into.

The Word of God comes at us, continually, unrelentingly until that Word of God finds a place where our defenses are weakened, the blow can be landed, and we are knocked out by the power of God’s love and grace!

We are left quite often with spinning heads and a glimpse of a world that could be changed, if only we would relent! 

If only we would grant God that place that we try so hard to hold on to and preserve for our own judgment.

If only we would do that which we know would be in the best interest of all, that which we are capable, because it would make for justice and life!

          This unrelenting God, whose Word packs a punch, will not stop short of anything but a knock-out punch in the end to our senses, bringing us to them.

          Faith will be found. 

          The Word will find its way in.

          Justice will prevail!

          And we, all people, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, will find faith. 

So pray always and do not lose heart on this world or give up on one another, judging that the world cannot be changed by love.  

God has not.   Amen.

“How Can We Get More?” Luke 17:5-10

“Increase our faith!”  This is what the Disciples ask of Jesus today, which at first always seems like a noble and natural thing for which to ask.

          Jesus has just laid out in a series of rather difficult and challenging parables and teachings what it is that a follower of Jesus, one who is looking for the Kingdom of God will have to do, what will be required of them – required of us.

          The list can be a little daunting.

          The Kingdom is to be a place where the lost are sought out, found and welcomed back.   You are to be a part of that work.

          It is to be a place where forgiveness is offered to those who repent, not just a few times, or seven times, but seventy times seven.

          The Kingdom will involve coming to terms with difficult relationships.  It will involve resolving differences with estranged siblings, remembering and acting on the part of those who suffer at our own gate, figuring out what to do with the shrewd and difficult people in this world. 

          The Kingdom is a place where costs are to be counted, and ventures considered before entering into them, and where you may be called upon to lose your own life in order to save it.

          It is no wonder upon hearing the challenges and the demands that the disciples decided they might need a little “booster” here. 

          This is going to take more than we think we have on reserve, Jesus!   Increase our faith!  Give us “more.”

          But Jesus’ response to that request is not what we might expect.  He is almost scolding in his tone!  

          “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed….” He says, and we hear that as a kind of put down, like we don’t even have THAT much faith because we’re sure not uprooting any trees in our lives!

          Why is it that Jesus seems so short, when he knows the task is huge?

          Why all this talk of servants and only doing what is expected?  What we are commanded?

          I think I know why.   It has to do with our insecurity about following.   Insecurity is quite often behind the need to feel like we need “more” in life, is it not?

          The disciples are insecure!  They’re not really sure they are up to this task, and so they are looking for something to give them a little confidence.

          If we’re honest, we would agree.   We could use a little more too, Jesus, of the stuff that makes following you possible.

          Think back in your own life, to places where you wished you argued you had to have “more” of something.

          Maybe it was back in the days of swimming lessons, when you were first supposed to jump off the diving board.

Jumping off the board into the “deep end” was the culmination of the swimming lessons when I took them.  Before you ever got on that board you had to prove that you could float, that you could swim, and that you could tread water when you felt panicked.  By the time the instructor said you could go out on the diving board you had everything you needed for this last test.

Really, this last test was not about convincing the instructor so much.  It was about convincing yourself that you could had these things down.

 But oh, once you got out on the end of that board and looked over the edge, there was suddenly a great need to have “more” wasn’t there?

          “I just need a little more time.”  People would protest.  “I’m not ready for this.”

          “I just want a little more practice in the shallow end.”

          “Can I get a pool noodle to hang on to when I jump in?  I just want a little extra flotation, just in case.”

The “more” you needed was not time, or flotation, it was the encouragement and relationship of those around you!   

What you already had was sufficient for this moment.  It was hearing the encouragement of your fellow swimmers, and seeing the nearness of the instructors that would finally convince you to finally step off into the moment.

Insecurity in your own abilities is what you were battling there, and the only way to overcome such insecurity, (the argument that you needed “more”) is to take the step, take the plunge, come up gasping and realizing you could do it!  You did it!

          Or maybe you experience insecurity in the realm of financial matters.   We quite often ponder what is “enough” when we start thinking about retirement, or how much we should be saving, or making, or how much life insurance to carry, or how we should choose to invest our earnings.”

          Insecurity or seeking some security underpins the whole way of thinking in the world of finance. The search for the better investment, the best reward for the risk, the need to lay up as much as possible in the event of the inevitable.

          “I just need a little more in my savings” we tell ourselves, “and then I’ll feel secure.”

          “I just need a little more in the way of interest.” We say, as we seek to grow that nest egg for the future.

          “I just need a little more assurance that this product does what it promises it will do.”

          The pursuit for “more” in the world of finance and savings is not really about what the magic “number” will be.  It is more about what you are comfortable with and how that will work in relationship to others.

          There are those you know who amass millions and billions and who never have enough.  They never will have enough, because the “more” desire is a sucking drain.  It will always consume whatever you pour into it if you view security as having enough for yourself.

          There are however also those who have but modest savings and means whose life is abundant beyond measure in terms of happiness, contentment, and ability to share, because for them the issue of “more” to live on my own does not drive, but rather an attitude of “enough for now” is what they set their sights on.  They see their financial picture in the context of relationships and that helps them turn their eyes to the other relationships around them.

          We have “enough” to have a good Christmas, a good birthday, or a good meal.

          We have “enough” to make the trip happen, the wedding work, and have the home provided over our heads.

          Getting “more” does not give you security.

          Sharing your life and what you have with those whom you love and who love you, that you can do in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health. 

That is what brings you security, realizing that it’s not about what you can store up to call your own, but what you can share in common and having others to call upon for support in time of need.

          This is why Jesus seems short with his disciples.  

The request for “more” makes of faith a commodity, and it was never intended to be that. 

          Faith is a relationship.

          Faith is not about how much you have, or don’t have, or don’t feel you have.   It’s not about mustard seeds or mulberry trees or anything else that you can point to quantifiably.  It’s not “stuff” or “a thing” you can accumulate.

          Faith is about relationship, and who you put your trust in, and who walks with you.

Faith is about who you can look to when all these demands that come with following Jesus and bringing in the Kingdom of God start to get real.

Faith is about who you will share this awesome responsibility with when you start to feel the weight and responsibility of it all.

          If you look at following Jesus or living in the Kingdom like it’s some kind of personal venture that you have to do on your own, you’re going to want “more” of something, because whatever you have “inside” of you just isn’t going to be enough.

          So, where do you look when you feel that insecurity?  You look to the community around you!

          If it’s jumping off the diving board, you look to the community you have had lessons with. You look to your classmates as they urge you on.

          You look to your instructor who reminds you that you can do this, and help is only a hand reach away.

          You don’t need the pool noodle, the force of being submerged will rip it out of your hands anyway when you jump in and then you’ll just be distracting and flailing trying to grab for it, grasping for the wrong thing.

          Jump and float, and trust that the one who invested all this time in helping you learn how to do what you are called and empowered to do will that is only an arm’s length away if and when you falter.

          That’s the only way you’ll figure this out, see that you can do it, find the joy of swimming and splashing and diving and being free in the water!

That’s what Jesus is talking about when he starts to talk about the relationship of servant to master.  

While slavery in the American incarnation of that wretched institution was always about exploitation, in Jesus day even slaves could own slaves.  It was more about how the community was organized, how it functioned.  There were ways out of servitude, and mobility in society, but in Jesus day servants and masters above all else understood their relationship to one another.

 They knew that they had been put into positions of trust and authority in order to exercise their best abilities and work toward what they were capable and entrusted so to do.

We might wish that Jesus had picked another illustration, but when he says that the servant says, “we have only done what we ought to have done” he is saying that within the relationship of servant to master each understands the ability of the other, or you would not have been given that task, entrusted with it.

So then, when the task of following leads you to be insecure, remember who is with you and who does have confidence that you are ready for this, able to do this!

You aren’t allowed at the end of the diving board unless the instructor has confidence that you can do it.

You will never have “enough” if you think of money as a thing in and of itself to possess to make you feel secure, a quantity and not a currency.

There comes the time to step off the end, to say, “this is sufficient, and I trust in those around me, trust in the God who has been preparing me for the work in the Kingdom and to live there since I was first baptized.

You really don’t need to get “more” faith.

You need to step in faith into life that surrounds you and experience what it is to swim in the waters of Grace.