Saturday, October 20, 2007

Persistent Prayers

Persistent Prayers1

Robert J. Elder, Interm Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Luke 18:1-8
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 21, 2007

When the heart goes out of a thing, it means for most of us that we have lost the sense of why we are doing something; going through the motions, putting one foot in front of the other, living from day to bleary day, but not at all sure why. Big disappointments often lead to this kind of feeling for most of us. The expression we may use is something like “my heart just isn’t in it.”

We’ve seen this happen with athletes when it’s the fourth quarter, they’re behind 42 to 7, there are 6 minutes left, and the stands are emptying of all but the most masochistic supporters and sadistic opponents. For the players on the losing side, their hearts just aren’t in it any more. They’re losers. Maybe not in any ultimate sense or for all time, but that day, for that game, they are losers, and it can feel as though all six letters of that word have been capitalized and emblazoned across their jerseys. The next 6 minutes can seem like a whole season. The other team has their fourth string in the game to give them some experience, but the losing team has to keep the best players they’ve got in there to avoid further embarrassment on the scoreboard. It’s not much fun. Life lacks its purpose when we’re in this kind of shape. Losers losing until they have lost heart, lost hope, lost the game. Ugh. Who needs it?

When Jesus counseled his disciples not to lose heart, he had just finished telling them that days were coming that would be hard for them, but that ultimately, the Son of Man would be revealed, their hope would have a source they could rely on. When they wanted to know when this would all happen, he said he couldn’t tell them. Anyone who has waited a long time for something can understand how hard the waiting becomes the longer it goes on. Jesus knew that the church could become disheartened while waiting for the kingdom of God to reveal itself in the world. He knew that lots of things that believers do and which believers stand for would make them look like first class losers in the eyes of the world until they were vindicated by the coming of Christ. And that’s about the very last thing we want to be: losers. “Don’t lose heart,” he said.

Think of all the effort we spend covering our losses, putting our best, most winning face forward to the world, think of the anxiety we feel inside over the multiple losses that any person faces in life. Yet people masquerade as winners for each other, promoting images of ourselves that we are the one exception in the history of humanity that will be a life-long winner, come what may. Think of the many ways life can deal us a losing hand: failed business venture, fragmented family, unsuccessful try-out, botched exam, egg yolk on your necktie which you don’t see until the interview is over, lipstick stains on your teeth for the portrait that’s going in your club’s magazine, in these and hundreds of other ways, we confront evidence that tells us we are often losers, and we work awfully hard to get around the fact, to get by, to fool others and ourselves that winning is all we do.

To help us understand that, losers that we are, we shouldn’t lose heart, Jesus told a story. It seems there was a widow — unlike today, that was a first century image of a 24-carat loser — who refused to do what losers are supposed to do, just shut up and disappear and quit reminding the rest of the world that we will one day be losers too. Maybe a better image of a loser for our time would be a homeless street person. Now there’s someone that most folks hope will just disappear. But the loser of Jesus’ parable wouldn’t just disappear. No, this loser parades her losses down to the city hall and demands justice from a judge who has seen every street person in town re-cycling through his courtroom day after day: one for vagrancy, one for petty shoplifting, another for sleeping in the park, another for using the shrubs of a nearby church for his toilet. This judge is sick and tired of seeing people who are sick and tired. The last thing he has in his mind when another street person comes before him is to grant anything resembling justice. Mainly, he wants this loser out of his sight as soon as possible so he can wheel his business limousine toward his house in the suburbs.

But here comes this homeless wretch with some sob story about losing her knapsack when some other street urchin lifted it. They have the other fellow in hand, and this one claims she can prove that this other wretch stole her knapsack, but no one will listen, not the police, not the other folks on the street. She wants the judge to get her handful of belongings back for her. The judge, bleary after an eight hour day of foul-smelling people with even fouler-smelling breath approaching the bench in endless foul-smelling succession to receive sentences, doesn’t much care whether these two A-1 losers live or die tonight. He cares much less whether one or the other takes possession of some nasty-looking bag filled with old soda cans, a book, some unmentionably-dirty items of clothing, and one pair of clean socks. The judge, along with all the other members of his service club, is one of life’s certifiable winners, and when these losers collect in his courtroom every day it brings him down. How can he keep up his happy attitude toward life when he has to face these cretins all week? When will he get another crack at that district court opening where he can dispense some real justice? When will he be able to trade up to the 2008 model car. When will he be invited to join another club for winners?

But the continued whining of his present complainant brings him back to his present responsibility. The homeless woman who has been done out of her backpack is whining on and on until finally the judge has heard all he cares to hear in one day and he brings his gavel down, announcing his decision that the knapsack thief must return the goods to their rightful owner immediately, case closed. Just as quick as that he is out the door, flinging his robe over the chair in his chambers and he is off toward home and the gin and tonic that awaits him there.

There always seem to be winners and losers in life, but Jesus’ parable reminds us that, in the end, there really are only losers by the world’s standards. The winner-take-all mentality of our world is as phony as a seven dollar bill. We all wind up old or dead, often both, each of which equates in our culture with losing out. I think I first realized that though I am not dead, I am getting older, when I heard an old Steppenwolf rock and roll tune — that in my college years I associated with road motorcycles — being used in an ad to sell full-sized sedans to aging baby boomers. How tame it seems my generation has become, using the old songs of rebellion to sell each other the symbols of the status quo! Increasingly, the people in prime time TV ads look like youngsters to me. Increasingly, as we age, we are relegated more and more to the marketing sidelines while advertising continues to pump messages to the 20-30 something set. Advertising I see suggests that, by the standards of our popular culture, getting older means losing out, and dying means being lost.

Jesus said, don’t lose heart. We have run away from losing, but when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth, because he will have brought it. How? By becoming the ultimate loser: tried, convicted, and executed like the most common of criminals, this loser was raised from the dead. If God could turn that story of the loser’s death of Jesus around by the power of the resurrection, how much more can he rescue our own losing?

The Son of Man found faith on earth because he brought it, he lived it, he preached it, he even died for it, and he was vindicated by it.

Knowing this, how then shall we live? Knowing this, we have to see that God has taken himself out of the judging business. Losers that we are, lost in the middle of a life we cannot ultimately win — for one day we will all be required to surrender it, to lose it — we come to discover in the end that the last thing we will know is that losers or not, God’s final word on the matter is grace. God grants justice to his chosen ones, not because of our fine, winning tradition, but just because that’s the kind of loving Father he is. That’s all. The loving justice of God: we can’t win it. We can only receive it.

It is said that Ted Turner, cable TV’s answer to the Arab Oil cartel, fabulously wealthy and powerful Atlantan, Ted Turner, during the first 17 years of his life, became a Christian and considered entering the ministry and becoming a missionary. Then he watched his sister die an agonizing death from Lupus. He says it took away his faith in God. Lupus is a loser’s death to be sure, because no winner wants to die at all, much less when they are young, even less when there is an accompaniment of such pain. Reared in a religious tradition that valued an image of winning over an image of the unmerited grace of God for the lost, Ted Turner lost his faith, and little wonder. A faith for winners cannot be maintained in the kind of world we live in, not if we care about anyone who winds up on the losing end.

What a loss. What a shame that in his religious formation, no one mentioned to Ted that Christ died, not to save winners, but it rhymes with that. What a shame that the obvious energy of this powerful personality was turned away from the gospel because he couldn’t find in it any way to win. What a shame that he was never told it’s okay to be completely lost because the one who saves us knows just where we are. What a shame that he lost heart, just when he needed it most.

Don’t worry if you feel lost today, don’t lose heart. It means that you are in the very presence of Christ, the one who inspired the hymn-writer to say, “I once was lost, but now am found.” And those whom Jesus finds, he will not lose.

1 I am indebted to Robert Capon and his book, Parables of Grace, (Eerdmans, 1988), for essential
ideas in the backgound of this sermon.