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Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
Legendary football coach Knute Rockne was a master motivator. Did you know that his team slaughtered West Point in a game because they used for the first time a new play called the Pass. The Army didn’t train for it or against it..
At the halftime of another game, his Notre Dame Fighting Irish were playing poorly. The team walked dejectedly to the locker room where they braced themselves. They knew Rockne would tear into them. They sat and sat, but Rockne did not appear. Finally, as the team began to head toward the door for the beginning of the second half, Rockne came walking in. He looked around and started to walk back out again. Then with a look of disgust on his face, he said simply, “Oh, sorry, I was looking for the Notre Dame football team.”
That was all he said. That’s all he needed to say. Notre Dame won the game.
Can you remember the last time you needed a pep talk? Maybe it was right before a big exam, or a competition, or a job interview. Or maybe it was simply a Wednesday morning, and you needed Herculean strength just to get out of bed. We all need the occasional pep talk to re-orient our thinking. (1)
During the football season, it was a tradition for the employees at the college bookstore at Iowa State University to put a big sign in the window to pep up the students for gameday. The signs might read “Kill Kansas” or “Whip Washington,” depending on the name of the upcoming rival.In 1983, just before Iowa State played mighty Nebraska, the nation’s top-ranked team at the time, the employees put up a sign that simply read, “Maintain Dignity Against Nebraska.” (2)
Sometimes that’s the best we can hope for, isn’t it? When there’s no hope for a victory, at least we can hope to maintain our dignity.
Jesus often had to give pep talks or motivational speeches to his disciples. And it became especially important as he got closer to the time of his death. Jesus knew that his disciples didn’t understand his mission . . . not yet. They didn’t understand that he wasn’t building a grand movement to overthrow the oppressive Roman government and set himself up as Israel’s king or at least the Temple would acknowledge him as a Prophet. Instead, he was willingly heading towards a humiliating and agonizing death to save all humanity from their sins and reconcile us to God. And he needed to know that his disciples were ready to face the challenges ahead.
So our scripture lesson begins with these words: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. (or giving up)” Remember those words. The point of this parable is to remind the disciples, and us, that we should always pray and not give up.
But pray about what? That’s the real point of today’s lesson. This is one of those stories that won’t make any sense if you don’t understand what came before it. In fact, it’s easy to take this story out of context.
It reminds me of a story I read about a father who took his young son, Will, to see a re-enactment of a Civil War battle. He didn’t realize that Will was sensitive to loud noises, and the booming cannons and rifles terrified him. During a break in the action, Will’s dad calmed him down and assured him that the weapons were all fake.And it looked like everything would be okay. Until one of the generals raised his sword and shouted, “Fire at will!” (3)At that point, Will was ready to go home.
Lots of things sound scary when they’re taken out of context. And if we don’t understand the context of a story from the Bible then we might misunderstand what Christ is telling us to do. So I want us to look at the passage that came just before this story in Luke 17: 20-37. In these verses, the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was Jesus’ favorite topic. He talked about this concept more than any other concept in the Gospels.
Theologian Marcus Borg writes, “The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of this world were not. It is a world where there’s justice . . . and peace . . .” (4)
Jesus lived and died to transform this world—to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. “Thy kingdom come,” he prayed, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we are followers of Jesus, then the establishment of God’s kingdom should be at the center of our life because that is what we pray for very often, every time we say the Our Father
So Jesus told a somewhat amusing parable about a strong-minded widow who approached a judge with a request that he help her with a complaint against an adversary of hers. Jesus described the judge like this: he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought.” The judge was evidently strong-minded, too.
According to some students of the scriptures, the judge in this story represents a world that doesn’t fear God or care about humans. And the widow represents all those who are victims of injustice, poverty, inequality and violence.
Widows in Jesus’ day were practically powerless. If they had no male relatives to look to their needs and advocate for them in the courts, they could be in trouble. Without male relatives on their side, they could easily fall into poverty and desperation. The fact that this widow stood before the judge alone to make her case tells you that she was determined in her pursuit of justice. What was the source of her courage? She believed that God was on the side of justice, and she had faith in her cause. That brings us to the first message we receive from this parable: it takes courage to advance God’s kingdom.
In 1943, a young man named Benjamin Ferencz graduated from Harvard Law School and enlisted in the army to fight in World War II. His battalion was involved in major campaigns across Europe. He was also assigned to the Army’s War Crimes Branch to research and gather evidence against the Nazis. Ben writes about the incredible brutality and evil he saw in the Nazi concentration camps. He says, “Even today, when I close my eyes, I witness a deadly vision I can never forget . . . I had peered into Hell.” (5)
Shortly after his discharge from the Army, Ben was recruited as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg war crimes trials against leading Nazi officials. He was tasked with prosecuting The Einsatzgruppen, [ine·zaats·groo·pn] or action group. Ben and his team uncovered evidence that the 22 members of the so-called action group had ordered, coordinated or participated in the murder of more than one million people. The Associated Press referred to this case as “the biggest murder trial in history.” When Ben was named Chief Prosecutor for the United States in The Einsatzgruppen Case, he was only twenty-seven years old. It was his first case. But he was successful. In the end, all 22 officials were convicted.
Ben’s work on the Nuremberg trials convinced him to spend the rest of his life advocating for peace, justice and the creation of international laws that would prevent an atrocity like the Nazi death camps from ever happening again. In his 90s he is still writing, speaking and advocating for peace. He knows that in his lifetime he may never see the justice and peace that he has worked so hard for, but he refuses to give up. As he says, “It takes courage not to be discouraged.” (6)
This is Jesus’ challenge to his disciples. Have the courage not to be discouraged. But there’s a second thing he wanted us to see: persistent prayer is a powerful instrument for advancing the kingdom. Jesus continues the parable: “For some time (the judge) refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and strike me!’” I told you this woman was strong-minded. And I said this parable was a little amusing. Think of this stern judge who by his own admission neither fears God nor cares what people think and yet he says, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and strike me.”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” Sooner or later justice is coming to those who trust in God.
Kate Bowler is an author and associate professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. In 2015, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given just months to live. She has endured countless, invasive treatments, but has remained stable and continued to work and raise her family.
She wrote a few years ago about a road trip she and her family took to the Grand Canyon when she was in between cancer treatments. Off Route 66, they stopped at a roadside chapel. The altar and the walls of the tiny, run-down chapel were covered with graffiti. As Bowler drew closer, she realized the graffiti was actually prayers scribbled by visitors to the chapel. Prayers like,
“I miss you every day . . .” and . . . “Please let my daughter be the way she was before . . .” and . . . “Did you make it to heaven, my love?”
Bowler writes of this moment in the chapel, “There is no cure for being human. Someone had built a monument to the void, and it was full to the brim.” (7) Let me repeat her words: “There is no cure for being human. Someone had built a monument to the void, and it was full to the brim.”
Praying and trusting in God’s promises is a tremendous act of faith. It can seem sometimes as if we are praying into the void. That’s why Jesus knew how tempted we would be to give up. As God’s co-laborers in the healing of our broken world, we need to trust that God is always faithful to God’s promises. Always. Pastor John Kapteyn puts it this way “Faith is not proven true by answered prayer but by unanswered prayer that does not make us waver or give up on God.”
Never give up praying for God’s will to be done. And never underestimate the power of persistent prayer. If our courage is fueled by God’s promises and our prayer is filled with God’s purposes, then our actions will reflect God’s mission and mercy in the world. We will become active participants in the restoration of God’s kingdom on this earth.
The conflict in the Ukraine reminds some of us of an event that occurred in 1945. In that year Communists took over the government of Romania and began isolating Romania from the Western world and democratic ideas. They severely limited the activities of churches and instituted an economic system that eventually led to shortages of food, fuel . . . medicines, and other basic necessities.” (8)
By the 1980s, Romania was ruled by a ruthless dictator, and the citizens’ standard of living had decreased dramatically. It was into this environment that Pastor Laszlo Tokes began his ministry to a small Hungarian congregation in Romania. At great personal risk, Pastor Tokes preached against the injustices of the Communist government and its oppression of its citizens. In spite of threats of violence and intimidation by the police, he prayed and preached for peace and justice.
One day, the local police came to evict Pastor Tokes from his home. A crowd of his supporters surrounded the house to protect Tokes and his family. The crowd soon grew from hundreds to thousands of people, then tens of thousands. They prayed and sang hymns and stood in solidarity against the Romanian police and army forces who were called in to disperse them.
Eventually, the crowd grew to 200,000 resolute citizens who marched to the town square in protest of the Communist government. The army troops began firing on the crowds, killing hundreds, but it didn’t stop their protests. Then, a pastor in the crowd called out, “Let us pray!” and as his words were passed through the crowd, those hundreds of thousands of marchers knelt in the town square and prayed together The Lord’s Prayer.
Their faith and courage that day inspired more Romanian citizens to join the protests against the government, and within days the protest marches reached Romania’s capital city, Bucharest. Not long after the protest reached Bucharest, the Romanian army joined the protesters and drove the dictator out of the capital city. This moment, which was inspired in part by the preaching and prayers of one courageous pastor, was the first step towards the fall of Communism in Romania. (8)
Prayer is powerful. We are not praying into a void, no matter how unjust and corrupt this world may seem at times. We are called to be co-laborers with God in establishing the kingdom of God on earth. It will require the courage to never give up, the commitment to pray for God’s purposes, and the calling to act as Jesus would to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. May God find us faithful in the work of the kingdom until the day Jesus returns to fulfill the promise.
- Contributed. Source unknown.
- “Life in These United States,” Reader’s Digest, April 2004, p. 202.
- Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power–And How They Can Be Restored(Kindle Edition).
- The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life by Edith Eva Egerwith Esma Schwall Weigand (New York, NY: Scribner), 2020.
- No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear)by Kate Bowler (New York: Random House), 2021.
- Yancey, Philip. Prayer(Kindle Locations 2308-2309). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
ChristianGlobe Network, Inc., Dynamic Preaching Third Issue Sermons, by King Duncan
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Boys and girls,
Many boys and girls when they are small have a blanket that is very important to them. Linus in the Peanuts cartoons is famous for his security blanket. I had a stuffed monkey named Jimmy. My parents took it away from me because they said, it was broken.. I always reminded my parents of Jimmy so much so that for my thirthieth birthday my parents gave me a small Jimmy. (You can imagine the pain that I felt when I discovered that they had given it to my cousin Holly. She found it in her attic a year ago AND she won’t return it to me.) Some of you may have a Teddy Bear or doll that you fall asleep holding at night just like a security blanket. I have heard of adults who still have a favorite Teddy Bear.
All of us need something to hold on to. It is interesting that some blankets are called comforters. When Jesus left his disciples to ascend to Heaven, he told them he would not leave them comfortless. Of course, he wasn’t saying that he would leave them a blanket to hold on to. No, he was giving them something better. He would send his Holy Spirit into their hearts so they would have something on the inside to give them courage and peace and joy. They wouldn’t need anything on the outside like a blanket. They would have something on the inside. Here I want to leave you with something. My hope is that you remember me when I’m gone. Not so much for remembering me but remembering the gifts I gave you. May you remember of my sermons that had meaning for you. In the chaplaincy we say that one of the most important gifts is the gift of presence. My prayer is that you remember those times when I was there for you. The last thing is that I want you to know that I will continue to pray for you because you have a place in my heart.
Most of us outgrow our blankets or our Teddy Bears. We are very fortunate if we replace them with a good feeling on the inside–the feeling of knowing that we are God’s children and that His Spirit lives within us. My parting gift for you is during this Mass. I will give you the Body and Blood of Christ to remain with you and at the end of Mass a blessing. A blessing is a gift of love, so when I bless you I am leaving you with a hug.
If you ever read stories or watch movies about spies and espionage, then you know that spies live in constant tension of being found out. Because spies are hiding their true identity and purpose, even the tiniest false move could blow their cover and put them in danger. That kind of premise guarantees that a spy story or movie will be filled with tension and excitement.
One of the most famous true spies of modern times was a Spanish man by the name of Juan Pujol Garcia. At the start of World War II, Garcia approached British intelligence agents in Spain and offered his services as a spy for the British government. Garcia was a brilliant man who cared deeply about defeating the Nazis, but the British government kept turning down his offers of help. So Juan Pujol Garcia decided to defeat the Nazis in an entirely different way. He approached German intelligence agents in Spain and, pretending to be a fanatical Nazi sympathizer, offered to spy against the British. The Nazis hired him immediately.
This was the start of the most brilliant intelligence operation in modern history. Garcia and his handler, Tomás Harris, created hundreds of false reports detailing the “secret” plans of British troops and fed these plans to the Germans. Garcia’s greatest deception was convincing German military commanders that the invasion of Normandy was not the biggest assault planned in France. He provided intelligence reports that convinced the Germans that a much bigger invasion was planned for a different site in France. The German commanders believed him and reserved some of their best forces far away from Normandy. The British government believes that it was this tactic that allowed the Allies to succeed against the German forces on D-Day.
Garcia was such a successful double agent that he is the only known person to have been awarded highest military honors from both the German and British governments. (1)
For those of us who aren’t world-famous spies, the danger in living between two worlds is that we might forget our true identity. Jesus knew that this was a very real danger for his followers.
Jesus knew that his followers live in the tension between two worlds. That is still true today. The Bible says that our citizenship is now in heaven. And our values and priorities and relationships now reflect the character and the values of God. But our bodies are still living in this world—a world full of sin, a world in which people neither fear God nor care for their fellow man.
Walter Payton played thirteen years as a running back for the Chicago Bears. During his career he rushed for 16,726 yards. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? That’s a lot of running, more than nine miles worth of rushing yards. You know what makes it even more impressive? He achieved that record with someone knocking him down every 4.6 yards. (2)
Jesus knew that his followers were going to get knocked down over and over again. That’s just the way the world is. How could he convince them to get back up and keep running? He told them this parable to show them that they should always pray and never give up.
This passage today about the persistent widow and the unjust judge is actually part of a larger teaching that is all about the kingdom of God. To understand this story in Luke 18, we have to go back to the end of Luke, chapter 17. In Luke 17: 20-37, Jesus warns his followers that the kingdom of God is coming and they need to be prepared because most people will not be ready for it. We will be in the middle of our ordinary, busy lives, and the kingdom of God will suddenly be here.
And then we get to Luke 18, which begins, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
The parable is about a poor widow. In Jesus’ day, widows had nothing. If their family or their community didn’t watch out for them, then they were in trouble. The very word for “widow” in Hebrew literally means “one who is silent.” Widows didn’t have a “voice” in their society. And this widow is in trouble. She has been wronged, and she goes to the courts to ask for justice.
But the judge is heartless, corrupt. It says he didn’t care about God or man. No morality and no compassion. The judge is a good example of our fallen world. Our world doesn’t respect God or show much compassion for the weak and needy. And this corrupt judge has all the power over this needy woman’s life.
The poor widow is a picture of all those believers who are holding on to their faith in a corrupt and unjust world, who are praying to know God’s will, to hear God’s voice, who are praying for mercy and enough grace to get through another day. And Jesus is saying, “Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop believing that God can and will give you justice. Don’t give up on the kingdom of God, because it’s coming. No matter how bad things look right now . . . God will redeem this world back to Himself. His kingdom will come.”
Dad wants to watch a basketball game, so he puts Joey to bed early. “I don’t want to be disturbed,” he says. “I want to see the game.” Ten minutes into the game, Joey says, “Dad, bring me some water.” Dad blows up. “I told you to be quiet and not bother me. Shut up and sleep.” Ten minutes later Joey starts up again. “I want some water dad.” Dad yells back even louder, “Keep quiet and let me watch my game. I’m telling you.” Twenty minutes later, Joey starts in again, and Dad says, “I’m taking off my belt and you’re going to get it.” Joey says, “Well when you come with your belt, bring along a glass of water.”
Persistence can take on many shapes. We know the people at the office who always have to gossip about the same folk, or the one in the parish who makes the same point at every meeting, or the politician who has made the same argument for 20 years. Persistence can look like stubbornness, myopia, or being in a rut. So I think Jesus is calling us to something very different.
How do you like the word “Obsession”? I know you might think of those silly Calvin Klein perfume ads that run every Christmas, but instead let’s think about those central feelings and goals that shape our lives. What obsesses you? What is important to you? What is your passion? What do you feel you cannot live without?
The woman in the Gospel has one obsession—justice. This corrupt judge will not give it to her, but she will get it—because her drive for righteousness will not let her rest. Her drive for what is right becomes identical with her prayer. She will not let up. In her, God is inviting us to get in touch with what is deepest in our hearts by looking at how we pray, and what we pray for.
This, of course, can be embarrassing, because mostly we pray for things that will enhance our own lives, or things that worry us; and most of the time we pray pretty haphazardly for them. We approach God as if it was the Lotto—maybe I’ll get lucky, but I’m not going to count on it. Because of this, we barely feel the passion of our own souls, and we certainly do not feel the passion of God. For when we enter deeply into prayer, we begin to see not only our own depths, but the depths of God, the passion of God, more fully.
What is God’s obsession, after all? We can know this very clearly just by looking at Jesus. God is obsessed about us, wants to give us the fullness of life, to bring humankind into a Kingdom of total love, to unite us in divine grace. He sends Jesus who embodies God’s obsession by giving himself in love, and then continues this love by sending us the Holy Spirit. “I want you,” God says. “I want you whole, forgiven, renewed, alive in me.” And we can only see this dimension of God by letting his Spirit lead us more deeply into prayer, into the kind of prayer that becomes our very lives, that transforms our lives.
“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed,” says Paul to Timothy. Be strong in your faith. Many people were surprised when Mother Theresa’s biography was written that she often had periods of doubt and even spiritual dryness. It wasn’t all honey and cream for her; there were days when she just had to hang on, trusting in God. Every mystic teaches us this—it is in fidelity, persistence, staying with the vision that we get through the most difficult periods of our lives. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?” We can translate the word “faith” as “faithfulness.” And we know the answer. The Son of Man will find faithfulness only if his disciples let the Spirit lead them into that promise of life which is God’s obsession for us.
Jesus spent most of his ministry creating a vision of the kingdom of God. More than anything, he wanted people to understand who God is and what God’s original plan for creation was. And he wanted them to understand that no matter how corrupt and unjust this world can be, he would come back as Messiah someday and establish the kingdom of God, God’s vision for this world. And how do we fight off frustration and weariness in the meantime? First of all, Jesus commands us to pray.
Prayer is the bridge between this sinful world and the kingdom of God. As the Union Pacific Railroad was being constructed in the West, an elaborate trestle bridge was built across a large canyon. Wanting to test the bridge, the builder loaded a train with enough extra cars and equipment to double its normal payload. The train was then driven to the middle of the bridge, where it stayed an entire day.
One worker asked, “Are you trying to break this bridge?”
“No,” the builder replied, “I’m trying to prove that the bridge won’t break.” (4)
In Matthew 6, Jesus says that God knows what we need before we ask Him. So what is the purpose of prayer? Prayer puts us in the presence of God. Prayer may or may not change our circumstances, but it changes us. Prayer helps us to see this world, to think about this world, to respond to this world the way that God would. Prayer gives us the strength and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, a strength and wisdom that give us an eternal perspective on our current circumstances. And persistent prayer reminds us that God is working in this world whether we see the results or not.
Natan Sharansky was a human rights activist, working to protecting the rights of oppressed citizens in the Soviet Union. For his human rights work, Soviet officials sentenced him to thirteen years in a prison labor camp.
For nine long years, Sharansky lived in a barren prison cell and performed hard labor daily. The story of his unjust imprisonment caught the attention of politicians and supporters around the world, and they finally pressured the Soviet government into releasing Sharansky in a prisoner exchange.
The exchange took place on February, 1986 in East Germany, which was under the control of the Communists at that time. The Soviet officials and Natan Sharansky stood on the east side of the Glienecke Bridge in Berlin; politicians, human rights activists and journalists crowded the west side of the bridge. A guard released Sharansky and he began to cross the bridge to freedom. But he did a strange thing. Instead of just walking across the bridge, Natan Sharansky zig-zagged and skipped and danced from the east side of the bridge into the cheering crowd of supporters on the west side of the bridge.
When a reporter asked him later why he had chosen such a strange way to cross the bridge, Sharansky replied that the KGB had told him to cross the bridge in a straight line, and his last act of defiance against his oppressors was to dance his way across the bridge into freedom. (5)
Perseverance in prayer is not about nagging God, even though that’s part of the image Jesus gives us. Rather perseverance is a corollary of just how vast our need for God is, that we can never stop relying on God and never stop turning to God. Perseverance in prayer is the concrete way we discover that not only are we always in need of God, but that God is always present in and to our lives. We can legitimately obsess on God because God totally obsesses on us.
Prayer is the tool God gave us to set us free from the values, priorities and powers of this world. The poor widow in our parable had no power against the unjust judge. Yet she wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t afraid to demand the justice due her. She wasn’t afraid to stand up to his apathy and corruption. Her faith in a just God gave her the courage and determination to persevere.
We too can persist in prayer because we have a God who keeps His promises. And God promises that we will see justice and mercy when Jesus returns to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
So what about our poor widow? Jesus notes that she kept coming back day after day. She kept demanding justice until her persistence wore the judge out. It says in vs. 5: “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”
The Greek verb he uses here is hupopiazo. It’s a boxing term and it means to strike someone with a full blow in the eye. This widow has no power whatsoever in her society. But she has faith in the Almighty God. She refuses to give up. And her faith is so powerful it’s like a punch in the eye to this corrupt judge. Even though he has all the power—as the world measures power—he is powerless in the face of a woman of God.
We are living between a world of righteousness, peace and joy, and a world of injustice, sin and suffering. And the only thing that keeps us going is the certainty of God’s faithfulness, the certainty of God’s love. How do we keep from giving up? Pray. And God promises that our faithfulness will be rewarded. And what is that reward? We will have the power to endure now, and the joy of seeing justice and restoration when His kingdom comes.