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Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C
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.