Thompson’s Sermon from October 17, 2010

October 18, 2010

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

Upon first reading of this passage, there seems to be a very clear and straightforward message in these verses. Jesus stated that he wanted his followers to be persistent in prayer, and he told a parable to illustrate the point. The parable portrays the effectiveness of persistence upon the most incorrigible of people, a judge who had no regard for God or people, and the parable is followed by the logical conclusion that if a powerful judge without any compassion can be persuaded by the badgering of a person without any standing in society, then how much more responsive our loving God will be to the cry of justice.

This is a fine message, and I wish I could say that this is all we need to know and to practice. The message is that God is so much more responsive than a wretched judge. And since this is the case just think how much more good we can accomplish if we’ll be diligent in our prayers to God.

But the message I get from my first reading doesn’t hold up for me for long. My experience is that this parable doesn’t contain the magic formula for getting things done here on earth. I don’t say this because I have thoroughly tested the effectiveness of perpetual prayer – at least not in the manner that it should be tested. I don’t lift myself up as someone who has prayed without ceasing for a righteous cause.

I’m inclined to think that most of us pray without ceasing. I’m highly influenced by my friend and retired pastor, Lewis Chesser, who believes that prayer is that which we are most focused upon at any given moment. The question is not whether we pray or not, but what it is that we are praying for or about. We are praying creatures, but we aren’t necessarily faithful to God in that which we are praying for.

And a closer reading of this parable raises a number of questions that go beyond the message that my first reading portrayed. This parable is not a lesson on the simple formula for generating justice on earth. I think there is a message about the value of persistence, but I don’t think the lesson is that we will get what we want if we will pursue it with relentlessness. Jesus says that God will grant justice much faster than a cold-hearted judge, but we all know that the justice God grants doesn’t always play out in court. Life as we live it is not so neatly ordered.

Bad things happen to good people. Wretched people sometimes become elevated to high places. Innocent people get harsh sentences, and children become victims of all sorts of bad things. Experiencing good fortune on earth is not entirely arbitrary, but it’s not the predictable consequence of diligent prayer. There may be a simple lesson involved in this morning’s scripture, but it’s not that the manifestation of justice on earth is the consequence of an adequate amount of prayer. It very well may be that diligent prayer for justice puts us in touch with the true essence of justice, but this doesn’t mean it’s going to play out so clearly on earth.

A close second reading of this passage is not as satisfying as a quick first reading. After telling this parable that seems to be a simple admonition to engage in persistent in prayer, why does it conclude with the question of whether or not the Son of Man would find faith on earth upon his return?

Maybe he raised the question because we are people who can be pretty discouraged by the way things do tend to play out on earth. We are people who want results for what we perceive to be our relentless efforts, and we aren’t so good at hanging on when we don’t see the results we think we deserve. Most of us aren’t so good at working with diligence while dealing with randomness, but this is the territory in which we live.

I do believe that persistent work for justice actually pays off in this world in real ways, but it isn’t clearly predictable. I heard the story of Nelson Mandela on Sixty Minutes last Sunday. He spent 27 years as a political prisoner in his effort to break the rule of the legally racist government of South Africa. He didn’t allow his immediate circumstances to define his understanding of what was going on, and I think this is the view of reality Jesus was imploring us to have if we wish to follow him.

I suppose the remarkable thing about that story was that it had a good ending even after 27 years. Certainly there are cases where people have struggled much longer than that without such clear results. We can point to many other countries and situations where struggles for justice have yet to see the light of day. In fact I think the heart of Christianity is to live with absolute trust in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth without the expectation of how or when that will happen.

I used to listen to an obscure musician from Mississippi named Mac MacAnally who had a song entitled “It’s a Crazy World” and the first line went like this, “It’s a crazy world, but I live here, and if you can hear me singing, so do you!”

That was a song that made a lot of sense to me, and the truth is that this world has probably always been ruled by an excessive degree of randomness. The crazy world that we live in is not a new development. The fact that Jesus was hung on a cross two thousand years ago is pretty good evidence of this. I don’t think Jesus was naïve about the way things work in this world or with God when he told the parable of the dishonest judge and the persistent widow. He didn’t want us to have unreasonable expectations of what prayer would make happen, but he didn’t want us to try to make things happen on our own.

I mentioned earlier that I’m inclined to think the issue is not whether or not we pray, but what it is we are in prayer about, and how it is we embody our prayer. I think our challenge is not to implore God in the way that the poor widow went after the horrible judge. God doesn’t need persuasion in the way that the jaded judge needed to be persuaded. Our work is not to let God know what’s going on, and what needs to happen, but to let God inform us of what’s really going on, and how we can help make that happen.

To use language that we are most familiar with in our country – I think we should think of ourselves as lobbyists for God. A good lobbyist is in the business of promoting the cause of their client, and if we are good lobbyists for God our primary desire is to give ourselves to the business of promoting God’s work here on earth. I think this is the nature of the persistent prayer Jesus was seeking to promote.

So my third reading of this passage makes me think that if the unrighteous judge could be persuaded to grant justice through the badgering of a nameless widow there’s certainly hope for us. I dare say there’s not a person in the room this morning who is more obstinant than the judge in this morning’s text, and he came to do the right thing. I think we all know that our hearts can be focused on selfish and unrighteous causes every now and then. I can see why Jesus wondered if the faith he embodied would last. You might say we have all been known to engage in lobbying for clients other than God, but we aren’t unaware of the claim of God on our lives and the opportunity that this brings to us.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we’re a community that has engaged in some effective lobbying for God. I feel like we have been empowered to do some work that brings relief into people’s lives and at the same time gives God a good name. I like to think God is seeing us as a good lobbying firm. It seems like we are in need of some additional human and financial resources, and I think we should pursue people and money in the manner the widow went after that judge – without any expectation of how that will play out. I trust God will lead us and provide for us if we will be faithful and focused in the prayerful work to which we have been called.

I dare say the Holy Spirit is lobbying each of us in some manner that will help us understand how we can be more faithful to Christ’s call for us to engage in the holy work of lobbying for God. That’s a full sentence so I’m going to say it again:

I dare say the Holy Spirit is lobbying each of us in some manner that will help us understand how we can be more faithful to Christ’s call for us to engage in the holy work of lobbying for God.


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