Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The persistant Widow meets Tom Osborne

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen!

As many of you know, my father is a retired Southern Baptist pastor. We often, consequently, shop talk. Indeed, I find his accumulated wisdom from twenty-some-odd-years of professional ministry to be invaluable to me as I navigate the courses of parish leadership. This past week we were chatting and he asked what I was preaching about this week. I told him that I was tempted, sourly tempted, to title my sermon: “Tom Osborn is not Jesus!” Though my father is from Tennessee and has only been to Nebraska a hand full of times, he nonetheless understands the grip that college football has upon our culture. There was a long pause after I announced my temptation to him and then he replied, “Son, make sure the war is worth the cost of the battle.”

Speaking of wars and battles, I had the pleasure and honor to have dinner with a friend of mine in the Air Force who has two young sons in 2nd grade and Kindergarten. As is often the case, pearls of great wisdom come from the mouths of children. My friends oldest son asked me during dinner, “How come the skeleton did not cross the road?” Now, I am an educated man, but for the life of me I couldn’t puzzle this one out. When I confessed my inability to provide an answer the child said, “Because he has no GUTS!”

This is a true statement indeed. It requires guts, courage, to cross a road; courage to journey to a new place, to be transformed into something new; to get to a place of justice. The parable of Christ’s that we heard today teaches this very thing. The persistent widow of Luke chapter 18 is an example of courage and tenacity in her pursuit of justice. This we can glean from even a quick reading two thousand years removed from the original telling. But there is a whole lot more packed into this parable that requires a closer inspection to notice.

Take the first sentence for example: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” That is a simple sentence of a mere 17 words but there is a lot packed in there. First he sets the scene in a city and then introduces the judge. This automatically marks the judge as a member of the urban elite. This is not some country bumpkin, rather he is a member of the crème de la crème of society; both a mover and shaker; someone use to doing what he wanted when he wanted regardless of the affect of his actions upon others. Then Jesus describes the Judge as one “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Now this is an interesting phrase here. See Judges were supposed to sit at the city gates and handle disputes with the Torah, a.k.a. the Law of Moses, as there code of law. If a judge was unresponsive to a case he theoretically could be shamed by invoking his fear of God and public opinion. This particular judge apparently had no shame as they say.

This leads us to a concept that is easy for us to comprehend. We all live in the tension and are quite aware that there is how things ought to be vs. the way things are. There is the way that things are supposed to be done within our ordered society and then there is the way things actually occur. Y’all know what I’m talking about. It is said that we live in a country where the government is “by the people, of the people, and for the people”, but in reality how many of us have the stroke, the influence, and—lets be honest—the money to affect the policy decisions of even our city much less the state or nation. We constantly deal with the tension of the way things are versus the way they ought to be.

It was no different in Jesus’ day. Judges were supposed to rule with the Torah as their guide. The Torah had both preference and protection for the poor especially widows and orphans. But, the reality was that often time the judges in ancient Jewish society had preference and protection for those who could pay bribes, those that could make large campaign contributions.

Then Jesus introduces us to a widow. Now women in general back in Jesus’ day and age were valued just slightly higher than cattle. Widows were especially vulnerable, without the protection of a husband. So, we have this unjust Judge with a host of power and this persistent Widow who is powerless repeatedly coming to him to plead her case presumably in public at the city gate. Now the courage, spunk, and raw chutzpah of this woman can not me minimized. She was not even supposed to speak in public, much less address one of the high ranking members of the urban elite. But yet, she gets the bit between her teeth and refuses to be denied the justice that is due her. She is a vision of who we ought to be. Her tenaciousness is our guide, her stubbornness for justice a model for imitation.

It is interesting to note that the woman eventually gets the justice due her; for that is not what we usually see happen. Usually, when the overtly weak and powerless attempt to cry out for justice, more often than not they are squashed violently by the powers that be. We have all seen it. Whether it is union busters with bully clubs, or fire hoses and dogs turned on civil rights marchers; whether it is apartheid or Jim Crow; whether it is Tiananmen Square or farmers in Nicaragua; whether it is veterans who need medical care or undocumented workers who want to feed their families those with little social standing are implicitly and sometimes explicitly told to keep quiet, to know their place, and not rock the boat.

That may be the way things are, but it is not how things ought to be. Jesus teaches something different. He calls for two things from us today. He calls us to repent from being the unjust judge. He calls us to confess when we have from either our complicity or from our direct action contributed to the oppression that is rampant in the world. Secondly, he calls us to never lose heart, never relinquish our courage, to be the widow crying out for justice. No matter how large the problems of the world, no matter how doubtful it may be that we can cause positive change, no matter how the deck might be stacked against us, we are called to be persistent; as Paul writes, to “continue in what [we] have learned and firmly believed.” We are called to rock the boat, to cry out, and demand an accounting.

We are called to fight for justice, to stand with the poor and the powerless, because that is what God instructs in the scriptures over and over again.

I had a band director in college that told us: If a professor says something in a lecture it is important, if he/she says it twice it is on the test, id he/she says it a third time it IS the test. Well, there are over 10000 references to helping the poor and powerless in scripture. Therefore it is not only on the test, it is the test, the final, the term paper, indeed how we help people is all we have to know who we really are.

All scripture indeed is good for our instruction and our instructions are clear, feed the hungry and ask why the hungry have no food. Clothe the poor, and ask why the poor have no money. Strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being. Amen!

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