A Season of ThanksGIVING: Keeping Heart
Lectionary Texts: Luke 18: 1-8, Jeremiah 31: 27-34
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, October 16, 2016
- The Tortoise and the Hare
So, I’m sure you remember the story of the tortoise and the hare. In it, the speedy rabbit brags how fast he can run. So, the slow and steady tortoise challenges him to a race. So when the race begins, Hare, as expected, takes a quick early lead and then, because he was so far ahead, stops to relax. Well he got so relaxed he fell asleep and, yep, the slow and steady tortoise, always-moving, never wavering, reached the finish line first.
There is a You Tube video that was posted earlier this week from Thailand where some people tested out the theory. They had two pathways with sides on them. In the left one, they put this huge turtle and in the right one, a cute little ram rabbit. When the race started, the rabbit reaches the mid-point of the pathway in two seconds are so and it looked like he would finish. Then, I guess he realized that there were a bunch of people watching him, so he stops and he looks around and he stares at some people and as he’s doing this, getting more and more distracted, the turtle passes him and eventually finishes the race.
It is a lesson in persistence. It’s a difficult one for us to grasp in our world of immediate gratification, quick returns, and split second access to any information at any time of day. We want things now. We want things fast. We want results. Admit it, we want to see the future as quickly as we can. And yet, for many of us, we can get pretty persistent when we feel like we’ve been wronged. And when others are wronged, sometimes our persistence is even more intense. So why can’t we have the same persistence when it comes to our faith? We’re like that rabbit. We tend to get a little distracted. And the thought of a long and sometimes arduous journey is sometimes hard for us to swallow.
- The Parable of the Persistent Widow
The Gospel passage that we read today is probably not in the “top ten” list of favorite stories from Jesus. It’s a little odd. It is first introduced as a parable about prayer and not losing heart, then it moves into a story about justice and the pursuit of justice, and then it ends with a challenge about faith. This is one of the few parables in which we are actually told the point before the parable. Perhaps that makes it even more confusing.
So, backing up a bit, remember the plight of widows in first century Israel. The writer of Luke’s Gospel has dealt with them many times because, truthfully, they were the lowest rung of society. When a man died, his wife did not receive his inheritance. There was no life insurance policy or dowry set up to take care of her. No matter what level of wealth the family held when the man was alive, his wife would not be entitled to any of it.
Do you remember Jesus’ relationship with his mother as an adult? Remember at the end of Jesus’ life, when he knew that what was about to happen was inevitable, he asked the disciples to care for his mother. Jesus had been caring for his widowed mother. He didn’t have to. It really wasn’t the expectation. But he wanted to make sure that she would be OK, because the society and the culture did not do that at all. He had to make sure that she’d be OK.
But widows are often depicted as weak, sort of pitiful characters. And yet, the one that we read about today is not weak at all. She is sort of read that way. But she has the strength and the courage to go up against this judge, up against the culture that did not treat her well at all.
And, interestingly enough, the duty of this judge was to maintain harmonious relations in society. He would have held a very prestigious position. And it was a position that would have been recognized and sanctioned by the Jewish authorities. So, the fact that he admits that he doesn’t even fear God means that he’s admitting that he’s unfit for the job. Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the judge is therefore seen as unwise and unjust. The fact that he admits his inability to yield to a higher position means that he is admitting that he is not good at what he does.
Now, the NRSV translation has sort of tamed the widow’s petition a bit. It says that the judge yields to her so that “she will not wear me out”. But the Greek phrasing is closer to “so that she will not give me a black eye”. In other words, the woman was so persistent that the judge feared her. Maybe if he had feared God, he would have understood her frustration. But in this case, justice is dispensed because the widow was persistent.
III. So What Does it Mean to be Persistent in our Faith?
So, what does that mean for us? After he told the story, Jesus tells us to listen to what the unjust judge says. VERY confusing! God is not unjust. But God will hear us when we call. In fact, we’re called to respond to God’s calling of us in the most persistent way. See, faith is about persistence. It is about keeping on, keeping heart even when we sometimes lose sight of where we are going, even when our work of discipleship seems to produce no fruit. Jesus is telling us to keep going, keep responding, keep being who we are called to be. We were never promised it would be easy; we were promised it would be glorious.
That’s the vision that Jeremiah lays out in the Old Testament passage we read. It’s a new covenant, a new harvest, a new way of being. It’s hard to grasp now, but at the end of all of our building and planting, even our plucking down and destroying, God has a vision of what we will be. And all God is asking now is our response, our faithful, persistent response.
Many of you have farmed. Farming is a great metaphor for so many aspects of faith, but it REALLY works when you’re talking about persistence. When I was little, rice farming was a big deal for us in Katy. The Katy long grain rice was some of the best in the United States. At that time, Katy boasted about 75,000 acres of rice farming. That’s now about 5,000 acres. But I remember Granddaddy and Daddy and the crew going out each day. They had to make sure the irrigation levels were right or the crop dusting was working. They would come back and they’d be covered in dirt and smelled really bad. But they never came in with a kernel of rice.
And then the season would come and the big red combine would come out of the barn and the trucks would show up to carry the harvest to the rice drier. They were long days but they brought the fruits of everything that came before.
- What About Persistence in our Stewardship?
Our faith is no different. Our response is no different. When we as United Methodists join the church, we promise to serve with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. We don’t make the promise lightly. We don’t qualify it with “when there’s time”. We don’t intend to do it when it’s convenient. We don’t add the caveat that reads “when resources are available.” We promise a persistent and consistent response to God’s calling to us as disciples.
So, what does that mean? This parable begins by exhorting us to “pray always”. That does not mean that we are expected to kneel at this altar 24/7. What it means is that our lives—our whole lives—are lived in conversation and in response to God.
What does that mean for our presence before God? We have so many distractions now. Sunday is no longer reserved for us, so we have to work harder. I remember when I was about ten or so, my neighbor down the street invited me to go waterskiing. Well, my family didn’t have a boat, so this was just incredible! I asked my dad if I could go and then I had to tell him that they were going on Sunday. His response was expected. “No, because we go to church on Sundays.” My response (which I had carefully prepared) was that we go EVERY Sunday. Why do we have to go EVERY Sunday? His response? “Because it’s what we do.” What kind of answer is that? It says it all.
We respond that way with our service and our witness too. Our outreach includes our actions and our voices. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. Every day, it’s who we are.
Well, you notice I left out one—those pesky gifts. Why are we so reticent to talk about money? It will clear a room in a church faster than anything else. But here are some fun facts. Did you know that if we took all of Jesus’ teachings about money out of the Gospels we would reduce them by more than one-third? Did you know that sixteen of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables are about money? Did you know that one of every seven verses in the first three Gospels in some way deals with money? In fact, Jesus spoke more often about money than about any other subject except the Kingdom of God itself. Now, my take on this is not that money is more important than other things. My take on it is that even in first-century society, money and people’s view of money was a problem—not because it’s bad or evil, but because it is so easy for we humans to fall into the trap of letting it reshape our lives into something that it’s not supposed to be, allowing it to rise to the top of our view, clouding our judgment, getting in the way of how we see each other, and somehow convincing ourselves that there is never enough to go around.
And so we try our best to give when we can. So, then what does it mean to be persistent in our giving? I’m going to ask you a REALLY hard question. In fact, I am probably downright meddling. Last week we talked about WHY we give. Today I’m going to ask you HOW you give. (Oh, what is next week???) Ok, so here’s a question. I would say that everyone in here gets income from some source either monthly or semi-monthly or weekly or whatever it is. Most of us get income from an employer, or the Social Security Administration, or a pension administrator, or a financial manager, or our parents. So, however you get your income, what would happen to you if whoever gives you this money all of a sudden said, “you know, I’m just going to wait until the end of the year and see how things go before I figure out what I am going to pay you.” (I know, I’m meddling!)
The truth is that there are few of us who could live like that. And neither can the church. I’m going to be honest. I came here July 1st and since that time, we have had to draw down on invested funds just to meet payroll. I don’t think it’s because we have a shortage of money; I think it’s because sometimes we are a little short or not persistent enough in our response. Our Methodist founder John Wesley would have claimed that if you have poor giving habits, you are robbing God. Jesus actually would have said that we were shorting ourselves.
There is an old story that tells of a wealthy man, getting on in years, who called in a faithful employee who had been with him a long time. He gave the trusted employee some surprising instructions. “I am going on a world tour. I’ll be gone for a year. While I’m gone, I want you to build me a house. I have already purchased the lot. Here is a check that will cover the entire cost. I want you to take this money and build a nice house. Draw up the plans yourself, and do it extremely well. I’ll see you when I get back.”
The old man departed and the employee went to work. With shrewd purchasing, he cut corners at several points in the construction process. He used inferior materials at every opportunity, especially at places where they would not be easily noticed. Finally the house was completed. He had produced a beautiful exterior “shell” that covered a shoddy piece of workmanship. He had lined his own bank account with the several thousand dollars that he had saved by cutting corners. After all, the old man would never know the difference, and he would never miss the money. So what if the house was not well constructed? The old man would not need it long anyway!
The first day back from his trip, the old man wanted to see the house, so they drove out to look at it. “You may have wondered why I wanted you to build his house,” the old man said. “After all, I already have a nice house.”
“Yes, I did,” the employee admitted.
“Well,,” said the old man, beaming with pride, “You have been my faithful assistant for all these years, so I wanted to find a way to show you my appreciation. Here are the keys. The house is yours.”[i]
- Keeping Heart
This house, this house that we are building is called the Kingdom of God. It is, yes, to glorify God, but that is done when we make the house our own, when we are persistent in what God calls us to do. And, do you remember the passage from the Gospel According to John, that reminds us that the house has many rooms. Everything is connected. Everything is worthy of the best of what we can offer. Keeping heart is about persistence, always pursuing that Kingdom, always working toward what God envisions that we can be. It’s not easy but it’s glorious!
[i] In “Money Isn’t Is Everything: What Jesus Said About the Spiritual Power of Money”, by Herb Miller, (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 1989), 46-47.