A Sermon by
the Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul Minnesota
October 16, 2016
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8
Many of us remember Secretariat, generally considered the greatest race horse of all time. The giant horse known as Big Red not only had power but charisma, personality and he had heart. He would thrill spectators by starting at the back of the pack and then working his way up to the front. In one Preakness, he finished 31 lengths ahead of the second-place horse. Most of his records still stand. In 1999 ESPN named him to their list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century.
After Secretariat died in 1989, the autopsy revealed that his actual heart was 22 pounds, two and a half times larger than the average horse. His fans were not at all surprised.
The heart is not only the physical organ that pumps 80 gallons of blood throughout our bodies every day; it is considered the center of the emotions, the seat of conscience, as well as of romantic love. The word “heart” is mentioned over a thousand times in the Bible. It is also mentioned twice in our lessons for today. Once is in today’s Gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples a parable to help them “not lose heart.”
“Losing heart” means discouragement, lack of interest in things as they are, loss of hope. Certainly “losing heart” is a powerful temptation today as our political system has descended into the realm of the outrageous, as incivility, accusations and lies pollute democracy. The heart also reels from terrorism, poverty, racism, and weather disasters, along with the ongoing personal demons we each battle every day; loneliness, fear, failure, and losses of every description. The temptation to “lose heart” beckons.
To not lose heart, one thing the Gospel advises is persistence, as displayed by the widow in the parable told by Jesus. Under Jewish law a widow could not inherit her dead husband’s estate; it would go straight to her sons or her brothers in-law and the widow could only hope they throw some crumbs her way. This is certainly the kind of justice she pleads for in the lesson. I think that her persistence is a measure of her desperation.
The other character in the lesson is the Unjust Judge. Both the narrator of the lesson and the judge himself agree that he is an unsavory character, a major jerk: he admits he neither respects God or people and brags about it.
He consents to the demands of the widow only because she keeps pestering him, bothering him,” whining,” “nagging,” he would probably say. He may have called her a….. He gives in to protect himself, not because of the justice of her claims.
The parable contradicts the common philosophy of relentless positivism! Of not complaining. I admit to a streak of negativity now and then (I like to call it critical thinking) but firmly believe that you cannot solve a problem without naming it as a problem. Some times more than once…
In fact, a classical form of complaint is the lament, defined as “passionate grieving”. This is not only a major literary form, but also a recurrent Biblical device. Forty parent of the psalms are laments – and some of these are graphic and downright scary.
To lament can give you a certain kind of energy. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “The widow would never have believed it herself, how exhilarating it was to stop trying to phrase things the right way, to stop going through proper channels and acting grateful for whatever scraps life dropped on her plate. There were no words for the relief she felt when she finally threw away her shame, her caution, her self-control and went straight to the source to say exactly what she wanted. She did not know she could roar until she heard herself do it.”
With each political development now, social media blows up and occasionally, there is the reprimand (often from clergy, I have noticed) to just calm down and remember it will be all right. Well, it might not be all right if too many of us “calm down” and don’t channel our outrage into action—as the widow did.
(I’m so glad I got this lesson…)
Taylor says that persistence can be energizing: “If you don’t throw a few punches at the judge what are you going to do? Take to your bed with a box of Kleenex? Forget about justice altogether? No… Day by day you are going to get up, wash your face, and go ask for what you want….The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you so you do not lose heart.”
The epistle says that the basis for persistence is prayer — a kind of prayer that is more heartfelt and intense than most people practice, which Taylor says is “prayer like brushing your teeth once in the morning and once at night as part of a spiritual hygiene program.”
There is a tremendous power differential between the widow and the judge. The speechwriter Peggy Noonan once wrote, “Power detaches; power adds distance to experience.” If you know you have the power to flee a bad situation or change it, the anxiety is far less than if you have to stay in the situation and work with it. I never was that concerned about the problems facing single mothers because I had distance until I became one. And in the less enlightened Nineties when a counselor at the school where I worked referred to “broken homes,” I had to speak up pointing out that none of us in my family were “broken.” I was always concerned about the rights of gay people but when my daughter came out as gay, I became passionate about gender equality. I have always been concerned about the rights of women and I have spoken up and taught a course, but right now it is almost unbearable to see and hear what is going on…. That’s one reason many of us get the poor widow: when you are in a situation that you cannot escape, fighting for yourself is not a luxury; it is a kind of survival.
The judge is clearly wealthier than the widow and sometimes wealth can also result in detachment. A male friend of mine named Michael lives in New York City and works in the highly competitive field of church music; he has worked every type of job to supplement his church income so as to keep doing what he loves. As a thank you, he offered to take a wealthy friend out to high tea at the Plaza Hotel. The Plaza because, he told her, he had a two-for-one coupon. They went to high tea at the Plaza and had a good time. On the way out, she stopped in the gift shop and bought herself a $1200 tennis bracelet.
Mean? No. Clueless? Yes. She had a comfortable distance from the life Mike led (although the coupon might have been a clue). I know I have done the same thing as she did inadvertently, AND I have been in Michael’s position, too. I hire people to clean my house every month but I’m not really comfortable with it. I don’t feel a distance from them and I feel like I should be helping….
This is not to demonize anyone only to call for some awareness. In fact, Ecclesiastes 5:19 says this: “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, accept this lot and rejoice in your toil—this is the gift of God.”
Many nonprofits such as public radio are in full blast fund-raising mode right now and stewardship season is about to begin at St John’s. We will hear, of course about the needs of the parish and those we serve, about the Scriptural mandate to give, about giving out of gratitude for what we have been given. All good reasons; important reasons.
But the best reason to give, in my opinion, is stated by the rabbi Harold Kushner who tells us that the reason God called Jews to the Temple in Jerusalem to make sacrifices was because it brought them in touch with their better nature. This is different than just “feeling good about yourself” it means that you regain a connection with the part of you that is intrinsically good, a fact so easy to lose sight of in this age of relentless self-criticism.
At the OWLs luncheon here last Wednesday, we spent nearly an hour listening and questioning the refugee family from the Congo that St. Johns is sponsoring. The differential in “power” and wealth between our guests and us was gigantic.
David and Amina, the parents of the family, were there in gorgeous ceremonial clothing, and with the help of a translator, a young man from Macalester himself from the Congo, we listened and we asked questions.
The family has spent the past 14 years in refugee camps in the Congo and in Uganda before coming here. All of their three school-age children were born in the camps. Wednesday these children were off at school, which would have cost a year’s wages for one child in Uganda. Like all parents, David and Amina were concerned about getting home before the children did.
We asked questions about food, reactions to America, challenges, joys. They are Muslim and David had found a mosque nearby but few connections were made there (possibly because of language). Amina misses regular contact with other women who speak her language – there are almost none here. They must be incredibly lonely.
David said that coming to America has been a God-send for them – literally. Being sponsored and coming here is the only way to escape from the life they had known in the camps where Amina’s sister had been raped and killed.
The Bushiris are physically beautiful people. They were wearing sandals and we joked that they would need socks and different shoes soon (Linda had covered the socks). Ellie had come over with pumpkins and cooked for them. Holly and other women visit Amina. The refugee committee had set up the apartment for them with great attention to what would be culturally appropriate. People give them rides. The children were given school supplies. They are all in classes learning English.
We found that we wanted to give them things so we asked what help was still needed: David and his son need warmer jackets for winter. A cell phone would help Amina maintain contact with friends back home. David needs help finding a job. People talked afterwards about how to help with the requests. Phyllis gathered up the pumpkins, mums and apples from the table decorations and put them in a bag for them.
Frankly, the discussion had been hard work for everyone and demanded a patience during the translations that we are not used to granting, but we gave it freely. Before they left, we told them that it was our honor, our privilege, to be able to help them. It brought us in touch with the best parts of ourselves.
The heart is our most prized possession. It is anatomy, it is poetry; in it resides love and hope. We care for our physical hearts with nutrition and exercise to keep the arteries clear and the rhythm steady. The rhythm of our spiritual heart might be affected by Cupid’s arrow or a stinging and unfair remark. The heart cannot always be repaired.
But the covenant God makes with us according to Jeremiah is this: “I will write my law on their hearts.”
A child asked, “Why not put it in our heart and not just on it?” “Because,” her mother responded, “when your heart breaks, the words will fall in. “
But it is not only during heart break that this can happen. It also happens when your heart is opened by love: the words fall in and you understand God’s law in a new way…. You get it…. Why we are to love our neighbor.
It isn’t just for them.
Gail Goodwin, Heart, 2001.
David Lose, “Commentary on Luke,” Working Preacher.com
Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, Cowley Publications 1999.