Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden trowels

Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden Trowels

Proper 24C

October 16, 2022

I’m holding up a garden trowel. Its blade was fashioned from the barrel of a gun, its handle from a gunstock. Yesterday, a group of us heard from Shane Claiborne, author of Beating Guns. He has taken his vision of re-enacting the prophetic call to beat our swords into plowshares across the country. At a forge and anvil, he and others forge the metal from hand guns and assault rifles into gardening implements. One gun so repurposed makes little difference. There are more than 400 million guns in the USA. 41000 people were killed by gun violence last year in the US. It’s one more staggering statistic in a litany of suffering that can lead to despair as we watch the various crises unfold in our community, nation, and world.

We have heard a great deal about the crises in and around our judicial system. Trust in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low; the federal court system seems intent on turning back rights, negating regulations that protect us and the environment. There was a news story last week about an appellate case that had been before a court for around a decade with no resolution.

We’ve also heard about the injustices in the criminal justice system; the way people of color are targeted; rape kits that have gone un-analyzed; people on bail committing violent crimes. There’s a sense that the scales of justice are weighted toward the powerful and wealthy, and that the weak and vulnerable are left to themselves. The stories of doctored evidence; of forced guilty pleas go on and on.

We’re also facing a crisis of democracy with election deniers poised to take over important positions in state governments and gerrymandering that disenfranchises voters and voting regulations that are intended to keep turnouts down. At the same time, policies with widespread popular support—like the right of women to make reproductive choices, and reasonable limits on firearms—are held hostage by vocal and powerful minorities.

Yesterday, we heard stories from women who were crying out for justice and change. As part of our Beating Guns event, two African-American women shared stories of the loss of their sons to gun violence and the trauma caused to themselves and to their other family members as a result. Their voices broke as they spoke of the pain and loss they felt: a mother who lost her best friend and closest companion, a child who would never know their father. Such stories are all too familiar. We have seen the tears and anger of parents after school shootings so often that we hardly take note of mass shootings any longer.

So when we hear a story like the parable in today’s gospel, something about it rings very true. A widow seeking justice approaches the court. We don’t know what her concern is. What we do know is that in 1st century Palestine, as in many places today, widows were especially vulnerable people. The mosaic law made special provision for widows and orphans, commanding that they be cared for, provided for by society as a whole and especially by those with wealth and power. 

In other words, this judge, by refusing to hear her case, by ignoring her was breaking the law of Moses. In the end, he relents—not because he sees the justice of her cause. We’re told that he neither fears God nor respects people. Instead, he relents because he’s tired of her coming in front of him repeatedly. In the original, their encounters are described rather more colorfully than in the translation we heard: the woman’s repeated appearances before him are giving him a “black eye.” Not only does she cause him physical pain; she is embarrassing him publicly.

Now here’s the thing. Jesus is telling the parable not to rant about the powers that be; the injustice of it all, the different treatments of the haves and the have-nots. He is telling it in order to say something about prayer. The parable is told to the disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” 

  Prayer and justice. The parable and its setting open up a number of interpretive possibilities. The most obvious may be the least helpful-comparing our experience of unanswered prayer with the widow who seeks justice. Unhelpful because in this approach, we would also likely interpret God on the lines of the unjust judge—a God disinterested or uncaring for us, and responsive only because we are persistent in our requests and annoying. 

In fact, Jesus makes quite the opposite point. If even an unjust judge eventually relents to persistent complaints, how much more likely to respond is a just, righteous, and compassionate God? Of course we get that many people would give up if their prayers remained unanswered, if their calls for justice remain unheard. For us, too, it may seem easy to lose heart, to abandon our cause.

But this parable is powerful testimony to the importance of not giving up. It also challenges us to center our cries for justice in prayer itself. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, mystic, and theologian who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. from Selma to Montgomery, said as he reflected on that experience, “I felt my legs were praying.”

There was something futile, even absurd yesterday as we gathered in the courtyard here at Grace, around a small forge and anvil and watched as Lutheran Pastor turned Blacksmith Jeff Wild cut up the barrel of gun and reshaped it into a gardening trowel. There was something futile and absurd about those who stepped up to the anvil and struck the hot iron with a hammer, slowly transforming that metal into a usable tool. 

Such actions do not effect meaningful change. To many they might seem less than helpful, worthy only of spite and ridicule. But to those who were present and participated, what we did was more than gesture. It was prayer. It was also a powerful demonstration of faith that the God in whom we believe, the God we worship is a God of justice and peace, bringing into existence, forging, if you will, a new world in which God reigns triumphant in justice.

What we did yesterday was try to imagine the vision of the prophet Isaiah as he looked around the destruction and suffering in his world and offered an alternative: 

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more. 

We may be fearful; we may lose hope. As we watch the news and worry about what is to come, it may seem that the world that is emerging is a more dangerous place, that the future bodes ill with climate change, war and violence, the rise of fascism across the world. It may seem that the actions we take, whether by voting, or protesting, or beating hot iron into a gardening trowel make little difference, cannot stem the tide of hatred and evil.

It may even seem that our prayers for justice, for peace, for equality fall on deaf ears or are empty words that mean nothing and are powerless against the forces of evil and death. The two women who spoke yesterday, Lashea Jackson and Wendy Thompson, didn’t give up hope. In the midst of their trauma, they helped to create a support group for other victims of gun violence, helping others like themselves to cope with their pain.

Rooting our cries for justice in prayer is a profound act of faith. It is an expression of our belief that the God who created us and the universe is a just God. It is a proclamation that death is not the end but that the one who died on the cross to show us the way of salvation and to save us, conquered evil and death, was raised, and reigns eternally.

To pray with our feet, to cry for justice as we persevere in prayer, deepens our relationship with God. Like the apparent futility of beating one gun barrel into a gardening tool, prayer bears witness to our faith that God is a God of justice. It proclaims that we believe God hears our prayers, and the cries of all those who suffer, that God is making things new, that God’s reign will come. Thanks be to God.

God, grant us justice: A sermon for Proper 24, Year C, October 16, 2016

Today is an odd occasion in our common life. At the end of services today, I will embark on a six week sabbatical. It will be the longest period you and I will be apart since I came to Grace in 2009. It will also likely be the longest period during which I will not celebrate the Eucharist since I’ve been ordained a priest, and the longest period I will go without preaching in more than 15 years.

I think of preaching as a conversation you and I are having together over these last years; an ongoing conversation around scripture. Granted, it’s mostly a one-sided conversation with me doing the talking, but many of you share feedback with me and your concerns and questions help to shape my preaching. Over and above that, as you know, my preaching reflects our engagement with our cultural context and as I leave during an especially critical and fraught election season, I will miss the opportunity to reflect with you through the gospel on current events.

Today’s gospel reading seems especially appropriate for our current moment. At its heart is a brief, simple, yet fascinating parable. A widow repeatedly comes before a judge and cries out to him, “Grant me justice against my opponent!” But the judge refuses. It’s hard to listen to this little parable and not draw connections with our present cultural and political moment. In an age where it seems the justice system is rigged for the wealthy and powerful; where bankers get off easy and African-American are incarcerated for the same offenses that whites receive probation; at a time when Voting Rights are under assault, when victims of sexual violence are blamed and ignored, the plight of the woman in our story seems all too familiar, all too real.

Grant us justice!

We have heard over the last three years about the deep racial injustice and inequities in our state and in our county; about the devastating effects of mass incarceration on the African-American community; the economic inequality, the racial gaps in educational achievement and life expectancy. We have heard the cries for justice from that community, and too often we’ve turned our backs to their suffering, shut our ears to their cries, or joined with those who claim that the statistics lie or are misleading.

Grant us justice!

Our hearts break as we see images of the devastation in Aleppo; the senseless violence and horrific suffering. There seems to be no end in sight, no end too to the lengths to which those perpetrating the violence would go to regain control. Outsiders seem impotent to affect the situation, to bring about a ceasefire or resolution to the conflict.

Grant us justice!

Hurricane Matthew has devastated Haiti. The destruction of that island by natural disaster, coming on top of three centuries of neglect, oppression, and exploitation.

Grant us justice!

Grant us justice! We can put ourselves in the place of the widow. Many of us have struggled for justice for years—protesting in the streets in 2011, or last year after the shooting of Tony Robinson. We have struggled for justice, but it seems further away than ever before. Indeed, at this cultural moment, true justice seems under threat in our country in ways it has never been before. We are fearful, disheartened, in despair.

When we hear this parable, the widow’s pleas reverberate across the millennia, echoed by countless millions over those centuries who have cried out for justice. Her pleas echo today; her voice joined by all those who cry out for justice in an unjust world. We hear her pleas; we know her suffering; we even think, across the millennia that we understand this little parable.

But do we? For that matter, did Luke? If you look closely at the context, Luke’s introduction to the parable raises difficult questions about the parable’s meaning. He says that Jesus told this parable to instruct the disciples about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” A laudable sentiment indeed but it would seem to force a particular interpretation on to the parable.

Luke wants us to allegorize it; to see the judge as God and the pleading woman as a persistent prayer. But if that’s the case, then God doesn’t come off very well. Jesus describes the judge as unjust and no respecter of persons. The judge uses the same language of himself and indeed, he relents only because he’s tired of the woman’s constant pleading and wants to get rid of her. Is that an image of God with which you are comfortable? Is that an understanding of the efficacy of prayer that makes sense? If you keep at it long enough, you’ll eventually wear God down and get what you want.

Let me add another layer to our effort to make meaning of this. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the biblical world. There are numerous stories in the Hebrew bible and even the gospels that show them living on the margins of society. If they had no male relatives who could or would take care of them, they were left to struggle on their own. So Naomi and Ruth in the book of Ruth, return to Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem and glean in the fields for their food. During a famine, Elijah encounters the widow of Zarephath who is down to her last bits of oil and flour and is preparing a last meal before she and her little son die of starvation. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is consistent in its commitment to care for widows and orphans and the Hebrew prophets railed against the injustice and maltreatment of these weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

So in this light, the parable becomes a story of a vulnerable, marginalized woman, who has been wronged in some way. Perhaps she’s been robbed of an inheritance or had land taken away from her. She seeks redress in court; some commentators posit that the judge may even be a male relative, whose special responsibility it would have been to help her. But the courts are stacked against her. The rigged system ignores her and it’s only because of her persistence, the inner strength that keeps her coming back, again and again, that eventually wears the judge down.

On this reading, of one wants to allegorize it, God is not the cruel and unjust judge but God is the persistent widow. Like the Hebrew prophets, the widow continues to bear witness against the injustices meted out to the most vulnerable in society. Like Jesus who is about to enter Jerusalem and challenge the imperial of Rome, the widow bears witness to God’s justice against the injustice and oppression that dominate. The widow becomes a model for us, and a beacon of hope. Our cries for justice do not go unheard.

In the midst of all of the injustices and suffering that surround us; when we may be overwhelmed by despair at the tone of our current election season; God hears our cries. When we may be fearful at the violence and hate that is bubbling up around us, we can be sure that God hears our cries for justice.

For in the midst of all of the suffering, violence, and injustice, there are signs and evidence of change. Here in Madison, after years of setbacks and struggle, the county seems to be a few months away from opening a permanent Day Resource Center; and after more than thirty years here at Grace, there is a real possibility of a permanent men’s homeless shelter designed for that purpose with adequate space and facilities to accommodate the need. I couldn’t have imagined either of those things happening three years ago; five years ago. One might say it’s a miracle.

Do not lose heart. It is so easy to fall into despair, to look around in our lives, our community and around the world and see the signs of violence and injustice; to be overwhelmed by it all and lose hope.

Our God is a God of justice and love and even in the midst of the greatest injustice and suffering, our faith proclaims that God is present. Our faith proclaims that we see God most clearly in the midst of violence, injustice, and suffering. In Christ’s death on the cross, we proclaim that God is present. Our faith proclaims that in his suffering, we see Christ’s love. Our faith proclaims that Christ overcame death and the grave; that God is making all things new.

God is here, in the midst of our struggles, our despair, our pain; in the midst of injustice and oppression. In God’s time, God will make all things right.

Do not lose heart!