Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon: Not to Lose Heart

Here is a sermon I preached Sunday at Wesley UMC in Washington, DC. I somehow got tapped to guest preach on the first Sunday of a sermon series on faith and politics. Here's what I did with it: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” When Pastor Kate asked me if I could preach today, she told me I was allowed to preach on whatever I wanted. Then she told me that this Sunday the cooperative parish begins a series on faith and politics, coinciding with the intensification of national election season. The series will explore the intersection of faith and politics, asking questions such as: “How does our faith affect our politics, if at all? What issues are important to us as a faith community? Is it possible to have political conversations in a Christian manner?” “No way I’m touching that,” I thought to myself, “especially not to people I don’t know. I’ll stick with something safer.” It was an easy decision to make. I’ve been cynical about politics recently, and the week that Kate asked me to preach was a particularly ugly one in the political scene, with name calling and personal attacks ruling the day on both ends of the political spectrum. So it was an easy decision not to preach on faith and politics. Christians should be wary of easy decisions, though, so I’m preaching on faith and politics after all. I’m preaching on faith and politics, despite my cynicism and my doubt, because Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. Why is this parable relevant? In this parable, Jesus instructs the disciples to model their prayer life after a patient widow, persistently demanding justice in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Jesus’ choice of a widow as the protagonist of the parable is important. In Palestinian Jewish society of Jesus’ day, widows—like widows in many societies today—were vulnerable because they lacked the economic means to provide for themselves. Widows were supposed to be protected by Jewish law, but in this case an unjust judge denies the widow her rights. The widow persists in her demands, however, and through her steadfast opposition to injustice she wears the unjust judge down. I love that line. Says the judge: “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The patient widow wears down injustice. In order to explain why the disciples should continue to pray and to hope for justice, Jesus lifts up the example of a marginalized woman who does not give up, even when it seems as if giving up is the logical thing to do. It is a story of radical hope, and Jesus ties the story directly into an admonition to continue to pray for justice: “And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night?” As Christians, then, we are called to have a radical hope in the reign of God, a reign that despite seeming evidence to the contrary is victorious over the evil and injustice that we see all around us. But it’s hard to have a radical hope, isn’t it? When so much of the atmosphere that surrounds us, and especially so much of the political atmosphere that surrounds us here in Washington, DC, is marked by cynicism and despair, it is hard to counter that with hope. When complex social positions are reduced to shallow sound bites and personal attacks seem to rule the political playing field, it doesn’t seem like there is much room for hope. When the gap between the rich and poor continues to increase and social safety nets that protect the poor continue to be cut, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to be hopeful about. And yet Jesus instructs the disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus presents the disciples with a picture of radical hope that is to guide their prayer life and their actions in the world. This radical hope is not a shallow optimism. The patient widow does not sit back on her heels and say, “I hope that things will get better.” Nor does she give up. She takes action, brave and persistent action, on behalf of justice. What does this radical hope look like for us as disciples today, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and politics? First, like the patient widow, our radical hope doesn’t give up. It doesn’t say, “working for justice is too hard,” nor does it say, “this is impossible,” nor does it say, “it’s never going to change.” Instead, our radical hope leads us to take the next step for justice, the next step that God is calling us to make for God’s kingdom, and to proceed forward one step at a time. Each step that we take is a prayerful step, looking always to a God who does not give up on us. Persistence in prayer, Jesus says, is as important for the disciples as persistence in action. In the parable, prayer is action, and action is prayer. Second, our radical hope holds up the marginalized just as Jesus holds up the patient widow as an example of persistence and prayerful action for justice. Our radical hope is not so concerned with grappling in the halls of power as it is about the concerns of the powerless. We are to be amplifiers, megaphones, empowering the voices of the marginalized so that those voices might be heard by all of those with decision making powers. All of those with decision making powers. Which raises a third aspect of the radical hope modeled by Jesus’ parable. Radical hope transcends partisan political boundaries. Radical hope is neither Democrat nor Republican. The only side it takes is the side of justice, of the marginalized, of the oppressed. It prayerfully wears away at political divisions. It is immune to name-calling and dishonesty and shallow sound bites of all sorts. The patient widow wears down the unjust judge not because of competing political parties but because an injustice has been done, and must be rectified. This all sounds a bit too much like theory, though. What does radical hope really mean for us, today, in Washington, DC or in Maryland, during this election year? What sort of steps or actions can we take, what sort of prayers should we be praying, when our faith and our politics intersect? Here’s one story, a parable if you will. In 2011, a federal budget was proposed that would strip massive amounts of funding from programs benefiting the poor. In response, Ambassador Tony Hall decided to pray and to fast for one month. He was eventually joined by 36,000 Americans, including 28 members of Congress. Reflecting on the impact of the movement, Hall says “Hungerfast didn’t focus on any one specific political ask. Instead, we sought to fundamentally alter the contours of the budget debate; we wanted to change the very nature of the political and spiritual environment within which the national debate took place. Our goal was to put a moral frame on the budget, and make the case that “budgets are moral documents.”” The fast did not entirely succeed in restoring programs for poor to the budget, but then again the patient widow did not always succeed in achieving justice. However, the amount of cuts was significantly reduced. More importantly, according to Hall, political discourse around the budget was changed so that moral considerations, rather than simply political expediency, were part of the conversation. The fast changed Hall as well. “In the end,” he says, “I believe fasting is effective because it moves us closer to the heart of God, resulting in a humble and quiet transformation of our own hearts that fundamentally changes the way we walk through life.” And maybe that’s the most important thing about a politics of radical hope. It changes us. Jesus tells the story of the patient widow as an admonition to the disciples about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. Just as the patient widow works away at the unjust judge, so radical hope works away at us, disintegrating cynicism and despair, empowering us, forming us more and more in the image of the Christ who breaks down boundaries and frees us from all forms of chains. So what does a politics of radical hope mean this election season? What does it mean to be a patient widow at the intersection of faith and politics? It means not to give up. It means that although we cannot always expect quick results, we can trust in a faithful God who will “quickly grant justice…to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night.” It means that we do not lose sight of God’s kingdom breaking out right here, right in the midst of us, right in the midst of what looks all-too-often like cynicism and despair. Breaking out in conversations. Breaking out in movements for justice and peace. Breaking out in members of DC’s homeless community advocating for their own needs and rights. Breaking out in churches and communities that fling their doors open wide to include and to embrace and to empower. Yes, faith matters to politics. And politics to faith. But we approach this intersection with a radical, prayerful hope that informs all that we do and all that we say. Jesus told them a parable. So pray always. And don’t lose heart.

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