Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2016
Text: Luke 18:1-8
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia
Ralph and Sam are colleagues.
If we don’t understand that from the beginning, this whole thing is lost. Ralph and Sam are colleagues, and they are collegial. They show up in the morning, they greet each other with respect. They greet each other by name: Morning, Ralph. Morning, Sam. They nod to each other with grace. They punch the clock together.
And then the work begins, and, admittedly, the work sets them against each other. The office is a large field adorned with sheep, and Sam is a sheepdog, and his job is to protect his flock, and Ralph, of course, is a wolf, and his job is to go after the sheep, because this is the recurring plot of one of the core Looney Tunes franchises. Ralph, who looks strikingly like Wile E. Coyote, devises all sorts of intricate schemes to try and get the sheep, and Sam, who largely seems to sleep his way through the job, foils him every time, and we root for Sam, but also we kind of give our pity to Ralph, but the thing is that Ralph and Sam aren’t enemies. Despite appearances, it’s not Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, it’s something much more dignified. No sheep are harmed in the making of this production. And at the end of every cartoon, the bell rings, and Ralph and Sam walk back over and punch the clock together. Evening, Ralph. Evening, Sam. See you next time.
In a normal year, elections are more or less a story about Ralph and Sam. In a normal year, the electoral language that divides us is a matter of political necessity. Somebody has to run against somebody else, and they both need votes, and it’s not personal. Two candidates get the nomination. Morning, Ralph. Morning, Sam. And the shenanigans begin. And you know they can be vicious. But in a normal year, the stakes are only so high, because the story has boundaries. Because Ralph and Sam are colleagues. In one story in last weekend’s New York Times, campaign staffers explicitly reference these old cartoons as part of their nostalgia for years past, recalling those old opponents as “familiar predators in their political habitat.” The wolf has to be a wolf. The sheepdog has to be a sheepdog. It’s not personal. It’s what we do. It’s the job. Because we know, at the end of the day, on the far side of the November 8, that will meet again and punch the clock together. Colleagues. Evening, Ralph. Evening, Sam. See you tomorrow.
In a normal year, we might likewise see in this morning’s parable some echoes of basic story of Ralph and Sam. In a certain city, Jesus says, there is a judge who neither fears God nor has respect for people, and a widow who keeps appealing to him to intervene against her opponent. And before you take sides, consider this. Scripture tries to protect widows, but this one has a backstory, she’s got an opponent, and we have no idea why. We don’t know enough to know what the judge should do. And on the other side, judges are meant to be impartial. To say that the judge neither fears God nor respects other people is not necessarily to dismiss him as unfit for the task; it may be rather that this judge is perfectly dispassionate. What we know is that they are locked in this endless feud. They do the thing that they are supposed to do; the widow, advocating for her rights; the judge, respecting the dispassion of his office, they do this, over and over and over, “she kept coming to him,” it says in verse 3, translating that particular Greek tense that we use to represent recurring action, they are locked in this thing together, and it doesn’t have to be personal. It’s just the job. Morning, Widow. Morning, Judge.
But what this text knows, and what you and I are learning, and what Ralph and Sam have perhaps not yet figured out, is that eventually, this whole thing breaks down. Eventually, it stops being collegial. Eventually, it starts feeling personal. Eventually, you lose heart. That’s what the setup in Luke’s Gospel says, that Jesus is telling them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” But of course “losing heart” is an English idiom, nobody’s worried that their actual cardiac organs will go missing. It’s a good translation, but there’s something about the Greek that won’t let me go. It’s using the same root that Greek uses for all kinds of diseases, for leprosy or for blindness or for possession, for all kinds of sickness whose effects you could see with the naked eye. But here they’ve put a preposition in front of it; it’s not just sickness, it’s the inside-sickness. When you look fine on the outside, but on the inside something is terribly wrong. This is the deep fear: eventually, the widow will get the inside-sickness and give up her cause; eventually, Ralph will get the inside-sickness and realize the impossibility of his task; eventually, in this interminable election, we all get the inside-sickness, the bonds of collegiality break down, there will be nothing left but the fight. Eventually, we will lose heart. Eventually, we will open our eyes and realize that this is no longer a normal year. It looks the same on the outside. But it’s the inside-sickness.
I’ve got a bad case of it, and I’m willing to bet you do, too.
It’s one thing, of course, to follow the campaign, to watch the polls, to watch the horse-race. That’s normal-year-behavior. But in the past I admit they would have made me feel something different: hope, at times, or dismay, to be sure, and minimally a certain adrenaline at the excitement of the season. But this season is something more broken. Do you remember when this election was about trade policy? Or immigration policy? Or health care policy? You can’t possibly remember when it was about climate change policy, because neither party has bothered even to say the words. But now, of course, we are in the gutter, an election become a referendum on sexual abuse and racial violence. I don’t remember the last time that I read a headline involving a candidate and a major policy proposal. Whatever national contest of ideas this campaign was supposed to be, so advertised by my middle school social studies teacher and way too many episodes of The West Wing, well, this isn’t it. This is the gutter, or, as comedian John Oliver recently observed, if you look straight up, and squint, and see way up there above you a tiny wee patch of light, well, that’s rock bottom. And here we are, far underneath. And I’m not here to make a political argument. I just want to say. I feel sick on the inside. I feel the inside-sickness. And I bet you do, too.
It has real effects. This week the American Psychological Association released the results of a survey from August in which more than half of the respondents listed the election as a major source of stress. The APA actually has a workgroup on Stress in America, which regularly runs these surveys, and the answers are fairly predictable: we are stressed out by work, by money, and by the economy. But this year, the election edges its way into the top three. And it’s not just social media-induced anxiety, though I certainly confess to that — but according to the survey, it’s actually the oldest Americans, the ones least likely to be following along on Twitter, who are feeling election stress the most, perhaps weighed down by the historical perspective of it, or in consideration of its impact on their children and grandchildren. The point is: if you are taking this hard, you are not alone.
It has real effects. Another study out recently, from Monmouth University, found that 70% of Americans agree that this election has brought out the worst in people, that only 30% of us feel like the rhetoric and tone of this campaign is justifiable. And, perhaps most frustrating, that about 7% of us reporting having lost a friend, or having ended a friendship because of this year’s race. Now that number is not perhaps as high as it could be, but on the other hand any friendship lost during the regular process of trying to engage in our civic responsibility seems one too many. At the end of the day Ralph and Sam should punch the clock together, they should walk out the door together; in my imagination they’re out to happy hour together; after all, they have to come back to work tomorrow together. But in American 2016 Ralph and Sam haven’t spoken in months; they’re still Facebook friends but Ralph doesn’t follow Sam’s posts anymore and Sam has Ralph on his own little batch of privacy settings because the language and vitriol and violence of this race has gone beyond the pale. It is well past enough, and I am sick, on the inside, and so, I suspect, are you.
But this is a story about not losing heart.
This is a story about not getting the inside-sickness.
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And the story he tells is about this woman who will not give up. Again, we don’t know her full story, nor her cause, though scripture has an almost endless supply of empathy for widows, but the justice of her cause hardly seems to be the point. The point is the persistence of the thing; she keeps coming, even though this judge seems immovable, implacable. He is, after all, a man who “neither fears God nor has respect for people.” The cause seems lost. But all is not exactly as it seems, as the judge eventually relents. I actually love this moment of self-awareness: later, the judge says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” — you can’t fault him for self-deception — “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” This isn’t sentimental. He’s not magically transformed. His heart doesn’t grow three sizes. He just wears out. But nonetheless. Don’t lose heart, Jesus says. Because if this unrepentant, unsympathetic, borderline pathological justice of the peace can change his mind, surely none of us should lose hope.
And consider the context. We are now in the 18th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. For months, the lectionary has been guiding us through these middle chapters, the so-called Travel Narrative, this string of stories and observations that Jesus tells his disciples and the gathered crowds after setting his face to Jerusalem midway through chapter 9. By the end of chapter 19, he will have entered through the gates of that city with crowds waving their Palm branches on either side. All of which is to say that the the great arc of this Gospel draws us nearer and nearer towards Jesus’s death itself. Consider this parable, then, bouncing around the heads of disciples who have just figured out where this journey is really going, who have just figured out that Jesus is going to die and there is so little they can do, that Jesus is going to die an the world will still have persecuted widows and the world will still have unfeeling judges and so much of it will be as it ever was, the wolves and the sheepdogs day in and day out and who wouldn’t lose hope? And who wouldn’t get dismayed? And who wouldn’t feel the temptation just to burn the whole thing down? If this story is so impenetrable, this judge so immutable, this death so inevitable, who wouldn’t get a little sick on the inside? And yet we know. We know the judge will soften. We know the grave will open. We know the story will keep going. The story will keep going, we will come back tomorrow and punch the clock and start again, the story will keep going, this is not the end, and if you start to forget, Jesus says: Just pray.
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray and not to lose heart.
I think there are many good medicines for election-season inside-sickness. None of them are rocket science. Along with its survey results, the APA has also put out a few tips: feel free to stay off of social media. Feel free to unplug. Feel free to set boundaries in your personal conversations; it’s okay to say that you don’t feel like talking about the election. You can find other opportunities for civic and community involvement and engagement, you can work on an issue that you feel passionate about, or you can just keep your head down until election day. But I think, for those of us who claim to be shaped by this story, and by this Word, I think there’s something else we can do. We can pray. Not because in our prayers God will suddenly give us everything we want. Not because through our prayers God will suddenly turn eyes towards us, as if God’s eyes have not been on us from the beginning. Not because our prayers are louder or better or more needed or more overdue than anybody else’s. We don’t pray to change God’s mind.
But we pray to remember God’s story, a story told in the valley of the shadow of death, a story told all along the journey to the cross, a story literally left for dead, but a story that rises again nonetheless and wraps each of us in its Word. This is why we pray. To remember. And not to lose heart.
Pray. Do not lose heart. Because we will need heart again, on the other side of this story, on the other side of election day. Pray, because we will need heart again, the morning of November 9, when we will face together the more difficult task of cleaning up from the drunken brawl currently rampaging through our country. Pray, because we will need heart again, when this whole thing is over, because this election will end, and because this gutter will run out, and because we will get out of this hole, because this story keeps going, and we’re going to need our hearts intact when it happens. God’s going to nee dour hearts intact when it happens.
Pray, because we will need heart again, because God is not done with this story and God is not done with your story. Because there will come a day we can all join around the one table of the kingdom of God, widow and judge, disciple and pharisee, Jew and Greek, slave and free, Democrat and Republican. There will come a day when the lion lies down with the lamb and the wolf with the sheep-dog. But until then. God is not done with our story.
Until then, we have work to do.
Until then, we will report for duty every morning.
Until then, we will punch the clock.
Until then, we will set about the tasks that have been given to us, to seek justice, and to love kindness, and to perform mercy.
Until then, we will love one another as God has loved us and has commanded us.
Until then, we will remember the story of the God of grace who stands above and beyond all things and loves us far beyond all imagining.
And if we forget: let us pray.