REFLECTIONS ON ANNIVERSARY THINKING
Although much of our Church calendar and much of our local planning is based on a whole variety of anniversaries – whether they be anniversaries of Bible events or even individual anniversaries of past milestones specific to individual Church congregations, there is always one very important part of each occasion to remember. True we can bask in the knowledge that those who went before did some pretty impressive stuff. They introduced challenging ideas, confronted the people of their time with some implications of the gospel, identified problems that needed addressed and gave us great examples to follow.
But here is the catch. Future Church history depends on what we as a Church choose now to do. It is not sufficient to simply celebrate the choices and actions of what others before us chose to do for their time. I admit it is true that it is no accident that some Churches last a long time – some well past one hundred years….particularly when our predecessors showed wisdom in the actions and in their vision. But it is equally true that other Churches limp along for a good while just drifting and then quietly fizzle out. So which choices will this congregation be making at their next anniversary.
Can I suggest that it is surprisingly easy to miss the opportunities in front of us. I even wonder if this might be because we tend to be almost deliberately blind to what is happening around us because we might be disturbed.
In the gospel reading this morning, there is the story of the unjust judge. A curious story – particularly if we only see it talking to those in Jesus’ time. But like most parable stories it gets to have some bite if we were for example to see ourselves sharing the callous attitude of the unjust judge blind to those like the victim widow seeking justice. And there are many victims in a modern community.
In the Gospel introduction to the story of the persistent widow we learn that this story has a particular purpose, namely to meet the fears of Jesus’ followers as they face the up-coming struggle against the adversity that looms.
Although the story might appear to refer to a relatively minor issue of justice for a wronged widow of no consequence, in verse one we learn that the real issue for the widow is staying true to the principles of God’s justice in the face of despair.
I don’t agree with the common trivial interpretation namely to imply that any intercession will eventually be rewarded if whatever we mean by God is hassled enough by repeated requests, no matter what the requests might be. This takes us into very shaky territory.
It seems to me that there are several problems for the God bothering approach for trivial concerns. First, it paints a very unflattering and, dare I say, implausible picture of God, and in view of what little we know about the mysterious forces of the universe, also a curiously irrelevant image of whatever might be behind this creation.
What is more, it is one that does not seem to correlate with the world as we know it. Despite the needs of the Church picnic, what was it the prophet once put it, the rain still falls on the just and the unjust. Prayed for children still die when the earthquake flattens their house, or when terminal cancer defeats the efforts of the best nurses or skilled oncologists. Sailors can still be still lost at sea when the boat is leaky and the storm rages.
Second by taking the view that God behind our metaphors will eventually listen to persistent petitions about our wishes shifts the responsibility away from the people and divests it with God. We could only pray for the safety of a fisherman, or we can also buy him a life jacket and insist he wears it.
I believe there are much more constructive ways to learn from this particular parable.
In the first place I have no problem with the notion that we should follow Jesus in drawing attention to the plight of the humble widow. In our attitudes to those on the edge of society, we can learn from Jesus telling his stories about needs of those caught in such situations. If the poor man at the rich man’s gate, the blind beggar, the tax collector hiding up a tree, the leper who was a Samaritan, or here, the widow seeking justice, all have a place in Jesus’ scheme of things, we as his followers should share his concern for the marginalized.
Second, whatever our preferred metaphors for the God we follow might be, to assume that an unjust judge is an appropriate image to represent a God associated with creation and the forces of Love does not suggest a good match. If on the other hand we were to turn the image around so that we, as representatives of the God encountered in Love, begin to see that our past actions may have found us behaving like the unjust judge, then perhaps the parable reminds us that eventually our unjustified deafness to the petitions of those like the widow must change.
In a way our chosen interpretation of this parable depends on our theology of prayer. We can hardly claim Luke’s Jesus did not think prayer was important in that in several places Luke talks of Jesus going away to pray. Yet Jesus himself did not use these prayers to transfer responsibility to God. Rather, and in the face of plenty of potential discouragement, and that even from those who he was relying on to help with his mission, he is recorded as using the prayer for strength for getting on with the task. For Jesus, prayer seemed to be the means of clarifying thought and seeking strength so that he might continue with his concern for the powerless, as well as persisting with his concern that society start to develop attitudes of forgiveness, humility and a desire for justice for the downtrodden.
This is very different from the easy out, the persistent asking for favours and the desire that our God will become the one to enrich us and solve the problems that are rightfully ours to face. Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that the way we approach God in prayer, and indeed the way we live out our faith, reveals what our image of God has become. Talking to God as if in our mind’s eye “He” has become a haughty distant ruler takes us further away from a Jesus who taught that we must be the message. The God-likeness that Loader notices in Jesus’ teaching and not just in this passage, is fundamentally about self giving and responsiveness to the needs of those around us, and above all, about love and care.
Working for justice is indeed a genuine concern of legitimate religion. I am reminded of John Morley who once made the observation that “religion has many dialects, many diverse connections, but it has one true voice, the voice of human pity, of mercy, of patient justice…”
There is of course a puzzle, particularly if we see the coming of God’s kingdom as an event – and specifically one on the verge of happening. And it is an issue that must be squarely faced. Despite Jesus words, the kingdom did not seem to arrive for his listeners at the time, and most certainly not in the form of a Hollywood type Armageddon. And in every generation since there have been some convinced that it is now to their generation he was referring – and in every generation there is disappointment.
On the other hand it does seem to me that in another context, that of the Lord’s Prayer, the line about the kingdom ran something like: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done –and then the bit we sometimes forget, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Well, I can’t exactly justify what I am going to say next by reference to scholars I have read, but since I happen to believe it – and that somewhat uncertainly – I am going to say it anyway. I think for the justice to be delivered on earth, first we have to realize that ultimately justice is something which depends on those of us on earth. My friend Rev Prince Devanadan pointed out to me that there are many prayers for peace and very few peacemakers. Jesus is said to have commented “Blessed are the Peacemakers ….” He didnt say “blessed are the peace pray-ers”
Perhaps then this justice of the coming Kingdom is not an event for all at one instance, but rather something that can only begin to arrive as each one of us listen to the pleas around us and start to deliver the justice, not only to the widows but to all who cry out.
For those of you who travel you will have encountered rich churches in lands where there are many poor. You would have seen the results of persecution based on faith disagreements. You may have encountered examples of death-camps, the consequences of religious conflict. In no way are those sad examples a steadfast seeking of justice, but rather an active denial of the very principles Jesus was seeking to instil. It is also equally unjust when Jews were sent to concentration camps and for our context when the Muslims at the mosque were attacked in Christchurch.
On the other hand we also came across those who had retained their focus on principles taught by Jesus. Those religious orders who maintained a mission to the poor throughout the centuries, humble servants of the Christ they understood and followed, and those who brought peace to warring peoples. We encountered Church members who might not have even thought themselves to be religious, but who showed the true voice of that religion in their actions of pity, and the listening ear they lent to all they encountered in trouble. In terms of the principles Jesus taught as the Justice of God, we don’t gain credence by announcing to others which denomination or Church has our nominal affiliation. Rather we demonstrate our willingness to give priority to God’s justice by a steadfast holding to the course.
We have a community where injustice persists. We accept an absolute minimum number of refugees. There are plenty living without homes or inadequate homes.
In New Zealand, a child is admitted to hospital every two days with injuries arising from assault, neglect, or maltreatment. Half of these children are under 5.
Anniversaries provide a great incentive to consider past progress and set future plans. If our future is partly ours to begin, perhaps our anniversary is as good as any place for a reset.