A Sermon about lifelines
Text: Luke 18:1-8
This past week, I, like many people, was mesmerized by the story of the rescue of the thirty-three miners who had been trapped a half mile underground in the San Jose copper mine in northern Chile. I watched the rescue efforts being broadcast live online and on television. And I stayed up past my bedtime to watch the first miner step out of the rescue pod and hug his family, rescue workers, and the president of Chile before heading off to the hospital for a checkup.
Some of the talking heads on the television coverage said that some experts were expecting the miners to be in poor health, to be psychologically damaged, possibly to even experience trauma coming up from underground.
But for the most part, the miners were in excellent condition. It turns out that they had organized themselves into a community that was focused on both their well-being and their continuing connection with the outside world. They set up a lighting system to simulate night and day so their bodies would stay within normal circadian rhythms; they organized their surroundings into areas for sleeping, eating, exercise, and personal hygiene. They assisted and supported one another whenever anyone was suffering from any kind of pain - psychological or physical. They divided up necessary tasks according to skill so that some worked on reinforcing the walls; some dug wells to find drinking water; one who had paramedic training acted as community health worker, keeping records and administering vaccines. Others set up the lighting arrangements and still others put in place a communication system with the outside world that included passing information about themselves out and taking in everything from love letters to medicine packets to special food and drink. They even made a pact with each other that any who in the future benefit financially from telling their story will share the proceeds with all of the miners. They all worked together for the sake of the common good, knowing that the health of the entire community depended on the well-being of each of the community’s members.
And as they made their plight known, the world gathered around them to assist them, to try to keep them safe and healthy, to give them a lifeline. And this enabled the miners not only to endure being trapped underground for 68 days but to support one another in every way needed to endure the uncertainty of whether they would ever be able to be rescued while the experts above ground from several continents came together to find a way to save them all. Together, they all found a way to keep one another from losing heart in a time of great uncertainty.
Today Jesus tells a parable about not losing heart. It’s an odd little story, in which a vulnerable widow - someone who had no one to protect and advocate for her so that she had to do it herself - hounded an uncaring judge into giving her justice. She kept up her cries to him even though he was not particularly interested in her welfare. He was finally persuaded to help her because he feared that the fact that she kept on and on about her plight would be interpreted by the community as a black mark against his own reputation. Our translation says he worried she would wear him out, but the literal translation is that he worried she would give him a black eye. We can take this literally or figuratively, but either way, he looks bad.
Of course this is one of those “how much more” stories we often find in the Bible: if this jerk of a judge will do justice, how much more will our loving and benevolent God respond to God’s own people who cry out to him for justice day and night. Remember Jesus said this parable is about the disciples’ need to pray and not to lose heart. Crying out to God is prayer.
And Jesus says, keep praying, and don’t lose heart. God will hear you and will make things right. Have faith that this will be so. Have faith that this is so, that this is the nature of God.
And Jesus says this will come quickly, but most of our experience is that “quickly” does not often come so soon. The Chilean miners knew this - it took more than two months to get them out. I think Jesus knows this too - for if prayers were answered so quickly, if things were made right quickly, if justice was swift, one would not be tempted to lose heart. God’s time is not our time, as most of us have learned.
And so we are faced with that age old problem: how do we have faith, how do we keep the faith, how do we keep from losing heart, when we are struggling and keep on struggling with things that need to be made right. Personal things like mental illness, chronic illness, terminal illness. Global things like poverty and hunger. Horrible things like war and all its parts - violence, destruction, people maimed and women assaulted and children exposed to horrors that they can never get over. These things don’t seem to be being made right very quickly, even though we pray about them daily.
So how do we keep the faith, keep from losing heart? Even if our ultimate destiny is heaven, what about the part that seems like hell on earth right now?
I don’t know why there is still so much war and violence and oppression and hunger and illness. But I do know that we are called to do our part while we wait for the fullness of God’s time. We are called to support one another and to do our work in the world as partners with God to alleviate the suffering of others. We are called to use our gifts and talents in ways that form and shore up the community, that bring necessities to those who are doing without, that will inspire others to join us in the effort to hear and do something about the cries of those who do not find justice. We are called to bring whatever kind of healing we are equipped to bring to God’s children who suffer in the community, to help God in wiping away at least some tears, even as we know that only in the end will all the pain be taken away.
Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, whom I mentioned last week, wrote in the Church Times about his thoughts, which follow the writing of St Augustine, drawing a parallel between Christianity and being rescued. Because our salvation is not something we can do for ourselves, and so we need to be rescued.
But we are all in it together, in our need for salvation, our need to be rescued, and it is our job to join our voices with those, like the traditional widow in First Century Palestine, who do not have others to advocate for them. It is our job to do what we can to foster their well being while we all await the day when God wipes away every tear.
We all may have been saved by virtue of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and we may be all equal in the sight of God, but there are still those among us now who are downtrodden and abused and hungry and outcast. Many of them do not believe that they can be saved. Some of them have killed themselves in recent weeks. I don’t believe that we are supposed to ignore that fact and simply rejoice in our own salvation. Some people are still trapped somewhere. Once we know their plight, it is our duty to do what we can to keep them - and us - from losing heart.
And frankly, while the world looks on as Christians are spending lots of energy publicly fighting about purity issues and splitting off from one another, we risk getting a black eye by not doing what Christians are supposed to do: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, as we vow several times a year in our baptismal covenant.
We are all in this life together, waiting for God to make things right. And some of God’s people are trapped somewhere, some of them are giving up hope, and we are all called to be a community together with them, to lend our expertise and to share what we have with those who are crying out or worse are too numb and tired and beaten down to cry out for themselves. They need us to give voice to their need for justice, they need us to be their lifeline.
And so, as we look forward to our feast day next week, I offer this prayer for our parish as we move into our next year:
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace in the world.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain,
rejection, and starvation, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain to joy.
May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.