Sermon on Justice and Prayer: Luke 18:1-8

Por parte de mi congregación, la Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, en Eagle Pass, Texas, les mando saludos y bendiciones. Gracia y paz en el nombre de Cristo. Amen.

On behalf of my congregation, San Lucas, in Eagle Pass, Texas, I bring you greetings and blessings. Grace and peace in the name of Christ. Amen.

I’m a Quad City native, formed and nurtured in the faith here at St. Paul. It’s good to be back today. Thank you for your prayers and for your support. Juntos somos la iglesia. Together we are the Church.

I serve a Spanish-speaking Lutheran community along the Mexican border in South Texas. We worship God and study the Bible. We feed over one hundred families each month with our food pantry. We’ve just started maintaining water stations for migrants crossing the dry Texas backcountry. Life at San Lucas is beautiful and life-giving cross-cultural ministry, but not without frustrating challenges:

  • Poverty and unemployment.

  • Unexplainable immigration laws that separate families.

  • Local political corruption and injustice.

Sometimes, we just don’t know who to trust. During my time in Eagle Pass:

  • County commissioners were indicted for such crimes as currency smuggling, tax evasion, bribery, conspiracy, and fraud.

  • The school district police chief was arrested shoplifting at Walmart.

  • The sheriff’s department can’t seem to find financial documents for the entire year 2010.

There’s little accountability. Nepotism abounds. Power corrupts.

In today’s Gospel, we meet a woman who is likewise fed up with injustice. She’s bold, audacious, and persistent. She’s deliberate and faithful. Like too many women of the Bible, we don’t know her name. We don’t know her reason for needing to speak to the judge.

But we do know that as a widow in the ancient world, her livelihood would have been rather precarious. Without a first-century version of Social Security, Medicaid, or CHIP, she would be vulnerable to impending poverty and the first-century versions of payday lenders and exploitative elder abuse. Hers is a voice from the margins.

Yet in the midst of everything, she shows steadfastness, persistence, and determination. She protests. She agitates. She resists. She speaks truth to power. Deep in her heart, she does believe, she will overcome some day. What does she want? JUSTICE. When does she want it? NOW!

justiceWhen the Bible talks about justice, it’s communal and collective. When the Bible talks about justice, it’s about how society treats people often marginalized: orphans, widows, foreigners. Biblical justice is less about punitive punishment, giving people what they deserve. Rather, it’s about God’s abundance, giving more than anyone deserves. More grace, more forgiveness, more reconciliation.

I’m always moved by scholar Cornel West’s quote: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” This widow was seeking some public love, public accountability, public action to make things right. Justice is far more than a food pantry or a water station. It’s systemic. It’s on a much grander scale. When we seek justice, we do more than write a check or donate old clothes. Seeking justice, we challenge our leaders and we challenge ourselves. We ask difficult questions:

  • Why are people poor in the first place?

  • Why does a Black life, an undocumented life, an Iraqi life, a transgender life, seem to matter less than a white one or a blue one?

  • Why do our Lutheran congregations far too often not reflect the demographics of our neighborhoods?

From the margins, this unnamed widow asks difficult questions. She seeks a public answer. She looks for justice. She is persistent.

And then, “Here comes the judge!” This judge is a guy with power and privilege. He plays by his own rules. He is full of his own ego. We know the type. He’s in charge even when he’s not. He says what he thinks, even if it does damage. He doesn’t care about widows, orphans, immigrants, or anybody but himself. He’s arrogant and superior. He doesn’t show mercy or grace. Finally he grants this woman justice. It’s not because he’s compassionate or loving. Rather, it’s because he’s just tired of being bothered.

The Bible says this is a parable about the need pray always and not lose heart. When we pray, we make known the needs and hopes and joys and struggles all around us. We pray for those near and far. We do pray for justice. Prayer is advocacy, but prayer is more than a Christmas list or a fast-food restaurant order. It’s not a monologue or soliloquy. Prayer is conversation. It’s a two-way street. We speak to God, but God also speaks to us. It’s a chance for us to open to God’s transformation.

Let’s flip this parable around. Rather than seeing God as an arrogant judge who gets annoyed by our prayers, let us instead imagine ourselves as the judge and God as that persistent widow, calling us to justice, inviting us to prayerfully listen to the voices around us. We don’t need a law degree, or a black robe, or a Senate confirmation to be a judge. The truth is, we all judge people all the time.

  • Maybe you roll up the windows and lock the car doors when you drive down Pershing or Gaines, south of Locust.

  • Maybe you clinch your luggage when you see somebody in a turban or hijab at the airport.

  • Maybe you laugh at the girl with clothes not as cool or trendy as yours.

Here comes the judge.” But like that persistent widow, God keeps coming to us: Showing us the dignity of our neighbors and pointing out the humanity of our enemies. God enters our lives. God speaks to us, calling us to justice: Not a punitive law-and-order justice, but a holistic biblical orphan-widow-migrant justice where each and every person has value and integrity as God’s beloved child. That kind of justice.

In Christ Jesus, God consistently appears as someone marginalized and vulnerable:

  • A baby in a manger.

  • A refugee family in Egypt.

  • Somebody eating with tax collectors and sinners.

  • A political prisoner, beaten and killed by law enforcement, just doing their jobs.

Living on the Mexican border, I’m privileged to accompany so many faithful saints, with hope in the midst of challenges. I remember that countless host of unnamed migrant pilgrims, whose names I don’t know, but whose stories are told by their wet socks and t-shirts left behind on the shores of the Rio Grande in downtown Eagle Pass, fleeing unimaginable violence and seeking a new opportunity…All beloved children of God.

Throughout my life and ministry, God keeps sending me persistent voices of justice and hope. God keeps speaking to me through my neighbor. I’m inspired and called to action. I’m humbled and grateful.

But one need not travel to the Texas border in order to hear God’s voice in prayer. Wherever you live, you have neighbors whose voices aren’t always heard. Where might you hear God this week? What bold, audacious, and persistent prophetic voice from the margins might be speaking to you?

  • Perhaps someone you’ve wronged.

  • Someone whose life experience is different than yours.

  • Someone whose background might challenge you.

  • An immigrant. A prisoner. An actual widow, longing for a visit and conversation.

  • A story of hope. A narrative of transformation. A testimony of justice.

Listen. Hear. Begin to understand. Like that widow, God is persistent. God keeps calling us to justice. God puts people in our lives to push us, to form us, to impact us:

  • Across the Rio Grande…

  • Across the Mighty Mississippi…

  • Wherever there is pain…

  • Wherever there is uncertainty…

God is present with those who suffer. Jesus enters the world. That is the power of the cross. That is the power of solidarity. From the margins, God leads us to compassion. Our prayer becomes a chance to listen.

Our encounter becomes a holy prayer.

In ways we don’t always expect, with people we might not always imagine, God draws us into new life:

  • a life transformed by grace,

  • a life enriched by togetherness in community,

  • a life sustained by God’s unending mercy.

Pray always and do not lose heart. Amen.

[Preached October 16, 2016 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa]


One Comment on “Sermon on Justice and Prayer: Luke 18:1-8”

  1. David LaMaster says:

    Pastor Paul:
    You speak to me for GOD. My prayers and life need to be beamed to the Holy One who came in human flesh, in law and gospel, through the ever present Holy Spirit. Know continued demp9werment.

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