Sermon for Trinity 15 – Sunday 29 September 2019
St John the Baptist, Felixstowe
Text: Luke 18.1-8
…will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 8.7-8)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
When I used to teach A Level Biblical Studies at St Martin’s School in Johannesburg my students were the most envied of the 6th Form. Well at least for the first two weeks of the new school year. This was not because I was a wonderfully skilled teacher (I will leave you to decide if that is the case) nor because the two-year syllabus, which had to be taught in just two terms, was particularly exciting. My popularity was because the first two double periods of the year were always held in the armchair comfort of the local Wiesenhof Coffee Shop with the school chaplain picking up the tab for coffee and croissants!
My aim was to introduce them, through the medium of examining Johannesburg’s assorted daily papers, to the fact that the gospel writers, in common with authors everywhere down the ages, wrote with their audience in mind. Something which, in an era of Fake News, Dog-Whistle messaging, and naked propaganda, 21st Century Britain is all too familiar with. The premise of every author is this; your readers can only here your message if you write in a genre and language they can understand. Something which the drafters of the 39 Articles of Religion were eager to point out in Article 24;
IT is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.
Having four different gospels does not mean there are four different version of the Good News – there is only one Gospel. A Gospel that proclaims the love of God to all and calls us to love in a like manner. There are not four stories but instead there is one story with four audiences.
Matthew tells his story to a conservative audience from a traditional Jewish background – a biblical version of the Daily Mail if you will.
Mark, speaking to a church born in the streets of Alexandria and hiding in the catacombs of Rome, paints large powerful pictures of Jesus at work. A comic book gospel full of derring-do in the mould of Boys Own and the Eagle (which was founded by a vicar)
John, written last of all gospels, has a long view on things and his gospel is more of a commentary on the life of Jesus for the intelligentsia of the Roman Empire and as such is akin to an edition of Time magazine or Newsweek.
And Luke, Luke is different to all of them because of not only of the needs of his audience but also because of his own background. Of the 66 books of the Bible 64 of them were written by Jews. Leaving only the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke to be written by a Gentile for Gentiles. Luke writes for those who come from a different world to the rest of the Bible audience. Luke write for people who are trying to work out if they have anything to do with the ‘God of the Jews’. If Luke were a British journalist, I think Luke would write for The Guardian.
Luke’s gospel is for those who do not fit into Gentile society. He shows Jesus being born to the wonder of outcast shepherds rather than to star-gazing Kings. He reminds us that even the tax collector Zacchaeus can be saved. He introduces the oxymoron that is the ‘good’ Samaritan (yet at the same time condemns Samaritans who reject Jesus). He talks of lost things – sheep, a coin from a woman’s dowry, and sons – being found again.
And, above all the other authors in the Bible, Luke remembers that women are ever-present. He tells us about Jesus raising the only son of the widow of Nain, settling a dispute between two loving sisters, naming and thanking the wealthy women who supported his ministry, and, in today’s reading, speaks of justice for widows in the face of unjust judges.
Why does he tell the Good News of God in this way?
Why does he include these stories that the Jewish authors leave out?
Why is Luke at pains to point out and include in God’s favour so many people who were so often neglected by their own community?
The obvious answer is to let them know that no one is excluded from the love of God shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but there is something deeper here as well? Would it not have been easier for him to have forgotten them as well? After Matthew, Mark, and John did.
Luke is not only telling his Gentile listeners about Jesus of Nazareth the man but is also telling them about the Incarnate Christ who is the Word of the One who made the world and loves it eternally.
Luke’s audience did not know this God.
They had not heard of the God of the Exodus who called a whole people to live according to a rule of love and generosity.
Luke’s audience had heard of, and worshipped, many gods.
The gods of Mount Olympus were uncaring, crass, and capricious.
Gods to be bargained with, gods to be appeased, gods to be tricked, gods to whom everyone eventually surrendered.
Greeks had little idea of a god who was not ‘out to get them’ and could not comprehend a God who would, literally, love them to death and beyond.
Luke wants to introduce his audience, and by extension the whole Gentile world, to the comprehensive love of the God of Israel who commands that all honour one another and follow commandments which expect generosity instead of envy, honesty instead of lies, sharing of goods above theft, faithfulness replacing lust, and life in preference to death.
And there’s yet more! The farmer is expected to leave part of the harvest in the fields for the orphan and the widow, the stranger is to be welcomed and not abused, the hungry are to be fed and provision made for the sick. And, just in case someone loses out, once every 50 years there is to be a Jubilee when everything is to be shared between everyone equally.
How can this be? These are difficult words to comprehend amongst listeners who are used to a religion peopled by gods who are more like the unjust judge than the caring carpenter of Nazareth. No wonder Luke records Jesus wondering if they will hold on to this faith until His return!
Luke, by using the parable of the unjust judge wants to show to the world’s outcasts and forgotten, for that is what widows were, the life changing idea of a just God. But not only that, he wants to show them a God who wants to pursue justice for the neglected and rejected who works through the hands of the Church of Jesus. Unsurprisingly, Luke records in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles how the early church shared everything together and, when an argument did arise over care for the widows the Apostles put gentiles in charge of the common fund rather than grabbing all the power for themselves.
Luke tells stories of shepherds and Samaritans, tax collectors and widows, because he sees in the message of the Gospel and the person of Jesus the words of Isaiah come to life:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4v18-19)
What does this mean for us? Yes, some of us are alone in the world like Luke’s persistent widow, and some of us have been treated unjustly (ask anyone trying to navigate their way through the penny-pinching and humiliating world of Universal Credit and ‘so called’ Personal Independent Payments). But surely this is just a parable for ‘then’ and not a hope for ‘now’.
Luke told this story to his outcast listeners because he had first-hand experience of a just community that did things differently.
A place where people were valued not because of the language they spoke, or their gender, or their profession, or their status.
A place where people were valued because Christ loved them so much that he died for them.
A place called the Church.
This is why our motto of ‘Open to God, Open to All’ needs to be the heartbeat of our daily life. For, if we are not ‘Open to All’ no matter how awkward, how demanding, how different other people are, then we are not ‘Open to God’. When this happens the challenge of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, ‘when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth’ needs to sear our hearts and drive us out in to the highways and by-ways of our town to seek the least, the last, and the lost and proclaim ‘All are welcome in this place’.
I believe our God is a God of justice, not the justice of judgement and condemnation, but the justice of a generous love that refuses to see anyone as an outsider or beyond the pale. Again and again in so many ways – visiting the housebound, taking people to worship in other churches, a friendly phone call, a dish of food to save a sick friend the trouble of cooking, and countless hours helping out in valuable community service at St Edmund’s Church and elsewhere – many of you hearing these words have demonstrated that you believe in this same God.
A God who says ‘yes’ to all those in need.
A God who refuses to leave behind the left behind.
A God who calls us to act together to build a caring society.
A God who gives us the strength to love the unlovely
A God who loves us without condition.
A God who does not give up on me and does not give up on you and asks that we do not give up on others.
This is what it means to be a God of justice.
[This blog ‘Persistent Justice’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2019]