Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Been in the Storm So Long

Rev. Kathy Donley

07/17/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 18:1-8

 

An odd scene from my seminary days came into my head recently.  It was in a church history class.  The professor announced that he had been to our local book store and he had seen an important book on the half-price table.  He already owned this book, of course, but two copies were there at a bargain price, in case any of his students were interested.  The next time the class met, someone said that he had gone to the bookstore and could not find either copy.  So two of us had to admit that we had been there first. I was one of the lucky purchasers.  The book was called Been in the Storm So Long.  It’s a very scholarly look at what happened as slavery was being dismantled in this country.  The book is still on my shelf.  I probably read about half of it when I bought it.  That was a long time ago and I couldn’t tell you anything that’s in it now.  But I thought of it as I read this parable from Luke.  The name of the book comes from an old spiritual that says

 

“I’ve been in the storm so long. 

You know I’ve been in the storm so long.

Oh Lord, I’ve been in the storm so long. 

Give me more time to pray.”

 

Luke says that Jesus told the disciples this parable so that they would not lose heart.  Why did he think they were in danger of losing heart?  Because he knew the storm was coming.  He knew the cross was coming, with its agony and wrenching grief.  Maybe they would remember this parable then.  Maybe future disciples will remember it in the storm of the coming war with Rome and the violent persecution of Christians.

 

“Pray always and don’t lose heart.”  Those are good words, but really when you’re fighting the storm, when you’re worn out, emotionally and physically exhausted from it, don’t you want something more than words? 

 

Justo Gonzalez is a Cuban-American theologian.  In his commentary on this text, he says that the parable is not about praying for things we want, not about being blessed with a fortune because we prayed or about being successful as the world defines it.  He says it is about being vindicated even at a time when such vindication seems like an illusion.[1]

 

Vindication – maybe that’s the word I was looking for.  When you’ve been in the storm so long, you want vindication.  You want to know that you were right to engage the struggle, that it was worth it, that goodness is stronger than evil, that justice will eventually be done. 

 

Vindication is what the widow wants.  Perhaps it is necessary for her survival, so that vindication is for her, a need, more than a want.  And her persistence with the judge is like a prayer. 

 

Most scholars agree that this parable is an argument from the lesser to the greater.  The message of the parable seems to be that if an unjust, uncaring judge will do right because of the widow’s persistence,   how much more so will a loving God do the right thing when we pray. 

 

I understand the logic of that interpretation and maybe it is correct, but it makes me squirm.  I don’t like it.  If God already loves justice, why is it incumbent upon us to plead with God to make things right?  And if Jesus’ disciples have been praying as instructed for two thousand years now, then why are so many people still caught in the storm of oppression and poverty and violence? 

This interpretation seems like pie in the sky by and by, like I’m being told, condescendingly, not to worry about it, but just to pray harder.  Yeah, I’m resisting that and I think the widow would have resisted and resented it too. 

 

But, let me back up and try to take Jesus at his word here.  If prayer is a legitimate key to not losing heart, what good might it do?  I have found two possible answers, both from people wiser than myself.

 

Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister and writer, celebrated his 90th birthday this week.  Many years ago he said that the reason to persist in prayer is not “because you have to beat a path to God's door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there's no way of getting to your door."[2]  A less poetic way to say that is that the regular practice of prayer is a way of opening ourselves to God.  Opening ourselves to God makes it possible for God to change us, to align us with God and God’s work in the world.   

 

A second wise person, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, suggests that the widow’s persistence is a way of asserting her identity. In the midst of a culture which sees her as nobody, the widow insists that she is a somebody, a person who matters, that widow’s lives matter.  Taylor says, “She is willing to say what she wanted--out loud, day and night, over and over--whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was.”[3]

 

Pray always and don’t lose heart.  Because if you pray, if you open yourself to God, God may help you  to become the solution to the problem you’re praying about.  And because when you pray, if you tell God that you need vindication, you are claiming your place as God’s beloved child, made in God’s own image, reminding yourself and God who you are. 

 

Been in the Storm So Long.  I thought about that book in relationship to this parable.  But before that, I thought about it as the events unfolded in the week of July 4th.    The police shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Those are names I should not even know.  But unfortunately I do know them, just like everyone in America knows them now.  And they are linked with many others, like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to name just two. 

I heard about those shootings and I thought been in the storm so long. And I tried to let the weight of that sink in.  Been in the storm so long.  I am a person of privilege.  I am used to getting what I want, pretty close to the time I decide I want it.  I am used to being able to fix whatever is wrong, whatever is inconvenient, whatever is not pretty in my life, most of the time. 

 

I know nothing about being in the storm so long. 

 

Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s names came to public knowledge in 2014, when, as unarmed men, they were killed by police officers.  That was 2 years ago.   African-American people know that law enforcement’s unjust and unconscionable treatment of people with black and brown skins did not begin two years ago.  It has only been in recent years that the general public has seen the evidence of it caught on cell phone cameras.    But my privileged self hears the news about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and thinks “that should have been fixed by now.  The problem of racism is obvious and it is clearly killing people.  Why isn’t it fixed yet?” 

 

I know nothing about being in the storm so long. 

 

But I am trying to.  And I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, this parable can help me.

 

I want sweeping change that fixes everything for all the widows in one stroke.  But the parable is about just one widow, who gets what may be a small justice, after long effort.  I want immediate acceptance of the notion that black lives and brown lives and gay lives and trans lives matter every bit as much as straight white lives.  I want justice to roll like thundering waters and righteousness to move like a flood that changes everything in its path. 

 

That’s all I want.  My children would say, “Check your privilege, Mom.  You don’t know anything about being in the storm so long.” 

 

Jesus’ parable doesn’t seem to anticipate that kind of radical change.  Instead I think it is telling me to put myself in the storm and stay there, not to expect to fix this like I would fix a broken appliance or ugly wallpaper. 

 

What if the parable is not an argument from the lesser to the greater at all?  What if we throw out that interpretation and start over?  The repeated testimony of the Old Testament is that God loves justice, that God is concerned for the well-being of the stranger and the outcast, the marginalized, the mistreated.  As I’ve already said, I don’t resonate with the idea of God as the judge, even if we’re supposed to understand a judge who is so much better than this one.  So what if the judge is not a stand-in for God?  What if, in this parable, we were to see the God as the widow?[4]  

 

Suppose God is the widow who pleads for justice. 

God is the widow who just keeps showing up,

in every time,

in every place,

in each generation,

a pest, a nuisance, a bother,

for the sake of love and justice.

 

And if God is the widow, then who is the unjust judge?  Could that be us?  Could it be that God keeps showing up, pleading with us to act?  And some of us will respond, if only to keep God from wearing us out. 

 

Baptist scholar, Alan Culpepper says, “"To those who have it in their power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan and the stranger but do not, the call to pray day and night is a command to let the priorities of God's compassion reorder the priorities of their lives."[5]

 

There’s that strange last line of the parable, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  What could that mean?  Maybe it is asking “when God the widow appears in our time and place, will God’s people be there too?  Will God’s people order the priorities of our lives to satisfy the widow who simply wants justice to be done?”  

 

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

 

Sisters and brothers, let us pray always and never lose heart.  Persist, keep showing up for love and justice.   Even if you’ve been in the storm so long, don’t you get weary, keep on praying, keep on showing up. 

 

“We’ve been in the storm so long. 

You know we’ve been in the storm so long.

Oh Lord, we’ve been in the storm so long. 

Give us more time to pray.”

 

 


[1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 211.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, (New York:  Harper & Row, 1973), p. 71 

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 203.

[4] This idea and much of this sermon came from Rev. Robert Dunham’s marvelous work Whose Persistence? http://day1.org/1064-whose_persistence

[5] Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 339.

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