If Even and Even If

Passage: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Date: October 21, 2007
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Henry Ward Beecher was a famous preacher - - who lived about 100 years ago. He preached at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims - - in Brooklyn Heights - - in New York City. I served there - - as an intern while in seminary. It was a huge - grand - old church - - with white walls and red carpeting - - and a huge balcony - - and a pew with a brass plate indicating where President Abraham Lincoln used to sit. / And the chancel was raised up HIGH - - so that Beecher could stand on that high chancel - - to preach.

There is a story - about when Beecher was young - - and still in school: He had been called on by his teacher to RECITE something. / He stood up to recite - - and he hadn't finished speaking - - when the teacher INTERRUPTED. The teacher called out: "No!"

He started to speak again - - and again - - the teacher called out "No!"

So - - he sat down. Dejected.

The NEXT pupil stood up - - and the teacher called out "No!" - - again - - for this second pupil. BUT the second pupil - kept right on going.

He didn't stop - - and when he finished - - the teacher said: " very good".

Beecher was irritated by this, "I recited JUST as good as he did", he said.

The teacher's answer: "It's not enough to know your lesson.
You have to be SURE."

"You let me stop you - - you were uncertain. You weren't persistent."

"If the world says "no", but the answer is "yes", it's your business to say, "Yes !

It was a lesson - - about - - persistence.

The story reminds me that it is not easy to be faithful. And I wonder about my own attempts to be faithful, or do the right thing, EVEN IF, it is difficult. I mean, IF EVEN a famous preacher like Beecher sat back down at first, no wonder that's how I feel from time to time.

Sometimes - - it's going to seem like the world is saying, "No!" - -
- - to what seems right.

Sometimes - - it will seem like the good - - doesn't triumph.

Sometimes - - even when you are TRYING to live a good and faithful life - - - things won't go your way.
And I believe THAT - is PRECISELY when faith - comes in.
Persistence is part of that kind of faith.
Faith EVEN IF it is difficult.

This kind of difficult, persistent faith, is found in the scripture reading today in the word CONTINUE. "Continue - - in what you have learned", that's what it says in the Second letter to Timothy - one of the readings for this morning. / "Continue - - - - - - continue - - in what you have known - - since childhood." / /

Paul wrote those words from prison - - to Timothy - - who was struggling to lead a church in Ephesis. / Struggling with issues of - - how to MOVE from - - HEARING the Word - - to how to ACT on it.

And there were some people - - in Ephesis - - who didn't want to pattern their LIVES - - after ways of humility - - and service - - and giving of themselves.
Instead - - they wanted to live in gluttony - -
- - wear flashy clothing - -
- - spend time in idle talk - -and chatter.
And Paul wrote to Timothy - in that situation -
"Hold fast to the Scripture - - BOTH - - IN season - -
- - and OUT of season".
Persist - - in what you know to be true.
For better - - - or for worse. /
Be faithful EVEN IF it is one of these WORSE times.
But - - sometimes - - - that can be DIFFICULT to do.
And - - Timothy - - must have struggled to do it. / /

Many times - - our life situation - makes persistence in faith - difficult. But it is a comfort to me to know that that's just part of it. It's here in scripture so someone ELSE must have had this experience. God must know what this is about. And yet our calling today is to be faithful EVEN IF it is difficult.

So to understand the readings for today, and take them in, and let them speak to our lives, I suggest some LENSES for interpretation. These lenses are found in what I call our "even glasses". Someone else used this image of "even glasses" when talking about the Gospel reading for today. Bear with me and I think you'll understand...

In 2 Timothy the lenses in the "even glasses" help us to see a call to be faithful "even if". In the Gospel it is the other way around: "If even". The Gospel reading is about a widow and an unjust judge. And when we put on our "even glasses" we AVOID doing what some people often do with parables: that is to try to figure out who each person represents. Does the widow represent us? Does the judge represent God? No. The lenses in the "even glasses" filter out those questions and help us focus: one point: persistence. And here comes the word "even"...EVEN a widow can get results, from EVEN an unjust judge. And IF EVEN an unjust judge will eventually respond, how much more will God certainly respond. And IF EVEN a lowly widow can get results, how much more will we.

The only problem is that sometimes it seems like God is NOT responding.

So - - what I do then, is try to hold the two things side by side: my questions about God and faith on one hand, and the HOPE on the other.

The parable seems to hold out the HOPE that the relationship between ourselves and God is EVEN better than that of the relationship between the widow and the unjust judge. So how does that hope square with our experience? Maybe it IS just that: an expression of our hope....which isn't a bad thing.

But maybe it's more.

Maybe it's an attempt to give us perspective. The LONG view of history. If God IS EVEN more than an unjust judge, then things are NOT what they seem regarding suffering and injustice. This is a CAUTION to NOT associate God with the injustice and suffering.

Rather to live in the faith and hope that God wants something else, and to have the persistence to believe that EVEN when it isn't immediately obvious.

Ok, stop for a minute.

Here's the thing: I can't argue you into this. There's no way to prove it to you. That would mean that I did YOUR work. This is something to DISCOVER. Not something anyone else can convince you of by argument.

And what I can tell you is there are some pretty AMAZING people who have been faithful, in the midst of huge resistance and injustice.

Eli Wiesel; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Mother Theresa...
The many Christian martyrs; the list goes on and on...
So the parable urges us to set those experiences next to our questions.

And not to loose heart, but to live our lives in hope and faith.

If the widow DID loose heart we would understand. She had a great deal of heartache. She was searching for justice. "Vindicate me" she says. She feels unjustly accused. And she EVENTUALLY gets justice. But it takes a while.
She has to be HEARTY in the midst of HEARTACHE.
So WHERE does the courage to be HEARTY come from?

Before I try to answer that, let me ask you this: do you ever think that God has these same kinds of questions about us? God continually coming to us, looking for faith, like the persistent widow...
And yet God never loses heart, we are told.

ONE thing I know is - that this persistence thing is a two way street. Faith and covenant are about BOTH us and God. And there is a promise that God will be faithful - - EVEN in a world - gone wrong.

The promise is that God will love us not only when we break things by accident, but EVEN when we reject God on purpose. And then, God will wait. And God will hope. And God will persistently love us. And hope that we return that love.

Another part of this hope - is that the days are coming when everything will be made right. And sometimes we even see glimmers of it here and now. But it's not complete. And here we are, in the mean time.

I spent the last few days at a conference sponsored by the "Oregon Center for Christian Values". It's an evangelical organizing group focusing on issues of poverty and the environment. Their mission is to build bridges between conservatives and liberals, and across lines that divide. They are part of a growing movement of evangelical churches committed to justice as a moral issue. And my experience of their work and of the conference leads me to believe that this work is NOT easy. It is work I am committed to however. It is part of what I am working on in my doctoral program.

The world is not yet perfect. Nor are we. And yet we are called to live in hope.

The environment is not yet whole and healthy. And yet we are called to live in hope. That's what the whole stewardship campaign this year is all about. The greening of Westminster is not just a nice idea. It is about the future. The future of our planet and our civilization.

A week before the OCCV conference I heard Peter Gomez from Harvard at Lewis and Clark College. It was the Chamberlain lecture. He TOO addressed issues of environment. Like some of the participants in OCCV he TOO is from a Baptist background. But UNLIKE some of the more conservative members of OCCV his is QUITE liberal on some issues. And yet there is agreement on the environment as a moral issue. It was in the Oregonian this past week. It is a glimmer of hope!

There are many other issues I could name, both personal and social. Things that are NOT yet right. Things that seem so difficult.

What to do about Iraq?
What to do about the ordination of gay and lesbian people?
How to provide education and health care to the poor?
How to be faithful in the face of great loss?
What to do when your child dies?
I don't have all the answers...
I can only tell you stories. And I encourage you to tell your story too.
Stories of faith EVEN when it was difficult.
Stories of people who were faithful and hopeful.
If EVEN I have a story...
...maybe you will too.
Amen.