At Shrine Mont (our diocesan retreat center) in the summertime on the very last day of each session of camps for our kids and young people a special thing happens. On that last day, the kids gather at the Shrine of the Transfiguration an outdoor church of stone and trees and open sky. All the campers and their counselors gather for a closing ceremony where they share singing and laughing and shouting and praying together. And they share something else too. Everyone gathers in a really big circle and connecting that big circle of kids and counselors running all the way around that circle of people is a thin little cord of braided colorful threads. One of the counselors explains that this bright, colorful circle of woven threads shows them that they are all connected to each other as members of the Body of Christ. They are connected just like a toe is to a foot or hair is to your scalp. And then that long braided cord of threads is divided up in to five or six inch pieces which are then tied around the wrist of each camper and each counselor. It’s a friendship bracelet that each person wears home. It’s there, right on their wrist, to remind them when they get back to the real world of how they are still a member of a holy fellowship of love and belonging in the Body of Christ.
I was there one year for this closing service and after it was over, parents gathered up their kids and we all began to troop to our cars for the journey home. Just before we got into our car, I remember seeing two girls saying goodbye to each other. And oh were they ever feeling this goodbye. There were just crying and crying at their parting. They kept falling into each others arms and then stepping back to look at each other one more time, drinking in the sight of each other one last time.
The parable of the Importunate Widow, as it is often called, seems pretty straightforward. Look, if even a coldhearted judge who doesn’t give a hoot about what God or anybody else thinks will eventually hear out a pesky widow’s complaint and grant her justice, how much more will God – who is all goodness – respond to the cry of his people. That seems clear enough; til it doesn’t. Like, what am I supposed to do when God seems to be silent, when someone I love still suffers or some awful thing in the world keeps being awful? Am I not pesky and importunate enough?
The word importunate, by the way is an adjective that means “troublesomely urgent or persistent”. The verb, ‘importune’, means “to beset with insistent requests”. Aside from those scary times when serious illness or danger comes upon us or upon someone dear to us, when is our prayer troublesomely urgent or persistent? And even if it is, do I really think God hears us when we cry to him? Prayer seems to be just as likely to be met with silence as with a word we can see and hear from God. And besides, I don’t want to be a pest. Who am I to pester God?
Like all of Jesus’ parables, at first we think we get it, that it makes a straightforward and clear point. And then suddenly we discover we are in a thicket of questions that don’t have easy answers.
Fortunately with this parable, Luke gives us a compass to help us find our way through the thicket. He says that this is a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. This parable is about prayer and not losing your heart.
Some years ago, I read a piece of research on the make-up of the Episcopal Church that indicated that probably only about one if five people in the pew on a Sunday morning in an Episcopal Church is what is called a ‘cradle Episcopalian’. A ‘cradle Episcopalian’ is someone who was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. I was surprised by that but over the years I’ve seen that that’s probably true. So, if you are here this morning, and you were raised in a Baptist household, or Roman Catholic, or Methodist, or even no church at all, and you think everyone here but you knows what’s going on with the Prayer Book and when to sit and when to stand or kneel, or wonder why some people cross themselves and others don’t, well, you are probably in the majority. Take heart, you are not alone!
I’m a ‘cradle Episcopalian’, for what it’s worth. I was baptized in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Tacoma, Washington when I was about three weeks old. My mother was raised a Methodist and my father an Episcopalian, and they raised us four children going to the local Episcopal Church pretty much every Sunday. Being a ‘cradle Episcopalian’ doesn’t give me a leg up on anyone. It only means that I have a sense of what can be beautiful about our tradition and what can be a ‘stumbling block’ to faith.
If you were not raised in the Episcopal Church, one of the things you should know about our peculiar expression of the Christian faith is that we are great lovers of tradition, even if we may not know exactly what we mean by that. You can hear this when older Episcopalians talk about how much better the 1940 Hymnal was than the current one – although there were just as many unsingable hymns in that collection as there are in the current edition as far as I can tell. Or we talk about the 1928 Prayer Book and how it was much superior to the current Prayer Book. What we often mean by that is that we love the language of the old Prayer Book, so you’ll hear us talk about things like Rite I and Rite II.
The traditions of expressing Christian faith that are handed from one generation to the next can be a life-giving means to show us a path to follow and unite us with the living faith of those who have gone before us. Of course, it can also be an empty vessel. There have been great battles in our tradition over what clergy should wear on Sunday morning or whether lighted candles should be on the altar. I’m sure there was something important at the time about such arguments, but they belong to a different day and a different people. I couldn’t be less interested at this point frankly.
A discovery was made when our bell tower was cleaned and painted a few weeks ago. We learned that way up there among our beautiful church bells, behind one of the walls, is a thriving colony of honeybees. According to the ‘bee man’ who came to check it out, something like 40,000 honey bees have made a home there flying in and out and among the bells that are inscribed ‘praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below’. Creatures like honeybees. As you might know, honeybees have been going through a terrible time in the past 15 years or so. For slightly mysterious reasons, the total population of honeybees has taken a terrible beating. And that’s bad. Because honeybees are a big part of why we have food on our tables. They pollinate the plants that produce so much of what is delicious and keeps us and all kinds of other living things alive. No one asked them to do that. They just do it as a gift of God’s creation. Thank you, honeybees.
The ‘bee man’ also let us know that behind that wall there is probably an extensive structure of honeycomb filled with beautiful honey. That’s something else the honeybee gives us without being asked – this perfect, perfect thing called honey. Nobody asked them to – they just do it and we receive it; it’s a gift of pure grace.
Well, since this discovery, thoughts of the prophet Ezekiel float in and out of my mind whenever I see the bell tower or her the bells chiming. When the Lord God first began to speak into the depths of Ezekiel, here is what the prophet heard: “ ‘Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it’. Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey”. God’s Word, like honey in his mouth; pure grace.
I honestly want to say ‘thank you’ for being here this morning; and I mean this as something more than just an agreeable, nice, polite thing to say, which I hope will come clear by the end of this sermon. I’ve said on more than one occasion that Sunday mornings – to me – are just a miracle. When I get here on Sunday mornings, there’s no one here except for the few of us whose job it is to be here. But then, suddenly – there you are! It’s a miracle. Not one of us actually has to be here. The church is a completely voluntary organization. But you’re here.
Look around, at all these people, at all of us, you could be anywhere else; but here you are. Sometimes, I find myself wondering, what it is that has brought you here this morning? Why are you here? What are doing in church on Sunday morning? What are you looking for or hoping for?
If you knew beforehand that we’d be gathered to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ – would you still have thought it was a good idea to come to church? Is that what any of us wants to hear? It’s not terribly polite or nice.