The Hook – A Sermon

you can listen to yesterday’s sermon here.  Or, read it below.

Every other week, my main task for the week is the preparation of a sermon for Sunday.  Sure, I do other things: pastoral visits, teaching preparation, administrative mumbo jumbo, and outside projects for Beckwith or Diocesan Restructuring, but every other week, at least a quarter of my work time and a lot more of my mental effort are spent crafting a sermon.  By far, the hardest part of that preparation is finding the hook – often a story that I can use to open the sermon as I begin to take you down the homelitcal path toward what I think is the point of it all.  I begin my prep work on Monday morning: I read the lessons, write a preliminary blog post, visit the commentaries I have found helpful over the years, and compile my notes for the week ahead.  By Tuesday afternoon, I’ve read those notes, listened to my favorite lectionary podcast, written a second blog post, and am beginning to see a theme develop.  Wednesday is usually spent chewing my exegetical cud.  I re-read my notes with my sermon theme in mind, looking for insights into the culture of Jesus’ time and how it can be related to our very different time and place.  By Wednesday, I’m starting to feel the pressure for the hook, and I’m wracking my brain, looking everywhere for the opening paragraph.  If all goes according to plan, Thursday is writing day, and the first thing that happens is an amazing story is typed out with a clear understanding of how it ties into the rest of my sermon and what benefit it gives in shaping the theme of Jesus’ life lesson for that week.  If all goes according to plan.

I’ve made the narrative of my sermon preparation process this week’s hook to tell you how important I think a good story is.  Without a good story, a sermon, no matter how well thought out, no matter how theologically sound, no matter how applicable it is to the life of the hearer, without a good story, a sermon is usually dead in the water, and I think Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge or the persistent widow is just not a very good story.  I’m probably over stepping the bounds of polite behavior in suggesting that our Lord and Savior missed the mark on a story, but I just can’t stand here and sell you something that I don’t believe.  The Parable of the Unjust Judge is flat out a bad story, and I know that I’m not alone in thinking that.  In fact, I’m pretty well convinced that Luke wasn’t quite sure if he should include this parable in his Gospel or not.  Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, didn’t use it.  Matthew, the second oldest Gospel, also chose not to include it.  Luke ultimately put it in his Gospel, but decided that he needed to give it a little help.  I imagine his editor calling him up and saying, “Luke, that story about the judge and the widow… well, I just don’t get it.  What’s the reader supposed to take from that story?”  So, before the final manuscript was published, Luke went in and added an editorial comment on the story.

“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  For Luke, that’s what this story, hard to understand as it is, was all about: the need to pray always and not to lose heart because for Luke and his Church, the main question that they were dealing with was, “Why hasn’t Jesus come back for us yet?”  As we read through the New Testament, starting with Paul’s letters as the earliest written texts, we see that Paul very much expects Jesus to come back tomorrow.  His instructions for ordering the common life of the Church are based on the assumption that it won’t be around long enough to need buildings, endowments, and hierarchical organizational structures.  Over time, however, as the Apostles begin to be martyred and the first generation of disciples begins dying of natural causes, the questions begin to creep in.  “If Jesus isn’t coming back tomorrow, is it ok if I go ahead and get married?”  “How are we going to share the story of Jesus once everyone who actually remembers him is gone?”  “How is my family going to take care of me in my old age if we put everything into a common purse?”  Practical questions for a people needing to be practical followers of Jesus, so Luke decides to share this story so that his people would know that Jesus wanted them to “pray always and not to lose heart.”  This is all well and good, I suppose, but I’m not convinced it helps us 21st century Christians much.  We’re the inheritors of two-thousand years of waiting for Jesus to come back.  Most of us are pretty sure that he’ll come back someday, but probably not anytime soon.  Our version of Christianity is very much built to be practical about the fullness of our lives – that is to say, our Church is equipped to carry us from womb to tomb.

This brings us back to the fact that this is just not a very good story.  It does not have the timeless qualities of some of Jesus’ other parables.  It seems very specific to the time and place of Jesus and the sixty years after his death and resurrection.  I get why Luke decided to put it in his Gospel, but I feel like we’re back to square one, scratching our heads and wondering, what’s the hook?  Why is this in our Lectionary?  What’s the point?

The second most important part of sermon preparation is the conclusion.  What is the lasting thought I want to leave you with when I’m finished?  This is the part I struggle with.  By the time I’ve poured out my fifteen hundred words, I’m usually tapped out, and as I read and re-read and re-re-read this parable this week, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jesus wasn’t a bit drained by it all as well.  The conclusion to this parable seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story.  After a painful tale about justice delayed, Jesus says, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  Every time I read that line, I wondered what it was doing there.  I thought maybe Luke had copied and pasted it from another story by accident.  I went digging into the Greek thinking that perhaps the translation was sloppy.  I found that the Greek is even more puzzling as it contains an “untranslatable interrogatory participle that implies anxiety or impatience.”[1]  Not only did Jesus say this line, but he said this truly wondering, to the point of being anxious about it, if when he finally returned would there be any faith left on the earth?  And then it hit me, Luke was right; this is a story all about the universal need to pray continuously and to not lose heart.  I realized that my problem with this story was that it seemed like a non sequitur.  It seemed to just be plopped down in the middle of nowhere for no good reason, but that is absolutely not the case.

Jesus tells his disciples this parable because seventeen verses earlier, the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked him, “When will the Kingdom of God come?”  When will it all get set right?  When will this nightmare that we’ve created be over?  Over the past couple of weeks, more than most in my life, I’ve found myself asking Jesus the same question, “when will your kingdom come?”  As many of you know, I’ve spent the last two weeks on Jury Duty for the Baldwin County Circuit Court.  It doesn’t take too long in the Baldwin County Court House to realize that God’s Kingdom is not yet fully attained on earth as it is in heaven, but you didn’t have to drive to Bay Minette to figure that out.  The 16 day long Government Shutdown and ensuing Debt Ceiling and Obamacare political wrangling  made it abundantly clear that we are just small pawns in somebody else’s high stakes game.  More than a few times over the past few weeks, I found myself asking Jesus to come on back and sort out this mess.  And I know I’m not the only one.

That’s what makes this terrible story so worth telling.  We’ve all felt like that poor widow at least once in our lives: crying out for God to just come fix it because it is all just too much to handle.  We’ve all been a razor’s edge away from losing heart, throwing up our hands and saying, “to heck with it all.”  Jesus knew you’d get there, so he told his disciples a parable, with a hook 2,000 years long, “pray always, don’t lose heart, have faith.”  The Kingdom of God has come near.  Amen.

[1] BibleWorks 5.0 BGM Morphology for Luke 18.8

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