“Will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Even so, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (St Luke)
One of the many natural features of this country still known by a Native American name is a river called the Kanawha. On the north bank about halfway through that river, a city rose, with a large state capitol building much like the one in Washington. Staring at the capitol grounds, on the opposite bank of the Kanawha, stand four or five quiet hills: ancient hills which were once, of course, mountains. Among Europeans, pig ranchers settled there first, people who weren’t able to settle any closer to the city because of the nature of their work. Later, after the First World War there came professional families who found they could nestle themselves in those hills and feel comfortably distant from the city across the river, though the city itself is fairly quiet to begin with. On the ridge of one of those hills there's a Depression-era house, set back from a street much quieter than Locust. It has an angular, slate roofline, white painted brick walls, and windows hidden and hushed by tall vines. Nearly everything about the house makes you think it was built for quiet.
It was indeed very quiet one night, two years after I’d left for college, when my Mom was awakened by a caller asking “Is this the parent of Paul Francke?” She learned that, 500 miles away in a very unquiet city of 3 million people, I had had a grand-mal seizure on the floor of an E.R. waiting room. It took 3 orderlies to hold me down, after which I went into what would be a three-day coma. My parents were not told why, or what were my chances, as no one knew. It was a good thing for me, during the days I spent in that coma, that we do not need to cry out to God day and night to earn his help or protection.
I didn’t even believe in God at the time, and I suppose I couldn't have been more different as a comatose atheist from the widow in our Gospel reading (St Luke 18:1-8a). It was a good thing for me that God is not like the unjust judge in that story, and does not need to be annoyed into action. Nothing would have been less compelling to the unrighteous judge than if the righteous widow suddenly fell silent, unable to plead her case. (My silence, by the way, came from hyponatremia, an electrolyte imbalance that sometimes happens to runners.) Had God been like the unrighteous judge, he would have forgotten about me as soon as he could. And I stress all this because it's too easy to assume that Jesus, in his parables about 'authorities,' is always really talking about God. Jesus was an iconoclast, we should recall, so some of his teaching highlights simply the seediness of many people endowed with church or state authority.
It’s a good thing God is not like that the unjust judge, because that would also be a terrible model. This story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge in St Luke's Gospel is prefaced by an editorial comment not found in St Mark's apparently older telling of the story. Luke begins Mark's story with these new words: “And Jesus told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Certainly, these are signs of a peaceful spiritual life. But I wonder if Luke's editorial preface really takes in Jesus’ strong words at the end of this parable, the words which our lectionary cuts off: “even so," - that is, despite all this prayer - "will the Son of Man find faith on the Earth?”
Even among those who pray day and night, Jesus questions their faith. For all our crying, is there meaning? Not necessarily, he suggests, and he continues to suggest this in other parables. When you and I are too weak, too forgetful, even too lost in comfort and peace to think of God, God is never lost. When my parents rushed five hundred miles to that hospital the night that I fell into a coma, it wasn’t because I kept prodding them to notice me; they came because they're my parents. Why would we expect less from God? I know it's hard, but why should those you and I care for expect any less of us?
We’re not always at that point in our relationships: there's one reason. We go through phases that lack that natural, implicit trust, perhaps because it's still building, or because we're not sure we want it built. Building faith, after all, takes vulnerability and can be awkward to say the least. But it can be much less awkward if we know what we really want, from ourselves and others, because only then can we know exactly what to say. So when you and I cry out as it were to our friends, to our families, or to God, what do we really want? What words, if any, are beneath our words? Am we asking for what we really want, and this thing you or I want, is it even good? Are you or I coming to prayer to return to God, to solemnize our thoughts, needs, and hopes for the world? Do you or I come to him to witness ourselves being forgiven and uplifted by the ground of our being? Or are we coming to prayer because we’re afraid there’s no other way God will remember us?
What we should be trying to say and have said to us is what the psalmist believes God says to him, in the 139th psalm. With our children, our spouse, our partner or friends, there's a closeness that implies knowledge, care, trust, and the desire to protect those things to the extent that the other will let us. We can cry to God day and night, but we may or may not mean anything. We can forget about him and try to live as though we'd never felt him at work in our lives. Or we can get it right: we can be ourselves, open about everything, committed to sorting out the things that need sorted. The strange thing is that in any of these cases, he's never exactly closer or further away: "If you ascend to heaven, I am there; if you make the grave your bed, I am there also; this is my body, this is my blood, no matter where you go, no matter what you say. I made your bones and filled you with my Spirit, in which you can be still and know that I am God, your God, even when you can no longer pray."
by The Rev. Paul Francke