The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
October 16, 2016
For one summer vacation, Maggie and I took the grand tour of the American southwest. We packed up our little Honda Civic and off we went. We went to the Santa Monica beach outside L.A. It was as gorgeous as the movies make it look. Then we struck off north along the coast; Big Sur, the Hearst Castle, Monterrey, San Francisco. From there we turned back east and went through Yosemite, dropped back down central California and went through Death Valley. Stunning landscapes, awe-inspiring terrain, open country, the beauty of God’s creation all around us. And then we went to Las Vegas. That too was stunning and awe-inspiring, though in a different way.
Maggie and I were happy to see Caesar’s Palace in our rearview mirror as we drove to our final stop, the Grand Canyon. Before you go to the Grand Canyon, you think to yourself, “what’s the big deal? It’s just a hole in the ground.” And then you see it. Technically, yes, it’s a whole in the ground but so much more. But vibrant colors illuminate the canyon walls. The Colorado River snakes its way through the canyon bottom. The clouds, the blue sky, the sheer enormity of it all is simply magnificent. It looks like God’s masterpiece.
But of course, it wasn’t always that way. 6 million years ago, there was no Grand Canyon. It was open plain on a high, arid plateau. It doesn’t seem feasible. Rock is hard, that’s what makes it rock. Water is stuff we drink. But drop by drop the Colorado River started carving its way down. Slow and steady. Day by day. Month by month. Year by year by year, till millions of years had passed. Until the ground below was washed away. Until we were given the gift of the Grand Canyon. Until the rock finally gave way to the constant drop, drop, drop of that water.
Jesus tells his followers a parable about having faith, about not relenting, about not losing heart. A widow has been taken advantage of, and she has nowhere to turn for help. Her husband is dead. Her father-in-law is dead. She has no sons to take care of her. She is alone, and she’s been ripped off. In the parable, this judge couldn’t care less. He stands stone-faced, like a rock against her constant pressure to grant her justice. He doesn’t fear God, he has no respect for anybody, he doesn’t want to listen to this petty little woman and her petty little thoughts. But he misjudges her. She will not relent. She comes to the judge, sometimes forcefully, sometimes quietly, but she never relents. Until he gives way. Until he finally caves in and gives her justice. Under the drop, drop, drop of her persistence.
Now, I think this parable can be read two ways. First, Jesus wants us to envision ourselves as the persistent widow. By our consistent and persistent prayers, we will be vindicated. The injuries done to us, the burdens that we bear, the pain that we have borne, that will all be reversed. Because God will vindicate us.
But you know, I’m going to turn this parable on its head and read it a second way. Let’s imagine that we are the unjust judge and Jesus is the persistent widow. God is the weak and vulnerable one – that sounds like Jesus on the cross. We are the unjust judge, who cares neither for people nor for God – that sounds like us. This reading makes more sense to me when I reflect upon my spiritual life. I was not converted to a life of following Jesus in a flash. I did not have a revelation experience. Unlike St. Paul, I did not fall to the ground because I had been blinded by Jesus. I think that the Holy Spirit was working on me like the drop, drop, drop of water that made the Grand Canyon. Slowly but surely, God wore me down to when I finally gave way. I started to care about people, and started to love God.
But, Lord knows, there were times I didn’t want to be bothered by it. When I did hear the Holy Spirit, I said no. When I saw moments of grace, I wanted to push it away. But Jesus would not have it. Drop, drop, drop. I had no fear of God nor respect for anyone. I wanted to stand like a rock. I wanted to make up my own life. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to stand tall. But like the persistent widow, the drop, drop, drop of the Holy Spirit eventually changed my life. Until one day, I looked back, and I saw that Jesus had carved a Grand Canyon into my heart. It was not my own doing, and I resisted it, but here I am. The Holy Spirit carved out this place in my heart.
I know that in our spiritual journeys, it can feel like we aren’t getting anywhere. We come to church but the service is always the same. We try to sit down and pray but the only thing we can think of is everything else we should be doing. We open the bible and it doesn’t make much sense. It feels like we aren’t getting anywhere with God.
So we try harder! More prayer! More bible study! More rules! I’ll be harder on myself! I’ll be more disciplined! What happens is that you’ll only be more disappointed when it still feels like you aren’t getting anywhere with God. When it still feels like you’re the same you.
I have some priestly counsel for you. Just give in. Relent. Surrender. Lay down your burden. Like the unjust judge, allow yourself to be worn down by this persistent God. Come to church on Sunday, and simply allow the worship to rub against you like water on a rock. Drop, drop, drop.
It may seem like it’s the same thing every Sunday and that you’re not getting anything out of it. That’s because we’re not supposed to get anything out of worship, we’re supposed to give everything we have in worship. I know, that goes against everything you’re probably ever heard about church, but it’s true. It’s not what you get out of it, it’s about letting go and letting God. We relent. We surrender to God. We empty ourselves. We permit the slow and steady drop, drop, drop of the church to wear us down. Sometimes I think this parable about the persistent widow must be the favorite parable for Episcopalians. Because, come on, we haven’t changed the worship service since 1549. Talk about drop, drop, drop. But we’re not looking for something new to be made overnight; we are God’s Grand Canyon and it’s the slow persistence of the Holy Spirit that works on us; day by day, week by week, year by year. All we have to do is let God carve out his place in our hearts.
When Jesus asks if he will find faith on the earth, I think he’s asking if anybody will have fully surrendered to God. If any of us will have been worn done. Will our hard and proud hearts resist God? Or, will we be softened and allow God to wear us down?
Finally, I want you to go back in your mind to the Grand Canyon. When Maggie and I were there, we stayed on the North Rim. The North Rim is about one thousand feet higher than the South Rim. That means that the North Rim is in a high alpine forest with massive pine trees. It means that you can be standing in the forest, not twenty yards from the rim of the Grand Canyon, and not even know the canyon is there.
See, even when we are in the woods, even when all is dark and lost in our lives, even when we are really good at not paying attention to Jesus, God is right there. Persistently pushing, wearing us down, even if we don’t know it. We may not be present to the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is present to us. We can be wandering along in the woods and then one day we stumble upon this beautiful vista. The whole of our life is laid out before us and we see that God has carved a beautiful place for himself in our hearts. And then we know that there is more to life, and that God is giving us life. The Holy Spirit had been slowly pushing, prodding, persistently carving the love of Jesus into our hearts.
I know, sermons are usually about doing stuff for God. You should pray more, you should come to church more, you should give more money, you should be more grateful. But today, all I am asking you to do is to let go. Open your heart. Relent and give in to God. You can try to stand against it, but God will eventually wear you down. It might be today, or tomorrow, or fifty years from now, but God will wear you down. One day your hard heart will be soft, your anger will be turned to love. You will be a masterpiece of this persistent God.