I don’t know if my brain works differently than other peoples’ brains, but I suspect it might. Do you often think in pictures? Or is most of your thinking in words? You know, stream of consciousness. I often think in pictures or scenes. It might have something to do with the fact that I am left-handed, but I’m just guessing.
Anyway, however my brain is: normal or not-so-normal, or even abnormal, in the Apostles’ Creed, there is a line, “He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” You know that line, right? You memorized it in Jr. High, maybe. I memorized it in confirmation classes when I was Junior High. But I didn’t memorize it quite like it was written.
Not until I had been a pastor for say, five years, did I learn that I had it wrong. I was reviewing a typed version of the Apostles’ Creed, and I told the church secretary, “It’s sitteth AT and not ON the right hand of God”—so she checked. She came back with the surprising news: it is in fact “Jesus sitteth ON the right hand of God.” WHAT? How could that possibly be? And yet is it true. You can check—page 14 in your hymnal.
Now remember, I think in pictures. So, since I was in Jr. High, I had always had a picture in my mind, of Jesus sitting in heaven—God’s on his throne, Jesus is on his throne, and, of course, Jesus’ throne AT the right of God’s throne. Father and son, ruling the universe together.
Now, when I recite the Apostles’ Creed, I say it the correct way-- sitteth ON the right hand of God; but now I have a new picture in my mind—it’s a picture of a tiny mouse-sized Jesus sittething on an equally mouse-sized throne; God is sittething on his much larger, throne, his equally large outstretched right hand holding tiny Jesus. I think that is probably an inappropriate image though, theologically speaking, don’t you?
I am guessing that the ON actually should be an AT but somewhere along the line, a mistake was made and now we just live with it—don’t really think about—unless you have a brain that thinks in pictures, that is.
All to say, we sometimes say things, repeat things, and we don’t really think about what we’re saying. In our everyday conversations we repeat mindless one-liners. Sometimes we throw out a totally non-sensical platitude just wanting to fill an uncomfortable verbal void when probably it would be best to let silence reign.
You have to be especially careful with religious one liners and platitudes. That is because they are considered to have the authority of the church or of holy scripture behind them—even when they don’t.
So for instance. My middle daughter, Joy, was born 9 weeks early. Today they have made a lot of medical advances in treating preemies, but back then, 30 years ago, it was touch and go for my daughter, her first few days. It was a hugely stressful time in the Einstein household. I called extended relatives including my aunt, to let everyone know what was up. In my family, my aunt was the closest thing we had to an in-family clergy person. She read her Bible regularly. She taught church school every Sunday.
When I called her with the news of my daughter’s health issues, my aunt’s response was, “God never gives us a burden we cannot bear.” What she said definitely had the weight of scripture--even though you won’t find it in the Bible. I am sure my aunt meant those words to be a comfort. But “God never gives us a burden we cannot bear?”
You’ve heard it before, right? What does it MEAN? Does it mean that God has a sack maybe like Santa Clause has a sack—only Santa’s sack is full of toys and God’s sack is full of death, destruction, and sickness? God, looks down from his throne, searching for someone, or several someones, who can best bear adversity. “Ah, how about the Einstein household? Then, God pulls sick, premature baby from his sack, and lets it drop.
Is that what we mean when we say, “God never gives us a burden we cannot bear?” Of course not.
How about this one liner, “It’s God’s will.” I overheard a pastor use those words at the hospital. He offered them to a parishioner whose new born had just died. The baby had had a birth defect. Might be true, that it was God’s will that the baby did not survive. Then again, a grieving mother might wonder if the birth defect wasn’t also God’s will. You see how that line really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It especially doesn’t hold up to scrutiny by someone desperate for answers. Better to let silence reign and honor the verbal void. Or, if you have to say something, how about “God is grieving with you?” The Psalms are good, too. “Even though you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death…right now, know that God is with you.” And not only is it the better thing to say, it happens to be true.
I offer you one final one-liner that has the weight of scripture, even though you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves.” Isn’t that a loaded line? You know, you and a friend are in your car. You drive past a run down house—rusty car parts littering the yard maybe, and you see a couple sitting on the front porch, just sitting, doing nothing. You shake your head and you say to your friend, “God helps those who help themselves.” As soon as the words are out of your mouth, you regret it—it sounds soooo judgmental. And yet, there is part of you that believes it. God helps those who help themselves. There’s a part of you that wants to believe it. God punishes the undeserving, God helps those who deserve help. Is that true? Sometimes? Always? Hold on to that question.
Now, finally, we are ready to turn to our scripture reading for today. It’s one of a series of parables in Luke. We studied another in the series a couple of weeks ago—that one was about a poor, lame man named Lazarus. Remember? Every day poor, hungry Lazarus begged for food at the gate of a rich man’s house, but the rich man ignored him. They both die. The rich man ends up in hellish torment on one side of a great chasm and Lazarus ends up in heavenly bliss on the other side of the same chasm. That parable is about how God punishes those who are not charitable.
The parable before us today is not about charity, though. The woman in our parable is not asking for a handout. She wants justice. That is why she goes to a judge’s house.
So, let me tell you some things I am learning about justice. Not too long ago I read a book by Bryan Stevenson—it’s all about justice. The book is entitled Just Mercy. Bryan Stevenson has been working inside our justice system, for over 25 years now. He is an attorney. He is trying to change laws that presently allow minors to be tried as adults. Minors as young as 13 years old, thirteen years old, are sometimes sentenced to life sentences in this country, Startling huh? Sad, huh?
Mr. Stevenson has discovered in his years of work that we really have two justice systems in this country—one for poor people and another for people of means. If you are poor and you get in trouble with the law, you face harsher punishments than if you have money. And of course, it almost goes without saying. If you or your family as the means, you can afford better legal counsel to help get you out of trouble. Those thirteen year olds tried and sentenced as adults are mostly from poor families.
It’s not fair, and it’s not just. In fact, Bryan Stevenson says that he has come to believe that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice. Think about that. It is deep. The opposite of poverty is justice. If you are poor, you may be treated unjustly in this country—AND if you are poor, that poverty may be the result of a justice system that favors people of means. Said differently, injustice makes people poor and injustice keeps people poor.
We don’t know what’s up with the woman in our parable for today. Was her issue poverty or something else? We do know, though, that she felt that, like those thirteen, fourteen and fifteen year olds tried as adults, she was a victim of injustice.
Lazarus had friends to carry him to the rich man’s gate every morning, and take him home every evening. That’s charity. But this woman doesn’t want charity. She wants to be treated justly. So, she goes to the judge’s house once, twice, many times, and demands those rights. Sadly, though, she goes alone. That is exactly the way it is isn’t it? We are much more willing to give a hand out, than to work to change unjust systems. We can imagine that instead of receiving the help of friends willing to work for her cause, she probably heard this, over and over again: “Oh well, you know, that’s just the way it is,” That’s another one liner, meant to fill a verbal void.
Working for justice. As Bryan Stevenson will tell you, it is time consuming and frustrating. Working for justice will wear you out; and, it makes you unpopular. In his case, it has made him unpopular with some judges, fellow attorneys, and prison guards. But achieving just laws are of greater consequence of course, than giving to charity—it’s the difference between giving someone a fish so that he eats for a day, or teaching someone to fish, so that he eats for a life time. If you get my drift.
But we’re running out of time. Back to the question. Is it true that God helps those who help themselves? Certainly. Jesus tells us that the woman in the parable will eventually receive justice. Is it right to condemn those people who are sitting on their front porches, watching metal rust? Maybe, maybe not. Could be, that they are just resting for a bit—they are worn out from fighting injustice and fighting injustice mostly alone. Best, then, to let God be the judge—and that IS scriptural. Matthew 7:1.
The message of today’s parable is directed at all those people who are fighting injustice and feel like they are fighting in vain: “Don’t give up.” NEVER give up. Perseverence pays off.” That is what Jesus says. We who follow Jesus are counting on it! Let us ALL work for justice, then, in the way of Christ Jesus. Amen