How to Be an Unjust Vessel of Grace
Our epistle today from 2 Timothy tells us that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
That does sound like Paul, doesn’t it? Bless his heart.
You can practically hear him harrumph at the end of that. Paul can be a great theologian when he’s not getting too hung up on gender roles, but he does get a wee bit stuffy and uptight-sounding from time to time.
The word “inspired” comes from roots connected to the word “breath.” The breath of God, the wind of the Holy Spirit, can blow through any verse of scripture and breathe new life into it, but it is up to us to open our hearts and minds to that inspiration by applying our holy gifts of creativity and imagination to these old stories that we have heard a thousand times before.
Take for example our gospel lesson, the story of the widow and the unjust judge that Luke tells us Jesus related to teach us about the need to pray always and not give up heart.
The widow convinces the unjust judge to change his mind and grant her justice because of her annoying persistence.
Whom do we usually cast in the role of the unjust judge?
We do not necessarily attribute injustice to God, not if things are mostly going our way, but we can, if we leave our theology unexamined, think of God as capricious, deaf to us unless we pray in exactly the right magical way exactly the right magical number of times.
We come away from this parable thinking that it is our spiritual responsibility to be nothing but a broken record to God in our prayer life if we want our wishes and needs fulfilled.
That doesn’t exactly sound like the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We need to shake up our perspective on this story and call the Holy Spirit in to blow away the dust and cobwebs.
Let’s stop again and really look at these characters. Maybe they have something to teach us outside the most obvious interpretation.
Consider the unjust judge. He’s clearly a jerk.
The gospel says he neither fears God nor respects any person. We all know a few people like that, who just walk around mad at life and determined to take it out on anyone and everyone around them.
And then there are the opposite types of people in our lives.
We are all privileged to know a few real saints. People whose patience and goodness just seems to well up out of them in a never ending stream that we enjoy and bless them for and in secret corners of our hearts that we shamefully hide away, feel slightly cranky and jealous about.
But whom do we expect God’s grace to come through?
The saints, of course.
We have seen these good and loving people bless so many in their lives, day after day, that we simply assume these people are chosen by God to be vessels of grace.
The ones who are angry at the world? The ones who are awkward and strange and ugly?
We run the risk of thinking that God will take on our attitude along with us, that God simply grits God’s teeth and rolls God’s eyes and puts up with these rude, thorny, useless people the way we have to.
Come to find out, God is a lot sneakier than that.
Although God loves us with an unending and unfathomable love, God is not afraid to chuckle at a joke at our expense if it can teach us something about the unexpected and shocking ways that grace is transmitted in God’s kingdom.
The unjust judge in Jesus’ story is abrasive and sinful and reluctant, but in the end, he is the one God uses to bring justice into the world.
God loves working through the unlikeliest of people. From Rahab the sex worker to David the young shepherd boy to Mary the unwed teen mother, God finds the person least likely to be the channel of God’s will and uses that person to carve new paths through the wilderness for entire peoples and nations.
What the story of the unjust judge is about is untapped potential.
This arrogant and cold man did every possible thing he could to close himself off to the needs of other people and even to his own ethical responsibilities. He made himself as unworthy and as unmalleable as possible, but he should have known that those are the types of people that God loves to find and make into vessels of living water.
Because God loves to puncture our stereotypes.
God loves to break open our small and cramped minds.
God loves to shine grace through these unexpected people and make us laugh at ourselves when we have to admit that we just saw a glimpse of the divine when we find out that our most irritating coworker serves faithfully at a soup kitchen, when our neighbor who always complains about the state of our yard shovels our walk along with his own all winter, when the cousin we’ve avoided at Thanksgiving dinner for fifteen years is the one who sits up with us all night in the hospital when dad has his stroke.
We all know that we are guilty of placing others in small boxes.
We mentally label people as mean or nasty or trashy or stupid, and dismiss the possibility of them being chosen by God for something crucial to the building up of the kingdom.
But along with that important lesson, to look for grace coming through others whom you might have shortchanged, I come here to ask you today what small box you have built around yourself.
What do you accuse yourself of being over and over again?
Unintelligent? Uninspiring? Boring, sinful, weak?
What labels do you paper over your own radiant soul to try and hide your light?
It is equally wrong to deny the possibility of God’s grace being channeled through ourselves as it is to deny it in others.
And we must ask ourselves the next question as well: are we limiting our church by the labels and lack of expectations we place on it?
What possibilities do you expect from this church, your church?
Are you setting the bar too low?
Have you ever thought to yourself, “Well, that’s fine for some big fancy church somewhere with hundreds of members, but we’ll never achieve that”?
It is as wrong to judge and belittle the potential of yourself and your church as it is wrong to do it to anyone else.
Because God is not the unjust judge in Jesus’ story.
God is the widow.
God is the widow who will come knocking at our door day and night, asking over and over again, whining and nagging and pleading and demanding justice and grace.
God is not satisfied with the status quo.
God knows that we are sitting on a stockpile of untapped potential, on a goldmine of energy and creativity and innovation just waiting to be unleashed for the building of the kingdom.
God is like the widow in God’s grief for the loss of that potential to the world as long as it is hidden, and God is like the widow in that God will not rest until we stand up and break the chains of our self-indulgent doubt and fear and inadequacy.
Jesus asks a question at the end of his story. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
And I believe that he is not only asking if he will find people who have faith in him and in God the Father, but if he will find people who have faith that they and their neighbors, who are created in the very image of God, are in facts agents of the building of the kingdom of God.
Do you believe in God? And do you believe that you and your neighbor and this church are true vessels of grace?
Like the widow in the story, God’s heart is broken by the pain and suffering and injustice in the world.
The miracle and the good news is that we are the unjust judge, the unlikely, sinful and mixed-up bystanders who suddenly realize that we are the ones through whom God will bring forth justice and mercy on the earth.
God needs our hands, our feet, our minds, our hearts to work through to build God’s kingdom.
All we have to do is quit denying that it is we and our community who are destined for that great good work, right here and right now.