Preached at Church of the Servant King, Portland (10/20/13)
“Then Jesus told them a parable to show them they should always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Losing heart is shockingly easy. We are endlessly vulnerable in this world. We are made vulnerable by powers that rule over us, we are made vulnerable by the frailty of our bodies, by our own self-deceptions, by the weakness of our own hearts, by our loves, by our selfishness. No matter how we live, what we choose, how powerful or weak, how virtuous or corrupt, how saintly or sinful, we share one thing in common: we are endlessly vulnerable. We are not in control.
No matter who we are we are ultimately no more in control than a widow, a powerless, lonely, and bereft soul, who lives totally at the mercy of the powerful. At moments of clarity, true honesty, or crisis, I think this is clear to us. We know that we don’t have what it takes. That we don’t have some scratch from which to start. That at the end of the day we are not deciders, but people utterly vulnerable. Our illusions of competence and control may persist, sometimes for quite a while, but at any point they can, and do, and will come crashing down. At any turn we can be denied justice, life, or love, at any moment our hope may be swept aside by power, by rejection, by violence, by mere circumstance.
There is literally nothing in this world that makes more sense than losing heart. Every fact about this world, this age, this life points to it: we are vulnerable, we are hurting, we are weak, we are failing. Losing heart makes all the sense in the world. All the facts point to it. There is every reason for despair.
Despite the way the parable turns out, we have no reason to think that every widow’s persistence will get her some justice. People in this world die and fall to despair constantly while hoping, while longing, while crying out for justice. This is a fact. The facts of this age and its wisdom are all too clear and all too real. It is a fact that power rather than love rules this age. It is a fact that every risk of love we take may be and often is met with indifference and rejection. It is a fact that we may cry out for justice night and day and hear nothing but the cold emptiness of a tomb. It is a fact that we are vulnerable, that we don’t have a way out, that we can’t fix it. It is a fact that we may long to be transformed and work, day and night at it, and still find ourselves in the exact same struggle. It is a fact that our loneliness may be met with nothing but more loneliness. All of these things are facts. These are the facts of this age. Look around and you will see them. They are all around us. They are wielding power over us from above and they wielding power in our hearts.
When Jesus tells us “Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? I tell you he will give them just justice speedily.” We have to reckon with the fact that this sure doesn’t seem true. Every fact I can see is against it. To be sure we could skirt around the severity of this by theological abstractions (“With the Lord a thousand years is as one day” and so forth), but to do so is to engage in the world kind of religious dishonesty. A kind of pharisaical fantasy in which we whitewash tombs and ignore the corpses inside. A kind of blindness to the fact that the forgotten martyrs cry out always “How long, O Lord?”
The truth is that I don’t know if God will really answer me if I cry out to him day and night. The truth is that I don’t know if my failures will be transformed into new life, if my loneliness will be transformed into love and being loved, if my sin will be transformed into holiness, if my death will be transformed into resurrection. I don’t know any of these things, and all the facts, every last one of them stands against them.
Against the whole world of facts, evidence, and settled certainty Jesus claims “I tell you God will indeed give you justice speedily.” Against the whole world of the obvious, the undeniable, John the Revelator claims “Surely he is coming soon!” Against the whole world of facts and circumstance the prophet Jeremiah claims “The days are surely coming.” Against against every fact of this world we are met with a Word that promises something completely counterfactual, something that by any realistic account can be regarded only as some sort of imaginary fiction.
This what the poetic, prophetic word that Jesus and the prophets proclaim, this is what the word I stammer and sputter to you today proclaims. It proclaims something that has no basis in the facts. There is no reason, based on the facts, to believe this word. “The poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood” (Bruegemann, Finally Comes the Poet, 5).
Against the facts of this world, and they really, truly are facts, there is another word that breaks in on the scene. An imaginative word that speaks of things that are completely baseless. A word that perhaps really can only be described as some sort of fantasy of the imagination, a fiction. And perhaps this is not a thing for us to fear or shy away from.
“The notion of fiction . . . is not so precarious or easily dismissed as we might imagine. It is precisely the daring work of fiction to probe beyond settled truth and to walk the edge of alternatives not yet available to us. It is this probe behind our settlements that makes newness possible. . . . The poet/prophet . . . does not flinch from ‘fiction,’ for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts,’ and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness. . . . a ‘fiction’ drives us beyond known truth. From the great narratives of Israel to the prophetic poems to the testimony of the early Christians, the singers and storytellers spoke dangerously about dangerous matters, about new possibilities. The settled, entrenched, and certain heard only fiction, but it was a ‘fiction’ more powerful than facts” (Bruegemann, 5-6).
This, brothers and sisters is why we are here. This is why in the midst of all my failures and sins, in the midst of my uncertainty and loneliness, in the midst of my selfishness and my sorrow I am here, saying these things. I am here, you are here, we are here, because of God’s fiction that he has told about us. We are here in spite of all the facts because we have heard, tasted, even here and there perhaps we have seen, a fiction that is truer than the facts of power and certainty and fear and loneliness and death. We have heard a fiction that is fragile, vulnerable, and uncertain just like us. We have heard a fiction that in all its fragility, all its uncertainty, all its vulnerability, all its insecurity, awakens a senseless foolish hope.
I am here today about as unfinished and uncertain and vulnerable as I have ever been. But I am hear to today to say, to myself and to you that though I know the facts really are against me, against us, and against everyone, that I believe in the fictions of of God in defiance of every human fact. I am here because God has told a fiction about me. Because God has told a fiction about you. Because God has told a fiction about us. Because God has told a fiction about this world.
In this fiction death is being swallowed up by life. In this fiction neither height nor depth nor any fact in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God. In this fiction God will surely hear us when we cry out and come speedily to help us. In this fiction we truly will never be left alone. In this fiction our deepest most long-standing failures will be transformed into something greater than we could ask or imagine. In this fiction our loneliness and uncertainty will be met by love. In this fiction the days really are surely coming. In this fiction graves will burst open and the dead will live again. In this fiction no fact counts for anything, the only thing that counts is a new creation.
And so I invite you, I beg you, I call on you to hear, remember, and believe, against all the facts that God has told a fiction about this world. That God has told a fiction about us. That God has told a fiction about you. That God has told a fiction about me. I call on you to believe this again with me, to help me believe it too. To help me live it too. To help me pray and not lose heart when the facts about this world drive me despair. When the facts seem like the last and final word, I call on you to remember and to help me remember that God has told a fiction about this world. That God has told a fiction about us. That God has told a fiction about you. That God has told a fiction about me.
Believe that with me today. Proclaim that with me today. Believe that for me today. Proclaim that for me today. I have wagered my life on this fiction. We all have. That is why we’re here. But the facts of this world are damn powerful. And they seem damn true. Today the facts of the world seem really damn true. I need you brothers and sisters. I need you to help me believe again and and anew in the fictions God has told about us and promised us. That in the face of all the evidence, all the facts, that life is coming for us, that love is coming for us.
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The fictions of God are truer than than the facts of men.