I have a retired clergy friend who has given up on God. He told me that he can no longer believe in a God that won’t do anything about the injustice on this planet. My clergy friend cares deeply about the environment, and is distraught by climate change and many other seemingly unsolvable problems. He’s given up. He’s become bitter and estranged from God. Of course underneath this bitterness is a broken heart that cares so deeply that it hurts too much to hope anymore. It’s become too painful to trust that God will one day bring justice to the unjust. So he’s thrown in the towel. It’s a sad ending to a life lived in service to God.
But it’s understandable enough. You know that famous saying by Martin Luther King Jr. that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. I believe that this is true, that the arc of the universe does bend towards justice, and we’ll talk more about that today. But it’s also true that the arc is really long. I mean, sometimes it seems maddeningly painfully and devastatingly long. Human beings have been living under one tyrannical system after another for the last five thousand years, ever since we created agricultural civilizations. Although we’ve made great strides in the modern era toward societies that are freer and more fair, we still have many problems. We have ruling oligarchs that use surveillance, militarized police and other methods to curb our freedoms and control our behavior. We have endemic political corruption, black military budgets siphoning off trillions, and offshore tax havens where the wealthy stash their money. We have ongoing war profiteering, ravaging the homelands of millions. And we have an environment that’s being plundered by out of touch ruling elites who simply don’t care. The moral arc of the universe does seem to be exhaustingly long.
What are we to do about this? How are we supposed to relate to this situation? The Bible gives us several different answers, but two key ones are lamentationand hope. Both of our passages today are passages of hope, but let’s briefly touch on lamentation before we look at those, because they are connected. Lament is an aspect of Judeo-Christian spirituality that I’ve come to appreciate and admire. It’s the ability to tell God in no uncertain terms the awful conditions of one’s life, and further, to call God out on it- to ask where are you, why are you not with us in this, how long will you leave us to rot and suffer in this way? For instance the opening lines of Psalm 3 says:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
The opening lines of the Book of Habakkuk go like this: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted”. God, where is your justice, Habakkuk wails. Where are you? How long will this suffering go on? What’s interesting about this practice of lamentation is that when we acknowledge our grief, whether privately or communally, we open up a space for new waters to flow within us. Something opens. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that one of the key roles of the prophet is to bring to the surface and publicly proclaim the communal grief of a society or peoples. The prophet becomes the conduit through which the tears can begin to flow. Jeremiah openly wails in the streets. Jesus weeps over what’s become of Jerusalem. But after these tears flow out of us, a new morning opens on the other side. We become capable of hope once again. We become once again willing to fight the good fight, and trust that God’s justice will eventually reign.
The prophets express grief, but they always follow it with a message of hope. And we heard this message of hope in both of our passages today. Jeremiah is living in a time when the Jews are in exile, and their temple and homeland have been smashed. There’s a lot of suffering, and so much grief. And yet Jeremiah delivers a message from God to the Jewish people- the days are surely coming when I will raise you up and restore you. The days are surely coming when God’s justice will reign over the wicked, and the land will be bountiful once again. The days are surely coming when God will make a new covenant with the Israelites, but this time the covenant will be written directly on their hearts. Nevermind your temple and your homeland, don’t worry about that says God. I will now communicate with you directly in your hearts. We’ll build a new temple between us.
This point about God speaking directly to our hearts is an important one to note. Paul often says in his letters that the Holy Spirit has been placed in our hearts (2 Cor. 1:22). Many Christian mystics talk about how God communicates with us through our sacred heart. It might be taking a long time for humanity to be transformed in God’s image, and for justice to reign on the earth. But that doesn’t mean that God is distant, or that God has abandoned us. God is as close as our own hearts. God is with us in a very intimate way, if we only open up to this heart-based connection. So have faith, say the prophets. Keep praying and do not be discouraged. Keep your channel to God open, do not shut it down in despair and grief, no matter how bad things get. Be persistent and trust that the days are surely coming when God’s justice will flow like a mighty river.
That’s also the message we get from Jesus in our passage from Luke’s gospel. Jesus communicates it through a parable about an unjust judge and a persistent widow. Jesus says that there was a certain city where there was a judge who didn’t fear God, and didn’t care at all about the people. He was corrupt to the core. But there was this widow that came to his quarters every single morning and cried out that justice be served in her case. The judge eventually tired of this persistent woman and said fine, I will grant her justice just so she will stop bothering me. She’s wearing me out. So he granted her justice. And Jesus asks, if even this unjust judge will grant justice to those who are persistent, what will God do? Jesus asks, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”
Jesus says never lose heart. Pray continuously. Be persistent in calling for justice in the face of unjust rulers, and God will hear our prayers. Justice will eventually be served, because God is just.
That’s an inspiring message of hope. But if you’re like me, or my despondent clergy friend, you might still ask- but how come it’s taking so long? Why does this story have to be an eight season series? Can’t we just do a two-hour movie version instead? Speed things up a little bit maybe. It does seem like an awfully long cosmic arc that’s playing out here. I’m going to pray continuously because I do trust in God, but I still gotta ask- are we there yet?
I think there’s two important ways to look at this problem of how long. The first is that, as we talked about on my first Sunday here, God is not an interventionist God. God’s love is uncontrolling. God has allowed genuine free will in the cosmos. So God can’t just intervene and bring swift justice to the world. God’s needs usto participate with God in bringing about Thy Kingdom here on earth. That’s why God has entered into multiple covenants with humans in order to co-create that reality. God is the Source and the Sustainer, but we’re the boots on the ground in this story. God is suffering along with us as we travel through the wreckage of history. God is always urging us to act in God’s name, whispering in our hearts, alluring us away from evil and towards the good. But we must choose it. So one reason it’s taking so long is that it’s taking thousands of years for humanity to be transformed in God’s image. As Jack Kerouac once said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day”. It’s a long, long process.
But there’s good news, and this brings us to our second way to look at the problem of how long. The good news is that Jesus represents a turning point in our long unfolding historical drama. Jesus of Nazareth became so fully transparent to the divine that’s within us all, that he was deemed a living God because of it. He and the Father were one. In Jesus we get a glimpse of where the universe is headed. Jesus is, as Paul says, “The first fruits of a new creation”. In the life death and resurrection of Jesus, the long cosmic arc has tilted away from evil, violence and death, and begun its journey towards love, goodness and beauty. One biblical scholar famously compared this to D-Day in WW2. That day essentially won the war for the Allies. There was no going back after that. But there was still a year left in the war. A lot of people died. So it is with us. The universe is playing out a cosmic struggle from darkness toward light, and we’re being asked to play a part in that drama. And Jesus has revealed a potential that’s in all of us. He’s a beacon to us from a future that’s not yet fully arrived, but began with him. So let us pray continuously and persistently, and be transformed in his image. The days are surely coming when the force of love will drown out and extinguish the forces of evil. The days are surely coming when all that has been kept hidden in darkness, will be brought into the light and made known to all.
We live in a time between the promise of God’s justice, and its fulfillment. And we’re the channels through which God’s transforming energy will remake the world in God’s image. Let us be determined and persistent like the widow, and cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”. The days are surely coming, all we have to do is keep our eyes on the prize and hold on.
I’m going to leave the last words today to Martin Luther King Jr., from a speech he gave in 1965 after the successful Selma civil rights protest:
“I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again.
" How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow.
" How long? Not long:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on”. (1)