by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Will not God, then, grant justice to the chosen who call out day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” — Luke 18:7-8.
Among the things my wife, Bonnie, and I have in common, is we are avid readers of newspapers. What has changed over time is Bonnie still favors the newsprint and ink versions. I favor their online siblings.
I suppose one other difference is I come away with less ink on my hands. But since my hands have to navigate and manipulate keyboard and mouse, I come away with more aches and pains in those digits.
Of course, it should not be a surprise Bonnie favors the paper and ink versions of the dailies. She was an award winning newspaper photographer, winning New England Press Association awards for her work.
Now, it may sound strange to you but one of the projects any pastor takes on in an examination of the news is not simply one by which we strive to be current— although I probably do know most of the pop culture names out there. Pastors strive to search out theology in what these outlets present. Why? To paraphrase the great 20th Century theologian Karl Barth, being a pastor demands having a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other.
But what theology is there in the news? Plenty— and you run into theology in places you don’t initially expect. And, indeed, I ran into some theology this week in an unexpected place as I scoured the web.
Theology was embedded in a piece about real estate— real estate— in the New York Times. To be clear, it was not obvious the story had anything to do with theology.
The article was about developers who are going to build two luxury apartment towers in Manhattan, in a section of the City sometimes referred to as Billionaires’ Row. Clearly this article was about neither Pope nor Pastor. So, on the surface it did not seem to have any evident theological bent. But it did.
The residential towers to be built will both be over 900 feet tall— better than 65 stories— and located on West 57th Street. The height of these structures is the attraction for high rollers— the crowd with enough money to afford living in these apartments— since, even though West 57th Street is 2 blocks South of Central Park, their height will provide views of the Park for those ensconced on the upper floors.
One real estate consultant was quoted as saying “There’s a premium for views. The higher you go, the higher the price you can get.”
How much will these apartments cost? The article did not say. But an apartment in a similar structure still under construction has already sold (are you sitting down?) for 95 million dollars. (Bonnie reads my sermons ahead of time and she thought that was a typo— nope— New York Times— 95 million dollars.
All this is not new. A century ago, locations near the 840 acre Central Park inspired another boom in ultra-luxury housing: Millionaires’ Row. The Astor, Vanderbilt, Frick, Whitney and Carnegie families all built mansions near the Park. Andrew Carnegie constructed 64-room home across from the Park at 91st Street. I think it was 1905.
Referring to the new wave of building, Thomas Bender— a cultural historian at NYU— said the towers represented a flouting of the social distribution of wealth— a flouting of the social distribution of wealth. (Quote:) “These are the kinds of buildings the robber barons of the 19th Century built, and it’s also what you see in rapidly developing societies where billionaires seek to distinguish themselves in the midst of poverty.” (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Luke/Acts in the section called Luke: “Will not God, then, grant justice to the chosen who call out day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” (Slight pause.)
I need to ask this question: ‘What is prayer?’ Notice, I did not ask ‘what is the result of prayer’ or ‘what is the efficacy, the effectiveness of prayer.’ Rather, I asked ‘what is prayer?’ (Slight pause.)
In Bible study Wednesday evening we listed a number of words to describe prayer. Among them were: ‘praise,’ ‘adoration,’ ‘contemplation,’ ‘communion’ and ‘meditation.’ We did list ‘supplication,’ ‘petition.’ But we also noted prayer is not a transaction. God is not Santa Claus— as in ‘Dear God, please give me…’
And in this reading Jesus is not speaking about prayer as a transaction. Rather, Jesus describes how we should pray: constantly.
There is nothing transactional about constant prayer. And in that we are meant to pray constantly, prayer can be described with two other words we listed Wednesday: ‘covenant’ and ‘communication.’ Again, when it comes to prayer, this passage is not about the result of prayer. It is about how to pray: pray constantly.
On the other hand, when it comes to something we might perceive as a result, what does Jesus say? ‘God will grant justice.’ This, then, poses what I think the key and central questions raised by this passage are: ‘What is the justice of God?’ and ‘How is that attained?’ (Slight pause.)
It goes without saying that the kind of justice God might seek brings us back to the luxury housing near Central Park. First, as must be obvious, the era matters not. We can see two eras of upscale structures which illustrate excess within blocks of each other. As the social historian I quoted earlier said, these are places (quote:) “where billionaires seek to distinguish themselves in the midst of poverty.”
But I want to suggest the excess, of itself, is not the problem. You see, a great 20th and 21st Century theologian— one Bonnie Scott Connolly, she of photography fame— once explained this to me.
She posited that we humans are hunters. It’s what we do. The more we catch, the better we like it— case closed. Hence, the hunt, and its results— the hunt taking many forms including shopping for Christmas presents— the hunt and its results seems to be simply very human of us.
Millionaire’s Row and Billionaire’s Row may define winners and losers. Millionaire’s Row and Billionaire’s Row may define what having more is about. But Millionaire’s Row and Billionaire’s Row says nothing about justice.
Another way to put this is to say we humans, we hunters, are always seeking more. We set up more— more of anything— as our goal. But what if our goal was something else, something other than more? What if our goal was not more but better?
Better— better not just for some; better for all, for everyone. (Slight pause.) You can name any area of life you care to mention from the economy to housing to transportation to health care and we all seem to want more instead of better.
You see, what the justice of God is about is not more. Neither is the justice of God about the gains of an individual or the gains of a group. The justice of God is about better. Better not just for me, better not just for my group, but for everyone.
I also need to say the justice of God is about excellence. Some think excellence is about more. But unless each person, all people, are entitled to participate in an excellence which is more, then more is not true excellence. More is simply more.
In fact, have you noticed there is a commercial for a phone company running currently where an adult is interviewing kindergarten kids and the adult asks them if more is better. They all say ‘yes’ more is better.
No one questions it. Not even we adults who are watching the commercial question that approach.
But in real life, in a real life kindergarten situation, the end of that discussion would always be very simple for the teacher. The kindergarten teacher asks the kids: “Did you bring enough to share? No? Well, then we’ll put that away.” More is not better in a real kindergarten class unless it’s shared. Why would it be better anywhere else? And we don’t question it. We sit there going “Oh, yeah! More is better! Not!”
All of which is to say, when we pray we need to do what Jesus says we need to do: pray constantly, without ceasing. And we need to pray without expecting a result. If we expect a result, it becomes a transaction.
If we, as individuals, do pray expecting a result, we, as individuals, need to focus not on what we, as individuals, need or what we want. We need to focus on participating with the Spirit of God.
And, therefore, we need to focus on better— not better for some; better for all. And yes, even children in kindergarten realize sharing is important. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I have two worthy quotes to share with you. The first is Socrates (quote): ‘He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the true wealth.’ The second is Pope Francis: (quote:) ‘If the investments in the banks fall slightly…it is a tragedy… what can be done? But if people die of hunger, if they have nothing to eat, if they have poor health, it does not matter? This is our crisis today!’ Which do you want— more or better?”
BENEDICTION: God has made us partners in covenant. Let us truly be God’s people. Let us be guided by prayer, by study, by love, by justice. Let us continually praise the God of the universe who loves us. May our trust grow as we are empowered to do God’s work in this, God’s dominion. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.