A sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri on October 20, 2013.
One of the things that gives me life,
is turning again and again to the stories of the Bible.
I say this not just because we encounter God there… in that engagement
though that’s a big part of it.
But these stories in the Scripture are endlessly fascinating.
So many twists and turns and nuances and layers.
Take, for instance, this Parable:
the parable of the Unjust Judge, some call it
or the parable of the persistent widow.
There is this judge, says Jesus. We know about judges in Israel.
Their role is to maintain a reasonable harmony in the community,
to decide disputes fairly and impartially.[i]
Jewish law is clear, however: there is a particular responsibility
for such judges…and the whole nation
to protect the rights of the poor—
often described through the shorthand of the
widows and the orphans and
sojourners in the land.
So there is this Judge, says Jesus
and there is this widow. And here lies the plot:
the widow as the main character immediately
raises the stakes for this judge.
Any God-fearing jurist would feel obligated by the law, by Torah
to take particularly good care of her.[ii]
The problem is that this judge is not God-fearing.
This judge, the text tells us, isn’t particularly interested in justice at all.
He really just wants her to go away.
But the widow won’t take “no” for an answer.
She keeps coming back, and coming back
day after day after day, resolutely pressing her case,
until finally the judge breaks.
The way my particular bible translates this moment
misses the particular force of the widow here,
and my bible has a great footnote that offers another rendition
of that verse:
The judge says to himself:
“Because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice,
so that she may not finally come
and slap me in the face….”
Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it
in his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message:
I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—
otherwise I’m going to end up beaten
black and blue by her pounding.”
A Persistent Widow, indeed.
So he breaks, and eventually,
despite his callousness and despite his lack of integrity,
he gives the woman what she demands:
Justice. Or making things right again.
It was through HER persistence that Justice eventually happened,
that brought the one responsible for giving it to his knees
and that brought about God’s intention—
that the poor and marginalized might be cared for.
* * *
What is this parable all about then?
Well, on one level, Jesus tells us: it is about The Need to Pray, Always.
And also about how we ought not Lose Heart
But there’s always more to it than just the obvious.
Parables are always about the indwelling of the realm of God in our world.
And this Parable one is no different,
and in some ways the broader context is explicit about it
in ways that other parables sometimes aren’t.
Just before his telling this story, according to Luke,
Jesus is talking to a crowd of Pharisees and Disciples
who are asking about the coming of the Son of Man
and the new world God has promised.
I sometimes wonder if Jesus is being worn out by their persistence, too,
the constant yearning for things to be made better.
But if so, Jesus shows no signs of that.
Instead, Jesus tells them that the “Kingdom of God
is not coming with things that can be observed,
nor will they say ‘Look, here it is’ or ‘Look, there it is!’
For, in fact” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is within you….”
“The kingdom of God is within you….”
And then after a rather long apocalyptic discourse with his disciples,
where Jesus hints to himself as the fulfillment of the kingdom…
Jesus tells us this little parable about
the importance of persistence in prayer
and not losing hope.
I think that context is important.
To a people who have been waiting for centuries for God
to make things right,
who are living under the strains of the Roman empire
and who long for the glory days of Yahweh
back in Judea and Israel,
who have been praying for what seems like forever….
they ask Jesus what gives.
And Jesus tells them that their longed for Kingdom
won’t be the kind of thing that they will notice so easily
but, rather, something that will happen within THEM.
And then he tells them to keep praying….
* * *
There’s got to be more to the story than just this.
Its not the kind of response they were looking for.
I’m not sure it’s the kind of response, if I’m honest
I would be looking for either.
I don’t know about you, but I get pretty exhausted,
when I think about all the things that need to be made right
with our world:
The millions of kids in our country
who are food insecure.
Not to mention the ones right here
in South Kansas City or Johnson County
I met with a pastor this week from Ottawa, Kansas
who said 60% of kids at their school
qualify for free or reduced meals at school.
That’s three out of five kids,
and my heart aches and my head boggles.
And I’ve been praying pretty hard about that.
Then there’s the military operations that continue
in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and action in Libya and Somalia
and conflict in Syria
and rumblings about Iran….
And I pray pretty hard about that.
And then there’s all the people I love
or the people that they love
who are receiving Chemo or Radiation
lifegiving treatment, all of it…
And I pray pretty hard about that.
And then theres the political mess
and worry about the economy
and my own 9-5 work
and my family’s schedule
and I pray pretty hard about all of that stuff too.
And I can get pretty exhausted by all of it,
and by all of that praying,
and I can begin to wonder what gives, Jesus?
* * *
On the face of it, the typical reading of this passage is that
persistence pays off.
And I believe in sticking with it when it comes to prayer,
even when such prayers don’t get answered
in the ways WE think is best.
But I think this Parable may be MORE about God’s persistence
God’s willingness to stick with us
God’s desire to tough it out with us
God’s unflappable commitment to shalom—
to peace, to harmony, to justice
no matter how tired we get.
See, I’ve come to learn that there’s persistence, and then there’s persistence.
Or, to put it another way, not all persistence is created equal.
That guy who insists on tailgating me during rushhour, he’s persistent.
The nagging cough that seems to be lingering around my home
passing from one child to the other, particularly at night,
The Chief’s pass rush: Tomba Hali and Dontari Poe and Derrick Johnson
they’re persistent, too.
A particular joy to watch this year, at least for me.
But all those things will pass away, eventually.
And then there’s the persistence of God:
There’s the persistence of a father who had two sons,
and when one son squanders his inheritance
and reaches the depths of poverty and heartache
the father is there to welcome him back
with outstretched arms.
Or the persistence of the shepherd who had a hundred sheep
and who, after losing one, wouldn’t rest until he found it,
and after finding it threw a party:
“Rejoice with me! For I have found my sheep that was lost!”
Or the persistence of a woman who had ten silver coins,
and upon losing one,
turns on all the lights, sweeps out every dark dusty corner
doesn’t rest until that coin is found.
These, too, are parables that Jesus tells us about the realm of God.
The way God doesn’t quit, even when we quit on God.
The way God is relentless in searching for us when we are lost.
The way God’s love will never, ever, ever quit.
The way God is steadfast and unyielding and even persistent.
* * *
So, maybe this story before us is pretty obvious,
about our need to keep praying and not to lose heart.
But as I think about Jesus and the stories he tells us about who God is
and I think about this widow,
how she cries out for justice
to the one who is responsible for giving it to her
but who doesn’t seem to care one bit to do so
SHE reminds me of God.
Doesn’t SHE remind you of God?
That widow, as steadfast and unyielding and persistent as she is:
That widow reminds me of the God we find in Jesus
pushing and prodding and urging and sweeping
and welcoming and throwing a party
when grace abounds and
justice is meted out
and the lost are found again.
* * *
I think Jesus is up to something here.
When we get tired, or worn out, or beaten up by this imperfect world of ours
when we get frustrated by seeing injustice seem to win out
or the hungry going without food
or the orphan and widow being mistreated
Jesus is saying: YES! And God is too!
but God doesn’t give up!
God will keep beating the drums for justice
and will keep working on peace
and God wants us to keep on doing so too.
* * *
Sometimes it takes stories of persistence to remind me of how God
is still working, in our day,
with God’s own unflappable persistence.
Davion Only wasn’t so sure about going inside
St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church that Sunday morning.
“Miss! Hey, Miss!” he called to his case worker, who was driving
as they pulled into the church parking lot.
“I don’t [know if I] want to do this anymore.”
He clutched the Bible someone had given him in a foster home.
The case worker, Connie, told him “You’re going to be great”
as she straightened his donated white tie
and flattened the collar on his too-big, donated black suit.
Only was born in prison.
And his life had been a constant shuffle through the foster care system.
His mother—a drug addict and convicted thief—
died earlier this year while still incarcerated,
and there had never been suitable guardians for him among his relatives.
So he was a ward of the state, and at 15 was struggling.
He was angry. He let his grades suffer. He pushed people away.
But when his mother died, things changed for him.
He says he no longer had any excuses. He couldn’t blame her any more.
He needed to do something to find someone in his life.
Someone who would want him. Someone who would love him.
So there he was, at the doorway of St Mark Church
with his caseworker.
This was his idea, Connie would say later,
his way of “Putting himself out there”.
Davion stood before the 300 member congregation.[iii]
“Without looking up, Davion wiped his palms on his pants,
cleared his throat, and said:
“My name is Davion,
and I’ve been in foster care since I was born.
I know God hasn’t given up on me.
So I’m not giving up either.”
“I’ll take anyone. Old or young, dad or mom
black, white, purple. I don’t care.
And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”
* * *
And right there, the God who has a particular heart for widows
and orphans and sojourners
all of those particularly struggling and hurting
stood beside Davion and showed us all a glimpse of the realm of God.
Case workers report that they have had 5000 people call
from around the country asking about Davion,
most of whom ask about adoption,
and those who work with orphans report a nationwide uptick
in interest because of Davion’s persistence.
* * *
There are so many principalities and powers out there
that are indifferent to God’s realm,
that don’t really care about the poor’s claim for justice
that resist doing anything to make their lives better.
But God, Jesus tells us, God doesn’t give up.
If we have eyes to see it,
God is working right now, tirelessly, to work out the realm of God
in our world.
And God urges us not to give up,
as tired as those principalities and powers make us
to not stop praying and to not stop looking
and to not stop EXPECTING God to be doing this.
THAT is the whole point of PERSISTENCE in prayer:
to keep our heart and our eyes and our minds attune
to not just our longing for justice and for peace
but also to the GOD who longs for these things too
so that when we see it we can shout: look! There!
The Kingdom of God is Among us!
Because, with a life of prayer, we can SEE it:
In the gift of a meal and quiet presence
to a friend who just lost a spouse
In a kind word to a friend who just got mocked in gym class
In patience offered to someone who needs a break.
Right there! The realm of God breaking forth….
It takes a certain kind of persistence: ours, and God’s.
So may we not only commit to trust God
by persisting in our prayers and lifting up to God our hopes
for a better, more loving, more peaceful world,
but may we also work to see God’s
endless, tireless work in our world to make this come to be
and may we take up that work as our own.
May it be so.
[i] This section informed in large part by the sermon “Whose Persistence?” by the Rev. Dr. Robert Dunham of University Presbyterian Church of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, October 21, 2007.
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: Luke (Collegeville, Minnesota; The Liturgical Press, 1991) p. 269)
[iii] From Lane DeGregory “Amid Churchgoers, Orphan Davion Only Pleads for A Family” Accessed October 20, 2013: http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/amid-churchgoers-orphan-pleads-for-a-family/2145907
(Image from http://destinyinbloom.com/widowhood-isn%E2%80%99t-a-dirty-word/, image source unknown)