But she persisted

SERMON 

Sunday 20 October, 2019 

Jeremiah 31.27-34 

2 Timothy 3.10 – 4.5 

Psalm 119.97-104 

Luke 18.1-14 

But she persisted…. ©Sue Grimmett 

My father used to tell the story of the first time he queued up for food in the  mess tent after joining the army and attending his first training during the  Second World War. Having been initially given a meagre amount of porridge,  and being a young man of healthy appetite, he proffered his empty bowl to the  kitchen staff and asked for some more. Like Dickens’ Oliver Twist who first made  famous those words, “Please sir, I want some more…”, my father was  indignantly told to go away and returned to his seat with an empty bowl and an  empty stomach while the staff and those gathered around stared at him in  stupefied astonishment. Dad laughed about this later, but says he learnt very  swiftly never to ask for more again. 

I think all of us have internalised narratives in our head that teach us to never  expect or ask for more. These are the voices that we have been socialised into  believing that say things like; “Better not want too much, or you will be  disappointed”, “You are getting a bit above yourself aren’t you?” or “This is just  the way things will always be.” But hope is an indomitable presence in every human being. Even in the midst of winter, as Albert Camus says, we can  discover within us ‘an invincible summer’; but that very resilience of hope can  be disturbing and in tension with our reduced expectations. We are hardwired  in our desire for life and love, peace and justice, and yet also trained by our  experiences and our woundedness to expect less for both ourselves and the  society in which we live.  

The first of the gospel parables we heard today tells the story of an unjust judge and a widow who persists in expecting more despite her inability to change the  self-interested character of the man who holds the power to alter her situation.  As usual we need to not assume we know what this parable is about, although to help us we are given the message at the start of the story, rather like hearing  the punch line of a joke first. “Jesus told them a parable about their need to  pray always and not to lose heart.” So we know it is a parable about prayer.

But is it saying that we just need to keep nagging God if we are to be given the  desires of our hearts? To suggest that this is the intended meaning is to assume  the unjust judge is meant to be God and to thus completely ignore the  description of him being a man “who neither feared God nor had respect for  people.” Clearly, this is not the God character in the story, although it may fit  the personality we sometimes project on to God. It is also a dangerous  interpretation for any of us- which is probably most of us- who have prayed  earnestly for something to change and been faced only with the apparent  silence of God. Have we not prayed well enough or long enough?  

These are simplistic interpretations to place on the parable. The injunction to pray always and not lose heart has to mean more than being diligent in  petitioning God over and again for things we want. This turns God into a cosmic  fulfiller of our wish-list who only needs to be pestered sufficiently; and where  do we go when despite our pleas, our desires for health or wealth or romantic  fulfilment, remain unmet?  

Huston Smith in his famous work, “Why Religion Matters” says; When the consequences of belief are worldly goods such as health,  fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification  and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role,  which is to decentre the ego, not pander to its desires. 

So this is a story about prayer, but not about a God who is prepared to gratify our needs because of the persistence of our requests. Maybe if we see it as a  parable not about God, but about us, and consider the character and action of  the petitioner, we might get closer to a fruitful reading.  

The Hebrew word for widow means “one who has no voice.” The widow does  not persist because it is a good strategy, she persists because it is all she can do.  Widows are used throughout scripture and particularly in Luke to depict one  who has no social standing or power. We are not told the details of her case in  the parable, but we can imagine it is a financial matter with a male family  member. She is powerless and the judge has no compassion. But because she  continues to appeal for justice, her persistence will expose the judge as unjust.  There is a hypocrisy and desire to keep up appearances that means that the  widow’s insistence on better treatment will finally be heard. She knows she is  deserving of more, so she continues to call out the behaviour of the judge. This  is a parable about justice.

So which is it: a story about justice or about prayer? Yes, to both, really, but  ultimately, I think this is a story about faith. God wants more for us than we  would ever think to ask for ourselves and will draw us past the smallness of our desires to life in its fullness. The unjust and uncaring judge is not God but the  voice we have installed in our consciousness- our collective limited expectation of what is possible- and our corporate tacit acceptance that injustice is just part  of the way things are and have to be, forever and ever, amen. This tacit  acceptance is what happens when we shrug our shoulders and accept unjust  systems in our society, when we don’t bat an eyelid that our churches reflect  those same fractured, graceless relationships, and when we expect so little of  ourselves that we don’t see we have it in us to be God-bearers to one another. 

Faith, however, is having the imagination to envision something better and  persisting in striving to live into that vision. Such persistence and imagination  characterise a life of prayer- the kind of prayer that is not asking for things but  seeks resolutely to keep open the channel between God and the human person  and human community. Our source for the energy to keep challenging injustice  has its origin through prayer in the boundless passion and mercy of Christ that is  extended always to us. Such a prayer life ultimately joins us to the God of all  justice who engages us as agents to bring it about. The Rev’d Dr Barbara  Lundbland captures beautifully these lessons of justice, prayer and faith in a sermon saying;  

• If we pray without working for justice our prayers are empty • If we work for justice without prayer we will think it all depends on us • If we pray and work for justice without faith, we will fall to despair when  justice isn’t done 

• Prayer and justice and faith- what Jesus had joined together, let no one  set asunder. 

The widow expected more, but she knew she had no resources of her own to  rely upon. Her persistence has its source in her hidden communion with God;  the God who hears the cries of the voiceless and empowers the powerless. Her  persistence is a metaphor for the prayer of faith that dares to keep on imagining  and demanding more in the face of self-interest and apathy.  

So as people of faith, we are to be steadfast in calling out injustice in all its great  and petty forms and never cease to imagine a society that serves the common good of all people and the earth and holds our leaders to account. As a church,  we are to have enough faith that we believe that we can live better and be a witness of unity to the world – not rushing to exclude others when the issues are  complex but seeking to hold all together in the kindness of God. And personally,  a life of faithful prayer means that we can ask for and expect more of God and  of ourselves; more peace, more forgiveness, more joy, more hope and finally  more love. 

It takes faith in the character of God and communion with the Spirit of God to  have the courage to keep asking for more. It takes faith if we are to ignore those  voices in our heads which would tell us we cannot or should not expect anything  better. It takes faith to trust God enough to die to ourselves, resist the  temptations of mediocrity and let a new, wider imagination be raised up in us  that we may, together, be agents of a better future.  

+Amen.

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