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Persistent Widow

Preached:  October 20, 2013
Scriptures:  Luke 18:1-8

There was this song my brothers sang to me when I was about 5 or 6 years old.  “Go away little girl.”  When I was a kid – I was a bother. I was annoying, a pest.  There was a reason my brothers sang that song to me.  5 year old children. They bug & bother you. They are pushy & persistent. They live in the moment and tug on your heartstrings.  Can you think of any time in your life when a kid wore you down and you relented?  At some point most of us grow up and learn social niceties – how to be polite.  I think they call it Finishing School in the South.  If people haven’t learned the basic social niceties, we become annoyed.  People who cross that fine line where persistence becomes sheer pushiness.

Most of us don’t want to be a burden to anyone or bother them.  We are self-reliant, independent people.  We have become very familiar with the phrase:  “I don’t want to bother you, but…”  We don’t want to be perceived as being a nuisance or being pushy.  So let’s take a look at this widow in the parable who ends up being pushy & persistent.

The role of Judges in the land of Israel was to adjudicate disputes fairly.  When it came to protecting the rights of the poor – of widows, orphans, and foreigners, Jewish law described a particular responsibility for judges.  For you see a widow was powerless in the ancient world. She had no clout with the male judge who sat at the city gate settling disputes about property, money, & inheritance. Her gender and lack of marital status prevented her from receiving a just hearing, and a widow had no money for the customary bribe.   She had only the power of her conviction, and her willingness to be a pest.

So we meet this whining widow, who persistently found the judge sitting at a busy corner of the main gate to the city.  This judge tries to ignore her pleading. But the widow is persistent. She keeps coming back – day after day, until finally the judge relents. The judge is pragmatic. He realizes he won’t get ANY peace until he gives this woman what she she desires.  She’s made herself a pest with her persistence, he gives her what she wants, just to get rid of her.

We know that there are forces in this world that run counter to God’s desire and God’s justice. The powerful who abuse their power, exploit the marginalized, and ignore the injustices and suffering around them. And as people of faith, we are urged to be persistent in opposing these forces and calling for justice. Stand up against oppression in whatever form it presents itself.  We are invited to be persistent pesterers that will wear down the walls and barriers to justice.

I want to talk about the difference between charity and justice.  Most of us are more comfortable with charity.  When our hearts are touched by an event, our natural compassion moves us to want to help.  And so we meet a need in real time – money toward a disaster, a meal for someone who is hungry, a coat for someone who is cold, a place to sleep for those who are homeless.  It helps to meet the need; it doesn’t address the system that caused the need.  Aristotle’s distinction between the two.  Justice is what happens when the minimum conditions of life is enjoyed by all people. Charity is pure generosity which extends beyond the basic demands of justice.  While charity is preferable, it cannot be a replacement for justice. In an unjust society, justice involves politics because it addressed the conditions of a society and how goods are distributed.

I would say we are more comfortable with charity because it makes us feel good, like we are generous people, and we can do it quietly.  Justice requires a bit more noise, and a bit more personal investment.  When people work for justice, others will say, “Why don’t you just go away!”  People who work for justice tend to be perceived as persistent pests and very pushy.

Folks who “make a stink” or “raise a ruckus” tend to be suspect in our eyes. We would rather follow the rules, keep our composure, and do what’s right, and hope (pray) everything will turn out okay. If it doesn’t, we tend to accept it because after all, no one ever said life was fair.

Justice also requires us to get political.  And many people in churches think that we ought not be political.  Yet, Jesus was highly political.  And through the years, churches have frequently been at the forefront of social issues, being political in order to bring about change for the common good.

Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, is one who persistently knocks on the door of Justice on behalf of voiceless & vulnerable children. She’s been busy lately because the children of our country have needed a lot of defending—from cuts in our Head Start program to failed efforts to make headway in our violent gun culture.

In a Washington Post story a couple weeks ago, Edelman talked about the debate in Congress over cutting food stamps and funding for children’s programs.  She begins to use words like “shameful,” and wonders who raised “these people.”  “These people up here are cutting the lifelines of child growth and cutting off food for hungry people and extremely poor people. I don’t know where they come from. Where is the outcry?” she asks.

“It is past time people of faith joined to protect the poor and to protect children, to empower ourselves and others to build a powerful nonviolent direct action movement demanding physical and economic security for all our children and all of us.
                “The Sandy Hook massacre, where powerful assault weapons with deadly ammunition clips snuffed out the lives of 20 young children and six adults was a tipping point for our violence-infected nation. We were shocked and horrified. But will this horrific concentrated violence against 6 and 7 year olds galvanize us to act to stop our nation’s destructive culture of violence that continues with our complicity?
                “It’s time to say enough! The tragic taking of life by gun violence will continue if we remain silent and do not act. The sacred texts, teachings, and traditions of our religious faiths call us not to harm others and point us to the way of nonviolence, the power of love and to protect the poor and vulnerable.”

She speaks with the persistent eloquence of that widow in Luke’s gospel, and my hope is that we all might be inspired by her voice and work for justice on behalf of our children.

How often do we fail to persevere and advocate for justice and equity? There are so many barriers to persistently working for justice:  fear of failure, loss of courage, spiritual fatigue.

Part of the role of faith is having the heart to tackle impossible things; Not letting injustice overcome our belief that justice will prevail; not letting discouragement overcome hope.

Are we determined to wear down places of injustice, or are we more willing to go with the flow as we passively watch the world go by? Are we willing to “raise a holy ruckus” knowing that God is with us? This lesson instructs us to avoid the route of asking nicely. Advocating for justice is messy work, it does not necessarily gain us friends, AND it is a process that can be long, and frustrating. We are not to lose heart but rather keep on praying, pestering, and persevering.

And maybe, persistence is not so much about getting what we want from God as much as it is about God getting what God desires from us.

In the midst of it all, God is the one who always hears our knocking. Listen to this story:

There’s a story about a young boy named Frank who was walking along the bank of the Mississippi River when he noticed another boy about his age wrestling with a homemade raft in the river. “What are you doing?”   “I’m going to take this raft out to that island in the middle of the river. I dare you to go with me!”
Well, Frank couldn’t resist the dare so he scrambled down the bank and got on the raft. The two boys headed out to the middle of the river but the current was too swift. The raft broke up and sank and they had to swim to the island. There they were, abandoned, late in the afternoon.
Right at that moment, one of those paddle-wheel steamers started coming down the river and Frank ran to the edge of the island and began screaming and waving his hands, “Help! Help!” The other boy said, “Don’t waste your breath. They can’t hear you and even if they could they wouldn’t pay any attention to boys like us.” Frank kept screaming.  At that moment the paddlewheel steamer turned toward the island. The boy said to Frank, “How did you do that?” Frank said, “The captain of that boat is my father!”
Well, the captain of the universe is our parent and how much more will one who has formed us respond to our every cry.  So pray always and don’t lose heart.