Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 20 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
These accidentally immortal sentences were certainly never meant to become a slogan, when Mitch McConnell tried to justify forcing Elizabeth Warren to stop reading the words of Coretta Scott King to the US Senate, at the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions a couple of years ago. But his words ended up tapping into a history which, as today’s gospel shows, goes back a very long way – all those marginal people, women quite often, widows and other strangers, who will not stop pestering the powers for justice.
Luke appends a little explanation to the front of the story, telling us that it is about how we have to keep on praying. That’s not exactly wrong. But, like so many explanations attached to parables, it really falls a bit short, at least if read for its surface value. This cannot be a precise analogy for prayer, unless we understand God to be a vicious judge who respects neither humanity nor, well, himself – and while it is true that God is sometimes imagined as such a cruel judge, that is not at all the Abba-God of Jesus. And Jesus is, in fact, fairly clear that this story is about the quest for justice. This quest is always tied up with prayer, tied up with our relationship with God, but in a more complicated way than Luke’s little explanatory sentence suggests.
As a story about work for justice, it’s interestingly pragmatic. The unjust judge doesn’t experience any change of heart – he just gets tired of listening to the irritating old lady going on and on and on. He actually uses a verb which more normally means beating someone black and blue, though it doesn’t appear that the widow literally did this – he just experienced her relentless persistence as an unbearable assault. We’d like more inspiring stories, stories of conversion of heart and the embrace of truer values; and every now and then, we even get those inspiring stories. But I also know that, more often than not, when small increments of justice have actually been achieved, it has been not through conversion but through pure nuisance value. I spent many years working to support the East Timorese people in their quest for independence from Indonesian military rule, and the first sign that we might succeed was when a leading Indonesian politician referred to Timor as “a stone in our shoe.” It is the strategy of every labour action, the strategy of the Extinction Rebellion blockades. It is a great thing if conversion of heart also takes place, but the concrete achievement of small measures of justice is worthwhile even if the motive is simply to make the irritating people go away for a while.
And maybe part of what this parable is trying to do, at least seen through one lens, is to expand our notion of what prayer can be. Perhaps, when Jesus exhorts us to pray constantly and not lose heart, part of that prayer is exactly our persistent work for justice, all our small acts of resistance and truthtelling, every boring march, every letter to indifferent officials, every meal given to a hungry person, every complaint and every cry, everything that undermines the powers of empire. These too are prayer, as much as our meditation or our liturgy; they are means of bringing us into the kingdom of justice, by our doing the work of justice. They are means of participating in the life of God, by our being God’s persistent, irritating instruments, as that widow was in this story, as the prophets were in their day.
And this takes us to another way of looking at the parable. Perhaps, if we are to look in it for a figure who represents God, it is not the unjust judge at all, but exactly that relentless widow, with her absolute lack of social power, her isolation, her weakness, and, despite it all, her demand for justice which will not be silenced. For this is the God we really do see in our scriptures – the God who wills to be vulnerable, to come to us as suffering flesh, to be poor among the poor. The God who will not compel goodness but only invite it, over and over, endlessly, through his presence as a refugee infant, a crucified prisoner, a strangely risen figure cooking fish on the shore of a lake. Through prophets and martyrs, through nasty women, through the Freedom Marchers, the Indigenous organizers in Aamjiwnaang and at the Wet’suwet’en blockade, through all the signers of petitions and writers of letters and filers of lawsuits and implacable marchers, through writers and singers and cooks and caregivers, even through us, foolish and weak and failing as we are.
It is fantastically discouraging work, to be the agents of the God who will not compel, but only come among us and walk beside us; victory of any recognizable kind seems not only very long-delayed, but often impossible. Even the text seems to have some mixed feelings here, with Jesus on the one hand predicting swift and total vindication for the just, and on the other raising doubts about whether the Son of Man will find any faith on earth at all. But it is all a part of God’s work, and a part of our work in trying to be the agents of the kingdom, agents of love in our time, part of how we continue to move into the life of God, and find our life there, a long time coming, swiftly arriving, invisible and everywhere. And we must not lose heart.
Thinking of that, thinking that this is meant to be a story about not losing heart, I wonder too if we can see the unjust judge within us – not only in the more obvious sense, in that we all do, at least sometimes, resist the demands of justice upon us, although certainly we all sometimes do. But in a more complex way, there is that bitter voice within us which tells us that humanity isn’t worth the trouble, that God doesn’t care, that there is no hope and nothing to be done. That judge who sits in judgement on us, within ourselves, rejecting our hopes and our efforts. It is a hard voice to resist, because it seems to have the weight of evidence and experience behind it. But that widow keeps coming back. That resourceless, helpless, vulnerable widow who will not agree that justice is impossible. Who will insist upon hope. Who will insist that humanity – including ourselves – is worthwhile; that we have meaning Who surely understands discouragement and exhaustion, who has surely known that there are days when giving up seems both attractive and sensible, but who gets back up on her feet time and again, proclaims the message that the powers do not want to hear, speaks of the possibility of goodness still. The voice of God in all our hearts, irritating, persistent, troublesome, defying all judges and all judgement, and impossible ever to silence.
And perhaps it is only prayer which can hold us in the presence of that hope. It is prayer which exposes to us our fundamental weakness, our contingency, our lonely and vulnerable souls. And it is only prayer – in all its various forms – which can tie our weakness and our brokenness together with the weakness and brokenness of the crucified and risen God. Isolated, powerless, and beloved enough to persist.
So persist then, nevertheless. Whether the time is favourable or unfavourable, despite warnings and explanations. Despite the cruel judges in the world and within you. Despite the fall of great cities, and all the exhaustion and fear. Live into the persistence of the God who comes as the smallest. Whatever may come – and many things may come, and they may not victories – you are loved enough to do this. You are loved enough to keep going, for as long as breath allows.