Parish Eucharist 20th October 2019
And yet, she persisted.
2 Tim 3.14-4.5
‘And yet, she persisted.’ This phrase describes the situation that so many women are in throughout the world right now, fighting for dignity, hope, and justice. Every day there are also those who lose the strength or the will to persist too, whose constant need of help is too grinding and painful. This is not something that happens far outside these walls. This is a story that is recogniseable across class, wealth, culture, sexuality, race, disability, and every factor that may exclude, divide, or be a cause for protest and campaigning. ‘And yet, they persisted.’ We are called to persist, and to be in solidarity with others who persist, at the same time, because of what we see in Jesus.
Hampstead Parish Church is an Inclusive Church. We are part of a national network of churches that declare openness to all. We are working on it – no place or community is perfect by any stretch – and the commitment we have made to be accountable regarding hospitality, equality, and celebration of difference is very real. The Church must listen to all who speak out, and listen for the silences, too, noticing those who have no voice, and encouraging all to find their voice and speak up. All of the sources I’m using to interpret the Gospel today are, deliberately, not white people. We need to hear their voices.
As the black gay American writer James Baldwin put it: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ Who is the widow in Christ’s story, who demands change? She is of low social status, surrounded by injustice, and appealing to someone powerful whose only known characteristics are that he is apathetic, amoral, and has no interest in love of God. The unjust judge is a tragic character. Feeling no compassion for anyone, human or divine, the only reason why he gives the widow what she deeply needs is because he is tired of the sound of her voice.
She is wise, too. No naïve social outcast, she is an educated social outcast, using the language of the court system to get under the judge’s skin and to be her own bold advocate. She learns the language of her oppressor so that she can dismantle the system of oppression simply showing up, again and again. It is not a Brexit march of hundreds of thousands, it is not a civil rights march flowing through the streets of America demanding freedom, it is not Extinction Rebellion and those in their 70s and 80s who have been arrested multiple times, among them priests and rabbis. It is one woman. And yet, she persisted.
Why does Jesus tell the story of the persistent widow? Those who pray to God, whatever their needs, are to be like her. Because God is no unjust apathetic distant judge. God is the God of love, of justice, of mercy. But if God is Love, truly the source of love, and we can and must pray to God always, with open hearts, with hope even when hope is frail, then why do people suffer? Why to unjust things continue to happen?
The truth is that we don’t know. But consider this – if the world were a utopia where nothing bad happened, there might be no sorrow, but there would be no free will either. We can choose how we treat one another. We choose to love. We are created to love and be loved, but we are not robots. Injustice is not God’s will, but it is, sadly, part of God’s world. There is pain of so many kinds, and enduring that pain is not part of God’s plan for your life, or anyone’s life. God does not want anything or anyone to suffer. God desires flourishing, peace, unity, and indeed justice.
When suffering happens, where is God? Through Jesus, God is with us in our suffering. Even in the extremes of horror and war, Jesus is present, cradling people in pain and in grief, inviting hope, not because suffering is ever good for us or redemptive in itself, but, somehow, because God works through the pain of life to bring us into God’s heart. When Jesus was raised by God from the dead, the scars of the crucifixion did not disappear. They became radiant marks of love. Healed, redeemed, but not forgotten. Through pain, even death, somehow, wounds of violence become signs of love.
Should the widow have to go to the indifferent judge every day and beg for justice? No. Should bad things happen to good people? No. Does anyone ever deserve to suffer? No. Does God love us? Yes. Does prayer lead us into a deeper bond with the God who made us and knows what we need? Absolutely. When we pray does God hear us? Definitely. One of the greatest mysteries of suffering is not that it exists, but that, through Jesus, even death cannot separate us from God, and somehow, through pain, the human spirit survives and is transformed.
In Martin Luther King Jr’s 'Letter from the Birmingham City Jail', he wrote, ‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’ God is always, every time, on the side of the oppressed. Demand justice, and the world will change. Because the Kingdom of God is justice and peace, and we strive for signs of the Kingdom of God here on earth, walking with Jesus, asking him to be a light for our path, even if we have to walk through the shadow of death and can’t see beyond the next step in front of us. Even if we are terrified.
Our faith gives us the confidence to be real. With ourselves, with each other, and with God. To be honest about our wounds, our fears, and our needs, and to know when to ask for help. It is ok to be angry with God – more than that, in a world so broken it will be necessary at times to be angry with God. God can take it. God is with us through the worst that life can throw at us. Despite everything that happens in our lives, on our streets, and in our world, love wins. Knowing this, we dare to struggle for justice, to keep asking for what we need, and to cry out and lament over the injustices that we see around us.
The widow, like Jacob and the angel, struggles with God. She is a great model for us, because in her weakness is her strength. She persists. She cries out for justice every single day, and even the one who seems not to care about anything – an allegory of apathy and heartlessness itself – gives in. Her power comes directly from her vulnerability. She may have been afraid, and desperate, but she trusts in justice. Even the unjust judge relents. She keeps showing up and protesting because she knows that the outcome, maybe not today, or even tomorrow, but someday, is justice. The judge may not believe in God, but the widow does, and God works even through the corruption and oppression of the unjust judge. Latinx theologian Miguel A. De La Torre says, ‘The hopelessness within which the oppressed live propels them toward action. Here is the true liberative question that this parable leaves us to struggle with: do we fight for justice, as did the widow, because we know we are going to win; or do we fight for justice, regardless of the outcome, for the sake of justice alone, even if we do not realize it in our lifetime?’
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