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Nevertheless, she persisted.
(It had to be said.)
But today we are not speaking of a stubborn United States senator quoting the old words of yet another persistent widow, Coretta Scott King. Elizabeth Warren persisted; nevertheless, she was shut down and kicked out. Nevertheless, Jeff Sessions was ultimately confirmed as attorney general. Elizabeth Warren persisted, but she lost.
Persistence does not guarantee victory and, in the Bible at least, it seems that success is not the point of persistence, that results are not the primary reason for resilience and relentlessness in the face of injustice—although God desires justice even more than we do.
What, then, is the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge about? What, then, is a spiritual practice of persistence for?
How do we know when to keep pressing on and when to let go? How do we persist in the struggle when the way is rough and the odds are long, when every day we are hit with a new barrage of unthinkable injustices, when resistance calls but children and partners and friends still need to be loved, jobs still need doing, all those emails need answering, and the dishes must be washed? How do we keep going? What is the point?
Several years ago now, I began to pay a little more attention to the occasional nudge I had long gotten from God—something about the church and ministry, caring for people, preaching and teaching. Oh, not me! I’d always said. I already have a call—to journalism, to reporting and writing, to changing the world by telling the truth. I enjoyed doing church stuff “on the side,” of course, but journalism would always be my job, I thought.
It was important, challenging, and gratifying work. The people I worked with were smart and funny and dedicated; the people and situations I covered were important. I wanted to believe my work made a difference. Occasionally, I had a front-row seat to history. Most days I loved my job.
But year after year of covering the news, especially in Washington, takes a toll on a person. Not to put too fine a point on it, but journalists encounter a lot of corruption and are told a boatload of lies. They see first-hand how power, and the desire to maintain it, can twist people. They witness war and crime and countless horrible things people do to one another. So regularly are they subjected to spin and so-called alternative facts that, as the professional saying goes, when their mother says she loves them, they must check it out.
Over time, some reporters (like many people) become jaded and cynical. It’s a defense mechanism, mostly. But in the most severe cases, some people can become so embittered and world-weary that they no longer believe in anything or trust anyone.
About the time God’s new call on my life was getting louder and clearer, I was reminding myself that I didn’t want to be like that. Yes, I loved God and God’s people, and I wanted to work with God to love and heal the world, but I was also starting to get concerned about the state of my heart.
So I said “yes” to God, and left my career behind.
God seems to care a lot about our hearts—our feelings, our essence, our sense of self, the very wellspring of life. The word “heart” appears in our scriptures more than 800 times. In this morning’s readings we hear that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through God’s Spirit, and that this steadfast love sustains us through all manner of suffering. This Spirit-love in our hearts connects us so intimately to the Holy One that we achieve a deep, spiritual peace.
The apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the Roman church, says that, with God’s help, our strong, grace-grounded, faith-fed, love-shaped hearts carry us through life’s trials, enabling us to persist and endure. And as we go, he says, we gain a kind of holy patience that, over time, produces solid-gold character—the kind of character that is not afraid of disappointment, the kind of character that runs on hope. And we can trust this hope, because God’s very self lives in our hearts, because our hearts are awash in God’s love.
Character is no substitute for justice. God-love does not pay the bills. Over time, life’s struggles can wear down the most faithful and patient among us. Sometimes hope does disappoint.
Many of the early Christians reading and hearing Paul’s letters and Luke’s gospel were disappointed and weary. They had expected to see the realm of God, yet they were still oppressed by the Roman empire. They had expected Jesus to return in glory by then; instead, Christians were being persecuted, tortured, and even killed for their faith.
They were beginning to lose heart.
And so Luke takes Jesus’ parable, a story featuring a poor, oppressed widow and an uncaring, unjust judge, and sets it up as directly as he can:
Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart or, as another translation puts it, not to be discouraged.
The funny thing is that the parable itself doesn’t say a word about prayer—unless prayer is a little like courage that won’t quit, unless prayer is a lot like a heart where God lives, unless prayer is about refusing to settle for anything less than justice, unless prayer is love and faith in action.
Because that’s what the widow did. Widows were among the poorest and most powerless people in society, which is why the Jewish law made special provisions for them. But someone had done this widow wrong, and she had the heart to plead her case. Never mind that the judge didn’t care one bit about God or the law or her—or anyone but himself, really. Every day the widow went to plead her case. Never mind that every day the judge said no. The widow would not keep quiet. Never mind that people were beginning to talk; she just kept coming back. Never mind that every day she was disappointed; she would not quit.
At some point it became less about the judge’s actions and more about the state of her heart. At some point she realized that her struggle for justice was also a fight for her soul.
The widow persisted in pleading her case, she continued to give voice to her demands for justice because, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, that “was how she remembered who she was. [That] was how she remembered the shape of her heart.” Again and again, “she threw off her shame, her caution, her self-control and went straight to the source to say exactly what she wanted. She did not know she could roar until she heard herself do it. …. What the persistent widow [knew was] that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless.”
Finally the judge relented. Finally the widow wore him down.
God is, of course, nothing like the unjust judge. God loves us with an unfailing love. God became one of us and walks beside us so that we might know healing and wholeness, so that the world might know justice and peace.
And so we pray and work and love. We hold on to the faith that God cares deeply; we shine a light in the darkness, trusting that God has not abandoned our harsh and broken world. We agonize and organize; we light candles, make posters, write letters, go to meetings, and march.
And we get tired. We wonder if all our effort makes any difference. We get discouraged. Sometimes we are tempted to give up, to stop hoping that right will prevail. We’ve been disappointed so many times before.
Like you, I know what it is to pray without ceasing for something.
I have prayed for a young mother with cancer, and watched her die anyway. I have prayed for a young man with AIDS, and been by his side when he drew his last breath.
Like you, I have prayed for direction. I have prayed for jobs. I have prayed for love. And just as you sometimes come to me and ask, Why bother to pray? or,How will I know when it’s time to take no for an answer, so I go to my spiritual director with the same questions. (And she gently reminds me that the deepest longings of my heart come from God, the God who longs for me.)
That’s the thing about prayer: It keeps us close to God. It keeps our hearts open and supple and alive. It helps us remember who we are. It moves us in the direction of who God wants us to be. And, if we let it, it gives us endurance for the journey, the character to do what is right, and hope for the struggle. If we persist in prayer, if we are faithful in love, if we keep chasing God and working for God’s justice and peace, we will be changed even if the unjust judges of this world are not. And eventually, together, we will wear them down.
Here is a story about how we need to pray always and not lose heart. Here is a story about how to persist in the struggle and not let the hard-hearted brokenness of the world beat us up and shut us down. Here is a story about how to be true to who we are.
Here [hold up the Bible] is a story of persistent love, of a God who refuses to give up on us, of a Love that keeps chasing us, offering us relationship and forgiveness, mercy and a fresh start, healing and new life, community and family, hope and stubborn patience.
Here, in God’s Spirit, here in Christ’s church, is a Love that longs to be poured into our hearts, again and again and again.
How is it with your heart?