A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Sunday 16 October 2022, The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and Luke 18:1-8
Both of our readings today are about persistence, and never giving up. Persistence, at least in the sense of longevity, is not something we can associate with our government at the moment. But, in a week marked by political turmoil and change, I’ve come across several stories of people whose persistence has moved me.
Earlier this week, on the BBC I watched a documentary about a young woman whose rape case was destroyed by claims she had sexsomnia, a rare sleep disorder that apparently causes people to engage in sexual activity while asleep. Her determination to pursue her case as far as she could, and get justice for herself, as well as allowing the BBC to follow her progress and make a documentary, I thought was incredibly brave and must have helped other women in similar situations not to feel so alone. Also on the BBC, on Wednesday I heard to the radio 4 programme “Life changing,” about someone whose life was also turned upside down when, aged 17, he was stabbed through the heart, when he wouldn’t hand over his phone to his attacker on a Birmingham bus. Although he survived the wound, it destroyed his dreams as an aspiring boxer, and the programme was all about his struggle to come to terms with the loss of the life that could have been his- and in turn to help others with a similar sense of purposelessness through the gym he went on to open, having come finally to a place where he could accept the past and find a sense of hope. And finally this week someone I know was approved to adopt a small child in need of a home, a massive step on a long and emotional journey where much persistence has been shown and will continue to be required.
Stories like these are powerful, showing that persistence often requires great strength and courage to overcome obstacles. When I hear them, I often wonder whether- in a similar situation- I would have the same strength lasting through the time needed to achieve the desired outcome or to get justice.
The widow in our Gospel story today is incredibly persistent, repeatedly coming and asking the judge to give her justice against her opponent. She shows great strength, putting much energy into this task. But really, she has no choice. Too poor to resort to bribery and lacking influential friends, persistence is her only weapon. In preparing this sermon, I learned that, in the description the judge gives of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him, translated here as “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” a more literal translation of the judge’s grievance is that the woman “is giving me a black eye.” So the judge is complaining not only that the widow’s relentless badgering is causing him physical harm, but that it also risks publicly embarrassing him.
The whole story of course hinges on this point- that the judge relents and gives her the justice she wants not because he’s changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, it’s the woman’s insolent, obnoxious, and even intolerable behaviour that results in justice.
This is a great story, and it’s obvious from the start that there’s a huge disparity between these two characters of the widow and the judge. In any patriarchal agriculturally based society, like the one in which Jesus lived, the widow is extremely vulnerable, socially and economically, one of the most powerless people in society. But this widow absolutely refuses to be cast as that powerless person that everyone might expect her to be. She consistently and persistently speaks up for justice.
The judge, by contrast, as a leader in his society is very far from the Old Testament ideal of the judge, which was not just to be an impartial arbiter but also to be the champion of the helpless and down-trodden- the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner. Whatever other cases he heard, under this biblical model, the judge was to be sure that these at least received their rights. But this judge is not swayed by religious principle or by what is right. A bit arrogant, a bit pleased with himself, he probably enjoys a bit too much the fact that people give him respect on the street or want him at their house. He doesn’t properly respect people, and he has given up on God. What need would he have of Him?
This woman, this apparently powerless, voiceless woman, is so persistent that she makes justice happen. Jesus paints an unattractive picture of the judge, albeit one his audience can relate to, but he then relates her persistence to prayer. If her persistence is so effective with this very unattractive character, he says, then just imagine how praying to a God who is loving and just could be- imagine what a difference that could make.
As people of faith, Jesus urges us to pray, with patience and persistence, as a way of addressing the injustices of the world and the building up of community. This applies not just to the people around us, but to our global community, and even to the earth itself. This week our former bishop, Bishop Nick Holtam, gave me a copy of his new Advent book, called Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious about Climate Change. In this book, he quotes Gus Speth, an American environmental lawyer who writes, “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, eco system collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy- and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation- and we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (quoted on p.6). With 80% of the world’s population having a religious identity, faith and spirituality are key resources “to mobilize people in response to climate change and the care of God’s creation” (p.6). Our spirituality is the integration of our beliefs, values and actions. It draws strength from the Scriptures and it is made active through thought and prayer (see p.6).
The strengthening words of our first reading today were most likely not written by Paul himself, but they contain words eloquent and inspiring enough to be worthy of him. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). The energising message of these words is: never give up. Whether the time is favourable or unfavourable- in season or out of season- be persistent in living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Be persistent, and be patient, in encouraging others and, above all, in the pursuit of justice.
To persist along the road of prayer is to widen our knowledge of God’s mercy and love. Our prayerful persistence in turning to Christ also turns us outwards to care about the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and to speak up for them. Rooted in the love, acceptance and call of Jesus, we share his deep love of justice and compassion. His love, experienced in prayer, gives us the energy not to retreat like the judge into a privatised Christian silo of self-congratulation, or into a sense that we should just give up because the pursuit of justice for ourselves or someone else is too hard or overwhelming. Like the widow, we should be persistent, patient, relentless and energetic in our pursuit of justice for everyone, including the earth itself.
As in today’s Gospel, it is the poorest in society who teach us persistence- because, like the widow in the story, it is the poorest who know what it is to have that kind of persistence in a life that is often too precarious. The Eucharist in which we are about to share gives us a vision of the future in which all are welcome and all are fed. Persistence both in prayer and in life: let us place our energy, persistence and patience, in the manner of the widow, at the service of justice, and like her, never give up.