A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 20 October 2019- 10:30am- 18 After Trinity
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and Luke 18: 1-8
Some months ago, I happened to hear part of the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs. That week’s guest, Dame Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, was introducing one of her selected pieces, called “The Koln Concerto,” by the jazz and classical music pianist Keith Jarrett.
The story of this piece of music immediately got my attention. Jarrett was invited to give a concert in the Opera House in Cologne. It was due to start very late at night, at 11:30 in the evening. And it was organised by a 17 year old who ordered the wrong piano. When Jarrett arrived late at night, exhausted from a long journey, and with back pain, the piano was broken. Some of the keys didn’t work; the pedals didn’t work. He refused to play, but in the end was persuaded.
He ended up playing and improvising the most beautiful piece of music, which ended up becoming the best-selling solo jazz album in history. A great reminder, Shafik reflected, of how, when things go terribly wrong, you can sometimes rise to the occasion; of how sometimes, it’s when you’re really challenged, that something in you persists, and you can do your best work.
The story of the Koln Concerto came to mind when I read today’s Gospel, another story about persistence.
In today’s parable, a widow in distress keeps coming and asking- pleading- with a judge to give her justice against her opponent. As a widow, this character in Jesus’ parable would have had no intrinsic standing in the community. In ancient times, the court system belonged to the world of men. That she finds herself before the magistrate shows that she has no kinsman to bring her case to court. The fact that she keeps on coming to him implies that she has no money to offer the appropriate bribe necessary for a swift settlement. In the Jewish scriptures and tradition, widowhood symbolised the ultimate state of vulnerability and need. As Luke has emphasised in his Gospel many times up until this point, widows had no status. The object of God’s concern, they were to be cared for within the community of God’s people.
The response of the judge, then, is shocking, though unfortunately not atypical. He refuses to listen to her pleading and to settle her case. In Luke’s parable, these two characters, the widow and the judge, are meant to be types, occupying different ends of the social spectrum of power and privilege. Whereas widows were bottom of the pile, often having to struggle with a corrupt judicial system for their rights, the judge, by contrast, is a male of notable status. We’re told that he “ha[s] no fear of God and no respect for anyone.” That could be a good thing, making him unbiased and objective, as a judge ought to be. But to Luke it clearly isn’t good. The God who liberated Israel from Egypt is the God who directs his people to show special regard to, partiality on behalf of, the oppressed among them- specifically for the alien, the orphan and the widow. And Luke directs us, the reader, to think that the judge should do the same.
The widow could easily have given up. Feeling totally ignored, wretched and worthless, she could have lost faith, believing that like countless other women in her situation, she wouldn’t receive justice.
But she doesn’t. She persists. She has faith. Instead of giving up, she presses the judge again, “Grant me justice against my opponent”. And her persistence is rewarded by the judge giving her what she wants. In the end, it’s not commitment to God’s priorities, nor his concern for his standing in the community that motivates the judge to do this, but the woman’s own perseverance, her bravery to stay in the situation and not back down.
When we face an extremely challenging situation, when we face obstacles, how do we respond? Under pressure, it would be a lot easier to give in to despair or negativity. Keith Jarrett could, quite legitimately, probably, have refused to play, but he didn’t. And so the message of this episode in Luke’s gospel would seem to be that it’s persistence- in this case, persistence in faith, in prayer- that in a mysterious way that we don’t totally understand opens to door to new life.
The widow in our reading shows astonishing resilience. With no man to help her, it might have been expected that she would attend court on her own behalf, but once her claim was rejected, she would have been expected to adopt the role of the helpless victim. In going again and again to the magistrate in her quest for justice, she shows an astonishing level of initiative that- in one of her station- would have been seen as shocking.
Just as Jarrett stayed faithful to his goal of creating an improvisation, so this woman is focused in her goal. She is determined. In the same way for us, obedience to a task that is our vocation, believing and trusting in the outcome, whatever that may be, somehow, in moments we least dare to expect it, unleashes creativity and causes a miracle to happen.
Finally, Jesus relates this parable of persistence to perseverance in prayer. In Luke’s Gospel, prayer could not be more vital, especially at times of extreme pressure and difficulty. Jesus is always going off to pray, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, for significant periods of time, praying for the disciples or before important decisions such as the choosing of the twelve, all in addition to the regular three times a day he would have prayed as a practising Jew.
With this parable about a vulnerable widow, Jesus challenges his disciples to be faithful and to pray in the face of what is wrong, knowing that God- unlike the judge- is faithful. How all this relates today’s Gospel to yesterday’s events in Westminster is up to each of us to work out- but prayer might not be a bad place to start.
Jarrett’s piano was not good. It was horribly out of tune, tinny and weak. So, once he’d overcome his resistance to performing at all, he had to try another approach, using different techniques to overcome its deficiencies, and that’s what led him to play it in the extraordinary way he did. As a record producer said later, “Because he could not fall in love with the sound of it, he found another way to get the most out of it”.
Perhaps there are times when we don’t love the circumstances we find ourselves in, or the situations or tasks that inescapably face us. But, like the widow, it's in persistence in dedicating ourselves to the task, and in persistence in prayer, that we may discover a different way. It’s in trusting (trusting in ourselves and trusting in God), whether it’s going right or going wrong, especially when it’s going wrong, which somehow unlocks the divine potential in a situation and allows God, by his grace, to bring new life.