Monday, October 18, 2010

Pentecost 21: The Courage to Will and to Persevere

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said,

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus was not a part of the ruling elite nor was He well-placed in the religious hierarchy of His day. He came not from money, but existed in that class of people whose fortunes ebbed and flowed with fortunes and misfortunes of the day. And, in reality, it was more like degrees of misfortune and it was more like the varying severities of ebbing. Abuses handed out by the Roman occupiers, excessive taxation and onerous rents, and religious obligations piled one on top of another… this was the world in which Jesus was raised. So is it any wonder that He thirsted so mightily for the kingdom of God, for a reign of justice!

Today we hear Him tell His followers a parable about an indifferent judge and a persistent, pestering widow. The judge represents the epitome of power, a person in the human institution instructed by God to protect the weak and vulnerable. And in the Hebrew society, there was no person more weak and vulnerable than a widow. But this judge cares nothing for the widow, yet relents only when he tires of her nagging. God, says Jesus, is not like that judge because God cares deeply for us. His point is obvious: God, who loves us, will much more willingly respond to our persistent plea for justice.

This is yet another in a string of teachings by Jesus recorded in succession by Luke the Gospeler that, while being curious on the surface, conveys a straightforward meaning: justice never overcomes injustice without a struggle, inhumanity is never overcome by humanity alone, and the kingdom of God is never ushered in by quitters.

Justice never overcomes injustice without a struggle. Here in Virginia, one of the voices who speaks for Episcopalians and other faith traditions is the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Several years ago the center began to lobby against the exorbitant rates charged by payday lending businesses. The first year’s efforts during the General Assembly bore little fruit, but they did not give up. They worked to educate congregations and denominations over the next twelve months. This garnered more popular support for the cause, yet the second year’s legislation fell short again. So the center began to work more directly with two groups: those holding public office and media outlets around the commonwealth. By the third year a diverse group of legislators took up the cause and editorials in papers around the state came out in favor of reform. Still, no bill was passed. The center pushed forward and by the fourth Assembly broad and deep consensus was in place to enact reforms. Four years. Justice takes time.

And inhumanity is never overcome by humanity alone. No one person or group can muster from within the resources needed to make a wrong right. No significant social change is made simply by wearing out the soles of your shoes. Those who overcome also wear out the knees on their pants. If God wills it, God will provide the strength to accomplish it. Without that strength our human resources, while important and necessary, become depleted. Every parent knows this truth. Our love and our skill and our desire to raise our children are never enough. Parenting, like the quest for justice, must be nurtured and supported and strengthened by the Source that is above us.

And that kind of a prayer life is essential to keep us going because the kingdom of God is never ushered in by quitters. I suspect that most of us – with me at the head of the pack – can be characterized as complacent. Yes, there is much that we don’t like about our society and while we rail and wail there is not a lot that we are offering to make it any different. But every now and then we conceive of how we might make a difference. Maybe it is a Food Pantry or a reading program that pairs children with therapy dogs or a renewed effort at excellence in Christian formation. Or maybe, as it is now with several of our parishioners, it involves getting involved in local government races and issues. Whatever it might be, we must calculate the cost… how much of my time will it take? My money? My emotional strength? My spiritual reserves? Am I in it to see it through, or just in it until it gets tough? Or draining? Or unpopular? Think about anybody who has ever changed our society – say Martin Luther King – or who changed our community or who changed our parish. Was any one of them a quitter?

In a few moments we will baptize Olivia Ferguson into the Christian faith and life. Once I administer the water in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will pray for her what has been prayed for each one of us at our baptism:

Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

An inquiring and discerning heart… well, that is important if you are going to know God’s will. A gift of joy and wonder in all God’ works… well, that is important if you are going to appreciate all that God does. A spirit to know and to love God… that speaks for itself. But have you ever paid attention to this part of the prayer: the courage to will and to persevere? It is an essential element of the Christian faith and life. If we don’t will God’s kingdom to come through us and if we don’t persevere in our efforts, then we are little more than a light hidden under a basket or salt that has lost its flavor.

Jesus offers today’s parable at a time in His life when He knows He is nearing the greatest test He will face. He knows that the justice He seeks will not come cheaply. It will be as costly as the cross. He knows that inhumanity will not become overcome by the offering of His humanity alone. He knows that the power of God will have to raise Him up from the power of death. And He knows that He will see it through to the end. There is no quit in Him.

Perhaps the last line in the gospel reading is the most telling as to what is on His mind: “When the Son of Man comes again, will He find faith on the earth?” Will He find anyone baptized into the Christian faith and life who has the courage to will the kingdom of God into reality and is able to persevere in the work this will take? What will He find in you? What will He find in me?