Monday, October 21, 2019

A Widow's Witness of Prophetic Persistence: A Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

A few years ago when, my wife was at work, I had to call Mr. Green, our local appliance guy who was approaching 80 years old. Mr. Green had a knack for finding toddler socks stuck in the hoses of our washing machine. That day, I was outside our home a mere two minutes, ten feet from our front door, attempting to flag down Mr. Green, when I heard the door close behind me. As Mr. Green stepped out of his repair truck, he witnessed me desperately pleading with my then-three-year-old son who managed to lock his disheveled father outside.  

"Buddy, I need you to unlock the door," I said on the opposite side of our glass storm door.  

"Daddy, you need a key." 

After several sighs and a brief and not-so-sacred yet persistent prayer, I talked my son through multiple attempts to turn the latch and unlock the door. We were both determined. We were not going to wait until mommy came home. My pride would not allow it. So my son turned it a few times, declared the lock "too heavy," sat down on the mat for a second, mimicked my frustration, and then made several attempts to jump for keys. About 10 minutes later, I heard the desired "click" and we were in business.

"I did it, Daddy. I did it."  "Yes, you did, buddy. Yes, you did.”

I chalked it up to a lesson in persistence. I also learned some terminology that day: the agitator. No, I am not referring to my son who locked me out. 

The agitator, as I learned from Mr. Green, is the tall stem in the center of the drum of washing machines that rotates and spins, occasionally gets tangled with an old t-shirt or sweater, and is vital to the wash cycle. The agitator's movement, which may appear abrasive, dislodges the grime and creates the right amount of soapsuds to get the clothing clean, soft, and free of that late-night-run-and-sweat smell. If there is no agitator or agitation, there is no change to the condition of the clothing. The dirty clothes merely sit in standing water and the detergent remains at the bottom of the drum. As our Maytag Man described this central component to the spin cycle, I began to think of all those past and present agitators, many who are Presbyterians who refuse to allow our social fabrics to remain undisturbed in the standing waters of injustice and despair. This week, I also thought of the widow in Jesus’ parable. But before we go any farther, let’s pray. 

The disciples were living in anxious times. As Palestinian Jews, their world was one of occupation by a foreign Roman power. This empire thrived on narratives of scarcity and fear that snaked throughout the region by way of roads patrolled by Roman soldiers, an economy sustained by unjust tax systems, and a patriarchal culture that left the likes of widows and orphans to fend for themselves; the fullness of their humanity was dismissed in favor of male power and imperial dominance.  Sound somewhat familiar?  

It is in this context that Jesus, just after a mini-apocalyptic story about the potential fate of those victimized by empire, their corpses taken to “where the vultures will gather,” Jesus drops another parable. This story is about a persistent widow. And Luke tells us, the primary aim of Jesus’ parable is for the disciples “to pray always and not lose heart.”  Yes, when the vultures hover overhead, persist in prayer. In our own world of personal and social fears and angsts that prey on us like vultures, this is a good word for us, too.  

I love today's gospel story, mostly because the widow is everything but passive or cliché. This woman is more than a frail old lady in pursuit of a charitable contribution to ease her pathetic plight. Hardly. This widow is a formidable force. She is a fighter. She is, what kids today would say, dope. She is what, the late Rachel Held Evans called, a “woman of valor.” And, yes, she is an agitator for justice. Her history was likely a common occurrence in the first century. After her late husband’s passing, or maybe several who have passed, she was left with nothing to her name; all previously shared assets transferred to her in-laws. She went from stability to poverty and nobody had taken up her cause, even though the Scriptures she knew so well commanded the care for the widows. So she goes to this judge. Though a judge in the biblical sense, šôpēt, was to be one who enacted God’s justice and assured God’s concern for the oppressed, this judge was known for everything but being grounded in God’s activity. So the widow was determined to agitate patterns of this unjust judge until he moved in her favor. And he did. Why? Most translations have the judge saying, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out by continually coming.”  This is sweet; she is a bother, so he throws her a bone to end her nuisance. This is not what Jesus had in mind. If you look at your footnote, most scholars believe this is a more accurate translation, “So that she may not finally come and slap me in the face.” This unjust judge fears this widow’s work and witness; yes, her persistence as resistance threatens to slap injustice in the face.  Again, this story is about Jesus’ call for the disciples to pray always and not lose heart in the midst of a world gone mad and wherever vultures gather.  

As I read this parable this week, I was challenged greatly. Mostly because, much like how the true edge of the widow’s MO has been tamed and reduced to a footnote, the same could be said of how we often approach prayer. In the midst of personal and social ills, we may neglect prayer or reduce it to clichés without any prophetic bite or social influence. Yet, if Jesus is indeed using this widow as witness, our prayers are to transcend the blasé and move towards a ferocity that refuses to quit until God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. We are to be unhinged in our petitions, which move beyond piety and towards a holy agitation that unsettles the stains of injustice from the fabric of this world God so very much loves. Our prayers should make the powers that be quake, aware that just maybe their time has come and their will is being undone. Christians refuse to resign ourselves to the way things are and prayerfully persist until they return to as God intended. Here I love what Karl Barth, my favorite Christian theologian and public witness in the midst of Nazi Germany, wrote, “[Christians] do not just look toward [God’s justice] but run toward it as fast as their feet will carry them. This is inevitable if in their hearts and on their lips the petition, 'thy kingdom come' is not an indolent and despondent prayer but one that is zealous and brave"  (Karl BarthThe Christian Life, 263).  I think Barth had this widow’s witness in mind. Even more, he had the church in mind.  

Friends, I love my job. Every day I learn and share past and present stories about disciples throughout our presbytery who run towards God’s justice through persistent and prayerful practices of the gospel. [1] Yes, for over three hundred years, the Holy Spirit has moved through Greater Philadelphia as our churches lean into the mantra of our Presbytery, Christ’s work. Our witness.  As Jeremiah says, God’s law is written on your hearts (31:33).

For example, did you know that our Presbytery is home to the very first African American Presbyterian Church in the country, founded by a freed slave named Rev. John Gloucester? This church was also where Octavius Catto grew up, his father a former pastor in the late 1800’s. Catto was a premier baseball player for the Philadelphia Stars, advocate for voting rights of African Americans, and agitator of the streetcar industry that was deeply in need of desegregation. As you may know, Catto would eventually be martyred for his public, faithful witness. A statue of Octavius is now in front of City Hall, the only one of an African American. And he was Presbyterian with a persistent and prayerful witness for God’s justice. What’s beautiful is that, nearly two centuries later, his home church has joined efforts with two others to experiment with a new West Philly Presbyterian Partnership in their neighborhood. Prayerful persistence. 

Did you know we have a church that was planted in a mall in the 1960’s? Yes, three congregations discerned a call to plant where the people were in the midst of a buzzing corporate complex. Fast forward to 2019 and this congregation’s persistent witness now offers free meals to upwards of 80 of their neighbors, many who are food insecure. Even more, they have begun to reclaim their roots in Conshohocken and planted a new worshipping community to build bridges between the newer and longtime residents.  

Did you know there is a church in Chester whose persistent witness continues to extend love and care and justice alongside their neighbors? Once a thriving municipality where the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to seminary and served as an intern, Chester has born the brunt of white flight related to economic, educational, and vocational opportunities. In the midst of this, TMT Memorial Presbyterian Church has launched a vocational training and theater program alongside high school youth. They also have launched the beginnings of a new worshipping community, which extends spiritual formation and self-care to those who are care givers of the terminally ill, children of those who are incarcerated, and others experiencing addiction or loss. Yes, persistent and prayerful witness. 

Did you know, our Presbytery recently sent a delegation to the southern border alongside Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to be the eyes and ears of our churches? They spent three days listening and learning alongside those in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. They shared with me a story of two children playing on opposite sides of the slatted border fence. One child looked up to his mother and said, “can’t we just open the door and play together?”  Our presbytery is committed to a prayerful persistence and holy agitation to see how we might help open such doors not only at the southern border, but also in our own communities. 

And then there is this congregation, which is a coming together of two as of a few years ago. Yes, Warminster was once a church plant almost sixty years ago. Your persistent witness was to be a church open and accessible to those with various disabilities. Friends, this is the work of justice, too, the making right a discerned imbalance. And so you became one of the first churches in our Presbytery to be handicap accessible, lead worship in sign language, and utilize new and digital media and broadcasting to make your services available to those who could not attend. May the risks you took then continue to spur a persistent and prayerful witness as your congregation expends itself for the sake of others beyond the walls of this building and at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Maple Street. 

I could go on, and with PHS here on Mission Sunday, maybe I should? Each of these stories is a mark of discipleship by the faithful who trust God is right alongside them the whole way and without delay as Helper and Sustainer. Said differently, each of this is a witness to the belief that Jesus is our judge, the Effector of justice in and through those who profess faith in Christ through their prayers and practice. Which begs the question, what will be your prayerful and persistent witness of holy agitation until all is new and right again? 

Friends, if I am honest, while all of this is well and good, we may read this parable and feel as if the weight of the world is on us. Aware of the realities swirling around us, we may doubt we have the resources, drive, or imagination to do what the widow did. We may hear Jesus’ question, “will God delay?” and wonder if God is acting with urgency. I am with you.
So I offer one final pondering about this parable. What if Jesus is also the widow? What if Jesus is the Persistent One, who prays fervently in the morning within lily-laden fields, in the shadowy nights of Gethsemane gardens as drops of blood drip from his brow, and upon a cross between two criminals as the empire taunts him from below? What if Jesus is the Priestly Agitator of God’s Justice, whose prayers and practice unsettle whatever soils God’s dreams for the world and human flourishing, especially for the likes of this widow with whom he most identifies. I like to think of Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate slap in the face of his unjust crucifixion by the powers that be and all forms of despair and death. This leads me to believe Jesus continues to Advocate for us even now, by the Holy Spirit, which fuels our work and witness for things to be made right today.  

Church, I find great comfort in the possibility and probability of Jesus as this widow, because I know my faith is so very fickle. Maybe yours, too? But thanks be to God, Jesus as the widow assurance that when I am, when we are, when the church is faithless, God in Christ is faithful all the more. In this way, I am able to read the opening lines of this story, to pause and pray, and not lose heart. I just may even find the strength, aided by the persistent and prayerful witness of the agitators among us of both past and present, to follow this Jesus in a world with its fair share of vultures hovering above us. Maybe you can, too.  

[1] See also Barth's commentary on this passage,  "There is no such thing as a Christian resignation in which we have either to submit to a fate of some kind or to come to terms with it...There is, of course, a Christian patience and submission, as there is also a Christian waiting upon God. But it shows itself to be genuine by the fact that it is always accompanied by the haste and restlessness of the prayer which runs to God and beseeches [God], by the haste which rests on the knowledge that God takes our distress to heart, and expects that we for our part will take [God's] mercy to heart and really live by it, so that in our mutual turning to one another [God] may be our God and therefore a Helper in our distress, allowing God to be moved by our entreaties." (Church Dogmatics II.1 511).

[2] Check out the Presbytery of Philadelphia's podcast, PresbySpeak, on iTunes and SoundCloud for these stories.