Got Persistence?

Got Persistence?
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Clair Sauer
HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
October 16, 2016

Luke 18: 1-8 (CEB)
Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, 5but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” 6The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? 8I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

A few weeks ago, Pam Brooks loaned me her copy of the book Accused. As Pam promised, it was an absorbing book, and despite a full time job and a toddler, I finished it up earlier this week. The book is the autobiography of Tonya Craft, and specifically the events of her life in the years around her trial in Catoosa County. For those of you who may not be familiar with this story, or may not remember the details, Tonya Craft was an elementary school teacher in Chickamauga, Georgia, who was accused of violating three young girls, one of whom was her own daughter. After two years of fighting twenty-two counts against her, Mrs. Craft was acquitted on all charges. Now, I realize that there are two sides to every story, and I only read one side, but Tonya Craft’s experience surrounding these charges is not unlike that of the widow described in Jesus’ parable we heard just moments ago. Here is a woman who, according to her story, dealt with injustice at every turn, despite the fact that she spent two years and half a million dollars fighting the injustice she was facing. Things never went her way until the end of a lengthy trial when the jury declared, “Not guilty.” In the face of unrelenting injustice, she persisted in seeking true justice.

In many ways, Tonya Craft’s experience is the modern-day equivalent of the widow and the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable. A widow in Jesus’ day was essentially a nobody; she had no rights—no rights to work, no rights to lead, no rights to own property, and as a widow she would have had no one to support her. Widows were completely reliant on the generosity of the communities in which they lived; which is why widows (along with orphans) are often lifted up before the Jewish people as those in need of special care. So here is a woman with no rights, and no one to defend her, and as if that is not enough, she is facing some matter of great injustice. Though the specific issue is never named, it is obviously serious, as the woman appears before the judge if not daily, then probably at least weekly, trying to resolve the matter. This judge would not have been some highly educated and well-practiced lawyer like we have sitting on benches today. A judge in Jesus’ day was simply a well-respected elder in the community who people sought out to provide unbiased judgment in the midst of disagreements. But in this case, the judge seems to be a bit corrupt—by his own admission he “neither fears God nor respects people.” So despite clear demands from God to care for the widow, this judge seems to have little interest in offering justice to the widow.

And here’s the key to this story—despite the judge’s repeated rulings against the widow, she persists in seeking justice. Remember, Luke introduces this parable with the statement, “Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged.” Now, before we all hop on this bandwagon without giving it much thought, a few words of caution. We do “need to pray continuously and not be discouraged.” However, that does not mean we are always going to get what we are praying for. No matter how persistently we are praying for a 100ft houseboat, God’s really not concerned about that, so it’s probably not going to happen no matter how unrelenting we are. But I’m sure most of also have that experience where we have prayed fervently for some completely legitimate cause, only to feel as if those prayers go unanswered as well. We pray for a marriage on the rocks to hold together and it doesn’t. We pray for a child with cancer to be cured, but three months later she is gone. We pray for relief from the addiction, or anxiety, or depression that holds us captive, but no relief comes. The simple truth is, sometimes it will feel as our most persistent prayers go unanswered.

So what’s the message of this parable? Luke tells us it is about the importance of “pray[ing] continuously and not [getting] discouraged.” But if we know that some persistent prayers will never be answered, what’s the point, right? Well, I think that is precisely the point that Christ is trying to make. We must pray continuously. Even when it may seem as if our prayers are superfluous, even when it feels as if our prayers are accomplishing nothing, Christ says we must persist. And when we are disappointed, when God doesn’t “deliver” in the way we had hoped (or even prayed) for, Christ says still we must pray. That’s the first lesson of this parable, but there’s more. It’s one of the beautiful things about these parables Jesus told, they are multi-layered, often bring many messages in a single story.

The thing about this parable is that Luke tells us it is about the importance of always praying, but the widow is not praying, is she? What the widow is doing is seeking justice in the face of great injustice. She goes before the judge incessantly asking for justice. She’s not bowing before him in prayer, she’s working for a just resolution for her cause. And I believe that Christ desires that just as much as we pray, we would work for justice in this world with persistence. I don’t think it would take any of us any time at all to come up with a laundry list of injustices in our world: innocent children and their families are bombed out of their homes daily in Syria right now as the Assad regime fights the rebels, and ISIS clamors for power in the midst of it all. We’ve seen the pictures, it’s horrendous.

But there’s so much more: inhabited places in the world where there is no access to clean water for miles. Or right here at home, the dearth of affordable housing is staggering. The waiting list for Section 8 housing in Hamilton County is seven years! A couple with full-time minimum wage jobs could spend weeks simply trying to find an affordable living situation in our city (and may very well end up not being successful). Then, the homeless are treated as criminals. These are injustices! And part of what we need to hear Christ saying to us today is: just as much as you persist in seeking unity, just as much as you persist in offering gratitude to God, just as much as you persist in prayer, so should you persist in pursuing God’s justice in the world!

And here’s the promise Christ offers in this parable, a promise that is repeated elsewhere: if we are persistent in our faith, if we do stay before God in prayer, if we offer all of ourselves and pursue justice with everything we’ve got, then how much more will God, who is just and loving (unlike the judge in the parable), respond to our persistence?

With football season now in full swing, it brings to mind a well-known running back. Now, I’m not a Dallas Cowboys fan at all, but I have always appreciated Emmitt Smith. Back in 2002, Emmitt set the NFL rushing record at 16,743 yards. By the end of his career, that number had climbed to 18,355 yards. Now, Emmitt Smith was never as flashy as Walter Payton or Barry Sanders, and he never possessed true break-away speed. But his strength was in his ability to persist–he just kept on running.

As I mentioned, when Emmitt took the all-time NFL rushing record, he had run for 16,743 yards. That’s 9.5 miles! It took him 13 years to run only 9.5 miles. What’s the big deal about that? We often run or walk more miles in the span of a few days or a week. Well, the big difference is, we don’t have 11 huge defensive players trying to take our heads off when we run! Emmitt’s average run over those 9.5 miles was 4.3 yards at a time. That means he had been tackled and knocked down somewhere around 3,983 times. And do you know what he did after every tackle? He got back up and ran the ball again. Sure, he was injured a few times, but he always returned. I’m impressed that someone would be knocked down almost 4,000 times and still they get up and run again.

Even the best of people get knocked down in life, but what sets them apart from the quitters is that they get right back up. Life is full of adversarial people who will tackle us. We will face difficult circumstances that trip our feet out from under us. We will be tempted in all sorts of ways, and our faith will be tested time and time again. The poor widow in Jesus’ parable had been knocked flat, but she refused to stay down. She got up and with unhindered faith, persistently made her request to the judge.

In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, we meet an extraordinary woman who refuses to accept her fate. She voices opposition to injustice without relenting. As a result of her persistence, even the unjust judge is prompted to act. If an unjust judge can be moved to grant justice, then imagine how much God desires to help those who are wronged, oppressed, and in need. God looks upon the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow with deep concern for their plight. With our help, God can respond. This helpful service to God is the active faith that Christ desires to see when he comes to earth. And when we can’t respond, we should be praying about the injustices around us. Christ is looking for faithfulness in us, and no expression of faithfulness to God is more deeply rooted than the duty to love and care for our neighbor in need, just as God loves and cares for us! And we must do so persistently. Like Tonya Craft, we must have that dogged determination to see justice prevail. Like Emmitt Smith, no matter how much we get knocked down, we have to get up and keep going. Late in his ministry, Christ told this parable, which he ended with a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?” We should live our lives in such a way that when Christ does return, he doesn’t even have to ask!

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