“Persistent”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 16, 2016

Luke 18:1-8

 

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in this parable.  It’s a story from 2,000 years ago, but it sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Voices cry out for justice, yet go unheard…  Problems weigh on our hearts with no solutions in sight…  Prayers are lifted in faith, yet seem to go unanswered…  The way things are can’t possibly be the way God intends them to be, can it?  When we look around at the state of the world, it can feel pretty discouraging.

Think about it.  There are 21.3 million refugees in the world.  If you count internally displaced persons, the number rises to 65.3 million.  Every day, nearly 34,000 more people—that’s more than Woodstock, Putnam, Pomfret, Thompson, Union, and Eastford combined—are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.  And yet, we hear public officials equating refugees with terrorists and advocating the closing of our borders to Mexicans, to Muslims, to everyone who doesn’t look and talk and worship “like an American” (whatever that means).  Who will grant the refugees justice?

Think about it.  There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States.  That’s 25% of the world’s prisoners in a country with less than 5% of the world’s population.  People of color make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population, despite committing crimes at similar rates to white people.  And the numbers show no sign of diminishing.  In fact, if current trends continue, one in three black boys born today will spend time in prison during his lifetime.  Who will grant those children justice?

Think about it.  As of 2015, among Americans who worked full-time, women earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, in spite of the fact that women earned more college and graduate degrees.  At the current rate of change, it will take until the year 2059 (when I am long since retired) for women and men to achieve pay parity.  Who will grant working women justice?

Think about it.  Among high school students, youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual attempt suicide at four times the rate of straight teens, and nearly half of transgender young people have thought seriously about taking their own lives.  Yet in 31 states, it is perfectly legal to discriminate in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on a person’s gender identity or expression.  Who will grant LGBT folks justice?

Think about it.  In recent years, there have been an average of 288,820 victims of rape and sexual assault in the United States each year.  That comes out to more than one every two minutes.  And yet we have a presidential candidate supported by 40% of the American electorate who brags about committing sexual assault as though it’s no big deal, even something to be proud of, and then dismisses his words as just “locker room talk,” and then attempts to undermine those who accuse him by saying they are too ugly to be assaulted or simply crazy.  Who will grant survivors justice?

And the list goes on.  We could quote statistics all morning—health disparities, income inequality, police brutality, food insecurity, any number of other things—every one more heartbreaking than the last.  Our sisters and brothers and we ourselves, all children of God, are degraded and diminished on a daily basis.  Sometimes I feel like we’re living in this parable.  It’s a story from 2,000 years ago, but it sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Voices cry out for justice, yet go unheard…  Problems weigh on our hearts with no solutions in sight…  Prayers are lifted in faith, yet seem to go unanswered…  The way things are can’t possibly be the way God intends them to be, can it?  If you’re anything like me, trying to hold on to faith in the face of it all can be exhausting.

It can seem like we’re hammering on an unrelenting brick wall, can’t it?  We try to do our bit, to feed some hungry bellies or clothe some chilly bodies or comfort some afflicted hearts, but the needs are so many and we are so few.  We try to speak out for what is right, but the problems are so vast that the sound of our voices seems to fade away before it reaches the ears of anyone who can do anything about it.  We try to start at home, to think globally and act locally, to chart the courses of our own lives in the direction of justice, but the systems are so large and so entrenched that no matter how hard we paddle, the current carries us in a direction we don’t mean to go.

The quest for justice on this earth is not an easy endeavor.  It is not for the faint of heart.  It requires a certain stick-with-it-ness, a certain stubbornness, a certain persistence.  It requires a faith that mountains can move, that walls can come a-tumbling down, that even the hardest of hearts can eventually crack open.  It requires a willingness to keep going when progress is nowhere in sight.  It requires creativity to imagine a future that cannot yet be seen.  And if you’re anything like me, sometimes that persistence is just too hard to muster.

But then Jesus tells us the story of that widow.

Can you picture her?  She has nothing—no family, no property, no social standing.  We don’t know the details of her case, but it is clearly a desperate situation, because she shows up at the tribunal hall day after day, week after week, year after year.  The judge—who, by his own admission, neither fears God nor respects others—is seated on his dais, clothed in his regalia, hearing cases without giving a hoot one way or the other.  He is probably checking the score of the ball game on his iPhone while he half-listens to yet another annoyingly needy petitioner.

Enter the widow, torn and tattered, but full of dignity.  Her back may be bent by the weight of her life’s sorrows, but her spirit is upright and unbowed.  “Grant me justice!” she cries.  “Get her out of here,” he sneers.  And so she is seized by the elbows and escorted away, only to return the next day to reiterate her demand.  “Grant me justice!”  Some days the line is so long that she never makes it into the courtroom.  Other days she arrives before dawn and waits for hours, only to be told that the judge has another engagement and will not be in today.  Sometimes she is turned away before she even gets a full sentence out of her mouth.  Other days she recites her entire case, only to realize that the judge is busy looking at the lunch menu and hasn’t heard a word she said.

It seems pointless, fruitless, hopeless.  But she is tireless.  She comes back over and over and over again, undeterred by anything that unjust judge and his minions might do or fail to do.  She makes a scene again and again.  And finally, by sheer, stubborn, unrelenting persistence, she prevails.

 

The quest for justice on this earth is not an easy endeavor.  It is not for the faint of heart.  It requires faith and determination and creativity and an extra-large dose of persistence.  Any reasonable person might feel discouraged, or stymied, or overmatched, or just plain tired.

But here’s the thing:  God loves an underdog.  Think about it.  There’s David defeating Goliath.  There’s Moses and the Israelites escaping from Pharaoh and his armies.  There’s our persistent widow wearing down that unjust judge.  There’s Jesus himself, one poor peasant from the wrong side of the tracks eclipsing the might of the entire Roman Empire.

So when you feel worn down, tired out, weary to the bones… when faith and determination and creativity feel like too much to muster… when the judge is unjust and the system is entrenched and the deck is stacked against you… know this:  God is right there to bring you all the strength you need.  Just as God filled that widow with the stubborn persistence she needed to confront the injustice of her day, so God will fill you with the courage and stick-with-it-ness you need to continue in the struggle for justice in our day.  Because while the quest for justice on this earth is not an easy endeavor, in God’s realm, justice is a foregone conclusion.

My friends, this is what it means to be a Christian.  It means you belong to the God whose loving justice is the most persistent thing in all of creation.  It means your spirit is inextricably interconnected with the Holy Spirit.  It means that when your strength fails you, Christ’s strength will fill you.  It means you are named and claimed by the One who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things, the One who strengthens weak hands and makes firm feeble knees, the One who brings order out of chaos, purpose out of futility, love out of hate, life out of death.

This is the faith and family into which Zachariah was baptized today.  A faith of sheer, stubborn, unrelenting persistence.  A family of determined justice-seekers.  A community of hearts encouraged and enlivened by the One who is the very definition of justice, the very pinnacle of compassion, the very essence of mercy, the very epitome of love.  So, friends, do not lose heart, for that very persistent God is with you now and will remain with you until that promised day to come when all our struggles for justice are ended and love has triumphed over all.

May it be so.

 


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