[This sermon was delivered at Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY on 10/20/19.]
Thirteen days ago, the first Monday of October, the Supreme Court of our land began its new term under heightened coverage. This supreme court term is filled with drama. Will Ruth Bader Ginsburg be well enough to finish another term? Will new justice Brett Kavanaugh tilt the court in a more conservative direction? How will the court rule on hot button issues, like the legal rights and treatment of LGBT persons and abortion rights? If there is an impeachment trial in the senate, the chief justice will act as judge. So much drama.
But hardly anyone has been covering another story, not Fox, CNN, or MSNBC. A homeless woman, some might call her a street lady, or worse, has been stalking Chief Justice John Roberts. From her sleeping bag and cardboard shelter across the street to the south of the supreme court building, she has studied the arrival and departure times and habits of the chief justice. She knows when his black chauffer-driven Lincoln will arrive and what door he will enter the building. Within five minutes, she can accurately predict when Roberts will exit the building and get in the black Lincoln. She knows how long, within five minutes depending on traffic, is takes for Roberts to get to his home in Alexandria VA. She has even managed to find her way to the front sidewalk of his home.
She is harmless, having no weapons, but she is a force of nature. Badgering him from as close as security will allow her to get to him. She has been dealt with unjustly and she is demanding justice from the man who is the embodiment of the justice system in the United States. Her identity is unknown, but CBS cameras have been following her as she stalks Roberts. We think her identity and her reasons for stalking the chief justice will be on 60 Minutes tonight or next Sunday, depending on the impeachment inquiry progress.
Much of the story I just told is factual. I used real names and places and newsy tidbits, but my story line about the homeless woman is entirely fictitious (did I have you?). I made it up to show what Jesus usually does to make a point; he tells a story from everyday life. Jesus tells this story about a widow, a poor woman needing justice. Usually parables of Jesus do not get introductions like Luke gives to this one: Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
This is a “how much greater than…” parable. God is not like this unjust, uncaring, self-absorbed judge. Rather, God is abounding in mercy, quick to hear our cries, and gracious in responding—though not always quickly. Jesus likes to exaggerate to make clear points. If that unjust, uncaring, self-absorbed judge finally grants justice to the powerless widow, how much more will our abounding in mercy God hear our cries and respond? We know nothing about the character of the widow, or even the injustice dealt to her. All we know about her is that she persistent, she is persevering, and she is pugnacious. She will do whatever it takes to get her hearing. Have we noticed how often Jesus uses women, apparently powerless women, to show us how to live and how often he responds to women in need?
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. The call to pray persistently runs through the scriptures. In the earliest writing in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
In my favorite of Paul’s letters, Philippians, Paul urges: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. A quick look at the prayer practices of Jesus shows his persistence (all these are from Luke’s Gospel):
- But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16)
- Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12-13)
- When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,” Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. (Luke 22:41-44)
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. Does the Church believe in prayer? A new nightclub opened in a small town next door to a Baptist church. This bothered the congregation, so they called for an all-night prayer vigil, pleading with God to remove the nightclub. The next night lightning struck the nightclub and burned it to the ground. The owner of the nightclub knew about the prayer meeting and sued the church for praying his business out of operation. A judge heard the case. The nightclub owner’s lawyer established that there had been a prayer meeting at the Baptist church for the express purpose of asking God to destroy the nightclub. The lawyer for the church argued that the church did not cause the fire. Then the judge said, “It may not be clear how to decide this case. But we clearly have a nightclub owner who believes in prayer and a Baptist church that doesn’t.” Does the Church believe in prayer?
I have my own questions about prayer, among them:
- Does God need to be convinced by multiple asks?
- Does it make a difference to God if one person is asking or 1,000,000 are asking?
- Why does God seem silent so often?
I don’t have answers for most of my questions about prayer, but I keep praying, mainly because Jesus was always praying. If he needed to, how much more do I. And if I am dealing with a major disease, I want every prayer chain on the planet naming me before God night and day.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
I expect this need for persistence has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with us. This need for persistence clarifies what we really need instead of what we might temporarily want. This need for persistence has a purifying effect in the one persisting.
Persistence is that important. In 1784, a young member of the British Parliament named William Wilberforce became a follower of Jesus. He was born to wealth and privilege and pretty much had his way in life, with success after success. When he met Jesus, things began changing. He realized that the British government’s participation in the African slave trade, by then happening for nearly two centuries, was morally wrong, an offense to the God he had come to love and service. Beginning in 1787, he introduced bills in Parliament to end British participation in the slave trade. His overtures lost year after year, but slowly began building wider support and momentum. In 1807, the Parliament voted to end British involvement in the slave trade. Wilberforce’s persistence made a difference. It would be over a half century before the United States began ending our abominable legal sanction of slavery.
Persistence is that important. Last May the commencement speaker at St. Bonaventure University, not far to the west of us in western NY, was Anthony Ray Hinton. You may have seen his story on 60 Minutes a few years ago or read about him in “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Look for the movie version of that book coming out this Christmas. Hinton, a black man from Alabama, was found guilty of two murders over 30 years ago, though he was innocent of both. He was sentenced to death and spent three decades on death row in Alabama’s notorious Angola prison. Through the persevering efforts of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, the slow-moving Alabama legal system finally released this innocent man. It took persistence. It took perseverance. It took pugnacity. And it took prayer. And justice was finally done.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. For every follower of Jesus in this world of injustice, this is a needed word. Amen.