“Persistence & Justice,” October 20, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (track 2 readings)

In the name of our all loving God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.

We’re almost at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which Luke began in chapter 9:51.  We’ve been following him through the countryside as he has preached and taught and healed.  He knows that there will likely be a showdown with the authorities when he gets to Jerusalem.  And he’s trying to prepare his disciples, his closest friends for the trying days that they will all face. He keeps trying to teach them, and us, that discipleship includes sacrifice and struggle and disappointment. And the snippets of the Gospel that we read from week to week are to help us understand, and make the connections that Jesus is calling us to see.

Jesus taught his lessons as stories. We call them parables. He wanted his listeners involved in figuring out their meaning, and it made his lessons more memorable. It worked. The Gospels weren’t written until several decades after Christ, yet his parables were still circulating and available to be captured in writing. But this delay in recording them down creates a problem for us. The stories evolved as they circulated, revealing as much about each new generation of speakers as about the original teller. We don’t know – scholars still debate – which words of the parables originated with Jesus and which with his followers. One of these stories is the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow in the gospel of Luke.

Today we have Jesus telling a parable about a widow who seeks justice against her oppressor.  Day after day, she appeals to a judge, “who neither fears God nor has respect for people.”  Day after day, the judge refuses to help her.  But she persists, tirelessly bothering the judge until he’s sick of her very presence: “I will grant her justice,” he says to himself, “so that she may not wear me out.”

The widow in this parable wears many disguises.  Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, homeless persons, persons without adequate medical coverage, abused spouses, all could be stand-ins for the widow.  Or anyone who has had a stand-off with insurance companies, doctors’ office staff, cable service providers, etc.  All are persons who want to be heard, who want their cases adjudicated.  They pray for, they demand a new life.  They appeal to the authorities (companies) hoping to be heard, to get justice.

The judge too wears disguises: prejudice, hatred, fear, racism, economic systems, death, grief, addiction.  Regardless of the disguise, the judge neither fears God nor respects people.

The Gospel begins “Jesus told [them] a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Luke says that Jesus told this parable “In order that we might pray always and not lose heart.”   Interestingly, the widow did not lose heart.  She was faithful and dogged and tenacious in seeking justice and restitution.  She sought only what was her due.

Meanwhile, her adversary the judge did lose heart.  He had to be badgered into hearing her case. His responsibility as a judge in Israel was not only to be an impartial source of justice, but also to stand up for the powerless – the widow and orphan, the poor and the foreigner. The judge in Jesus’ parable did neither. Not only did he lose heart but he lost his soul.

I have heard many sermons preached on how God is the antithesis of the judge and how God will respond to the prayers of the faithful willingly and expediently, unlike the judge.  In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to listen to what the unjust judge says – by way of contrast: “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.”  I believe this is true.

At the same time I don’t like putting God and the judge in the same sentence.  After all, the Bible is full of examples telling us God hears the cries of the poor, that God is eager to give good things to those who ask.  So it’s hard to equate the insensitive judge with God.  Besides, is the message that we have to badger God and wear God down to get what we’re praying for?

What if we look at this Gospel from a different perspective?  What if we see the widow, not the judge, as the image of God? Once we reverse the characters, then a new perspective emerges.  In other words, when the widow is seen as a God-like figure, the parable becomes clearer.

Anyone who determinedly resists injustice – faces it, names it, and denounces it until right is achieved – is acting as God acts, is God-like. Like the OT prophets, she is calling out injustice and wrong-doing, calling the judge to account, calling for truth and integrity, as the prophets called the people of Israel.  Through her persistence the widow accomplishes victory for fairness. She becomes a role model for us all, a Gandhi or MLK figure.  Against all odds she persists until justice is done, and God is present.

My colleague Kate Heichler says, “What if God, persistent as that widow, is asking us to bring justice into being? What if, rather than waiting for justice to come from ‘on high,’ we answer the call to be justice-makers, participating with God in restoring all things and all people to wholeness? We might feel helpless in the face of great injustices – but we aren’t called to work alone. Enough people working together can overcome any injustice.”[1]

I can’t help but think of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a champion of justice for the little person, the marginalized, the unheard. Not just for the people of Baltimore, but for the country. Part preacher, part politician, Cummings who died this week stood for justice for all persons.  In his own words, “Only God could create this path… where the son of two sharecroppers from Manning, South Carolina could rise to represent the people of the seventh Congressional district in the Congress of the United States of America… And so I must first thank God for this opportunity.

“I’ve often said… that our world would be a much better world and a much better place if we would only concentrate on things we have in common instead of concentrating on our differences. It’s easy to find differences. Very easy. We need to take more time to find common ground. And so my mission is one that comes out of a vision that was created long long ago. it is a mission and a vision to empower people. To make people realize that the power is within them.”[2]

Today’s parable is not about strategies to wear down a reluctant God with non-stop prayer.  It is about us little people who act like God whenever we persistently seek to have justice done, often against incredible odds.  Whenever we hold self-serving politicians’ feet to the fire, when we work to have children reunited with their parents, when we advocate to ensure all persons have healthcare, when we challenge the voices that deny climate change, when we work to improve education for all and break down the barriers that separate people, this is when we are acting like God, and like the widow.

Jesus, in this parable, invites us to imagine two things. First, that even someone like this widow – one of the most vulnerable persons in the biblical world – can make a difference by petitioning for just behavior. And second, that when we do so God is listening and, indeed, will answer our persistent cries quickly. All of which comes as a helpful reminder, an important word of instruction, and a deeply important promise about the character of the God we know in Jesus.[3] The God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginations, loves us with a love so inclusive that both unethical judges and needy widows have a place in it.  And God will never let us go.

[1] Kate Heichler, Water Daily, October 16, 2019

[2] Mediaite, October 19, 2019.

[3] David Lose, …in the Meantime, October 13, 2016

Categories: Sermons