Sunday, October 21, 2001

A Tale of Two Persistent Women

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 18:1-8

1. Persistence in Luke

We begin today in the town court of Nazareth, the honorable UnJ Judge presiding. Hear ye, hear ye. Hizzoner awaits. And Behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the apparel of a poor woman: He told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

In our autumn of anxiety, as we read the obituaries of the dead in the New York Times, we can readily appreciate the Scripture's utter realism. Luke too needed to remember that Jesus told them about "losing heart". This phrase communicates, in a season of anthrax, terrorism, uncertainty, economic pain. Greater souls in easier times have felt such ennui. So we are not surprised today to hear reports of increased therapy, medication and consumption of comfort food. We can feel the depression. Robert Pinsky, past poet laureate, at the U of R last week commented on the search dogs in lower Manhattan, unable to find any living beings, and increasingly depressed by their lack of success and their lack of reward. There is so much that we cannot influence or control. When we feel terrorized or hijacked, our animal reaction is to terrorize or hijack. Someone. Something. We are danger of losing heart. The greatest threat is not that we will succumb to the terrorists, but that we will become terrorists, verbal and civic, ourselves.

We fear, and try to find our security in larger automobiles or drug supplies or stock collections or homes or layers of disconnection, gated communities of the mind and heart. But security comes not through possession, but through relationship. Do you want to be safe and secure? Invest your self in a lifetime of building and keeping healthy relationships. There is your security, where neither moth nor rust consumes.

Jesus pointed to the Town Court of Nazareth and therein to the simple figure of a persistent woman. See her at the bench. Watch her in the aisle. Listen to her steady voice. Feel her stolid forbearance. Says she: "Grant me justice." We leave her there for a moment.

2. A Summer Run

Instead, jog for a moment along a familiar village green. For there is a second persistent woman today, not of Scripture but of experience. It is largely in the interplay between these two women, Scripture and Experience, that we discover truth. You can see her in your own past, your own gallery of saints. Name the most persistent woman you ever met. Bella Abzug. Betty Bone Scheiss. Florence Nightengale. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Eleanor Roosevelt. Esther. Barbara Streisand. That uppity Syropheonician woman. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Susanna Wesley. Your grandmother. Whomever. I was thinking of one such persistent woman on a 90 degree day in the summer. For that summer day, hot and humid and happy, I took the car into Hamilton for repair. They needed much skill and two hours and some money to do the job. So in the great heat I was free to run through a familiar village, and across a village green, where long ago I was raised in a patchwork complex of relationships, durable and healthy.

Running along, with no deeds to do no promises to keep, I recalled an earlier age…There is a lanky Baptist preacher, heralding the promise of truth; and a musician on the bandstand, singing for justice; and a postmaster protecting communications; and a library, awaiting the emergence of justice; and a church and a store, and a graveyard with night falling. All in the mind's eye.

Through the familiar streets I ran thinking, steadily and especially, of my teacher, Marjorie Shafer. In the sixth grade she opened the world to us--by teaching us to read. As a teacher, she used the resources she had available, namely, her time and her voice. She persisted, through those years, prayerfully using the common resources of time and voice. You have time and you have a voice, too. You have need of persistent prayer, too. You have a desire not to lose heart, too. I was impressed, with the dogs barking in the summer heat, by the persistent memory of her persistence. It was a good to remember the time given and the voice lifted, in 1966 in the 6th grade-SRA reading, sock hop, changes in classmates, baseball-Sandy Kofax and Orlando Cepeda, the Beatles, James Bond, memorizing the map of Africa, a mock debate about Vietnam, and the long great story of Bilbo Baggins. And, suddenly, girls.

Three things I do not understand
Four are too wonderful for me
The way of a ship on the high sea
The way of an eagle in the sky
The way of the serpent on the rock
And the way of a man with a woman

So continued this reverie, in a summer run, on a hot day, along a village green.

3. An Unexpected Christ

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem town court, all rise hear ye hear ye the honorable U J Judge presiding, another persistent woman employs time and voice. You have time and you have voice. Like Christ himself, she implores the implacable world to grant justice. Like Christ himself, she comes on a donkey of tongue and patience. Like Christ himself, she continues to plead, to intercede. Like Christ himself, she importunes the enduring injustice of this world. Like Christ himself she prays without ceasing. Like Christ himself she persists. She is an example to us of how we should use whatever time we have and whatever breath remains--to pray. It is prayer that is the most realistic and wisest repose of the anxious of this autumn of attack, and anthrax and exasperation. By prayer I mean formal prayer, yes. But by prayer I mean the persistent daily leaning toward justice, the continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.

What drove Luke, alone, to remember or construct this parable? The lengthening years, without ultimate victory, since the cross? The long decades of living without Jesus? The uncertainties of institution and culture and citizenship and multiple responsibilities? The daily stresses of managing a budget? It is the primitive church that can give an example to an America waiting to meet violence with patient justice. They waited for Jesus to return. And he delayed. And he delays, still. And there is rampant, hateful hurt, across God's village green earth. It is enough to make you lose heart.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed
By schism rent asunder by heresy distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up 'howlong'?
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.

It is a long wait. And that is just the point. Like the bridesmaids who waited with lamps trimmed, we feel the length of the wait.

Notice, waiting with us, is a poor widow. She lacks power, authority, status, position, wealth. She has her voice and all the time in the world. Like Jesus Christ, whose faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of the word. We shut the courtroom door for a moment.

4. Persistence in Life

Meanwhile, back along the village green of experience, not the town court of Scripture, the heat hangs heavy on happy halcyon Hamilton. I run over to the Golf course, up the willow walk, past the artesian well, around the library, by the road to Chapel House, down Fraternity row, along the swan pond. I am carried by the wings of love and faith, and Al Childs now dead runs with me and Dale Winter now dead runs with me. Goodness and mercy-got my back.

This summer my friend said: "In my life I want to focus on relationships and flexibility". I said: "yes, on love and faith, relationships and flexibility."

I decided, with still more than an hour left of repairs, to run over to the school, down Kendrick Ave.

This one persistent woman, Marjorie Shafer, gave us a love of books-Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, the Hobbit, Harriet the Spy, the biographies of the Presidents, the Gospel of Luke. I suppose she looked out for the day when every voice would be lifted in praise. I perceive in hindsight that she, and your own favorite feckless female, persisted by faith. She was already old when she taught us. She was at least 40. I suppose she was one of those saints waiting with persistence. I guess maybe she rode down to Washington on a bus a few years earlier and heard a good sermon:

One day every valley shall be exalted…
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope…
With this faith we will be able to work together…
This will be the day when all God's children will be able to sing with new meaning…

And she taught for several more decades, persistent, tough, helpful, kind.

She found a corner of the world in which she could have some influence for good, and invested her time and her voice in another generation. She persisted.

5. Persistent Prayer and Justice

We enter again the Nazareth Town Court. The Honorable U J Judge presiding, and falling asleep. The Bishop fell asleep at Conference a few years ago. It was a memorable moment.

If we are not to lose heart, in the seemingly unending search for justice, we shall need to pray always, to "relax into the truth", and to give ourselves over to the divine presence in our midst.

Ernest Fremont Tittle was the greatest Methodist preacher of his mid twentieth century generation. Tougher than Sockman, truer than Peale, Tittle preached in Chicago until he died at his desk, writing about Luke. This is his book, only at best half written, and published after his death. It reads like someone cleaned off his desk into a printer. Yet I prize this volume.

There is special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life-a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leader like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence.

The importunate widow continues, simply continues, and by her continuation comes to personify the divine. All this, behind the humble door of the Nazareth Town Court.

6. Surprise!

And meanwhile, jogging on the village green, the sun is getting higher as noon approaches. It is time to head back out toward the garage, and pay the piper. I have been running in such a sweet reverie, a happy retrospective, that the hour has come too fast. I have been thinking all morning of my old teacher. Now the school is a block away. I wonder if she is still active. I remember how it felt to walk to school at age 12, excited for the start of every day, arriving 20 minutes early, entering the school that marked the portal to the future. What a persistent presence in so many lives she was! Behind the school there is a large parking lot, and a long park. The park sometimes is used for family reunions. Almost choosing otherwise, I decide to run out to the back, to see the park. This has been a long run, and I am tired. It has been a long run in the ministry. It has been a long run in the church. It has been a long run in the conference. I am feeling the burning in the calves, some ache in breathing. It is hot.

Where do we find the persistence that keeps us going through adversity so that we do not lose heart? Do we not find it, given to us in prayer? Is this not our source of sustaining grace? How shall we have any lasting life without prayer, worship, study, tithing, service, song, fellowship, loving conversation?

Do you ever have a feeling that something is going to happen and then it does? A kind of premonition? I turned down into the back lot, empty for summer vacation, and saw just one lone car. It was hot and I was sweating, so I could not see too clearly for a time. And there was a kind of haze in the hot air. I saw the car move and stop, two women in the front seat. I slowed, the car paused. I paused, the car waited. I looked, and then I looked again. There in the rider's seat, to my utter astonished amazement, sat Mrs. Shafer, as old as ever, teaching, still teaching, using her voice and her time, teaching her granddaughter to drive. "Hello Mrs Shafer" I said. "Hello Bobby", she bemusedly replied, "it's nice to see you."

Sometimes, with a little persistence, just a little more running, just one more street, keep going just one more block don't stop for quitting for suicide for divorce for giving up for leaving, you run headlong into Presence. "In thy presence there is fullness of joy."

And ran on to get my car, confident I had at least one sermon illustration for the fall.

7. Coda

Pray always
Labor Omnia Vincit
Do not lose heart
Work conquers all
Pray always
All of us are better when we are loved
Do not lose heart
Early to bed and early to bed and early to rise
Pray always
A stitch in time
Do not lose heart
Waste not want not
Pray always
Rome was not built in a day
Do not lose heart
Only the devil has no time
Pray always
God is time and voice
Do not lose heart

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