A Faithful Persistence

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Luke 18: 1-8


1. The Lord

There has seldom been a better week in which to meditate upon the saving power of a faithful persistence.

From one half mile beneath the surface of the earth, by dint of prayerful persistence which did not lose heart, by dint of persistent effort which did not give in, 33 Chilean miners emerged from the cave of death and out into the world of life. You may have seen the older leader who emerged, hugged, sang and waved. Then he fell on his knees, arms dangling to the side, chinned bowed. He personified a faithful persistence.

We are taught in the gospel that we, as disciples, should always pray and not lose heart.

The first person to meet us in today’s reading is the Lord Jesus himself, this morning in his role as teacher. You should pray and not lose heart, we are taught. It appears that the very act of praying, events coming and going as they do, itself contests the loss of heart. We should pray and so not lose heart. By the practice of intercessory prayer, weekday and Sunday, we do not presume to try to direct. We are not Babe Ruth pointing to the upper deck, showing the way the ball will go. We pray in order to hearten the heart, regardless of where the ball may go. Intercessory prayer is not only a matter of doxology, and not only a matter of therapy, but is a discipline that affects the heart. Its practice involves a faithful persistence.

Surrounded as we are by the effects of quasi-human communication, in all its technologically potent and existentially unproven forms, we deeply need the nourishment of prayer, including Sunday ordered worship with beauty its in music and homily and liturgy: enchantment not entertainment.

Erazim Kohak who once taught here once wrote:

The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season. We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing. Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished: that there is something. That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…

Jesus meets us today in an exhortation to the faithful persistence of prayer. Those within earshot have some practice in such practice. But how much love have you shown to a neighbor whom you have not yet invited to pray with you, to join you? To whom you have yet to say: I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday. We could have a coffee afterward.

2. The Unjust Judge

It is our fortune that the Gospel has told us the meaning of the parable in advance. Pray so as not to lose heart. For the parable itself careens wildly away from such an easy reading. For the second person we meet is an unjust Judge, who cares nothing for God nor man. His temperment and outlook make him an unlikely God figure, even though it is to him that the parable’s entreaties are presented.

With his growling grumpiness, he is yet a person among other people. His carelessness is not foreign to us. The revelation that decisions are being made behind closed doors, or doors at least closed to us, on less than virtuous grounds, is not news to us either. The humanity of the unjust Judge at least puts the Gospel right in the soil, down in the gritty dirt of life, a secret hidden in the dirt itself. The gospel is about and for people, after all.

Say what you will about the third Gospel, Luke has colorful characters. An outcast Samaritan, who is the savior. Mary and Martha in eternal dialogue about human beings and human doings. An importunate friend, who like the unjust Judge gives in because he is bothered. A Rich Fool with big barns and sudden death. A woman long infirm, touched and healed. A great banquet sent out to the least, last, lost. A man building a tower who ought to count his shekels. A king off to war, who ought to count his troops. A woman hunting a coin, a shepherd finding a sheep, and three prodigals—a son, a brother and a father. A dishonest steward—my favorite accountant. Lazarus teaching Dives. A slave whose master has him work day and night, inside and out. Ten Lepers healed, one thankful. Say what you will, the Gospel is memorably populated, and heavily populated. You feel like they would all make memorable dinner guests. ‘God bless the enemies of your enemies’ they would say as grace for the meal.

Our judge does not well represent law or theology. He represents enlightened self-interest, before the phrase was around. Maybe not so enlightened. Just self-interest. Scoundrels appear with regularity in Luke. There is no expectation that they represent morality or amorality. But they are present. They are part of the human condition, the existential given, that abiding anxiety, alienation, accident that is such a part of our experience. And sometimes to deal with power unattached to love requires us to give voice to love unattached to power. Sometimes that is all we have.

Within our little village of Boston University on the Charles River, two and one half miles long by a half -mile wide, we hear voices raised in love over against seemingly immutable power.

Professor Tariq Ramadan emphasized at our Law School this week that all religions need to practice a mixed measure of humility and consistency and respect “amid modernity’s porous pluralism and the pluralized ethical horizons of our age”. He challenged our young adults , first, to religious self knowledge: “when you don’t know who you are, you are scared by who you are not”. His cure for injustice? “Education, especially in history, philosophy, religions, and the arts”.

Dr. Karl Kaiser spoke to us this week in the International Relations school, regarding the labor involved in the reunification of Germany some twenty years ago. In a fascinating aside, he made reference to the involvement of theological students and theological studies in building part of the community and commitment needed to move two parts of the country together.

Sometimes the route forward involves a faithful persistence, which even the least just judge judges justly.

The stark contrast between powerless widow and powerful judge could not be clearer. A faithful persistence may face down such impediments to justice, when and where nothing else can. Luke back at the examples given in the Gospel thus far this fall: A faithful persistence that handles change. A faithful persistence both inward and outward. A faithful persistence that expresses thanksgiving. A faithful persistence that pursues justice. A faithful persistence that seeks and finds the lost. Luke is hanging portraits of faith along the dusty hallways of our memories, so that when we most need them we may draw on timely examples in timely ways. We talk at Marsh Chapel a fair amount about justice. But just how much justice have we directly done, recently, in our spending, in our voting, in our speaking, in our choosing?

3. The Bothersome Widow

Our Gospel next introduces us to a third person, a bothersome widow, who has gone to court against an adversary. It is not clear just how this story applies to prayer, as the introduction said it was. Her prayer life seems to be one long
legal deposition, and maybe that carries a truth. We are told elsewhere in the Scripture that we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5). Such instruction suggests that every word and every whisper involves prayer. We do well to prize our time, now we have it, the Scripture also reminds us (Hebrews 11).

Tonight our Muslim community will celebrate the somewhat recent completion of Ramadan with an Eid feast from 7 to 10pm, which many of us will attend. Our decisions about where to place ourselves on the map, each week, are part of our prayer life, too. In fact our forms of social location have everything to do and much to say about who, in faith, we are choosing to be, day by day.

Now and then, the Gospel testifies, we may want and need to place ourselves alongside the powerless but vocal widow. We may need to learn about speech from the underside.

From this pulpit our colleague (S Hassinger) recently encouraged us to ‘follow, lead and get out of the way’. By ‘follow’, she meant learn, or re-learn, for some learning means unlearning what has been learned. By ‘lead’, she meant discover how to lead from the second chair, not the first chair, for few of us end up in the first chair. By ‘get out of the way’, she meant give people back their own work to do.

The entitled materialism of the last decade may require you to unlearn some things about what matters counts and lasts. Your place in the second row may inspire you to learn the beauty of the viola, in contrast to that to the violin. A sermon on persistence may prompt me to give your work back to you. Remember: your fieldwork is not a substitute for your domestic duties. Pick, shovel, tractor, computer, i-phone, blackberry and calendar are not a replacement for setting the table of the heart and hearth, for sitting inside the house of peace, for preparing a meal of spiritual nourishment. The journey of faith falls along a route of persistent faithfulness.

A highlight of our fall each year at Boston University is the University Lecture, offered this week by Professor Jeremy Yudkin. He showed the discipline, the persistent concision of the music of Beethoven, Miles Davis, and Paul McCartney. A faithful persistence is something the great musicians, including these three, all share. Davis chose his notes carefully, and played only a few of them. Yudkin reminded us of his motto: “You don’t have to play all the notes”, he once said, “you just have to play the pretty ones”.

Researchers say that excellent proficiency in a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice, of actual experience in kicking the ball, playing the sonata, performing the operation, landing the plane, teaching the seminar, chairing the meeting, preaching the sermon. How honest, how realistic are we with ourselves about persistence? We had an old song we used to sing, ‘if you can’t bear the cross then you can’t wear the crown’. Why should we be discouraged about less than perfect performance with less than adequate practice? Practice, practice, practice. Outdated pedagogy? Not according to today’s gospel, and not according to one particularly importunate, especially bothersome, utterly unyielding widow.

4. The Son of Man

We are met by only one other person, one final, fourth figure today. Jesus teaches. The judge vindicates. The widow importunes. Then the account that began in prayer, and continued in virtue, now concludes with a reference to judgment, apocalypse, the end of time. The community’s concern about the delay of the return of Christ is turned on its head. The question, says Luke, should not be ‘when?’ Soon enough, soon enough. The question should be one of preparedness. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith?

The figure of the Son of Man would have been well known to Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Jesus attributed the title to himself we do not know. Here, the Lord’s question makes it seem anyway like he sees the Son of Man coming, but does not identify himself with that figure.

In general, in the Gospel’s, apocalyptic sayings and teachings are forged again in the white heat of the church’s instruction about how to live. That is, because it is later than you think, you will want to make the most of the time you have. It is this sensibility that one notices in the air and along the hallways of a great University, about this time in the fall, that is, about the time midterms are administered.

If you have a list of two things that truly matter to you in life, whatever they be, and you steadily attend to them, faithfully, persistently, assiduously, then you will see results, you will see progress. It will take longer than you want, but the results will come. It will take longer than you think it should, but the results will come. It will take longer than it would have with another judge in the chair, but the results will come.

Maybe there is a deeper reason why this combination of verses ends with a salute to the last judgment. It may be a warning to us, that is to us all, that is to you, that is to those of you who are already fairly faithful, and fairly persistent. Not everything is worth your persistence. There are other competing, rebalancing texts and sermons for other days: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results; better defeat for the right than victory for the wrong. Misdirected, misinvested, our persistence can do harm. Not just persistence, but faithful persistence is the announced good news from this late Lukan chapter. To what will you attend, in full, this month, this year? Our gospel challenges you to place faith at the heart of your persistent attention. Attend to the things of faith. Prayer, in word and song. Scripture, by morning and on Sunday. Compassion, in deed and word. A space for faith, a space for Christ in the hotel of your heart. Our friend Wendell Luke put it well in a poem:

Softly, almost unnoticed,
the spirit of Christ enters and becomes;
no hysteric act displays his coming unto us.
A man lived with us and Christ was everywhere
that we might search ourselves
and give him lodging;
The soul, the body is but a Bethlehem manger
where Christ will come seeking birth;
lay carefully your straw of life
and bid him come,
bid him enter there,
bid him come;
in the soft splendor of evening fires he will come;
build your Evening fire
and bid him come;
a fire not tended dies and is no more;
a fire not tended dies.
Set no extravagant nor pompous feast;
a silent evening fire and gentle manger straw
And Jesus comes.
Jesus enters softly.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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