‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’
Persistence amid Confusion and Timidity
Tuesday you may have been driving mid-day out over the BU bridge, and into Cambridge. If so, on that bright crisp autumn day, you would have run into a delay.
Along the river, remember, there are swans, many white swans, encamped alongside and under the bridge. But they do not exclusively sojourn riverside. Sometimes, by the by, they saunter out, due north and west, themselves headed for Cambridge, or at least a little part of Cambridge. Ah, the allure of the other side of the river, and all its Cambridge delights—colleges, students, green grass, bicycle lanes and endowments. Sweet.
The River Charles is deep and wide, Alleluia. Thirty-eight billion on the other side, Alleluia. (J)
Tuesday, which was a BU Monday by the way, but still a Tuesday, you perhaps came to rest awaiting the green light. In the head of the car queue there was an elderly couple, somewhat timid, surely nice, perhaps kindly Midwestern folks, and the light turned. But the swans had made their way into the intersection, and the kindly couple was loath to disturb them. The car, and so the subaltern many cars behind, waited for another light change. A dozen or two confused birds crossed, and then, just as the light changed again, they turned and walked back, solemn in waddling procession, one by one, ‘beginning with the eldest’ as in John 8. Again, our dear Midwestern guests made no honking, threatening, aggressive moves, and waited, and again the light changed.
You might want to imagine what sorts of reactions to all of this were then occasioned and vigorously offered by the line-up of cars eager to leave Boston and enter the Shangri La of Cambridge. We Bostonians are such a patient, calm, irenic crew, especially when behind the wheel, don’t you know…
It was not pretty.
After another light change or three, somehow, by grace, the swans elected to return home to their nests and spots and cribs along the River Charles. Driving, say, then, along Memorial Drive, perhaps headed to visit a friend and parishioner in a nursing home in Watertown, you may have mused, bemused, about what you saw, swan and car, light and traffic, intersection and interruption, and mainly, in equal balance, the timidity of the lead drivers and the confusion of the birds in procession. One part timidity, one part confusion, or one part confusion and one part timidity, in largely equal measure. Confusion and timidity.
You may have been reminded of many church meetings, where the two, confusion and timidity are also often found in equal measure.
You may have been reminded, in our season, of the choices made in cable network so-called journalism, where the two, confusion and timidity, have been found in full this year, in equal measure.
You may have been reminded of the cultural demise all around us, to the shame of us all, the acceptance of bullying and demagoguery, the normalization of vulgarity and sexism, the accommodation of buffoonery and megalomania, our willingness to have our children and grandchildren so surrounded in a culture careening into a nihilistic abyss. ‘Yes, I really got him. Low energy. That was a one day kill. Words are beautiful things.’ Can you hear that?
Institutions are far more fragile than we sometimes think, especially the bigger ones. They all require trust, commitment, integrity, self-sacrifice, and humility on the part of their leaders, or over time they disintegrate. It is not just the processes, the systems, the organizations and structures that matter, it is the people. No amount of systemic adjustment can ever replace the fundamental need, across a culture, for good people. No wise process has any chance against unwise people. Do not assume that institutions that have been healthy will always be so. Do not presume that free speech in newspapers, that due process in political parties, that honest regard for electoral results simply exist. They do or they don’t. It depends on the people who inhabit, support, and lead them. Beware a time like ours when the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (Yeats).
Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth. To support an organization at the cost of honor, of integrity, of honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality. That is, to support a political party at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality. This is sin at its depth. That is, to support a denomination at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality. In the hour of judgment, the organization—party or church or other—depends on the courage and integrity of individuals to resist idolatrous loyalty to penultimate reality and to respond with courage and integrity to ultimate authority. You cannot serve God and Mammon. Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.
Persistence in Jeremiah
In 1980 with 12 Cornell students, and for a full year, we studied Jeremiah. Two of those then young graduate students are now teaching at Brown University, and are part of the extended Marsh Chapel family. Last year they reminded me that the group had asked to study Jeremiah, high above Cayuga’s waters, and I had wondered ‘whether they were ready for him’. They said they were, and they were. In all these intervening years, with student and campus groups from Cornell, McGill, North Country Community, Syracuse, Lemoyne, Colgate Rochester, the University of Rochester, United Seminary and, now, Boston University, we have returned in group study to Jeremiah. Never, though, have I been more grateful for Jeremiah’s evocation of the stark suffering divine love of God, for Jeremiah’s unswerving realism, than this fall. In the autumn of demagoguery and its partial acceptance by America, I kneel and kiss the ground, thankful for Jeremiah and his divine human realism.
I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what horrors can befall people and a people when they forget their identity.
I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what happens to a people whose leaders have and live values diametrically opposed to the nation’s own values.
I am eternally thankful, painful as it is to hear the words, for Jeremiah’s realism about how naïve in selfishness a people can become, and how earth shattering that foolishness can be.
I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about the crucial importance of diplomacy rather than violence, and about what happens when megalomaniacal leaders mock diplomacy.
I am eternally thankful, if such can be said, for Jeremiah’s own wretched suffering as he watched his beloved country exchange their birthright of justice for a mess of material pottage.
I am eternally thankful for the clarity, not confusion, for the courage, not timidity, of his voice ringing out across 25 centuries to say to you in a way you cannot avoid: if you follow leadership that is immoral, unjust, unloving, unwise, you will get what you deserve, and the desserts will be disastrous. In real time.
I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s pitiless reproach for people whose own religion bluntly teaches them to tell truth, honor others, seek justice, protect the poor, who then select leaders who say they have done and will do the opposite, and then are proven to have done. We have been warned.
I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism which—did you hear?—includes at the end, encompasses at twilight, for all the suffering the divine love endures, including Jeremiah’s own slave death and unmarked grave in Egypt, a grace note, a ringing bell, a song sung, a word spoken, a hope, that one day ‘says the Lord, I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…
Persistence in Luke
So we arrive today in the confusion and timidity of our time, at 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. For those who, rightly, feel anxiety or despair or depression at the rampant sexism now latent and palpable, revealed by the events of this year and autumn across our decaying culture, take heart: behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the raiment of an importunate, a persistent poor widow.
Yes, in our autumn of anxiety, 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 time like ours. 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.
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.”
‘The widow’s untiring pursuit of justice is translated into the ‘faith’ that should mark the church’s welcome of the awaited Son of Man’ (Ringe)
In Nazareth town court, all rise hear ye hear ye the honorable U J Judge presiding, a 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 exasperation. By prayer we mean formal prayer, yes (more here next week). But by prayer we mean, too, the persistent daily leaning toward justice, the continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.
Notice, waiting with us, this 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.
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. To give ourselves over to a real, common hope, and to be clear, not confused, courageous not timid about our hope:
Persistence in Hope
We await a common hope, a hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.
We await a common hope, a hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.
We await a common hope, a hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.
We await a common hope, a hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.
We await a common hope, a hope that our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.
We await a common hope, a hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.
We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.
We await a common hope, a hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.
We await a common hope, a hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.
We await a common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.
We hear the call to persist today. It is a daily practice, a daily discipline.
An example of persistence, in the figure of an importunate widow.
By the by, that drive on Tuesday, amid confusion and timidity, you recall, ended in the presence of a poor widow, now 100, one of your dear sisters, residing across the river in a nursing home. 100 years of growth, and travel from the west to the east coast, and faculty spouse leadership in fresh and salt water schools, and administrative guidance and correction of several General Conferences, church meetings, Bishops and the writing of the 1988 Book of Discipline, and motherhood and sisterhood and discipleship…and, through it all, persistence. ‘For what should we pray?’ she was asked. ‘Pray for all those who are hurting’, she replied.
‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’
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