Sermon, 16th October 2022, – Overcoming Unfavourable Times: Lessons in Tenacious Faith from an Importunate Widow and a Watchful Evangelist – Tessa Lang

From II Timothy 3: v. 14 “…continue thou in the things which thou has
learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou has learned
them.”
And from Luke 18: v.1 “And he spake a parable unto them to this end,
that men ought always to pray and not to faint.”
Welcome to St Mark’s on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, feeling perhaps a
bit shaky after the week’s fresh crash-landing of the ship of state deep
into unfavourable times. On any given day it may feel that injustice,
intransigence, and flat-out evil are winning, at home or abroad…and
there is nothing you can do about it. But take heart, for you are
gathered in the home of good news, where it is my honour to serve up
Luke’s heart-warming of parable of persistent prayer’s power to deliver
justice as taught by Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, with the
robust complement of Paul’s final letter penned in Roman
imprisonment. Here is Paul’s spiritual last will and testament with its
admonition to cherish and preach God’s word as sole defence from the
fake news of the day, more poetically described in Timothy 2: 2-4 as a
lust to satisfy itching ears with fables instead of God’s truth. We are in
familiar, existentially threatening territory, and have ever been. The
good news is that more than relief is at hand; the kingdom of the Living
God is as well.
Parables encapsulate Jesus’ rabbinical teaching throughout Luke’s
gospel, where some 40 distinct illustrations of faith and salvation are
illuminated by vivid, often strange narratives and characters. Today’s
parable is unique to Luke’s gospel and features an Importunate Widow
and an Unjust Judge, depicted on the cover of your order of service: a
woman so urgent and overbearing in her pleading that she breaches the
indifference and privilege of a Judge who boasts he cares not for God
or for people. She earns redress not by shaming him, not be causing
him to care or reform his ways, but by wearing him down, by literally
staying “in his face” so that he fears for his own well-being should he
continue to withhold the remedy she seeks. Although he has armed
force at his shoulder, she is fearless, invading his personal space.
Before he launches into narrative, Jesus introduces this dense text of 8
verses following hard on the heels of warnings of the trials and
difficulties that face the disciples during the time between Christ’s
ascension and return to establish his kingdom on earth. Their survival
as Christians depends upon steadfast prayer: in the KJV “not to faint”
ie, to NOT falter, to persist, to carry on without ceasing; in the New
English Translation, not to “lose heart”. He longs to hear them praying
with passionate faith in preparation for his return and knows how hard it
will be to choose Christ, prepare for his kingdom, honour the eternal
truth that persistent prayer is essential to maintain connection with God.
Prayer is the bridge that builds faith and promotes spiritual
development and preparation. Its power resides simply in steadfast
and honest practice.
Is the message to keep pestering God until he relents? Is it a “numbers
game? Is prayer the medium of satisfying personal demands? Hardly.
In that case, the Unjust Judge would represent the Almighty and clearly
that is not Jesus’ intention. It contradicts all we know about God’s
nature as a generous and loving father. Besides, the Unjust Judge
puts us more in mind of behaviour we experience at the hands of those
with earthly power who use it for their own benefit, without much care
for its consequences or morality, who withhold or frustrate justice. We
hear a self-justifying soliloquy from the Judge; the only speech from the
Widow is a simple and repeated plea for justice: “avenge me of my
adversary”.
The capitulation of the Judge follows a rabbinical principle set out by
the scholar Hillel in the first century called Kol Wahomer, or what is true
in a matter lighter or lesser is also true in something heavier or greater.
Persistence in prayer builds faith, resilience, and character; deepens
relationship with God to prepare the way for the kingdom to come,
bearing the gift of perfect justice. For if a corrupt Judge will grant justice
to a lone woman, how much more will God bestow justice for those he
loves? Accordingly, the Widow symbolises those who are marginalised
and disadvantaged crying out for redress here and now, who triumphs
through the intimate power of persistent prayer, ceaseless communion
with God that can redeem the fallen world, prayer by prayer,
transforming the one who seeks him.
As exceptional by report as in this artist’s depiction, the Importunate
Widow is one of only four female heroes mentioned in the entire New
Testament, two of whom feature in the book of Luke. Often described
as the “gospel of womanhood” as early as the 19th century in writings of
English theologian Albert Plummer, Luke’s scripture bears witness to
the constant presence and significance of women and girls in Jesus’
life, his works, his death and resurrection, and the early church.
We marvel at the widow’s unwavering demand for justice and for what
is right, despite being unprotected and isolated by her status in the
society of Jesus’ time. Although the principle of protecting the
vulnerable was asserted in the Torah: “You shall not ill-treat any widow
or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they
cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth …(Exodus 22:21-2, as one
example); in practice, then as now, receiving support is variable and
dependant on circumstances and characters involved.
Luke also portrays the Son of Man as one who reaches out to sinners,
the marginalised, stigmatised, and shunned, offering them his teaching
and healing: his parables are shaped for their instruction and to sustain
them once he no longer walks the earth. Jesus exercises a social
awareness throughout his earthy mission; he also has a consistent and
passionate practice of prayer, frequently withdrawing to a hilltop to
renew his strength and connection with the Almighty. In both aspects,
he models an ethical way of life sustained by faithful connection
through prayer. Both components are necessary.
Little wonder then that all 3 parables about prayer are found in Luke’s
account. Far from bending God to our will and desires, prayer is our one
means of participating with God, sensing, and occasionally glimpsing
the staggering breadth and compassion of his plan. It removes us for
an eternal moment from the constraints of being solely ourselves, alone,
and re-joins us to the creative power sustaining all life, forever.
Prayer is the beating heart of a faith so persistent and natural it
becomes like breathing, an umbilical cord sustaining life until believers
themselves can behold salvation… like Luke’s report of Simeon and
Anna, aged and worn in the service of God and anticipation of the
Messiah, who rejoice that their prayers are answered in the baby Jesus
Christ. Their persistence has allowed them to share God’s eternal
perspective and resist the temptation to give up on this one simple and
essential act so difficult for humans to sustain. Particularly when faith
does not see any answers because of praying and injustice dominates
the day.
The lord Jesus taught us to pray to remind us of a gift already given – of
ever-present justice and love that walked the road to Calvary, by whose
grace we are accompanied every day and tomorrow. Persistence in
bringing whatever is present in our hearts and lives to God’s attention
affirms our relationship, reminds us of what we know to be true – that
he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and
forgiveness, the source of true justice.
The liturgy of the book of common prayer asks God to give justice, to
save us. And please to hurry up about it. Of course, this divine promise
IS granted, both within the stretch of divine time unfolding towards
maximum redemption, and right now, in persistent prayer that cries out
for justice and return to righteousness. When justice seekers are all
sinners, there cannot be purely good or bad humans (although pure evil
was unleashed at the fall), so no perfect outcome is possible at our sole
agency.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn notes from profound experience as a Russian
dissident writer raised a persecuted Christian in Soviet Russia, who
subsequently lost his faith and then returned to it “ If I were asked today
to formulate …what was the main cause of the ruinous revolution that
swallowed up some 60 millions of our people, I could not put it more
accurately than to repeat: “Men had forgotten God…the dividing line of
evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
That is why our prayers must not be performance, must not provide a
mask: they arise from genuine celebration and delight at the good
works of God and aspirational ones of man, as an authentic expression
and as the constructive response to an existential necessity….an
exercise of faith in the Unseen and the Not Yet But Longed For. As C S
Lewis writes “We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to
be in us… I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking
and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” Hopeful news.
Good news. Amen.

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