Reflection: October 27

Let us take a moment to join our hearts and minds together in the spirit of prayer:

Holy One, we thank you for Jesus,
voice of the voiceless
and hope of the powerless.
We thank you that in him
our perceptions are turned upside down
and we see the possibilities
of the commonwealth of peace and justice
you desire for all your Creation.
Help us discern your guidance for us
and strengthen us to follow in the Way of Jesus
moment by moment and day by day.
(V. Martyn Sadler, Singing A Song of Faith, adapted)

There is a story that in ancient times, a king had a huge boulder placed in the middle of a roadway. The king then he hid himself by the side of the road to watch to see if anyone would remove the large obstacle. Some of the kingdom’s wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around the boulder – not stopping to care that it might pose a problem to others travelling on the road that day. Many others, in their travels, also came upon the boulder and loudly and vehemently cursed the king for not making sure the roadway was kept clear of obstructions. None of these travellers did anything to help clear the way for others. After a while a farmer came along carrying a large basket of vegetables to sell at the city market. When he came upon the boulder, the farmer laid down his burden and tried to move the boulder to the side of the road. It was not an easy task to do on one’s own but he persisted and slowly but surely he rolled the boulder to the side of the roadway. After this exertion the farmer stopped to rest beside his basket of vegetables. He was weary but pleased that he’d been able to help other travellers have a clear path to walk and an easier journey. As he sat and rested, the farmer noticed a coin purse on the road in the place where the boulder had been. With curiosity the farmer opened the purse and found some gold coins and a note from the king. The note said that the person who proved to be persistent enough to move the boulder was to be rewarded with the gold coins found in the purse. With eyes full of wonder he then saw the king emerge from his hiding place. The king told the farmer that he was looking for an advisor who had a good heart who would take the time and have the patience and perseverance to act in the best interest of his people. ‘Your persistence and your kind heart are a great treasure’, the king said to the farmer. ‘You had an opportunity to make a difference and help other people without thought of reward for yourself. If you are willing, the gold will help you to take some time away from your farming to travel around the countryside and listen to the concerns and challenges of our people. I’d like you to bring their concerns to my attention so that I can help improve the lives of the people in our land.’ The farmer, still awestruck by this change in his circumstances, agreed to the king’s request. For the rest of his life he was a good and faithful servant of the king and all the people of the land.(Adapted from a story, The Obstacle in our Path, by Brian Cavanaugh)

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke is also a story about the  persistence of a person who had little status in society. This Parable of the Persistent Widow, is unique to Luke’s Gospel. It reveals much about Luke’s perspective that seeks to encourage and remind Christians that justice will prevail with persistence of faith and action.

Luke’s lesson for today tells Christ’s followers to pray always, not to lose heart, that justice will prevail eventually with perseverance, and that persistence is necessary in the transformative work of God’s commonwealth. Luke is not suggesting that this work will be easy but that persistence is a key factor for a successful outcome. You may recall that this is not the first story in Luke’s Gospel that affirms the power of persistence. In an earlier story, Luke talks about the persistence of a man that goes to his friend’s house at midnight to ask him for some bread to share with unexpected visitors. (Luke 11:5-13) Similar to the parable that we heard this morning, Luke commends persistent and heartfelt prayer accompanied by courageous action.

Jesus often told stories about small but persistent actions that would turn the systems of domination and oppression upside down. These stories of transformation begin with unlikely agents for substantial change – a mustard seed, yeast, salt, light, a Samaritan woman, a persistent widow…

In the social, economic, and legal system of the 1st century Mediterranean world, a widow was one of the most vulnerable persons in society. A woman alone had no legal or social status – no voice or protection. Concern for widows is mentioned numerous times in Christian Scriptures because of their need for protection in a social system that did not recognize or protect their rights as human beings.

That Jesus chose a widow to be the main character in a parable was significant. That the widow’s plea for justice was eventually addressed because of her persistence would have been astounding. The shock value of this parable is difficult for 21st century listeners to comprehend. For 1st century Christians, who were facing great adversity, this parable would have offered encouragement to hold on to their faith, be ardent in prayer, have renewed hope in God’s commonwealth, and be reassured that they were not alone in their struggle for justice. When I refer to the biblical concept of justice, what I am referring to is what the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms describes as: “…right relationships and persons receiving a share of the resources of the society. Concern is expressed for the oppressed and their right treatment. Justice is related to love and grace.”  (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, page 152, by Donald K. McKim)

People of faith have continued through the ages to speak out against injustice and to act in ways that support and affirm a just and peaceful world. There are many examples in living memory of non-violent action that draws attention to injustice. We can easily recall, for example, the persistent faith and courage of civil rights activists in the southern United States in the 1960’s. Less well know, perhaps, are other stories of non-violent resistance carried out by women who had no acknowledged power to change unjust political structures but managed to make a difference because of their passion and their persistence. I’m quoting, now, from a United Church resource, entitled “Committed to Justice, United for Peace”:

On April 30, 1977, about a dozen mothers gathered in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Wearing white scarves on their heads, the mothers protested against the military dictatorship, demanding to know the truth about loved ones who had been ‘disappeared’. Despite opposition (at times even repression), they continued to protest regularly every Thursday afternoon. The faithfulness of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in their weekly vigil and their continued activism on behalf of the disappeared illustrates an important characteristic of the Latin American expression of non-violent resistance – persistence. In fact, Latin Americans speak of non-violence in terms of firmeza permanente, or relentless persistence.

…in 1988 a small group of women chose a simple but powerful way to protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Israeli and Palestinian women gathered once a week – at the same hour and in the same location (a major traffic intersection) – they gathered for a silent vigil, wearing black clothing to symbolize mourning for the destruction of the fabric of life. They raised a black sign in the shape of a hand with white lettering that read “Stop the Occupation”. Italian women took the idea back home, beginning their own vigils. Contact between Italian and Yugoslav women resulted in vigils being taken up in Belgrade, and on and on. At Women in Black vigils the world over, women come together, often from opposing sides of the conflict, and declare their refusal to be enemies.” (Committed to Justice, United for Peace, United Church of Canada, 2008, pg. 9)

There are many other stories of perseverance in the face of injustice.

The Persistent Widow does not stand alone in the annals of history. People of good will and courage have banded together against unjust systems since the beginning of time.

We, as people of faith, in our own time and place, strive to be responsive to God’s inspiration and empowerment and to seek justice in our community and in our world. We are inspired by the courage and persistence of Jesus and other people of faith in the distant past and in recent history.

We, in the United Church, have much to offer others: with our theology of hope in the face of adversity, our persistent commitment to working for peace and justice; our dedication to inclusivity and welcoming community;  our celebration of God’s presence and belief in the sacred nature of all of God’s Creation; and through our respect for the diversity of religious traditions and practices. Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, we have the gifts of faith and persistence. And, like the farmer in the story that I told at the beginning of this reflection, we can make a difference to others on this journey of life.

With faith and hope we gather in community. With faith and hope we go forth into the world to make a difference with our actions, one person, one situation at a time. In this sacred work we share we give thanks for the inspiration of God’s spirit, the example of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the encouragement of people of faith past and present.

And so with unity of heart and spirit we pray:

Gracious and loving God, 
may our faith be a little more daring:
our lives be a little bolder for justice; 
our thoughts a little more global for our world;
our actions a little more local for our community;
our living a little more trusting of your presence;
our responses a little closer to Jesus’ example.
And in our little steps, may we recognize 
the transformation that you make possible
when we live out your expansive, unlimited love,
a little more day by day.
(adapted, Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life Pentecost 2, 2007, page 27)

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