Sunday, October 20, 2013

Spiritual Persistence

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 20, 2013

Year C, Proper 24: The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Spiritual Persistence
            As you might guess, being back here these past few months has brought back lots of memories of when Sue and I were parishioners at St. Paul’s. Every day I’m surrounded by reminders of so many generous, wise and faithful people who played such important roles in my life – people who were especially supportive when I was making my way along the long and twisting road to ordination.
            There were times along that long and twisting road when I would sometimes get discouraged. I’d wonder if I had made a big mistake. I’d think it would have been much easier – and smarter - to have remained a teacher – a job, after all, that I liked a lot.
            There were times that I would get frustrated by seminary – the commute into the city every day, the focus on things that often didn’t seem so important to me, the challenge of belonging to a community where nearly all my classmates lived on campus and I was one of the few commuters.
            There were times that I’d get frightened about the future. I’d look at the shrinking size of churches throughout our diocese and wonder if it would really possible to live my dream of serving as a parish priest. I’d see the long list of men and women in the ordination process and ask if there really could be enough jobs for all of these priests.
            My wife Sue was, as always, a huge help and support during those years, helping me get through challenging and exhausting times.
            Many of you – whether you knew it or not – through your prayers and love helped get me through.
            And then, there was our rector, David Hamilton.
            In his usual lovably gruff and blunt way, he’d get me to stop worrying and to quit feeling sorry for myself.
            He had two lines that I must have heard him say to me a hundred times.
            The first was, “There are always good jobs for good people.”
            Helpful, though, to be honest, especially these days, I’m not so sure.
            And the other one was:
            “Persistence is rewarded.”
            Persistence is rewarded.
            That’s something we’re taught in lots of areas of life, isn’t it? When faced with a challenge, we’re taught to keep plugging away, keep chipping away, keep working, keep trying…
            So, in school when we’re up against a subject that gives us trouble – let’s say, math, just as an example – we’re taught to keep studying, ask our teacher for extra help, get into a study group, work with a tutor.
            At work we’re encouraged to work harder than the next guy or gal, to put in the extra effort and the extra time, to get in early and stay late, to bring work home at night and on the weekends.
            Persistence is rewarded.
            Well, sometimes.
            The truth – which is hard for some of us to accept – is that out in the world sometimes persistence is not rewarded. And sometimes too much persistence can be bad for us. We can burn out. We can wear out. Too much persistence can hurt us. Sometimes the time comes to admit that we’ve done all that we can do and just stop beating our heads against the wall.
            In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, we have a parable about someone whose persistence was rewarded.
            Jesus tells this little story of the persistent widow coming to the judge repeatedly, saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”
            We’re not told anything about the widow except that she’s a widow and that she’s persistent. We have no idea if her case has merit. We do know that widows in the First Century – and, for that matter, in much of the world today – were extremely weak and vulnerable, dependent on the generosity and support of children or other relatives.
            So, it’s pretty gutsy for this widow to be persistent.
            We are, however, told a little more about the judge. We’re told that he doesn’t fear God or respect people. So, it would seem unlikely that this hard and unfaithful judge is going to show any mercy to the widow no matter how hard she tries.
            There is some humor in the story, too.
            In the translation I just read the judge says, “…because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
            That’s a little amusing.
            But, the original Greek is stronger and funnier.
            “Keeps bothering me” can be translated as “keeps beating me.”
            And “wear me out’ can be translated as “give me a black eye.”
            So, we might imagine the widow punching the judge, threatening to give him a black eye. Maybe a real black eye - or a metaphor for damaging his reputation.
            Well, anyway, the judge gives in to the persistent widow and gives her what she wants.
            The widow’s persistence is rewarded.
            Now, I can easily imagine other endings of the story. The judge gets fed up and throws her in jail. The widow’s persistence eventually becomes an obsession and she’s driven out of her mind, becoming a laughingstock, an embarrassment to her family, becoming even weaker and more vulnerable.
            But, the point of the parable isn’t to encourage us to be more persistent at school, or work, or even in court.
            Jesus is teaching us about our relationship with God.
            Jesus ends the parable with a couple of rhetorical questions:
            “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will grant justice to them.”
            Remember how Luke tipped us off at the start, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
            Spiritual persistence is different from persistence in school, at work, or in court.
            Spiritual persistence is never really done on our own.
            Spiritual persistence is always done with God – God who is always calling us, always reaching out to us, strengthening us.
            And spiritual persistence is what we do together, here in the Christian community.
            We come here from all different places – different geography but also very different spiritual places. Some of us, right this minute, are worn out and filled with sadness and dread – regretful or embarrassed about the past, lonely without people we love or loved, worried about the present and the future.
            “How could I have been so stupid? How will I pay my bills? What will the doctor say? Where’s God? Things are so bad; I should just throw in the towel and give up.”
            And some of us, right this minute, are filled with joy and hope – grateful for good choices and exciting opportunities, looking forward to the future, touched by the love of family and friends.
            “I’m so glad I decided to do this. I’m glad to be able to put away some money for the future. I’m so thankful the doctor said it was nothing. I feel God so close to me. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
            And some of us, I’d guess, are somewhere in between.
            But, wherever we’re coming from – whether it’s a place of sadness and dread, or a place of joy and hope, or somewhere in between – we come here to persist.
            Spiritual persistence is coming here together to say the prayers, to sing the hymns, to reach out our hands in peace, to take the Body of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.
            Spiritual persistence is coming here so that the joyful and the hopeful can hold up the sad and the dread-filled – and the sad and the dread-filled can remind the joyful and the hopeful that we all inevitably experience loss, disappointment and grief.
            Spiritual persistence is coming here together week after week – times when we really don’t feel like it and times when we can’t wait to see the brown shingles of St. Paul’s once again.
            Spiritual persistence is coming here - the sad and the joyful here together - so that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.
            Spiritual persistence – spiritual persistence together right here at St. Paul’s - is always rewarded.
            Just look around.