Sunday, October 16, 2016
October 16, Proper 24, Prayer and Action #5: Resistance and Persistence
Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Now here’s a puzzle, and here’s an example of the difficulty of spelling the English language. Take the two words “resistance” and “persistence.” We spell “resistance” with an “a” and “persistence” with an “e”. Who knows why. In French they’re both spelled with an “a”, they both come from the same Latin root, they are obviously related, and to do one is to imply the other. The difference in spelling resists reason, yet the difference persists. Well, both words are suggested by all three of our lessons today. And both words are important for prayer and also for action.
In the parable, the widow is persistent. And to be persistent she has to be resistant. The parable is meant to be comic. The judge will be a small-town judge, and the scene is not a modern courtroom carefully controlled, but an open session with people pushing and crowding and competing for attention. A combination of Judge Judy and The Price is Right. The injustice against the widow will be economic—say she’s been refused the benefit of her deceased husband’s property, deprived by her brothers-in-law or even by her own sons, like that, an injustice all too ordinary.
The ordinary strategy was to offer the judge a bribe, which the judge was waiting for. But this widow won’t do that, and every time he takes his seat, here she comes shouting at him, in front of all the other people, who find her no less bothersome than the judge does. The joke in the parable is that it’s because the widow is so irritating that she gets her justice. Judge Judy, of course, would have shut her up and tossed her out of court.
The resistance in her persistence is her resistance to the bribe, and to the ordinary way of things, and to the interests of the crowd. Resistance is an irritant, persistence can lose you sympathy. Non-violent resistance is a case in point, the persistence of a sit-in at a lunch counter. You will get resistance back, quicker and stronger, even violent, aiming to break your non-violent persistence.
The attraction of violence is the attraction of a definitive solution. Kill him, take him out, bomb them, smash them. Mission accomplished. Of course violence breeds more violence, and what you end up with is worse than before. But at least you’ve looked decisive. But Christian action is so slow and unimpressive. Precisely because Christian action is non-violent is why it requires persistence and resistance. It takes faith and courage. Resisting violence is dangerous. It killed Jesus. We have our reasons of safety and survival that we don’t resist, we don’t persist, we give in, we get along.
The theme of “persistence” came to me from the second lesson. In this epistle St. Paul tells his squeamish protégé Rev. Timothy to be persistent in good times and bad. Timothy has to persist in preaching the right message of sound doctrine, even when it’s not the message people like to hear. He has to resist the desires of itchy ears. He has to resist the success of other preachers who give the people what they want. He has to resist his own internal doubts and fears, and the temptations of his weakness and his shame.
Let me just mention here that you could call this epistle the Second Letter of Paul to Daniel. In order to keep persisting we have to keep resisting the resistance against us from the outside and the resistance against us from our own insides.
Timothy, be persistent in prayer and action. St. Paul says you can be persistent in action because you’re proficient in good work, and you are sufficiently proficient in good work because you have the scripture, you have the instructions, you have the guidebook for training.
That’s why Timothy has to persist in teaching the right stuff, even if it’s unpopular, because it’s only the right stuff that will train you for doing good work when the good work gets hard, when your good work encounters the world’s resistance, when your good work brings back on you some suffering. Not that the pastor is a drill sergeant, forcing you through your training. The pastor only patiently persists in reminding you, encouraging you against the resistance of your distraction, your indifference, or your doubt.
Because God has already placed the instruction in your hearts. That’s the promise of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The covenant is written in your hearts. In that sense your knowledge of God is already more than I can teach you. I mean the necessary knowledge, the personal knowledge, the personal experience, the experience of forgiveness. That personal knowledge of forgiveness liberates you and empowers you. And one of the reasons you come to church every week is to rehearse that forgiveness once again. "Oh, yes, I remember, we are forgiven, I am forgiven, we live within God’s grace. "
And being forgiven you can rise to the vision, the vision ahead of you, like the visions you get in Jeremiah. That’s another reason you come to church, to be reminded of the vision. So every week you claim the forgiveness and you claim the vision, and living and breathing between these two you can get to work, praying your failures behind you and guiding your good work by the vision.
Now let me return to the parable. The parables in Luke’s gospel are designed to resist us. They always spin off a quick and easy meaning, but then they suggest the opposite when you mull them over. This one spins off the quick and easy meaning of persisting in prayer like the widow. And that’s not false. But it’s also not false that we pray and pray and God apparently does nothing about our request. And it’s also true that God can seem like an unjust judge, for how can a just and loving God allow such injustice and suffering in the earth. The parable is sadly true. Its comedy is dark.
But what is most resistant in this lesson to my own belief is those three interpretation lines of Jesus at the end. Two rhetorical questions and an answer.
First, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” I hope so, maybe in the long run.
Second, “Will he delay long in helping them?” Well, actually yes, sorry to say it, God does delay, God long delays.
And then, “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them!” Quickly? I don’t think so. I wish it were true, Lord Jesus, but honestly I can’t see it and I can’t preach it. "O Lord, no wonder your very last line here is to wonder whether you will find any faith left on earth. Can you blame us!"
When you persist with what the Lord Jesus says he pushes back at you and then you have to consider whether the truth is in the resistance, whether the lesson is in your reaction. You come to Jesus for a nice hug and you find him wrestling you. Wrestle back.
So this is the best I can come up with this week, in terms of prayer and action. First let me say it in the negative and then I will say it in the positive.
You will not experience God as just unless you persist in your own acts of justice in the world, long past the resistance frustration and the criticism of others.
You will not experience God as a just God unless you do actions of social justice in the world long past the resistance of seeming uselessness and naivete.
You will not experience God as answering prayer unless you persist in prayer long past the resistance of God’s silences. I could wish it otherwise, but I think it’s true, and I think it’s the truth that the parable wants to wrestle free in us.
Now let me state it positively.
You can keep doing Christian actions past the rational term for results, especially actions of social justice, because when you do, you will discover that God loves justice. You will discover this not by the approbation of the world nor by the validation of quantity but by the authenticity of gratitude and the return of love.
You can work for social and economic justice and environmental justice past the resistance of frustration because it’s only by persistence that you determine how much God loves the world.
You can keep praying long past the resistance of God’s silence, and discover that God most certainly does hear your prayer, because what God does not reveal to you is the product you prayed for but God’s self. When you pray past the silence, God answers your prayer with God’s self and—here’s the surprise—at the same time with yourself. You become more you when you persist in prayer.
I believe that God’s resistance is designed to empower you. Because it is you that God loves. Yes, you are commanded to love God. But God’s own interest in your love is not God’s self. The interest of God is you. God empowers you. You’re able to love God because God loves you.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.