Pr. Brooke Petersen
October 19, 2019
The Heart of Persistence
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart. Pray always, don’t lose heart. I’m not sure which part of that sentence is going better for me these days, because most of the time my prayers sound a lot like author Anne Lamott’s “Dear God, thank you, thank you, thank you,” or “Dear God help me, help me, help me,” and my heart feels as if it might be a little lost maybe even most of the time.
I spent a lot of time thinking this week about this parable, prayer, and justice, and persistence, and heart. This parable was in my head as I walked my son to his temporary care because kindergarten was cancelled due to a district wide strike of the Chicago Teachers Union. We made our way through crowds of teachers dressed in red, beating drums and waving signs that they are on strike because justice has too long been merely promised in our schools. Throughout the city, but particularly in low income communities and communities of color, students cannot see a nurse if they get sick at school, there is no psychologist or social worker if they are victims of trauma, and there is not even a librarian. I saw teachers calling out together for classrooms that are not taught at a 40 to 1 ratio, and that systems like restorative justice would become the norm in schools throughout our city. Teachers, families, and allies throughout the city have walked and chanted, have bargained and believed, reminding us that there is no such thing as other people’s children. When kids are going to school with stories of trauma and no one to tell them that they deserve to be safe, or without access to medical care, or without a teacher who can do more than try to manage a class of 40, we pray and we demand and we stand up for something better for our city. As we walked down the sidewalk, I thought, maybe this is what it means to pray and not lose heart.
The book of Jeremiah, from where we take our first reading for today, actually often sounds like a book of losing heart. The prophet Jeremiah isn’t a particularly hopeful person. In Jeremiah God comes to the people to talk pretty frankly about how things have been going. Since God has taken the people out of the land of Egypt, the people have broken the covenant. They haven’t remained faithful to God. They have worshipped other Gods, they have ignored the promises of God and have gone it on their own. That covenant has been broken, not by God, but by the people who have abandoned the promise.
We imagine that justice for abandoning the covenant would be punishment. When we break promises in our own lives we often suffer consequences, when we don’t follow up on our end of a bargain we are often punished. But in our reading from Jeremiah, God reveals to us a different kind of system. Because instead of punishing the people for the broken covenant, God is doing something entirely different. God is going to write the law into their hearts, and God is going to remember their sins no more. Our God is a forgetful God, one who will forget our broken ways and who will open up our hearts and write something new on them, not punishment, but divine and everlasting forgiveness.
And the law God has written on our hearts isn’t a set of rules. The law written on our hearts is the Hebrew word, Torah- not a list of rules, but a knowledge of God. It is less rules and more instruction. God has broken us open, taken our messed up and broken hearts and has written upon them a knowledge of God that cannot be erased. Forgetting our sinfulness God writes Godself into our hearts. Instead of continuing to live in a broken relationship, our forgetful God writes within us a new relationship, a relationship that cannot be erased and that lives within us the same way our hearts do. When we lose heart, all we have to do is turn inward, because written on our hearts is the knowledge of God. That’s God’s promise.
As we turn to our gospel reading, we encounter a parable many of us may have heard before- often called the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. It seems pretty simple from the outset. A widow comes to a judge begging him to grant her justice against her opponent. For those hearing this text, any time we encounter a widow it is often in a story about how God calls us to care for the most vulnerable in our communities. You might remember the widow who puts her last two coins in the treasury, or the widow who gives that last of what she has to the prophet Elijah. In this story we have a widow who is calling out for justice, but, unfortunately, her plight is before a judge who neither fears God nor respects anyone. He is oddly self-aware of the fact that he doesn’t value God or anyone else, which might make one wonder why he wants to be a judge in the first place, but regardless, he starts to get annoyed at this widow who keeps coming to his door and begging him to do his job. She is so persistent in asking that he hear her case and grant her justice, and that finally, for no reason related to actual justice, he simply grants her request because he wants her to stop bothering him.
Pray always and don’t lose heart. For the community hearing this story from Luke, their hearts were likely about as lost as they could be and their courage was about as small as it ever had been. When this story was finally written down, and shared in early communities of faith, Rome was more powerful, not less. The roman occupation still kept the people under the thumb of rulers who did not care about justice for them or for their families. Jesus had gone from the earth, and everyone expected this to be just a short jaunt up to some eternal home and he would be right back. So they were waiting. And they were losing hope. Remaining hopeful when every knock on every door is met with injustice and silence is no easy work. We get disappointed, we get tired, we want to stop trying. Unlike this widow who refused to stop coming, we can get lost in systems that confuse us and confound us. We can keep asking for justice only to be told we have come to the wrong office or called the wrong line or neglected to ask in the right way.
And all so often, as we read this text we imagine ourselves as that widow, coming to God and remembering that we have to keep knocking on the door, keep asking for God to flood this earth with justice, because that is what God has promised to do. We know, as Jesus tells us in this text, that God is not a God of injustice, this one who writes the very knowledge of God on our hearts is as close to us as every breath, and is the very heart of justice. God wants good things for God’s children, grants them justice speedily because that is what God is all about. When God’s children cry out to God, God hears their cries, because that is what God is all about. When God’s children come knocking, God opens the door, because that is what God is all about.
But perhaps the word for us, in this time and on this day, from this parable is not that we are the widow and God is the just judge, but that God is the widow. God is the widow coming alongside us every time we show up on the streets and demand nurses and social workers for kids in our city. God is the widow who stands in the street as we chant that Black Lives Matter and that justice delayed is justice denied. God is the widow who knocks on the door with us as we cry out for justice for the trans folks who have been murdered for living as the people God has created them to be. God is the widow who is knocking on the door alongside us every single time we feel our hearts breaking within us as we see pictures of children kept in cages because their parents have had the audacity to carry them across an invisible border because they want their babies to live. God is the widow who is demanding justice when the world deals in the powers of injustice, God is the widow who does not cease, does not stop, does not take a day off or a night away, because God’s very heart is love and justice and goodness.
Yes, we need to be reminded to pray and not lose heart. We get tired, our pleas fall on closed hearts and ears that refuse to listen. We get redirected or told we are too loud or too angry. We get frustrated and we break. We show up to protests and it’s hard to carry our signs and chant our chants anymore. And, so this parable is a reminder to us that it isn’t something lacking within us that we need to get right. We aren’t weak because we feel that the work of justice is hard. We don’t lack faith because we lose heart sometimes. God’s promises to us are written on our hearts, and our God, as persistent as a widow crying out in the street, will stand with us as we cry out to every unjust judge and every unjust system. Our God will join God’s voice with ours as we confront powers that do not fear God and respect no one. Our God will link arms with ours as we call for a world that is better, that is holier, that is full of more goodness, and more peace. Our God doesn’t just know that we cry for justice, our God demands it alongside us. Amen, and thanks be to God.