Sunday, October 16 – “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Be a Pain”
Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
October 16, 2016
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
(Click below to hear the sermon as podcast.)
My childhood is littered with stories about persistence. My favorite was “The Little Engine That Could.” about the small but mighty and heroic little blue train engine that got the train up the mountain. The large, new shiny engines failed due to a lack of persistence. I heard the story enough that “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” became a mantra in our household.
Next came Robert the Bruce, and the spider. The Scottish king was on the run from the English armies, cowering in a barn. He saw a spider trying to swing across the rafters and create a spot to mount their web, and it took several attempts to finally accomplish this monumental feat for a small spider. Bruce took this as a sign to not give up, and he defeated the English in the battle of Bannackburn. Sir Walter Scott immortalized his persistence in poetry and coined the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Thomas Edison, the famed inventor who tried a million ways to make a lightbulb filament before succeeding, completed the Holy Trinity of my Protestant WASPy upbringing, famously saying, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Persistence people! That’s the ticket. These life lessons got me through school, track meets, seminary, a second masters degree and numerous church meetings. But I often wonder if my parents were just trying more creative ways to get me to do my chores. Think of Robert the Bruce and the spider, and clean your room. We all have our great battles to fight.
I have been challenging this conventional wisdom as I get older. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Or how about work smarter, not harder. Or as W.C. Fields put it “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” We are all persistent about something, even if it is avoiding work, staying safe, or making sure the blame falls on someone else. Persistence also needs innovation, integrity, justice or its just digging a deeper hole.
So what is Jesus trying to say in this parable about the persistent widow and unjust judge? The first verse tells us what the parable is about so we don’t miss it, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Let me ask you an important question. When you start to lose heart, what do you usually do? Some of us watch Netflix, eat ice cream, have a beer, get baked, to distract ourselves. Or we might walk in the woods, work out, go to a creative hobby like knitting or photography, (something funny). But do we also pray? Jesus says we need a spiritual practice so we don’t lose heart in this world. I believe that 100 percent. No spiritual practice, no hope. Two weeks ago I restructured my morning routine for this reason. I was sipping coffee and reading the news for an hour every morning. I was becoming a very well-informed cynic, filled with theories of why people vote for Trump, I can list the various factions in Syria, describe all the scandals. But it was all knowledge without hope. No screens for the first hour. I started journaling, reading good books and meditating first in the morning. Guess what, I have more hope and I get more things done.
We have to nurture strong hearts to face into the world with hope. It is not automatic for most of us. I wonder what the widow did to stay persistent in her belief and action for justice, especially in the face of a judge who couldn’t care less. How many people told her to knock off, that she was in contempt of court? Perhaps her support group told her to pray the Serenity Prayer, “Lord grant me the courage to change the things I can, serenity for the things I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.” But she chose the courage part, probably disturbing everyone’s serenity, friend and foe alike.
Let me tell you what I learned this week about widows in the Bible and especially in Luke. In the Hebrew texts, especially Psalms and the prophets, it says 39 times “Defend the widow and orphan.” They are the most vulnerable in ancient society, without the support of a male head of the household in a patriarchal society. These are the most likely to become beggars on the street, and society is measured in God’s eyes, not by the GDP or S&P 500, but by how widows and orphans are treated.
Luke follows this tradition but does something really surprising about the character of widows. He has several stories that only appear in Luke. First, Luke tells the story that a prophet named Anna, a wise old woman who was always praying at the Temple. She heard 12 year-old Jesus teach in the Temple and said that he was one who would redeem Israel. Second, when Jesus preaches his first sermon in Nazareth, he reminds people of the widow Zaraphaeth, a foreigner, who took care of Elijah, the prophet, and fed him from her meager supplies while he regained strength. Third, we have the story of the widow’s might, who gave her last penny, and Jesus proclaims her to be a model of generosity greater than everyone. (Which only Mark includes.) And fourth, we have this story of the persistent widow.
So in Luke’s mind, widows are not objects of pity who must wait for kind, generous people to finally give them something to eat. They might wait a long time, which is why there are 39 commands to take care of widows and orphans. Luke sees widows as prophets, who are generous and give all if necessary to support others, who demand justice from corrupt judges, and who actually show the rest of us how to get it done.
I thought about this after the disgraceful Trump on the bus tape came out. Did you hear about Kelly Oxford? She is not a widow, she’s a blogger and author. She sent out this Tweet, “Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.” Within five minutes she had several hundred responses and stories of assault. Soon she was getting over 50 responses per minute-per minute people, a story of assaults on women every second. In one evening, one million women tweeted their 140 characters or less stories of the first time this happened to them. Two pastors asked me what I was preaching about this Sunday and I told them about this Twitter, collective unburdening of truth-telling by women, and do you know what their first words were? My first sexual assault was at age…and they told me their stories. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/11/497530709/one-tweet-unleashes-a-torrent-of-stories-of-sexual-assault
All my words can’t begin to describe the heartbreak. I have watched the cover-up, the excuses-its “locker room” talk, it happened a long time ago, he said he was sorry. Then the smear campaign begins against women who speak up. This has worked for centuries to protect predatory men. It can be so disheartening that as we near 100 years since women’s suffrage that there is so much women’s suffering. But as Martin Luther King said, “Sometimes is gets the darkest before the dawn.” And “the arc of history may be long, but it bends towards justice.” We might possibly be witnessing major inflection of the arc right before our eyes. Just 5 years ago, there was no way a million women could share their experience in one night. Now they can. Now one brave blogger telling her story and telling women they don’t have to hold the shame, can override the unjust judges with their persistence and truth. I truly hope that we can look at this episode of the last two weeks and say, that was the inflection point where we turned the tide on sexual harassment and violence, and made it definitive that it is not going to be tolerated anymore.
Remember where we started with Luke. He said to remember to pray always so you don’t lose hope. I firmly we have to persist in prayer so we can persist in action. All acts of courage are first fought within. And this is why we gather as a community of prayer. This is why we read the ancient scriptures with their hidden little gems like Luke’s widows who are the models of courage and generosity for all of us to follow. Thanks be to God for prophets like Anna who see the truth, like Zarapheth who nutures and saves the prophets, for the generous spirit of a women who gave all she had for the sake of others, and the persistent widow who demanded justice till an unjust judge couldn’t take it anymore. And thank God for you when you have the courage to make God’s love and justice real.