Being Persistent

A Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

National Children’s Sabbath—Sunday October 28, 2001

 Rumson Presbyterian Church

Children's Defense Fund Logo

A week and a half ago I took some time off for continuing education and attended a conference in Stony Point, New York. Our keynote speaker was a man named John Dear.  John is a Jesuit priest who lives and works in Manhattan where is he is the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest interfaith Peace Organization in the United States.  He has spent numerous times in jail, most notably as some you will remember for protesting nuclear weapons in our country by trespassing onto military bases and banging on F-16 fighter jets with a hammer using the passage from the Bible in Isaiah that says “they will beat their swords into plowshares” which for the prophet Isaiah was a vision of the world God wants us to have, a world of peace, where our weapons become instruments that are harmless, like a plowshare.  I went to the conference after only skimming one of John’s books, and reading up a bit online about the things he’s involved in.  Of course, he was set to be our speaker months ago, and so the attacks on September 11th changed our conference, and of course, changed somewhat the things he had in mind to talk with us about.  John talked with us about his life’s work, advocating for nonviolence as the way of life as a practicing Christian, that the only kind of life that Jesus wants us to live is a life of harmony and peace with those around us, that violence in any form is never acceptable, and that Jesus was the ultimate example that we have of a peacemaker.  You can imagine how difficult of a message that is for him to proclaim.  John is opposed to the military action we are engaged in currently, and he gave to us a very radical message from the Bible, that the only way to live is a peaceful way.

I was mesmerized by what he had to say, but at the same time I was completely overwhelmed.  I am deeply torn by what to think about military action in Afghanistan, as I am sure many of you are.  On one hand, I don’t think it is right, because more innocent lives are being lost, and I do not believe that there is a biblical basis for violence which is what happens during war.  I was sickened by what happened here on the 11th of September, and see it as a complete departure from the kind of life God wants us to have with each other, and I do not want to see anyone else go through the kind of pain I have seen in people all around myself.  And I hear those sentiments echoed by some of the families of survivors who say that they do not feel that having other people go through the pain they are is going to make the situation we find ourselves in right.  One woman, wrote into a popular religious magazine about her grief over losing her husband, a U.S. army solider in the attack on the Pentagon.  She wrote the following,

“…because I have lost Craig as part of this historic tragedy, my anguish is compounded exponentially by fear that his death will be used to justify new violence against other innocent victims.  Craig enlisted in the Army and was proud to serve his country. He was a patriotic American and a citizen of the world. Craig believed that by working from within the military system he could help to maintain the military focus on peacekeeping and strategic planning – to prevent violence and war. For the last two years Craig drove to his job at the Pentagon with a “visualize world peace” bumper sticker on his car.  This was not empty rhetoric or contradictory to him, but part of his dream. He believed his role in the Army could further the cause of peace throughout the world. Craig would not have wanted a violent response to avenge his death. And I cannot see how good can come out of it. We cannot solve violence with violence. Mohandas Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” We will no longer be able to see that we hold the light of liberty if we are blinded by vengeance, anger, and fear. I ask our nation’s leaders not to take the path that leads to more widespread hatreds – that make my husband’s death just one more in an unending spiral of killing.”[1]

I realize that this woman’s voice is only one voice of many, but I find her comments deeply persuasive.  On the other hand, I worry about what will happen if we do not act.  I do not think that someone like Osama bin Laden will sit down at a negotiating table with us to talk about peace, and I also worry a great deal about what could happen later if we do not deal with him now.  We are already wishing we’d done more to contain him earlier.  These conflicting voices inside of my own head, my own made it both exciting and scary to listen to what this Jesuit priest had to say about what sort of Christian witness we should be about in our world today.   The concerns he raised are provocative, that we live and take part in a culture that is addicted to violence.  There are 35 separate wars going on in the world today, 60,000 children die daily all over the world, including in the United States of hunger, 2 billion of the world’s population live in what is termed “subhuman misery” and I am afraid to know exactly what that category really means.  In our own country many children and youth die each year from handguns, I saw a very interesting poster a few weeks ago from the Children’s Defense Fund: it was a picture of a little girl holding onto an adults hand, her little hand tightly clasped around the adults pointer finger.  The caption read: “By your child’s first year, she can squeeze your finger with seven pounds of pressure.  Approximately the same amount needed to squeeze the trigger of a gun.”

We have a big problem on our hands, and it is violence. Our children are saturated with it on television, in the video games they play, we see it on the sitcoms we watch, domestic violence is prevalent in every single community in the United States, even though it isn’t talked about much, and we have enough nuclear weapons stored up to blow up the whole world a couple times over if we choose to do so.   We were all witnesses to horrific violence on September 11th, and none of us will ever be the same.  And we wonder how to deal with this all-pervasive violence that surrounds us, how to stop it now that it runs rampant, and in many cases completely out of control.

The message from the widow in the Gospel of Luke to us today is that we have to be persistent, even when we feel like the odds are completely stacked against us.  She had to be persistent in her day because she was a widow, and widows were about as low as you could be in that society, you had no stature because you were no longer connected to a man.  Your concerns were not listened to, and you were considered to be an unnecessary part of society.  We do not know what this widow’s problem was that she was asking the judge for help with, only that it was very important to her.  And the judge had been refusing for a long time to help her.  Most widows would have just given up, stopped trying and dealt with whatever the problem was.  But not this widow.  She was persistent. We might call her a nudge, someone who is pushy, who doesn’t give up.  Which is exactly what she was.  After she had bothered the judge so much that he couldn’t take it anymore he finally gave in and let her have her way.  Luke’s point is not about her problem, it is about her behavior.  Luke is saying that we too will find times when we feel like the underdog, but when we know our cause is just, and we have to be the nudge, the pushy, annoying person who will have nothing less than our way.  We feel the way the widow in Luke did today, we feel exposed and afraid.  Anthrax is being sent through the mail, we’re terrified beyond words that the terrorists might have their hands on smallpox, and we want justice for what has happened to those we love who are no longer with us, doing the things we needed them to be doing.  But even before all this happened we were living in a culture of violence that was out of control.  And the thing I believe that all these situations have in common is that we did not believe we had the answer or were being listened to, when the position we hold as followers of Jesus Christ is the one that can actually save the day, because it is the unexpected answer.

So, what do we do?  For me, the only thing that I can do is to hold on tightly and persistently to my faith in Jesus Christ.  Our faith teaches us that our ultimate model of what God is like is Jesus Christ, the man who was born to an unwed mother, the man who lived on this earth just as we do, the man who was never violent with other persons, the man who lived a life that proclaimed justice and peace, and the man who was killed because he challenged the political establishment of the day.  We also believe that this man, Jesus became the saving Christ when he rose from the dead and sacrificed his life for us.  And while Jesus did much of the “hard work” for us, it doesn’t mean that we still do not have some hard work ahead of us.  Our country is engaged in a war, what will be say?  Muslim-Americans in our own community are afraid, what will we do?  The person sitting next to you in the pew is in emotional pain or the person down the street is as well, how will you help take care of them?  Jesus Christ modeled for us an active, persistent faith that we are called to be disciples of, and to follow.  We need to be persistent in times like this about examining our beliefs and making sure that we are proclaiming the saving message of Jesus Christ to a broken world.  At the same time we need to remember that even when we feel like the world is too much for us, that God is being equally persistent with us, calling us into relationship with God and with God’s creation, and loving us, holding us in God’s loving and tender care.  People who we remember as the best examples of Christian faith were not passive people, they were pushy people.  Mother Theresa, even though she was a very nice person, she was in fact a pushy person.  Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, peaceful people, but also very pushy people.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King, also both peaceful, deeply faithful people, but persistent and very pushy people.  And of course Jesus, well he was probably the most pushy and persistent of all of them.  A lot of the time people try to characterize him as a nice guy, a sweet person who dutifully loved God.  These things are true, but if you really read the Gospels, what you fill find in Jesus was a pushy person, probably a bit annoying to some he met.  And he was that way with his friends and with those who didn’t like him.  And he never gave up.  He was also a peaceful person, and it is these character contradictions in Jesus that make him so hard for us to understand so much of the time, because he really was the perfect blend of action and faith.

What will we do, where will we go, and what will we teach our children in times such as these?  I believe that what we do is to be persistent in having faith and trust in a God of peace and love for all the people of the earth.  Finding ways to help and act as agents of peace is all we can do in times like this, but really in any time.  God promises us life and love, all we have to do is take the big step towards trusting God with the totality of our lives.  And when we do this, and truly live out the meaning of this kind of faith for our lives, will we truly be victorious.   I’d like to close this morning with a poem I read this week that I find to be comforting in the struggle we find ourselves in daily as we try to live out authentic Christian faith.  It is titled, “He is our Peace.”

 

Peace I leave with you

My peace I give to you

Be not troubled

Neither be afraid.

 

Is peace inside or out,

Is it one thing or the other,

To be at peace within,

Or reconcile sister and brother?

 

Do we make tea

In leaves or the water?

Where does the brew reside

Without the two together?

 

How can Christ be inside

And infusing us with power

If we refuse to risk ourselves

To make the world taste stronger?

 

How can the mystery be true

That God in me is peace,

And within God’s peace I dwell?

Is God outside us, or within,

Emmanuel?[2]                            AMEN.


[1] Amber Amundson, P.O.V.: A Widow’s Plea for Restraint. Sojourners Magazine (Sojo Mail, http://www.sojo.net)  October 17, 2001.

[2] Earl S. Johnson, He is Our Peace. October 21, 2001.  The Presbyterian Outlook, page 21.

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