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Holy Stubbornness

by Frank Schaefer

based on Luke 18:1-8

In my mind, there are two types of prayer needs:

1) the ones we really, really need to get answered by God, and

2) the ones we think we need to get answered, but really just want to get answered.

During our recent teacher-training seminar at church one keen observer said: "kids today don't use the phrase: "I want this, I want that" any longer. Today they say: "I need this, I need that.""

Yeah, tell me about it! I’m hearing it every day, especially from my 3 year old son Pascal: " I neeeeeed chocolate. I need it!" I have a hypothesis about this: if my three year old son is using the "I need-but-really-want" language we either have a little Einstein living with us who has figured out how to "play the system" or--more likely--I am seeing a reflection of my own attitude. So, let’s not point at our kids. Let’s point at ourselves for having a problem distinguishing between what we really need and what we really want.

Today’s Scripture lesson is on what we really need--not really want.

With the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus teaches us about real prayer needs and how to pray for these needs effectively. There was a widow who was suffering an injustice. A widow, in those days, did not have a lot of security. Families were very important--all important--in this society. There was no life insurance plan, pension plan, or the "safety net" of social security. And if a widow in those days didn’t have children or other family who took care of her, she was out in the streets begging for alms.

It goes without saying that a widow in first-century Judea did not have great legal recourse. To make things worse she was dealing with a corrupt judge--one who didn’t give a hoot about anybody but himself, and what is worse, he didn’t respect God. In other words, he didn’t aspire to the highest possible standard of justice. Whoever said that corruption in the legal system is a modern phenomenon? Why should our legal system in the US be an exception?

Our widow is suffering an injustice (whether directed toward herself or to a loved one, we don't know) and the only recourse she has--the town’s judge--is not paying attention. How does that apply to us? Gospel-writer Luke tells us exactly how it applies. He writes: "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable in order to show them that they should always pray and not give up (NRSV: not lose heart)."

Luke is very much aware of the real danger of giving up, of loosing heart when we suffer injustice. A person can only take so much of that--Christians included. Injustice can so easily put the human soul in a state of bitterness, depression, anger, fear, and a sense of utter helplessness and hopelessness. In fact, when we suffer injustice, we may even begin to think that God doesn’t care--as the judge in the parable doesn’t care.

So, Luke is saying that if we pray hard enough and if we don't lose heart, God will give us justice, right? Well, does God? Is there justice in the world? In our country? In our communities? In our neighborhoods? In our churches?

Just look at this week’s news headlines:

What do we say to the 250,000 Albanians in the province of Kosovo who have been brutally driven out of their homes by the Serbian army.

What do we say to the parents of 7 year-old Sherrice Iverson, who was cold-heartedly murdered by a man who wanted "to experience death first-hand"?

What do we say to the family and friends of the student of the University of Wyoming who was savagely beaten, strung up on a fence like a scarecrow, and left to die--apparently because he was gay?

I vividly remember a recent clergy meeting in Allentown. Rev. Robert Johnson was late that day and he shared that he had been held up by an emergency: one of his parishioners was murdered. You could see the shock in the eyes of all the Caucasian ministers in the room--myself included--and then he shared that this was not that unusual, in fact, this had been the second murder of one of his people this year. And he shared about this very dedicated Christian young man who was murdered--a college student (I wish I could remember his name)--who was home for only a few days of during "reading week." He had selflessly helped a girl that was assaulted in the street and paid with his own life for it.

I remember thinking: "can it be that we live in the same vicinity? How come that any Christian person or family has to go through something like this? How come so many of our brothers and sisters have to live in such bad neighborhoods? I mean, we are talking of brothers and sisters living in America! Not just in third-world countries. In our own neighborhoods! Where is God in all this? Where is God’s justice for us--His own children?

At another meeting Rev. Johnson shared that on his way to the meeting because he was pulled over on the PA turnpike for no apparent reason. Even though he told the state troopers that he was a United Methodist minister on his way to a clergy meeting, they ordered him to stand in front of his car for more than twenty minutes without giving any explanation. Apparently because of being in the "wrong neighborhood" for the color of his skin, Rev. Johnson was treated in a most humiliating way. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was really upset, when Robert shared this--even angry, and very sad. Robert is the closest family I have, he is my brother in the Lord, and so are the many Christians who have to live in a "world" in which murder and rape, and who-knows-what-else is a painful everyday reality.

So where now is God’s justice? Doesn’t Jesus say: "will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones? . . .I tell you he will see that they get justice, and quickly."

Someone asked on the Desperate Preacher’s Site this week whether it be possible that God’s justice looks different than our justice. Good question. Yet, somehow I trust that God gives us a righteous sense of justice--especially if it is a selfless sense of justice--one that is concerned with others. Another Desperate Preacher suggested that the problem may be that we don’t pray enough. Perhaps we have lost heart a long time ago. Perhaps we lost faith in justice here on earth, here in our neighborhoods, here in America, a long time ago. Do we even pray for justice? When was the last time you prayed for justice?

Let’s look at our widow. What does she do to obtain justice? She is persistent. She is stubborn. Perhaps we should call her attitude a kind of "stubbornness." She doesn’t give up, she doesn’t lose heart. She keeps knocking at the judge’s door.

Now, I believe I don’t have to explain "stubbornness" in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Stubbornness is something that’s put into our cradle. It’s our German heritage. (I see Cliff Ainsworth nodding his head). Yes, that’s right, we are naturally endowed with the "great gift of stubbornness" and the only thing God has to help us with is to learn how to be stubborn for the right cause--God’s justice. In that case we may talk about a "holy stubbornness."

One theologian (G. Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells, p. 105) actually compared this kind of stubbornness to being spiritual. He said: "[it] is precisely a force that bestows constancy and prevents our being "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14).

Holy stubbornness happens when we start not only to pray our prayers, but when we start to live our prayers. Holy stubbornness happens when our actions, yes, our entire life speak just as loudly as our words. That’s what I believe Luke means with "praying always" in the face of injustice. When we start to stubbornly live out our prayers that’s when our prayers become effective.

I am really proud of my father for the "holy stubbornness" he has shown recently. After his retirement 3 years ago, he got involved in the work of a Christian political party (in Germany). During the election race last month he acted as a speaker on behalf of his party. And he shared how much of a struggle he had at press conferences. He said: "sometimes the booing and whistles never stopped the entire time I tried to introduce our Christian platform. People wouldn’t even bother to listen to what we stand for." In contrast, when on one occasion a party introduced their "anti-work" platform, concluding with the words: "work is dumb (it was actually a stronger depletive)" there were great cheers and applause.

The "world" doesn’t want to hear about God’s commandments, about moral values, about self-denial, and about justice--that’s why society around us is deteriorating.

O I wish that I had more of that kind of "holy stubbornness." I admit, I too feel tossed to and fro and carried about at times. It’s not easy in this day and age to hold on to our convictions and to stubbornly live out what we believe in--not even for us stubborn Pennsylvania Dutch. Luke is right: it is easy to loose heart and go with the flow rather than go against the current.

We often ask: "can prayer move God’s arm?" Jesus turns this question around on us this morning and concludes his parable with the question: "Will the son of man find faith when he returns?" In other words he is asking: "can prayer move your own arm?" " Are you willing to put your actions where your words are?" God always has relies on his children--people like you and me--to usher in His Kingdom. God will give us strength, God will empower us, but we still need to stubbornly live out our prayers for justice. Are our prayers effective? The answer is: "it depends on how effective we help make them."