On Persistence as Faith
October 16, 2022
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws. I have suffered much; preserve my life, Lord, according to your word. Accept, Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Today’s sermon is titled On Persistence as Faith.
For the past three weeks our scripture readings have been focused on faith. We learned that faith is not a product of a religious life; faith begins in our first few hours and days of life as we learn who and what to trust. We’ve been reminded that a little faith, even as little as the size of a mustard seed, is all we need. Last week we considered the relationship between gratitude and faith; this week we throw persistence into the mix.
I’ve been thinking this week about where and how we experience persistence. Time comes first to mind as perhaps being the most persistent. In the wake of hurricane Ian, water is undeniably and uncontrollably persistent. Light is persistent, too. In March of this year, the Hubble space telescope relayed images of a star that is 28 billion light years away.* The star could be 500 times larger than our own sun. Scientists named the star Earendel, which is Old English for dawn star; I think Persistence would have been a good name, too.
In our scripture reading for today, a persistent widow is the character Jesus chooses to illustrate how faithfully persistent his followers must be. When Jesus creates this story, he is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and he knows that what awaits him in Jerusalem will not be a warm welcome. Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for what is to come, so we have these three parables, all centered on faith. He is assuring them that they have all the faith they need, if only they would put their faith into action. The action Jesus is encouraging is persistence and, in particular, persistence in prayer.
Let’s not forget that Jesus is creating this story from his own mind, so he could have used any ensemble of characters to illustrate his point, but he chooses a woman living on her own and “a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.” The power dynamic could not be more skewed in favor of the judge, a male, in a public position of power, with the authority to grant or to deny justice. But for all of his advantage and privilege, it is the persistence of the woman that wears him down. There is some hidden humor in the story that has been lost to translation.
When the judge is about to capitulate, he says to himself, “…because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me.” There was only one word that the author used for “come and attack me;” it was the Greek word hypopiazo. Properly translated, hypopiazo means “to give a black eye.” Surely, Jesus’s audience would have laughed at the idea that the judge would relent in fear that the woman might give him a black eye.
The woman is the heroine of this story. She is faithful in her pursuit of justice. She is not dissuaded; she is not dismissed. She refuses to give up hope. She tries and tries and tries again. Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Pray like this. Things are about to get rough. Remember what I tell you. Be persistent in prayer and do not give up.”
There are at least a dozen different pieces of scripture that urge us to “pray constantly…give thanks in all circumstances…pray without ceasing” but is this really possible outside the confines of a monastery or abbey? How can we possibly go about our daily lives in a constant state of prayer?
Friends, this may sound improbable, or even impossible, but there are two authors I know of that have devoted their life’s work to these questions and I am not well-read, so I am sure there are many others. Thomas R. Kelly is a Quaker and author of A Testament of Devotion, published in 1941; he writes, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, to which we may continuously return. Such practice is no mere counsel for special religious groups or for monks retired in cloisters. This practice is the heart of religion. It is the secret, I am persuaded, of the inner life of the Master of Galilee (Jesus). He expected this secret to be freshly discovered in everyone who would be his follower.”
Thomas Kelly, in prose that is deeply poetic, writes 123 pages about developing a practice of turning heart and mind frequently back to love, to light, to the holy presence within and without, so that even our most common and mundane tasks take on an element of blessedness and our lives, well-lived, become what is perhaps the purest form of prayer.
Colossians 3:23 has a similar message, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as if working for the Lord.” What a beautiful message this is; what a lovely reminder that we can cultivate a practice of creating meaning in our lives just by remembering God, remembering Goodness (God-ness), as we go about our daily lives.
These are also the themes in the writings of Joel Goldsmith in his book Practicing the Presence, written in 1958. At the conclusion, he writes, “You know what the goal of life is: to be consciously one with God. You know the way: prayer, the recognition of the Christ, the love of God, and the love of humankind.”
Both authors are building on the premise that Jesus outlines in the Gospel according to John, chapter 14 where Jesus says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” It is our work as followers of Christ to learn how to live into this truth. Like with any learning, it takes practice and persistence.
Friends, this practice is important because it will keep us centered as we weather these tumultuous times. From a centered place, we are not so easily thrown off balance when things don’t go as expected, or as desired. From a centered place, and with a practice of prayer, we can hold on to our hope for the future. 2000 years ago, Jesus knew that what his disciples needed the most was faith, hope, and persistent prayer. They were on the cusp of witnessing a grave injustice in the arrest and execution of their beloved teacher. Jesus knew that would not be the end of his story, though. Jesus knew the persistence of Divine justice would prevail.
In closing, I am thinking again of the persistence of time, water, and light. May our prayers for justice be carried forward, unrelenting as time and the turning of the earth. May our prayers for justice be carried outward, far and wide, like floodwaters. May our prayers for justice shine with the light of a thousand stars, illuminating the way to a brighter future for all of humankind. So be it. Amen.
Persistence: per “thoroughly” (“forward,” hence “through”) + sistere “come to stand”
Gracious Lord, our God, we are thankful for our immense capacity for awareness and feeling, it is surely a gift from you. Even when the weight of knowing and feeling feels too much to bear, remind us, Lord, to appreciate that we are not unaware, and that we are not numb. We pray to be strengthened and encouraged in the work that lies before us…the work of healing, the work of repairing the brokenness within ourselves, the work of holding the needs of others in balance with our own needs, and the work that You place in our minds and hearts. Help us, we pray, to say “yes”. Help us, we pray, to say “I’m sorry; please forgive me”. Help us, we pray, to trust in the goodness that You intend for us, as your children. This we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the Quaker author Thomas R. Kelly (The Eternal Promise):
“Our surface potentialities are for selfishness and greed, for tooth and claw. But deep within, in the whispers of the heart, is the surging call of the Eternal Christ. Absolute loyalty to this inner Christ is the only hope of a new humanity. Attend to the Eternal that he may re-create you and sow you deep into the furrows of the world’s suffering.”
I offer you this poem, written by the German poet, Rilke. This is from his Book of Hours, subtitled Love Poems to God.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.