Don’t Tell Your Story Too Soon
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Don’t Tell Your Story Too Soon
In a recent interview, biblical scholar and social justice advocate Walter Brueggemann defined Lent – this season before Easter – as “the disciplined process whereby we try to move our lives out of old, failed commitments to walk the walk with Jesus.”Lent is the disciplined process whereby we try to move our lives out of old, failed commitments to walk the walk with Jesus. Giving up old failed commitments does not mean giving up thing like chocolate –Brueggemann is talking about giving up our commitments to things like economic security, race and gender-based power and privilege, and violence as a means of problem-solving.
If we are wondering what it might look like to give up those commitments, the Beatitudes give us an idea. Two weeks ago, when we started this series on the Beatitudes, we looked at Psalm 1 and noted that the Hebrew word that we translate as “blessed” or “happy” means literally, to be on the right path. According to Jesus, the ones who are on the right path are not those who appear to have it all together – the wealthy, the healthy, the well-educated, the law abiders.
Instead, it is those living through difficult circumstances who are on the right path, who walk with God: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful and pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
Today we consider two groups of people who Jesus says are on that path, who are walking that walk: the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
What are Bible translates as “meek” is probably better translated “humble” or “gentle.” Jesus is talking about those who possess a unique kind of power, a power that Richard Rohr calls “the power of the powerless.” Jesus chooses his words carefully when he says it is these meek ones who will inherit the earth, the land. In his day – and truth be told, things haven’t changed much – people who owned land often took and maintained ownership through violence, injustice, and oppression, with little respect for the idea that the land, first and foremost, belongs to God. When Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth he is both critiquing the status quo and offering hope that one day, justice will prevail.
Which leads to the second group who are on the path: those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” This Greek word for righteousness really is actually the word for justice. It is those fighting for justice who show us what it looks like to be on the right path, what it looks like to turn away from our old, failed commitments to unjust systems and walk the walk with Jesus.
Dan Wakefield is a writer who spent much of his early adulthood in a self-described quest “for salvation through drugs, alcohol and promiscuity.” Then, in the 1980’s he began to experience a spiritual awakening. He says he developed what can be “best described as a ‘thirst’ for spiritual understanding and contact: to put it bluntly, I guess, a thirst for God.”
As often happens with our journeys, his road to spiritual understanding was a rough one, with plenty of challenges. In the midst of this, a friend gave him a book by Henri Nouwen. In it, Nouwen, a Catholic priest, and writer shared that he, too, sometimes experienced anguish and confusion in his own spiritual quest.
Wakefield wanted to meet Nouwen personally and was thrilled when Nouwen agreed to have lunch with him. When they got together, Wakefield expressed appreciation for Nouwen’s writings but confessed that if someone as spiritually mature as Nouwen still wrestled with his doubts, then what hope, Wakefield wondered, could there be for a mere beginner like himself?
In reply, Nouwen could have been condescending,“there, there, you’ll get stronger by and by…” or he could have given him a prayer exercise to do or another book to read…like a doctor’s prescription.
Instead, he simply put down his fork and told Wakefield that, contrary to popular opinion,“Christianity is NOT for getting your life together.”
If Christianity is not for getting your life together, then what is it for?
The prophet Micah offers an almost-shockingly straightforward answer. He lays out what it looks like to be on the right path, and it isn’t getting our lives together: it is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. It is a spiritual journey full of challenges that require relentless persistence.
Before this verse, Micah reminds God’s people that getting on the right path requires us to turn away from other paths. God’s people are hoping they to appease God by bringing material offerings to the altar when they worship, but Micah is clear: God doesn’t want your stuff, God wants your life. God wants your energy, your time, your hunger and thirst to be directed toward the ways of God – ways of humility and justice.
In Luke’s parable of the widow and unjust judge, we see how humility and justice can go together.
In Jesus’s time, widows were humble almost by definition – they had no power in their society because they had no standing, they could not own property, and they relied on the sympathy and generosity of others for survival. This is why there are so many scriptures in the Hebrew Bible that call God’s people to care for the widow and the orphan – they have no power of their own.
The widow may be powerless in that she has no standing, no value, no ownership, but even in her humble state, she claims the power she does have: she is relentlessly persistent in pursuit of justice. She will not rest until the judge listens to her and exercises his power on her behalf.
Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. Despite the sheer hopelessness of his situation, each day for seven years Admiral Stockdale chose to do things to increase the number of prisoners who would survive. He acted as if justice, one day, would be theirs. He exchanged intelligence info with his wife in their letters. He beat himself so he couldn’t be presented on TV as a ‘well-treated prisoner.’ And he instituted rules and steps to help other prisoners endure their torture.
After he was released, Stockdale and his wife wrote a book together about their experience of his captivity. An interviewer who read the book found himself sinking into a deep depression as he learned about the uncertainty of Stockdale’s fate and the brutality of his captors – and the interviewer knew that this story a happy ending, that Stockdale would be released and reunited with his wife and go on to have a successful career.
So when the interviewer finally talked to Stockdale the first thing he asked him was how he dealt with such hardships when he did not know how things would turn out. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale responded. “I never doubted for once that I would get out and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.” After a moment of silence, the interviewer asked a follow-up question, “Who didn’t make it out?”
Stockdale’s response was quick and surprising, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists…the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they’d die of a broken heart.” Stockdale then looked directly at the interviewer.
“This is a very important lesson,” he said. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Jim Stockdale was convinced that his story would not end in that prisoner of war camp, and he did everything he could to make that episode a part of his life, not the end of it. But this didn’t mean he ignored the immediate challenges before him. Likewise, the widow refused to tell her story as a story of justice denied; instead, she kept facing her reality and pestering that judge until she received the justice she knew one day would be hers.
The world is full of injustice. To say otherwise would just be untrue. You know the litany: gun violence, opioid addiction, income inequality, human trafficking, genocide, an ineffective, chaotic and divided government. If we tell our story right now, with this moment as its ending, well, then clearly, it’s going to be a tragedy.
The world is a mess. Our nation is a mess. To say otherwise would just be untrue. And yet despite all this, we stubbornly claim that our story is not over yet, that our nation and our world are in God’s hands, and that God calls us to reject all the old, failed commitments and walk the walk with Jesus. God calls us to live as if our hunger and thirst and work for justice matters and as if our prayers make a difference.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the seventh president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall to fight for civil rights through the court system. The lawyers who have worked for the legal defense fund have challenged school segregation, racially restrictive covenants in housing, and unjust voter id laws.
Ifill claims that her job and the job of these lawyers is to see the architecture of inequality, the scaffolding of it; not just the incidents that are its symptoms but the platform on which these injustices are built. They have to see it and then work to systematically dismantle it and give communities the tools to rebuild something in its place. As hard as this work is, Ifill believes that more and more people are seeing this scaffolding, more and more people are recognizing that injustice has been built into the fabric of our society and our lives together, and more and more people are longing for that to change.
In a recent interview, Ifill was asked what advice has stuck with her. “The one that is really helping me right now,” she said, “is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s also a relay race. You have to run the part of the race that’s yours and at the end of the day, you are doing the things, working on the issues that are showing up in your time, in your moment. Work your moment, and then pass the baton.”
When we align ourselves with the powerless and those longing and working for justice, we are on the right path, walking the walk with Jesus. This journey is much longer than a marathon and it is not an individual race; it’s a relay. It is a relay that began when God created this world and it is a race that will not end until God fully and finally redeems it with an EASTER ending. We draw strength from the people who have journeyed this path before us – in their persistence and their determination and their victories along the way – and we trust that when we come to the end of our journeys, there will be others who will take the baton from us to continue God’s work.
This is what it means to be part of God’s salvation story: it is not my story or your story or an American story or a Presbyterian story or even a Christian story: it is a HUMAN story. And no matter how bleak things seem in any one chapter, this path we are BLESSED to be on is a path full of people working, fighting, praying, advocating, crying out for justice. People who have gone before us, who draw alongside us and strengthen us and who will continue this work after us. People who are all discovering what it means to be BLESSED.
 Interview on the Day1 podcast prior to preaching the sermon, “Strategies for Staying Emancipated,” March 3, 2018. http://day1.org/8145-walter_brueggemann_strategies_for_staying_emancipated
 Richard Rohr, Daily Evotional for January 31, 2018. https://cac.org/blessed-are-the-gentle-2018-01-31/
 Richard Rohr, Daily Devotional, February 2, 2018, https://cac.org/blessed-hunger-justice-2018-02-02/
 As cited in Testimony, by Thomas G Long, Jossey-Bass, 2004, pp. 121-122. Found in Mark Ramsey’s sermon, “Hungry,” preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC on September 20, 2009.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great. HarperBusiness, 2011, pp. 83-85.
 For this refrain I am indebted to Derek Starr Redwine’s sermon, “Persevere, Pray,” from October 20, 2013.
 Pod Save the People, “Don’t Tell Your Story Too Soon,” February 26, 2018.