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“The Long Defeat”– Luke 18:1-8 — October 20, 2013

The news of the suicides of three teen-age girls this week has been heart-breaking and sobering. The Banner reported that a student at Mt. Anthony Union Middle School had com-mitted suicide, and our thoughts and prayers have been not only with this young girl’s family but also with Tim Payne and his staff and students as they have dealt with this tragedy. Though the initial reports are that bullying was not involved with this death, it does appear to have been involved in the cases from Mt. Abraham High School and earlier this month in Florida. One of the bullyers in the Florida case, a 14-year-old girl, is reported to have admitted to bullying the student and not caring that the girl was now dead.

Though yesterday’s Banner carried a story about the violent and abusive atmosphere in which this 14-year-old bully has grown up, it is still distressing to hear what seems to be more and more common– no sense of remorse or responsibility for the harmful results of one’s actions, a sense of anomie, that is, lawlessness, no sense of a moral code, an utter disregard for the consequences of one’s actions. We find it in computer hackers who thrill at the chaos and devastation they can wreak from the privacy of their bedrooms or kitchen tables upon not only corporations and governments but also countless citizens whose home computers are infected. We find it in ultra-libertarians, who see their own individual liberty as being paramount, regardless of their impact on others. We hear echoes of it in students who say that cheating on a test or paper is perfectly fine, as long as they don’t get caught.

“In a certain city,” Jesus began, “there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” “There is no greater definition of impunity,” writes one commentator, “than someone who has power and yet has no fear of God nor regard for humanity. [Mark Davis, Left Behind, 10/20/13] People like that, including the judge in this parable, are “living as if there is no moral order to the universe, life has no divine purpose, meaning, or consequences.” This judge who had no “fear of God” had “no sense of accountability for serving justice, rather than [his] own self-interest.”

Jesus goes on. “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’–probably a relative of her deceased husband or someone else trying to advantage of her vulnerability. “For a while [the judge] refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

These daily encounters between the widow and the judge would have been very public scenes. All legal proceedings took place at the city gate, not in closed courtrooms, so the widow’s grievances, and her wailing upon the judge, were heard and seen in the court of public opinion as well. The Torah was quite clear about the responsibility to care for widows, orphans, and foreigners, so the judge’s disregard for the Torah was as public as his disregard for the widow’s plight. He was in fact, being shamed by this widow’s persistence, and the black and blue marks on his face (which is what the Greek implies by the word for “wearing me out”) were becoming badges of shame. It is finally to restore his honor–so essential in this culture– that he grants the widow justice.

“Listen to what the unjust judge says,” Jesus concludes. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

Luke’s community was tired of waiting for the return of Jesus, tired of waiting for God to bring justice and the fulfilment of history. So, Luke says, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” How much more tired then, we might ask, are we, some 2000 years later? When young men and women throw themselves off towers and bridges because of callous bullying…when aid to children’s food and education programs is cut off while corporate profits soar…when elephants are slaughtered and their tusks hacked off to be made into trinkets…when political candidates are bought and sold…when a few have infinitely more than enough while most have barely enough to survive–aren’t we entitled to being a little tired and tempted to give up hope?

In JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, “the Elves of Lothlorien admit that they’re losing their forest lands. But they battle on. They describe their struggle as ‘fighting the long defeat.’” (cited by Dan Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 10/14/13) In the letters of Tolkein, the author describes the human struggle in similar terms. “Actually, I am a Christian [he writes], and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’–though it contains…some samples or glimpses of final victory.” (Clendenin, op cit.)

In Tracy Kidder’s biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, entitled Mountains Beyond Mountains, Farmer describes the battle to bring health care to the poor of Haiti, using Tolkein’s phrase again:

“I have fought the long defeat [Farmer says] and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory….We want to be on the winning team but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.” (Cited by Clendenin, op cit.)

Nelson Mandela, 27 years in a South African prison, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for so many years in Burma/Myanmar, Martin Luther King Jr., all fighting the long defeat, yet believing that, as King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” ” Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Over these past weeks, a crowd of people gathered on the lawn of the Capitol for what they called a Faithful Filibuster. Every day that Congress was in session over the shut-down, they engaged in prayer and a public reading of the 2000 or more verses in the Bible about poverty and justice. Their effect was powerful, and in the last days, three Republican Senators–Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine–joined them in prayer before walking into the Capitol to propose an end to the shutdown. The Faithful Filibuster was of course most powerful for those who participated in it. One woman who was on furlough came to observe, and joined in to read. “I thought I was walking over to observe something holy, but I had no idea that God was going to use this to encourage me. Being asked to step to a podium and read the word of God a day after I was told it wasn’t my place brought me to tears….We serve a God who has put passion in the hearts of all His children. If we silence even one of those voices, we are missing out on a precious piece of God’s redemptive plan for this side of Eden!” (Cited by Jim Wallis in Hearts and Minds, Sojourners, 10/17/13)

The word for “widow” in Hebrew means silent one, one unable to speak. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the widow in this parable of Jesus “was willing to say what she wanted–out loud day and night, over and over–whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart.” (BBT, Home by Another Way, p. 201)

” Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Don’t lose heart. Don’t forget the shape of your heart. In his sermon to the Southwest Association up at Grace Congregational Church in Rutland a few weeks ago, Jerry Handspicker spoke about our call and need to be faithful, not successful. We must not forget that the shape of our heart is relational, communal, longing for and in fact held in the heart of God. So we must continue to stand with those who have no voice, no power, even though the odds seem stacked against us. That’s why we walk in the CROP Walk this afternoon. So we must continue to “pray always,” not just like brushing our teeth, as part of our spiritual hygiene program, as Barbara Taylor puts it, once in the morning and once at night, but always– always open to the heart of God, always listening for God’s whisper, always straining for a glimpse of the kingdom of God in our midst.

Jerry quoted 3 great warriors in this long defeat. Czech poet and leader Vaclav Havel wrote, “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

And Thomas Merton, 20th. C. saint and Trappist monk–”Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not the opposite of what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…In the end it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

And finally Margaret Wheatley, author and organizational consultant. Jerry quoted her, saying, “The only thing we can predict is that life will surprise us. We can’t see what is coming until it arrives, and once something has emerged, we have to work with what is. We have to be flexible and willing to adapt–we can’t keep pushing ahead, blustering on with our outdated plans and dreams. And it doesn’t do to deny what has emerged. We need to be present and willing to accept this new reality.” Compelling words for the church.

” Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

The November issue of National Geographic magazine arrived yesterday, and the editorial addresses the question, “Why cover a place so full of sadness?” referring to their story on the ongoing violence in northern Nigeria. “Why cover a place…like northern Nigeria–a place so beset by insurgency and corruption, so full of sadness and violence? [the editor asks] “To tell stories that need to be told,” answers Ed Kashi, the story’s photographer. To bear witness. To hope the story adds to the conversation. Perhaps to make a difference…Who will speak for this woman crossing the street? [the editor asks, referring to the picture of an anxious woman leading her family across the street on their way to church] Not the government. Not the terrorists who bomb churches, schools, and mosques. Violence, we know all too well, has no borders. It matters that we pay attention to and report these stories. ‘When I see someone struggling, it’s in my DNA to help,’ [photographer] Ed Kashi says. If only by bearing witness to a frightened woman crossing the street. (NG, Nov. 2013, p. 4)

Surely it is in our DNA to help, when we see someone struggling. ” Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Remember the shape of your heart. Pray always. Do not lose heart.

May these words be hope and courage and strength for us, for the living of these days. Amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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