Today marks the liturgical beginning of our annual stewardship campaign, with the commissioning of canvassers a little later in this service. By now, materials explaining the campaign have been sent to you, and are also available here at the church. Over the next five weeks or so, your fellow parishioners will speak about why they pledge in Sunday homilies, there will be a forum demystifying our parish budget, and most of you will be contacted by one of the canvass callers. We have set a goal of $360,000, which represents a healthy but, we believe, achievable increase over last year, and which we need in order to support our life and ministry here at Ascension. I invite you to enter into this season prayerfully, as an opportunity to express your gratitude to God, your relationship with Ascension as a spiritual home, and your support for God’s mission in this place.
I hope, of course, that all of you will pledge generously, as you are able — not because we are continually asking, like the widow in this morning’s gospel, or because you are worn down like the judge, but gladly, gratefully from your hearts.
I do think, however, that today’s lessons speak to the issue of stewardship: what we’re called to do with God’s gifts to us, and why. The theme that runs throughout is persistence.
Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, brings a promise of restoration to the exiled people of Judah. After the destruction of their homeland and culture, after they were carried away to Babylon in defeat, God promises to be with them “to build and to plant”, restoring both humans and animals. The lesson reflects the renewal of God’s covenant with the people, a renewal of a passionate love affair, and transformation of the very capacity to love: “I will write my law on their hearts, and they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Through disaster and destruction, through healing and restoration, God persists in longing for communion with the people — which is also to say, with us. God perseveres in healing, forgiving, loving, and renewing our hearts.
The letter to Timothy instructs a young leader to proclaim the message of salvation. He is to do this “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”, or, as another translation says, “in season and out of season.” There is a quality of urgency to share, to persist in offering good news and life-giving hope to a world in desperate need; so full of the bad news of hatred, grief, apathy and despair. Timothy’s work is to keep at it, to do what he can, to carry out his ministry fully.
But this morning my attention is drawn most of all to the gospel, to the parable Jesus tells about the need to persist — “to pray always and not to lose heart.” It includes only two, vividly drawn, characters.
First, the widow. We may realize that in Jesus’ day she would be among the most vulnerable people in society. But also, like many biblical widows, especially perhaps in Luke, she speaks up. Like Anna the prophet; like the widow of Zarephath who Jesus names in his first sermon, who advocated for herself and her son to the prophet Elijah; like the widow who chooses to give her last coins and is commended for her generosity by Jesus, this woman is self-determining and strong. She is opinionated; she makes choices.
Her quest for justice defines her. She gets up every day and goes back to confront the judge. We don’t know how she keeps going, but she does. She is full of heart.
She may also be obnoxious, difficult and not at all ladylike. She is so forceful, in fact, that when the weary judge takes stock of his options and decides to relent and grant the justice she cries for, in Greek he says not “she is bothering me” as our English text reads, but “she is giving me a black eye” — with all the implied physical and social impact. She embarrasses and frightens him with her relentless petitioning.
Of the judge, we hear twice that he neither fears God nor respects human beings. That appears to be his image of himself, when we eavesdrop on his internal monologue. One commentator suggests that this is the very definition of “unjust” — failure to care about either God or people. In any case, he gives justice to the widow not because of a change of heart, but because he is just plain worn out.
Do you recognize these characters? I do, and I also recognize the dance between them. I find that I identify with both of them.
As a person with authority, as someone who has run programs and had to set limits, and yes, as a parent, I know what it is to say “no”. To try to keep the rules, to try to preserve my sanity, to conserve limited resources. Sometimes I say it kindly, sometimes not so kindly, and sometimes, I fear, I simply refuse something because I am tired or annoyed. And I also know what it is to be worn down by the “continual coming” of a determined, vocal, opinionated person who knows what she wants and thinks I should give it to her. Perhaps you have had this experience. But on my good days, I try, even if I continue to say “no”, to look for what is really desired, and underneath, what is needed — by both of us. Sometimes I cave, and sometimes I try to find the “yes” I can say with integrity and generosity. Sometimes I find that my heart is changed, and I see that I should say yes, rules or no. I try to find a way to connect, to honor both the person in front of me and the divine in her or him. Sometimes I do better than other times.
And the woman in the story is like so many advocates and truth-tellers past and present, crying for justice on behalf of themselves and others. She will not give up. She will not stop. Hearing the story this week, I could not help associating her insistent voice with the voices of women — more everyday — who are speaking up about their experiences of sexual assault, breaking through shame, through the internalized sense that “it must be my fault”, through the fear of not being believed and thus being re-traumatized — breaking through all of that to say “enough is enough; this must stop for the sake of all of us”. The women who are speaking are emboldened by each other’s example, empowered by each other’s anger and courage. Perhaps this urgently needed truth-telling, this difficult conversation, will be a positive fruit of a very negative, difficult time in our national life and politics.
At the beginning of the passage, we hear that Jesus told this story about the need to pray and not lose heart. At the end, he affirms that God is not like the judge in the story, but rather is tenacious, persistent in seeking justice for and with those who cry out. This parable is specifically about the yearning for justice — the particular prayer “thy kingdom come” in which we long for and align ourselves with God’s good will for all creation. It is about the way we pray with our feet, our voices and our votes, confronting injustice with implacable vision and urgent need. But it is also about the mystery of intercessory prayer itself — the hard work of coming before God with the cries of our hearts, for ourselves and those we love. It is about the persistence required to keep praying when it seems that nothing is happening, to grapple with prayers that seem so worthy and yet are unanswered, at least in any way we can see. It is also about how we are changed when we pray, how our hearts are not lost but may be stretched and strengthened and filled.
The passage grapples with the delay, the hiddenness of God’s justice, the silence that answers some prayers. Jesus says, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” When I read the gospels, I enjoy thinking about how we might define “faith” if we had only one particular story to tell us what it is. Last week, for example, healing faith was defined as gratitude. Next week it will be humility. But in this passage, faith is persistence.
It is to not lose heart.
So, what does this have to do with stewardship — with our care for God’s gifts, and with pledging to the church in particular?
If we are to keep on keeping on, we need a community that walks the road with us, that persists over time, that helps us to hold onto hope, and strengthens our hearts. We need community that can hear the cries for justice day and night, that can sustain us when we cry and help us do justice and love mercy when we have power. We need a community that prays for us when we do lose heart and prays with us all the time, a community that holds up the vision of God’s justice, peace and love and encourages us to serve that love together. We need a community that helps us grow our faith, and live it boldly, for the long haul.
I hope the Church of the Ascension is that kind of community; I hope we are growing together more and more into that faith and action, nourished and inspired by those who have gone before us. To persist, we need the support of every one of us.
There is a paragraph in The Unknown Worshipper, the history of Ascension written by former rector James W. Kennedy, that speaks to the stewardship of our community. It describes Ascension at 100 years old, the era when it became known as the church of the open door, and embraced enormous challenges of reaching out into the community around it. At that time, Ascension had just called the sixth rector, Donald Aldrich. The story is told from the perspective of the end of Dr. Aldrich’s rectorship, twenty years later. Kennedy writes,
“Dr. Aldrich looked back and said: “It was four men who some twenty odd years ago saved the Church of the Ascension…Not because they underwrote the church budget to the amount of $30,000 in 1926 when the total sum given to the church’s support in 1925 had been only $1,000. This, it is true, they courageously did. But they saved it because they stayed with it; they saved it because they believed in it, loved it, worked for it. And they stayed with it not out of dumb institutional loyalty, but because they knew it to be a peculiar place, because they saw its true meaning in its origin and in its development (Kennedy, p.93-4).”
We too have a mission to embrace in and out of season — not just a few of us, but all of us. We too may find that we can give more than we previously have, or thought we could. Let us care for this church community, and let us raise our voices in praise, proclaiming the good news of God’s unfathomable grace. Let us seek justice day and night. Let us stay with it for the long haul, serving God and God’s world with full and joyful hearts.
Sermon preached on October 16, 2016