Doth the lady protest too much?

Sermon given on 20th October 2019

Readings: Genesis 32: 22 – 31   Luke 18: 1 – 8

Yesterday, with the eyes of the world upon us, a decisive victory was won: a victory which will restore our credibility on the international stage; a victory which will have an important bearing on our future standing among our neighbours; a victory which was clearly right and proper.

I am, of course, referring to England’s triumph against the Aussies in the Rugby world cup – a welcome distraction from anything else that may have been going on back home!
And if “perseverance” was a hallmark of that particular match – and of certain individual players within it – it’s also an underlying theme in the various readings set for today.

Firstly, there’s Jacob – who struggles all night against the unknown challenger, whom he then understands to be God himself. In doing so he wins the stranger’s blessing – achieving through sheer determination and perseverance what he had previously tried to win by deceit:
you’ll remember that he had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright by deceiving their blind father, Isaac into giving him his blessing instead. And he’s only alone at the beginning of this struggle because he’s sent the company ahead to try and appease Esau before the brothers meet. And so he has to earn his redemption by his own perseverance.
And then Luke gives us the parable of the judge and the persistent widow. The judge in question is not exactly diligent – he’s not much bothered with the woman’s concerns, but he is evidently unsettled by here, to say the least. She’s keeps pestering him: one translation has him saying “I will grant her justice, otherwise she will keep coming at me” and, in Nicholas King’s typically blunt translation, “if I don’t grant her justice, she will give me a black eye”!

Whatever the cause of her grievance and the strength of her case, clearly this poor widow is not going to give up.

And I want to just step away from the story for moment – to run a bit further with the notion of perseverance – which, in other people, can be both admirable and severely irritating.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta – whose anniversary of beatification was also celebrated yesterday – once famously caused mayhem in a Lindon Marks and Spencer’s food hall.
Having filled a trolley to the brim, and having allowed the cashier to process all those items, she then simply stood and repeated, loudly that the food was for the poor. Eventually the harassed woman on the till called her manager and the harassed manager agreed to donate the goods that this persistent nun had selected. Good news indeed for the poor – perhaps not so much fun for the staff involved – and no doubt absolutely infuriating for the people in the queue behind her!

And that brings into focus the twin questions of “motivation” and “method” – something very much in public debate around some of the protests taking place just now.

Archbishop Justin gave an interesting perspective to all this during a radio interview this week: speaking in the context of the Extinction Rebellion protests affecting the capital, he said that as a Christian, he believed passionately in the right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief – but that part of that Christian belief is that we need to show proper respect for the dignity of all people and proper respect for all of God’s creation.

As a result he was clearly in favour of the right to demonstrate – he was clearly in sympathy with the aims – the motivation – of the climate protesters.
On the other hand, preventing people getting to work, making them late to collect children from nursery, preventing patients getting to hospital for crucial appointments and so on – that was a failure to respect the dignity of fellow human beings, so while he could applaud the protesters’ motives he could not approve of their methods.

And he went on to apply exactly the same principle to other running sores in our society – the protests that are still taking place outside some schools in Birmingham, relating to the content of certain lessons;
demonstrations taking place outside, or near to abortion clinics;
personal attacks on members of parliament and public officials.

Standing up for our deeply held convictions – and “persevering” when challenged may well be admirable, but protestors must always consider the effect any demonstration or “direct action” will have on other people – children and vulnerable adults included.

There is a balance to be struck then between freedom of speech and respect for others’ dignity. That balance, the Archbishop suggested, has currently been lost – and on that point at least I am in full agreement with him!
Coming back to Jesus’ parable – and, again, the questions of motivation and method are important.

In this story, it seems, we are not meant simply to identify ourselves, or the disciples, with the persistent widow and the judge with God. This judge is NOT worthy of the title, let alone comparison with God: he is not really interested in justice at all, just in a quiet life.

Yes, he does the right think in the end, but only to avoid the black eye! In this case the method has a good effect – acquiring justice and making the judge do his job – if only this once.

But it’s that final verse – which doesn’t initially seem to follow – that is perhaps the key to what’s going on in this story.
“And yet”, asks Jesus, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Suddenly we seem to have lurched from semi-humorous admiration of the power of the “battleaxe” to stern questioning about the second coming of Christ.
Where did that come from?

Perhaps Jesus is asking his disciples what they are going to do with the faith that apparently now motivates them:
will they end up like the lazy judge – doing the right things only when they are called to account, remembering Jesus’ teachings only when challenged to do so – OR, will they be like the persistent widow, passionately concerned for justice to prevail, deeply committed to proper respect for the dignity of all God’s people and all God’s creation?

That I think is the challenge Jesus is issuing to his hearers.

And so to us, and how we can best live out our faith – how do we stand up for what we believe in, how do we remain faithful to our Christian calling, without unduly alarming or inconveniencing anyone else?

Two thoughts.
There is a real strength in lives marked by quiet, faithful, perseverance that can be every bit as compelling as noisy demonstrations and public grandstanding.
And if we can allow ourselves to be guided always by the
the genuine desire for justice and respect for all life – then surely we can trust that we are on the side of the angels.