The Rev. Barbara Lundblad: Holy Persistence (Pride Evensong Sermon at St. Luke in the Fields)

The following sermon was offered by the Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad at the annual Pride Evensong at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York, on June 30, 2013.

The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad, D.D.

The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad, D.D.

Luke 18: 1-8

A year ago, most of us didn’t predict that we would be celebrating the demise of DOMA in today’s Pride Parade. Perhaps we had a lack of imagination. Did the Supreme Court purposely plan to release their decisions about DOMA and Prop 8 just in time for Pride weekend? I had no idea we had such power! When my partner and I were married in 2011 after a 25-year engagement, we didn’t think the federal government would recognize our marriage anytime soon! I must admit that I wasn’t even thinking about Edie Windsor when I chose this text about a widow pestering an unjust judge! I guess I had a great lack of imagination.But is this gospel text about a widow? Well, yes, Jesus does tell a parable about a widow, but many people will say, “This is a parable about prayer.” After all, Jesus gives the punch line before he tells the story:  “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Jesus is saying we need to be as persistent in praying as this poor widow was in pestering the judge.  This is a parable about prayer.

“Not so fast!” others will say. “This is a parable about justice.” Jesus’ story features two particular characters: an unjust judge and a widow. He might have chosen other characters to talk about persistence but he chose these two. Jesus wants us to see the widow as more than a cardboard prop. It was rare for a widow to inherit land if her husband died – or if Edith Windsor’s spouse of 44 years died. Even if she did inherit the land she was often unable to work that land and sell the produce. So she was forced to borrow money and give her land as collateral. When she still couldn’t pay, she lost her land and her home – or, we might add, she had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes because she wasn’t considered married! Jesus doesn’t tell us what had happened to this widow, but it’s clear that she had suffered great injustice. Through it all, she refused to give up. She would not go away until the judge granted her justice against the one who had wronged her. Now if this judge who admits he doesn’t respect anyone gives justice to this poor widow, how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out day and night. “Will God delay long in helping them?” Jesus asks.  “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” Four times Jesus says the word justice.  This is a parable about justice. 

“You’ve missed the point,” others will say. “This is a story about faith.” Read the last line! Jesus gives a little summary:  “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” It’s as though Jesus is saying, “You may think you’ve gotten the point, but this is what I really want to say.” Will you keep the faith? By the time Luke wrote this gospel, Jesus had been gone for years. How can you keep believing when you’re persecuted by the authorities and rejected by family and friends?  This is a parable about faith.

So, what do you think? Is this a parable about prayer or justice or faith? Jesus was surely talking about persistence, but was he talking only about persistence in prayer? His parable focuses on justice and his last sentence lifts up faith. By now you’re probably guessing that Jesus wants us to hold all three together. If we pray but neglect to work for justice, our prayers are empty. If we work for justice and never pray, we’ll think everything depends on our efforts alone. If we pray and work for justice but have no faith, we’ll give up when justice doesn’t come. All three are intertwined and must not be torn apart.

Okay – but can we stop pestering the judge now? DOMA is done. California couples who were married are still married with more weddings to come. Episcopalians elected an openly gay bishop who has served long enough to retire. You also elected a lesbian bishop. Now Lutherans have elected a gay bishop in southern California – maybe that’s what it means to be in Full Communion! Thirteen states have legalized gay marriage, including my home state of Iowa and my present home in New York – two very different states! Can we stop pestering the judge now? Surely those who oppose gay marriage must be asking, “What DO you gay people want?”

Safety. We want to walk the streets of this city or any city or town or village without fear of attack, even death. Safety doesn’t seem too much to ask. Justice for trans people – no discrimination in employment; classrooms and school yards free of bullying. Trans women of color continue to be murdered at an alarming rate across the country. We can celebrate that 30% of people in this country live in states where gay marriage is legal – but that leaves 70% in states where gay marriage isn’t allowed. We have to keep pestering even in the midst of celebrations – even when the 84-year-old widow has received justice and rides as the grand marshal of our parade! But we need to be persistent not only for ourselves, but for every person whose dignity and freedom are under attack.  Jesus wants us to keep prayer and justice and faith together. So, too, we need to keep the pieces of this past week together: DOMA and Prop 8 and the Voting Rights Act. Our victories cannot erase the damage inflicted by the court on Tuesday. We must be as persistent in working for the right to vote as we have been in working for LGBTQ justice.

Marion Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund is one of the most persistent pesterers in our time. After the latest defeat of gun control, she wrote these words: “I woke up the morning after the Senate votes thinking about Sojourner Truth, one of my role models, a brilliant and indomitable slave woman who could neither read nor write but who was passionate about ending unjust slavery and second-class treatment of women. At the end of one of her antislavery talks in Ohio, a man came up to her and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say?  Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”

“Perhaps not,” she answered, “but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.” 

Then Marion went on in her own words: “Enough fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable.  And if they flick some of us off but even more of us keep coming back with our calls and emails, our visits and nonviolent protests, and our votes —we will win.” She says that even when there’s little evidence that victory will come. She keeps knocking. We must keep knocking, too — knocking on the door of the unjust judge. Congressman John Lewis is knocking. Trans people are knocking. Queer people in 37 states are knocking. This isn’t only a political agenda. This is Jesus’ agenda: Be persistent in prayer. Be persistent in working for justice. Be persistent in your faith. Keep pestering now and forever. Amen   

The Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She earned her Doctorate in Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and her Masters in Divinity from Yale Divinity School in New Haven.

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