Sermon: Last Sunday after Trinity : Luke 18.1-8
Sunday 16 October 2016
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Today’s gospel encourages us to reflect on persistence and particularly persistence in the face of injustice. It is a timely parable for reflection as Boris and Vladimir lock horns this side of the Atlantic with Donald and Hilary at it across the pond. The world seems very unsafe and it can be hard to hope given the levels of madness we witness.
I think it is also hard to remain faithful as a Christian. All over the western world the church is declining apart from in its most conservative and hard-line manifestations. The shadows of child abuse and our on-going internal church wrangles set in an indifferent secular culture means that it is hard being a follower of Jesus Christ in 2016.
I became Dean in May 2013 and these three and a half years have been an exciting non-stop journey with much joy, hard work and development. But is it really possible to keep going at such pelt? I go off today on sabbatical leave until the 1st of February to reflect. Our new bishop wisely told us that to get up the long big hills on a bike; it is usually wise to change down a gear or two. We have identified in the Chapter that if we are to become the beating heart for the city and county we will need persistence. We are committed to work with God to grow the congregation numbers very significantly; to work with what God is doing in the world so that we can respond in mission and finally to re-order and conserve this old building into its latest incarnation making it more fit for purpose. What kind of persistence is needed?
The parable in Luke 18 focuses on two characters. Firstly, we meet a widow who has suffered an injustice. Jewish ears would immediate prick up at that word ‘widow’ and remember all the injunctions in scripture to care for them. The reason for that was primarily because in that patriarchal society in most cases a woman needed a man to speak for her and to claim her rights. Since a widow normally did not have such a man, then it became the responsibility of the whole people of God to care for her and make sure justice is done.
Secondly, we meet a judge who is unjust. The judge is happy to throw his weight around and make it clear that he is beholden to no-one, not even God. Eventually, however, the widow’s insistence forces him to act for fear that she might ‘wear him out’. That phrase in the Greek can also be translated as ‘hit me under the eye’ or ‘give me a black eye’ giving that sense of a physical attack which besmirches the judge’s reputation – like that event the other day in Brussels with UKIP handbags at dawn! So out of sheer annoyance the judge vindicates the woman.
Jesus then says that if the judge will listen to such persistence how much more will God listen to the ‘ones who cry to him day and night? So we could infer that we just need to keep on keeping on. Maybe like the judge, we can wear out God and give him a black eye so that he will act to save or heal or renew. This paints the picture of a God who does not act out of compassion but out of sheer fatigue.
No, Jesus is rather contrasting the unfeeling judge with God who will act promptly and not demand insistent petition. However, he recognises that this is hard for us because it is framed in Luke by Jesus saying that it is a parable told to his disciples ‘to pray always and not lose heart’. It is a parable for people in difficult days that wait for the ultimate coming of the Son of Man. One commentator says it is like Noah being mocked by his neighbours when every day was sunny and not a rain cloud in the sky. It is about being vindicated even at a time when such vindication seems illusory because the very act of prayer means that justice is possible. Prayer intentionally creates space for God to act in us and among us.
The widow is caught up in the cause of justice and she will not give up. The church through prayer is caught up in the same longing. We are not simply the new department of welfare as statutory provision is cut rather because prayer is the air we breathe, the language that we learn to speak with every greater depth and simplicity. Through prayer we keep God as the principle actor not the Dean nor the Chapter nor the Cathedral community. It is God who will do justice, God who will grow his church, God who is already at work in the world. The church is there to be the widow, to voice the pain, to cry out, to learn to speak with all who need justice and who need it now.
I notice living in the city centre that there are more and more people on the streets. Some of these people exhibit many signs of failing mental health. There are many more rough sleepers. Those registered as asylum seekers only get 35.00 per week to live on. In this city alone there are 1000 people who have been refused asylum but who come from places which even the Home Office designate as being too dangerous to deport them back to. These people receive no benefits and cannot work and are literally stuck in no man’s land and destitution.
When I spoke about these matters on Radio 2 on the Clare Balding morning show they had a big response on the phones, emails and social media. The producer told me it was nearly all negative. Our former Archbishop Rowan Williams was at Launde recently and told us about a newspaper article he wrote supporting the plight of refugees where he described his resultant post bag as vile.
At such times when justice is needed and active opposition to it grows, is just the time for this parable. Our response is firstly prayer because that means we place God in the centre rather than getting caught up into the cycles of hatred where the poison might infect us so that our action rather than healing becomes part of the problem.
This community has two opportunities ahead which I want to invite you to pray through. The first relates to our friendship with the Syrians who have landed here. Each time a new family has come, we have welcomed them before they go to their new accommodation. They now meet here on Sunday mornings for support. A few of them joined us for coffee last week and we hope that more will join us. What might God be telling us through this? Where is the justice that needs to be done through us? What is the persistent prayer for them as they rebuild very broken lives here?
Secondly, church leaders in the city centre along with some members of others faiths have met and are planning to provide a temporary winter night shelter for the coldest weeks of the year. Our brothers and sisters from St Andrews have offered their church hall to be used on a Friday night. A co-ordinator for that evening will be needed alongside people to provide food and support and friendship. What might God be telling us through this? Where is the justice that needs to be done through us? What is the persistent prayer for them as they rebuild very broken lives here?
I go off with these questions hanging in the air but aware of God’s grace and abundant justice which is not diminished by my tiredness nor by the immensity of the injustice around. In prayer I have time and time rediscovered God who is faithful; far more insistent and persistent than I and so although it has been demanding, I have not lost heart. The American poet Denise Levertov puts it beautifully in her poem ‘Suspended’:
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister liked to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
© The Very Revd David Monteith