Keep Struggling – A Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

Again and again and again this woman came, every day, over and over, with the same request. “Please, do the right thing. Give me justice!” And finally, after she had bothered him day after day after day, even though he didn’t care the slightest bit about what was the right thing to do, the judge finally gave in and granted her justice, only to keep her from coming back again.

The strange thing about this parable is that we really have no idea what her specific request was. What was the cause that had her so impassioned? What great injustice happened to her? Jesus never says. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters about this parable is that, whatever it was, it got her angry enough that, even though the judge showed no sign that he would ever care what she wanted, and even though her cause must have seemed pointless at times, she just kept coming back. Maybe the important thing is that she never lost heart, never gave up hope, until finally she wore down the person who had the power to change things. Maybe the point isn’t what she was struggling against, but that she kept struggling.

If this woman had a name in the Bible, I think she would have been made the patron saint of annoying people. Because the fact is, when you keep asking over and over for the same thing, you become annoying to the people you’re asking. It’s not a great way to make friends. It is, however, a pretty effective way to make change.

A few weeks ago, Bill preached about anger, and he talked mostly about the negative, destructive effects of anger, and how to control it. I’m going in a different direction today (no great surprise), because I believe that there is another aspect to anger. I believe that there are some situations in which anger – even outrage – is the most reasonable and most appropriate reaction. And I believe that anger can be a powerful motivator for change, like this woman crying out over and over, “Grant me justice. Grant me justice!” I hear anger in her voice. And I hear anger in the voices of others who have cried out and struggled and persevered in their search for justice. It’s the kind of anger that carried them through and kept them struggling and coming back over and over even when their cause seemed hopeless.

In 1918, the first overtures came to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America requesting that women be allowed to be ordained. The movement for women’s suffrage was in full swing, although after several decades of protesting, they probably didn’t have much hope that things would ever change. And women’s desire for a voice and a role among those who led them came to the church as well, and these women were angry, that even in the church where they had been baptized as image bearers of God, they were considered less able, less human. They were angry. And they were annoying. They were annoying enough to convince the men in their lives to proceed with these overtures, because of course at that time, women were not allowed to attend or bring overtures to the assemblies of the RCA.

The General Synod of 1918 said no. They kept saying no, every couple of years for decades. They refused to consider the issue or study it; they simply voted no. But these annoying people kept coming back, and in the 1950s they demanded a committee to study the issue – which is what we do in the RCA. The committee returned in 1958 with a report that included this statement: “Scripture nowhere excludes women from eligibility to the offices but always emphasizes their inclusion, prominence, and equal status with men in the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Hoorah! And then we started ordaining women on the spot and we all lived happily ever after, right? No! The committee also reported that while they could find no biblical reason why women should not be ordained, the church was not culturally ready for it. And so it was fifteen more years before the first woman was ordained in the RCA – Rev. Joyce Stedge, and we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of her ordination, but she was ordained without the blessing of the General Synod, by people who were angry enough to act outside the accepted system. It was 1979 when the office of minister was officially opened to women. A year later they stepped back and put a caveat on that, that men who objected would not be required to participate in the ordination of women. But people kept coming back, over and over, channeling their anger at the continued inequality of women toward advocating for change. And this year, in 2013, 95 years after those first overtures, the Book of Church Order was finally changed so that it recognizes no difference between men and women who hold ordained office in this denomination. Because people kept coming back. Because people kept getting angry enough to keep struggling.

I share this particular history with you because it is close to my heart, and because I was honored to be one of the annoying people who participated in it pretty late in the game. I also share it with you because in it, I hear echoes of the voice of that woman, showing up day after day and demanding, “Grant me justice.” I share it with you because I hear in it the voices of nearly everyone who has fought against injustice. The voices of slaves crying out for freedom, and their descendants calling for civil rights, and their children still to this day fighting against the racism ingrained in our culture. The voices of women insisting that they be recognized as independent human beings, to be allowed to work and be fairly paid and own property and control their own bodies. The voices of gay and lesbian people begging not to be jailed or ostracized or killed, asking to be accepted, demanding the rights that others assume automatically.

These are the voices of people who cried out and struggled and annoyed people for a long, long time before the judge to granted them justice. Many of them didn’t even live to see the change they fought so hard for. And so I suspect that sometimes along the way, hope was so small that it probably wasn’t much of a motivator to keep going. And I suspect that sometimes what kept them going was in fact anger, at the sheer injustice of the world, at their own circumstances or, sometimes, at the circumstances of others.

The push to change things requires a certain amount of outrage at the way things are.

Now, it’s pretty easy to be upset at your own circumstances. We all know this, because most of us are familiar with road rage, and if you’re on social media, you get to share all of your complaints against the world and read everyone else’s on a pretty constant basis. I was getting all worked up yesterday about the number of non-hockey-related stories they were playing on National Hockey League radio, until I realized that I could just go ahead and change the channel. First world problems. It’s relatively easy to feel sad or angry about what happens directly to us, and to act against that. It’s almost instinctive, to resist injustice when it’s directed at us.

The problem with that, however, is that usually the people who are suffering from injustice – not just minor life issues but actual injustice – are the people who have the least power to influence the system. Sure, they can keep annoying the people in power until they give in like the judge; over time even water will wear down a rock. But they need other people to get angry with them, and to struggle beside them. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

There is plenty of injustice to go around in this world, but rarely do we get angry enough to do anything about it unless it directly affects us. Instead we get angry at the driver who just cut us off, or the waitress who didn’t bring the bill fast enough, or our family members who are pulling our strings in the way only family members know how to pull. And we focus our energies there, toward whatever is annoying us at the moment, and we miss the things that should really be making us angry.

And so I wonder sometimes, who will get angry enough to walk down the long road toward change in this world that is still so full of injustice?

Who will get angry enough at the tremendous hunger problem we have in this country, which is absolutely overflowing with food? Who will struggle on behalf of the 80% of kids in Schenectady school district who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches?

Who will cry out against the growing poverty rate and the increasing gap between those with incredible wealth and those who can barely get by?

Who will be outraged when over 10,000 girls and young women are forcibly trafficked into New Jersey to act as prostitutes during the Super Bowl this year?

Who will keep demanding responsible and sustainable use of this earth and its natural resources? Who will hold our elected officials accountable when they make money on the backs of the citizens they represent?

These are some issues that it seems to me deserve our anger. They deserve our outrage. They deserve a struggle. And they will only change when enough people get angry enough to become annoying, to demand, over and over, “Give us justice!” until we either convince them or change their minds or simply wear them down.

The road to justice is long and difficult. We may never even get to see our struggle lead to change. But we keep struggling, because the long arc of God’s promise is always toward justice. Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Keep crying out. Keep struggling. It’s coming.

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