"Donít Cease ... Persist!"

Message preached October 21, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 18:1-8

Order of Worship

            Over the summer, eight mission workers in Afghanistan were placed under arrest. They were accused of seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity, a violation of Islamic law. Among those eight were two young women from the United States, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. Following their arrest, the parents of these women raced to the scene to plead for their daughtersí release. And then came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Caught in the middle of a situation beyond their control these parents continue to seek justice for their children. Thatís what parents do.

            When Jesus told a story about a widow seeking justice from a dishonest judge, his characters were not taken from the comic section of the Jerusalem Post. Neither were they taken from the front page, with all the big headlines. This widow could have been anyone caught in the slow moving wheels of justice, a life at the mercy of events beyond their control. What is one to do when such things happen? Just sit back and do nothing?

            Nancy Cassell, Deborah Oddy, and John Mercer - the parents of these women - could not and would not. I havenít heard about the parents of the other six imprisoned mission workers. We usually only hear in the news about people from our own country. However, I canít imagine the loved ones of those other detainees doing nothing, can you? Again, thatís what parents do, no matter what country they call home.

            In Jesusí parable, that widow is a model of persistence. He didnít give any details, mind you. We have no idea what her complaint was, whether it had anything to do with her children. All we know is that, a) she was a woman, not exactly the most powerful position to be in that society; and b) she had lost her husband, a definite bargaining chip in a land where identity was measured in masculine terms. She had no rights, so to speak. No rights, that is, except for the fact that her God took special interest in the treatment of widows like her. The God of Abraham and Sarah had a habit of measuring a society in terms of how it treated the powerless, often much to the displeasure of the powerful.

            Oh, yes, we know one more detail - she was seeking justice from this judge against some nameless opponent. As we allow this parable to sneak under our skin, as the stories of Jesus do so well, we fill in the blanks, we add flesh and bones to these characters, we draw them into our own time and place. For me, right now Iím seeing the mothers of Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. In doing so, I donít mean to imply dishonesty on the part of any judge, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. That nation is, however, known for being especially brutal on its women, as weíre starting to realize, aside from any terrorist threat within it.

            A current detail I recall hearing in the last month was the tenaciousness of one of the two mothers in this difficult situation. Perhaps it was Nancy Cassell, whose husband kept the home fires burning in Tennessee while she journeyed to Afghanistan. Doesnít it seem odd that she would be the one to go, given that Afghan society is currently not very positive toward women? Wouldnít a man fare better? Maybe, maybe not.

            I read that in traditional Middle Eastern society, men can be mistreated in public, but not women. Women can scream at a public figure and nothing will happen to them.  Of course, Iíve also heard that in Afghanistan women have lost even this right. However, perhaps there is some shred of justice to be found among those who claim to follow the Koran. Thatís what Mrs. Cassell is counting on. "Some of the Afghan men there have made a point of telling us theyíre not about killing men and women and children," she recently said. "For all I know, the women have a better chance of being safe." (For more information on these women, see LA Times 9/18/01 , Washington Post 10/6/01, and Shelter Now International News release 10/10/01.)

            Some shred of justice to be found... Thatís what the widow in Jesusí story was seeking. To get it, she became very, very persistent - to the point of being obnoxious. She begged, she pleaded, she showed up all the time, she hounded that judge until he finally gave in and ruled in her favor just to be rid of her.

            To be honest, when my children behave like this I do not look highly upon it. If anything I am even less open to giving them what they want. Call it stubbornness on my part. I can be one stubborn character ... up to a point. After a while the incessant begging wears down resistance. Children know this, donít they? Did you notice that for the childrenís time I focused upon a positive way of being persistent? I didnít talk about birthdays or Christmas and the well-polished childhood practice of asking over and over and over for some desired gift until Mom or Dad finally goes ahead and buys it. Instead, I focused on the value of persistence in practicing an instrument, for instance, until you become proficient at playing it.

            Granted, the early years of learning how to play an instrument can become somewhat obnoxious sounding to the rest of the family. I was so glad, for instance, that Caitlin gave up the violin for vocal music. It was almost like fingernails on the chalkboard at first. Though I was so proud of her for keeping at it, as I was with Tyler on the saxophone and the various other instruments he has also picked up since then; as I am with Mitchell and his french horn now, and Tessa and whatever she chooses in the future. Thatís also what parents do. Weíre proud, even in those moments when a smile and a cringe merge.

            Back to that widow in Jesusí parable, she made herself obnoxious, didnít she? Of course, after looking up the word "obnoxious" in my dictionary, Iím not so sure Iíd go quite that far. Literally it means "in the way of," or "exposed to," "harm;" "liable to a hurtful influence;" "deserving of censure;" "offensive, repugnant." The judge may have felt that way about her, but maybe he should have been "exposed to harm," for his dishonesty.

            If "obnoxious" is a bit too strong a term, however, perhaps a better description might be "nagging." Oh no! Now Iím starting to tread on dangerous ice for a man. The persistence of the widow could be called nagging. Letís conduct a very unscientific poll. How many of you women like the word "nagging?" I thought so. I wonít ask you men. Itís best if we keep quiet on this one. Just let this fool go where wise men fear to tread. I went back to the dictionary to find out what "nagging" really means. I discovered that we can blame it on the Scandinavians. Since Iím half Swedish, blame it on me. It goes back to the word "gnaga," which means to "gnaw," as in to gnaw at a bone.

            When we say someone is "nagging," weíre not accusing them of some carnivorous act. According to Websterís dictionary, it officially could mean, "to find fault incessantly;" "to be a continuing source of annoyance;" "to irritate by constant scolding or urging;" or "to badger or worry." Yup, thatís what I thought it meant. Certainly, that dishonest judge could indeed have used that word, for the widow nagged him until she received justice from him.

            However, I think the older root from Scandinavia may be more to the point. Injustice gnaws at us. When something is not right, and we know it, it bothers us to the bone. In response, we nag, we "gnaw," we try to get under the skin, down to the bone, in an attempt to make it right. When fixing something, we say we try to get to the root of the problem, otherwise it will be merely a surface fix. Not long down the road, weíll have to fix it again. The problem will nag us until a solution is found to make it right.

            Now, Iím not trying to justify nagging, men, but sometimes we male types can become satisfied with a quick fix. It bothers us when womenfolk want more. "Stop nagging," we respond, with words or a blank stare... Second unscientific poll - which is worse, women, the word "nag" or a blank stare? Donít answer that. Iím not sure I want to know. I have a feeling Iím going to be eating my words at some point. Thatís the problem when you preach to your own family.

            Anyway, in this parable itís hard to miss what Jesus thinks about the nagging of this widow. Her persistence is lifted up. She yearns for what is right so much that her actions bring it forth, one way or another. Whatís worse is that our Lord almost makes this into a spiritual discipline. Iíve never heard it described as "nagging prayer," but isnít that what it is? "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" Jesus asked, emphasizing that God cares more about whatís right than that dishonest judge character. "Will God delay long in helping them? No, heíll quickly grant justice" (Luke 18:7-8).

            Now, before we oversimplify prayer, making it merely an incessant birthday or Christmas shopping list that we badger God with until we get what we want, letís touch on that word "nag" again. In "nagging prayer," if you will, we yearn for whatís under the surface, weíre seeking to get to the "bone" of the matter, to the core of it all. It gnaws at us, we gnaw at it. This not the prayer of the quick fix. This is persistent prayer.

            To be honest, in spite of what Jesus said about God quickly granting justice, the answers to our prayers often take much longer. We ask, we seek, we knock (Luke 11:9), we wait - our trust sometimes grows faint, sometimes angry. "Persons of such prayer life can only wonder at those who speak of prayer with the smiling facility of someone drawing answers from a hat... In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation: ĎUntil you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.í..." (Craddock, p. 210)

            Back to those women mission workers and their parents in Afghanistan, things became that much worse for them once our forces began their attack. What will happen? I donít know. I do know that those parents wonít give up. Thatís what parents are about, you know, not giving up... Widening the picture, I hope we all know that this bombing isnít going to bring about a quick fix. The problem runs deep, and if we do not get to the bone of the matter, as painful as that might be, there will be no justice. Now, more than ever, we need the sort of nagging prayer which Jesus lifted up in his parable of the widow and the unjust judge. "Pray without ceasing," the apostle Paul encouraged those facing tough times (1 Thessalonians 5:17), right after he wrote "Rejoice always" (5:16), and right before he said, "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (5:18).

            You know, when we read this parable, most often we look to the unjust judge to see a picture of what God is NOT like. Have we ever thought about how God is like that widow? "Persistent" is too small a word to describe it. "I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalms 121:1-4). Sounds like a nagging God to me, One who will gnaw to the bone and not give up until his kingdom comes, until his will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. That's what a parent does, you know.     Amen!

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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