Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sermon: Unwilling to Give Up

Luke 18:1-8

So here we are in a month of talking about gratitude . . .

But when I look around the world, there are a lot of things that are just plain wrong; things that should be changed. There are injustices and evils that are committed far too frequently. Certainly there are many things that we do not and honestly should not give thanks for – we don’t give thanks that people die in mass shootings, we don’t give thanks that children die from malnutrition, we don’t give thanks for racism or sexism. Instead, we try to change those situations.

At least for a while, often while we are young and idealistic, we believe that we can change the world. But often as we get older, we look at the world and we say, “Nothing ever seems to change.” So it can be easy to around the world and all of the problems and want to give up.

If day after day, month after month we are treated unfairly – it can be easy to quit. One black woman said to a group I was with recently that, she set all of her passwords on her work computer to things that reminded her of her children, not because she wanted to have happy memories, but because if she wanted to keep her job so that the kids could eat and have a home, she had to remind herself to just put up with people who were disrespectful of her simply because of her race, or those who treated her as less intelligent than her coworkers, even though she has a master’s degree. Her passwords were to remind her to just let it go, give in, not say anything, let the racism win, so her kids could eat. Sad commentary isn’t it? When we are being treated unfairly especially over a long period of time, it is so easy to want to give up.

Or sometimes life is just so difficult.

Operation Christmas child tells the story of Lejla living in a poor family in war torn Bosnia. On a frosty morning in Bosnia, “Lejla's mother woke her, had her dress, and put an old pair of shoes on her feet. The toes of the shoes were ripped open. Her father had tried to close them up with steel wire but the leather was so rotten it wouldn't hold together. Lejla's mother wrapped her feet in bags and sent her out into the arctic chill.’

“Lejla may have been walking toward the school five miles away, but she had no intention of showing up there. She was on the brink of giving up. To prove it, she purposely detoured into a landmine field where just the day before her best friend had been killed and another friend had lost his leg in an explosion. Maybe if she walked through the same field she could end her miserable life. She had no reason to live. With no coat to keep her warm, maybe she would even die from the frigid temperatures, she thought. She was tired of being cold, weary of hunger pains, and afraid of the future. She knew that within two years her parents would give her away in marriage, according to tradition—it happened to all girls once they reached the eighth grade. "The horror was so real," she said, "that I felt my soul being ripped from me."’

“After forty-five minutes of wandering through the landmine field with no explosion, she headed toward Sniper Alley with the certainty it promised; one hundred percent guarantee of being shot to death. She slipped under the barricade and waited for a powerful boom to end her misery, but it didn't happen.”[1] When poverty is oppressive, when our future looks bleak, because change seems impossible, we can want to give up.

But Jesus tells us a different story. Luke 18:1-8

Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

Although the parable is a teaching about prayer – it addresses how we pray about those things that are unjust, those things that are wrong with the world. Jesus reminds us that we cannot give up, that being faithful in serving God means striving always for what is good and right – so he lifts up the example of the woman in the parable. She has a problem, it is unfair, and the judge doesn’t care. The judge doesn’t fear God or respect people. But the woman doesn’t give up. She keeps coming, she keeps bothering him. In the end, he gives her justice because he knows she won’t stop coming to him and embarrassing him.

Jesus then reminds us that God cares about justice. God cares about what is good, it is part of who God is, just as God is grace-filled and loving, God is also just. So we should not give up on praying for justice. Eugene Cho says, “All of this matters because we are not just talking about ideas. We are not just hypothesizing about a “what if” scenario. This matters because justice involves people and their lives and their value before God. When justice happens to the least of these, God celebrates.”[2]

Let me finish the story of Lejla

“I found myself walking towards the school, disappointed that I had survived Sniper Alley.  As I approached, I saw some kids holding boxes and wondered where they had gotten them. We had nothing new; even primitive items were scarce. As I got closer, I noticed how bright and beautiful the boxes were. One of the boys said, "There are people inside giving these away. You can get one too."

Why do I need a box? Lejla thought. I don't have anything to put in it. It's pretty, but it won't do me any good.” When I walked inside, I saw an older gentleman sitting on the steps. He jumped up and grabbed a box from the top of the pile and headed toward me. But I didn't want any interaction with him; I wanted to be left alone. I was bitter and hateful. To make matters worse, the man had a big smile on his face and gently said, "I want you to have this."

I took it so he would go away quickly, but to my surprise the box was not empty.  I took the box and ran as fast as I could until I found a solitary corner and slumped to the floor, cradling the box in my lap.  My heart was racing and my emotions were fragile.  Do I dare hope for what might be inside?  After all, this is a shoebox.  I looked down at my frozen feet, and then with great apprehension, lifted the lid. Inside was a pair of brand new sneakers and they were my size!’

“For some time I sat and cried while lifting the lid and then closing it. As I drew the sneakers out of the box, my hands bumped into other things. The shoes that fit perfectly were enough, but there was more!  I pulled out a twelve-pack of pencils. My entire class of fifty-eight students had been sharing a nub of one pencil all year long, and now I had 12 of my very own! A notebook was there to replace the one I had used for three years, with hardly scribble space left. Then I discovered erasers that smelled like strawberries—the first smell of anything pleasant that I could remember. We had grown accustomed to the smell of gun powder and decaying bodies. I found a tube of toothpaste, I opened and tasted it. The flavor was so delicious that I nearly ate it all. Energized by the thrill, I gathered my new belongings and ran home as fast as I could.”

Lejla’s life was changed because Christians cared. One person packed a box, others shipped them, another handed them out. They saw the need in the world and decided to do something about it.

If we sincerely want to see change,

if we want to see fairness and justice, we cannot give up. And we have to be personally committed to it. The woman in the bible passage kept going and pleading. And part of the reason was that it was personal to her. Here’s the thing, here’s where it gets personal – because up to now this has all been about the idea of changing the world, now we get to the actual doing it part. And we have to follow through or as Eugene Cho says, we are more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing it.

Where do you see injustice, where do you see unfairness? Where is it personal to you? So personal that you are unwilling to give up? Often it is from something you personally experienced, or a close family member experienced. Let Jesus’ words inspire you to act, to pester, to achieve change through persistence.

Look at where persistence had made a difference. Legal slavery ended in the United States. Women earned the right to vote. Malaria deaths are decreasing at an amazing rate. This is where gratitude helps us to keep moving forward. By reminding ourselves that change has happened, by giving thanks for the miracles that God has worked in the past that have brought our world to where it is today, we motivate ourselves to keep working for the kingdom of God.

We remind ourselves change does happen. Sometimes very, very slowly, even too slowly. But other times it leaps ahead in great bounds astounding us with God’s presence. So look at that area where you want to see change, and keep working at it. Don’t give up. Don’t just be in love with the idea of change, but actually set about working for what is good and what is right. Cry out for it.

As Jesus says, Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But we must remain faithful advocates, constant voices, and busy hands for that to happen.

[1] Operation Christmas Child – no reference, sent to me by Esther Jones.

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