Text: Luke 18:1-8
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” These words of the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, capture a specifically American view of success as persistence.
Take for example the now-famous author J.K. Rowlings. She didn’t become richer than the Queen of England overnight. Penniless, recently divorced, and raising a child on her own, she wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript. A year later she was given the green light by Barry Cunningham from Bloomsbury, who agreed to publish the book but insisted she get a day job cause there was no money in children’s books. What if she had stopped with the first rejection?
Or take the founder of KFC, Colonel Sanders. He started his dream at 65 years old. He got a social security check for only $105 and was mad. Instead of complaining, he did something about it. He thought restaurant owners would love his fried chicken recipe, use it, sales would increase, and he’d get a percentage of it. He drove around the country knocking on doors, sleeping in his car, wearing his white suit. Do you know how many times people said no until he got one yes. 1009 times!
Or consider the man who gave us Disney World and Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney. His first animation company went bankrupt. He was fired by a news editor cause he lacked imagination. Legend has it he was turned down 302 times before he got financing for creating Disney World. Or Albert Einstein. He didn’t speak until he was four and didn’t read until seven. His parents and teachers thought he was mentally handicapped. He won a Nobel prize and became the face of modern physics. Or Vincent Van Gogh. He only sold one painting in his lifetime.
Consider Michael Jordan’s story. Cut from his high school basketball team, he went on to be one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Speaking of persistence, he has said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
One of my favorite stories of persistence is of a woman who lives in a tiny mountain village in South Korea. She always wanted to learn how to drive, but didn’t begin the process of trying to get a license until she was in her 60s. Cha Sa-soon failed the written portion, consisting of 40 multiple choice questions 949 times. Finally, on the 950th attempt she got a passing grade of 60 and moved on to the actual driver’s test which she only failed 4 times before getting passing marks. 960 attempts later she received her driver’s license.
In thinking about persistence I was reminded of an experience I had with one of our Pullen children a few years back. At the time, this child was probably four years old. Every Sunday and every Wednesday, without exception, when this child would see me he would run up to me and ask: “Pastor Nancy, when can I come to your house and spend the night?” For about the first six months of getting this question most Sundays and Wednesdays I would answer, “One of these days we’re going to do that.” But by month seven, eight, nine, and ten, his persistence had me saying, “Soon, soon we’ll do that.” Finally, by the end of a full year of witnessing his persistence I said, “I’ll talk with your mom and maybe you can come spend the night this weekend.” And so I did and he came. We had the most wonderful evening—making pancakes, visiting the chickens at the end of the street, watching cartoons, reading and talking. Had it not been for his persistence, that delightful evening—an evening I will always remember—might not have happened.
Someone once said, “We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.”
The parable of the widow’s persistence in Luke 18 is introduced as a parable about prayer and not losing heart, then moves into a story about justice, and ends with a question about faith. As we consider this story of persistence and justice on this Children’s Sabbath, it is worth asking the question: “How are we practicing persistence when it comes to seeking justice for the children of this world?”
Consider this widow and her persistence for justice.
“Widows in the ancient world were incredibly vulnerable, regularly listed with orphans and aliens as those persons deserving special protection. The fact that this particular widow must beseech a judge unattended by any family highlights her extreme vulnerability. Yet she not only beseeches the judge, but also persists in her pleas for justice to the point of creating sufficient pressure to influence his actions. The focus in this reading is on the judge’s description of his own motivation for settling the widow’s claim. He asserts (as the narrator already had) that he neither fears God nor respects people, thereby testifying that his unsavory character has not changed during the course of the parable. When he explains why he relents, however, he utters a description of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him that most translations dilute. A more literal translation of the judge’s grievance (18:5) is that the woman ‘is giving me a black eye.’ Like all black eyes, the one the widow’s complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress. That is, the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him direct harm (annoyance) but also risks publicly embarrassing him. For this reason, he says — perhaps justifying his actions to his wounded sense of self — he relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this tenacious widow. In this case, justice is served for the wrong reason, but it is justice nonetheless. Read this way, the parable serves to encourage those suffering injustice to continue their complaints and calls for justice.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
One of the takeaways from this parable may be that sometimes it takes extreme, socially unacceptable behavior to effect change. Don’t you imagine people told this woman to stop going to the judge. I can hear the grumblings now. “Why does she keep taking up our time? It’s disrespectful for her to keep coming back when the judge has clearly said no. Why is she embarrassing herself like this? Old lady, go home!” And yet God, the Bible has persistently insisted, gives special attention to those who are most vulnerable; therefore, we should persist in our complaints, even to the point of embarrassing ourselves and the powers that be in order to induce change.
- When more than one in five children in our country live in poverty, we must practice persistence and call on our society to do something different, even if it means taking extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior.
- When one in 17 children living in the United States lacks health coverage, we must practice persistence and demand that our social systems do something different, even if it means taking extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior.
- When one in nine children living in this nation are at risk of hunger, we must practice persistence to make sure the children who go to school with our children have food like our kids do, even if it means taking extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior.
- When two in five 8th grade public school children read or compute below grade level and nearly one in five children drop out of high school we must practice persistence and hold our public school boards accountable to every child’s right to a quality education, even if it means taking extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior.
We are living in a time when our children need for us to be the persistent widow. And when I say our children I mean ALL children. For our children’s well-being is dependent and interdependent upon the children sitting next to them in school. As an institution that proclaims values and principles based in a faith that says every child is created in the image of God, we must be about creating sufficient pressure to influence our society to do better by our children; because in these times in which we are living, our children are extremely vulnerable. But it’s not just about being persistent out there and seeking justice for our children from the institutions beyond us. No, there is some practicing persistence that we need to do right here within our walls.
Good people of Pullen, our own children are not immune from the pain of this world. I don’t have to tell you how many of our young children and youth suffer. What you may not realize is how often those children and families retreat into silent suffering. Are we persistent in embracing our own children, the beautiful souls who have been entrusted to our care, the ones to whom we sing, “I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold?”
In a world that often tells our children that they are not good enough, that they need to be someone other than who they are, that winning is what matters, where is our voice as a congregational home? In a world that feels like it is tearing apart, where youth choose to opt out of society’s institutions because they feel they have failed to deliver on their promise, where is our action on behalf of a congregational home for them? What shall we say and do when they show up to cash in on the promissory note we gave them at their birth, and then again at their dedication, and then again at their Rite-13 blessing? May God help us to not default on our promise to them.
We need to be persistent in not only telling but showing our Pullen children that they are enough, that being who they are is a beautiful thing, that its okay to try and fail—that they don’t have to be perfect and look perfect and act perfect. We need to be persistent in knowing our Pullen children – their names, their passions, their fears.
We talk often of how the work of Christians is to reach across the divide – to reach out to the marginalized, the oppressed, the other. I would charge you, the faithful people of Pullen to think of our children and our youth as those to whom we must deliberately and persistently reach out to across the divide. Make it your work, make it our work, to know the young of this church. Make it your work, make it our work, to persist in speaking their names, even when they turn their faces to mamma’s skirt, or daddy’s collar. Make it your work, make it our work, to be community to them, the children of Pullen, and of Raleigh, and of the world.