Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 16, 2022
One Sunday a few months after starting my work in Glasgow, I was greeting folks at the door as they left church. One couple showed me a picture of their grandson Gordon, fresh in his uniform of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. He was on his way to Iraq and they asked me to pray for him. Shortly after that, Gordon’s picture was on the front page of Scotland’s newspapers. He had been killed by a roadside bomb in Basra.
I was tasked with conducting his funeral. His mother Rose worked as a cleaner at a local shopping center and his father George worked on a road crew. They were devastated. The community gathered around them in support. The press swooped in, looking for any angle to sell a story.
And the press got what they were looking for. Gordon’s family spoke out against the war in Iraq in no uncertain terms. By the time of the funeral some days later, the story had become national news. Gordon’s family asked me to speak on their behalf at the funeral.
When time arrived, the streets in front of the church were packed with crowds of people. There were lines of news trucks and reporters swarming everywhere. The church was packed inside with standing room only. Every dignitary in the city was there. Members of parliament were there. The military were there.
I spoke and it was like kicking the hornet’s nest. That funeral set the stage for the journey of Rose Gentle, from humble cleaner to national figure. She had one simple characteristic that propelled her. She would not quit until she had justice.
Rose wanted to know the circumstances of Gordon’s death. The military was not cooperative. The more she pushed, the more the army and the government pushed back. Her phones were tapped; her private communications were stolen. She had to sue in order to get Gordon’s dog tags; and when they were finally returned, they were covered in Gordon’s blood.
In time it was discovered that Gordon’s death was due to both faulty equipment and needed equipment that had sat in a warehouse.
Rose persisted. She and other families founded Military Families Against the War. Tony Blair became a pariah in Scotland and every time he showed up in public, there were crowds of people shouting the words that had been spoken to him at Gordon’s funeral: shame on you.
A simple definition of justice is, “Seeing that people get what they deserve.”
From there we surmise that our world is an entirely unjust place. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Yet we say, “God is good.” Therein lays the struggle. How do we reconcile the world’s injustice and God’s goodness?
In today’s gospel story, Luke has Jesus telling a story about prayer. Jesus said that once upon a time there was a widow. The widow seemed to be without family or friends, so this would put her in a completely powerless position. She needed justice and the only way she could get justice was through the legal system.
It was up to the judge. He could grant the widow a favorable ruling, but what was in it for him? He was after all, unjust. If someone wanted justice from him, they would have to move it along with a bribe. The widow had nothing to offer. So he ignored her.
She kept at it. She hounded him day and night. She watched his every move. There he was at the marketplace and she accosted him, “Judge, hey judge! What about my case? When are you going to give me my ruling?” There he was at the city gate with his cronies, “Judge, hey judge! What about my case? I want justice!” Anywhere and everywhere the judge was beginning to get jumpy over it.
“I’m desperate.” She told him. “You tell me to be quiet and I’ll just shout the louder. I am not going to be cheated out of what’s rightfully mine.”
Finally, the judge said, “Alright, enough already. Here’s your ruling – signed, sealed and delivered. Now get out of my sight and stop pestering me.”
That’s the basic story and the surface interpretation says two things about it:
One: we need to be like the widow and persist in hope and prayer. Prayer is seen like Thomas Edison trying to find the filament for his light bulb. If we just keep at it, eventually we get there.
Two: We assume God is the judge and if we just keep pestering, God will give us what we want. Even though Jesus says otherwise, we suspect he really means that God requires that we really persist. God isn’t going to just hand things to us on a silver platter.
If the sermon follows this line of thinking then we branch off into the benefits of persistence and how if we pull up our bootstraps, get busy and apply some elbow grease to the situation, we’ll get there, wherever there is. Get to work and get busy and God helps those who help themselves sort of thing.
The problem with that is that some people don’t have bootstraps to pull up, let alone the boots they go with. Some people have never owned a pair of shoes. Persistence for many people in the world means persistent grinding poverty and injustice.
The way Jesus tells this story, we are not the widow and God is not the judge. In reality our world is the unjust judge and God is the widow seeking justice. Imagine that – God as someone from the margins of society, constantly looking for justice, pestering for justice. We, perhaps individually, or more likely when we get into corporate systems like church, are the ones who have it in our power to enact justice.
The story reminds us that the face of God is seen in the person of the down and out, the disenfranchised, the abused and neglected and forgotten. Their concerns are God’s concerns. Their cries call out to us, continually asking for something from us. Continually challenging our Christian lives in areas where we have grown complacent.
Think of the prayers that God is hearing today –
Parents crying out to God for the healing of their children.
Children praying to God for the healing of their parents.
Countless others begging for the restoring of broken relationships.
Prisoners of conscience, and their loved ones, praying for release.
Victims of torture are begging for a speedy death.
Tens of thousands are praying for the overthrow of tyrants.
Millions are begging for the end of all warfare.
The dispossessed and the persecuted are crying out for justice.
Starving people are pleading for food for their wee ones.
Even someone struggling to decide, ‘should I go to church today, Lord? Will I be welcomed?’
In one sense God is praying these prayers to the systems of power that have some ability to effect an answer. And if we keep yearning for something to change, then change can happen. But the judge in the story didn’t finally grant justice because he realized it was the right thing to do. He did it to get the widow to stop pestering him.
When we try to change the systems we’re in so that justice can prevail, if we wait until everyone realizes it’s the right thing to do, it may never happen.
Jesus told the story to people who understood what that widow would feel like. They were people who lived under occupation. They had no power. They had no rights. They had to do what they were told when they were told to do it. In his time and place, if you tried to stand up for your rights, let alone some concept of justice, you would get cut down. You would get nailed to a cross.
The parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge is a story without easy answers. But that’s okay because the easy answers are not often the ones that do us any good. An easy answer God will find you a parking space. Justice is not easy. It changes the status quo. It turns the world upside down.
While working on this sermon I asked Rose Gentle what she would have me say to the folks in McGrath and Wahkon. She said, “Thank them for listening to our fight for justice for Gordon. Tell them I could not rest until the truth came out.”
In 2017 Rose was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Glasgow. She said Gordon would be laughing his head off at the thought of her attending University.
Sometimes persistence is not beating a path to God; the trail we think we are blazing to reach God is often just the opening of a way for God to reach us.
The question we are left with is, when God comes in the guise of the widow seeking justice, will God find faith? People like us who will to do the right thing? Amen.