Saturday, December 21, 2019

Persistent Witness--Pentecost + 19, Oct. 20, 2019

Year C, Proper 23, SMHP, Pentecost + 19, Oct. 20, 2019

Luke 18:1-8
          Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.
          3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’
          4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
          6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to the Lord day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

          Something happened at the Bishop’s Convocation this week that I’ve never seen before.  The Bishop’s Convo is our fall theological conference.  It’s put on by the bishop and her staff, for the rostered and lay leaders in our congregations.  I was there, as were Ann and Bill Say.
          On Wednesday night, Bishop Candea held an informal session called “Let’s Talk”—an opportunity for her to lay out her expectations of synod leaders and to invite people to ask questions and tell us their expectations of the bishop and staff.
          The next morning, the Bishop went to the microphone, and the first thing she said was, “I want to issue a public apology.”
          See, the night before, a gay man raised his hand and asked the bishop what she would do to stand with LGBTQ persons whose right to be protected from discrimination is being debated at the Supreme Court.  And in answer, the bishop talked about being bishop for the whole synod, and listening to all voices.  Because I know her, I know that she wasn’t trying to hedge on a commitment to standing with marginalized people, but it wasn’t all that clear to anyone who doesn’t know her well. 
          In particular, one of our pastors was pretty unhappy about her answer.  He’s not a good masker of feeling, so it was clear from his face and his shaking head that he didn’t like the answer.  But instead of just venting his frustration in the plenary room, he went back to his own room and wrote an email.  In it, he pointed out that, in his opinion, the bishop “dropped the ball.”  Someone raised a pastoral concern, and she responded with a political answer.
          She agreed.  And said so publicly and unequivocally on Thursday morning.  She apologized and said quite plainly that she will always stand on the side of those whose rights are threatened on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor of identity.  She started with “I dropped the ball.”
          It may sound like an innocuous moment—a bishop acknowledging that she had made a mistake.  Especially since it was a speaking error—she just didn’t fully convey the way she actually feels and has lived her life in public ministry.
          But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bishop do that before.  Take in criticism and publicly acknowledge having misspoken and “dropping the ball.”
          Those of us on the bishop’s clergy staff were sitting together at a table up front, and she told us that she had gotten an email and rethought what she said, and that she was going to apologize to the group.  And still, as she spoke I felt tears running down my cheeks.  Because what I heard was, “We can live differently.  We can and must stand up for each other.  I will stand up for my LGBTQIA siblings.  Also, we can be vulnerable enough to admit when we haven’t made that commitment clear.”  
          And what I saw was a courageous bishop modeling those values for the leaders of our synod…after expressing gratitude for someone who told her she was wrong.  I mean no disrespect to any of my previous bishops, but I can’t remember that happening before, and certainly not in such a timely fashion.
          It’s hard to admit that we’re wrong, isn’t it?  It seems to get harder and harder the more power and responsibility you have.  Powerful people like bishops and corporate moguls…and presidents…don’t often point out their own mistakes or change their minds about things.
          Sometimes it takes some prodding for us to change our minds and to admit, before others, that we made a mistake.  If you’re, say, a judge, admitting you made a mistake will actually set a precedent that could change the law.
          So judges don’t like to change their minds once they decide something.  That’s why Jesus chooses a judge to be the adversary in the parable he’s telling us this morning about persistence.  An “unjust judge”—just to make him nice and adversarial.
          And for the hero of the story, let’s choose someone with little power.  Someone pretty vulnerable, like a pastor in a synod, whose fate the bishop holds in her hands.  But even more vulnerable.  Yeah, a widow.  That’s good.
          The players are set, and the point is pretty clear, right?  The widow persists, and by her persistence is granted justice.
          There is a time to persist.  And a way to persist.  It isn’t shaking your head in the plenary room, but sending an email later works.  It helps to remain respectful, or you may be dismissed.  One of the reasons that I am so committed to Stand Up KC and the Fight for Fifteen is that the movement shows respect for adversaries.  We make noise, we challenge the status quo…but we don’t just make a ruckus to try to get arrested.  We don’t throw things and we don’t treat the police with disrespect.  Those things take away from the goal you are pursuing and put the focus on you.
          The focus should be on justice.  Equity.  Equality.  The values that Jesus taught us.  And as this lesson reminds us, we often get justice, equity, and equality through persistent witness.  Think about it.  How many of the changes in our nation have been brought about by the persistence of ordinary people—people with no power but their voices and their bodies, who have raised their voices and put their bodies before the authorities and brought change when none was forthcoming?
          Women’s suffrage.  The Civil Rights Movement.  The Union movement.  The Fight for Fifteen.  Ordinary people with little power on their own, standing together, building power, and achieving change.
          And sometimes change is made by one voice, or a few voices.  Brown vs. the Board of Education.  Obergefell vs. Hodges.  A lone pastor with the guts to email the bishop.
          There is a time to persist.  There is also a time to recognize our power, and to be vulnerable enough to change our minds.  There are times in which we aren’t the widow in this story…we’re the judge.  And just as it is hard to persist for justice…it is perhaps even harder to recognize when you are standing on the wrong side.  Or that you haven’t said clearly enough that you are standing on the side of justice.  Righteousness.  Truth.
          Friends, one of the Christian virtues we can and should be practicing in the world is humility.  Having the strength and the self-awareness to recognize that we are not always right.  And admitting when we make mistakes.  Correcting those mistakes in a timely fashion.  The bishop could have taken a few days to consider whether the pastor who emailed her had a point.  She could have worried about whether she would look weak, standing up and apologizing to the assembled synod leaders.  She could have sent out her own email after we got home, or included something in the e-newsletter.
          But it would not have been as powerful as seeing the leader of our synod stand before us in humility and vulnerability and say what any of us could say, just about any day of the week:  “I made a mistake.”
          As the leader of this congregation, I promise you today that I will work on my own humility and making such statements in a timely fashion.  I have a good role model.
          And that I will receive the humility of others with respect and good humor.  One of the reasons we don’t like to apologize is that our apologies aren’t always received well.  Who here has made an apology only to be told, “You’re not sorry!”  Let us be not only vulnerable enough to apologize when it is warranted, but to receive the apologies of others with our own humility.
          And let us be vulnerable enough to pray.  To pray hard.  Why did Jesus tell this parable?  What does Luke say the parable is about?  [“their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”]
          Prayer keeps us honest.  Prayer allows us to be vulnerable in a very safe space—alone with God. 
          There are lots of reasons why we pray.  It helps us be in relationship with God.  We pray confession, we pray just to lay our joys and our concerns at God’s feet.
          And we pray for discernment.  Having a robust prayer relationship with God helps us figure out when we are on the path God would have us travel.  Before we determine that we are right and should be persistent in our pursuit of justice, or we are wrong and should be vulnerable enough to apologize and change our minds…we can enter deeply into conversation with God. 
          And each other.  As we saw at the Bishop’s Convocation, Christians are called to be a community of accountability for each other.  I want to covenant with you, church, that you can tell me I am wrong.  We can tell each other we’re wrong.
          And when we are wrong, we will admit it.  It takes strength we can get from each other…and persistence we can get from widows, civil rights activists, and all those who have been brave enough to answer the call for justice.  And vulnerability we can learn from our bishop.

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