Non-Violent Persistence

Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 20, 2013
Genesis 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8

“They thought a bullet would silence us, but they failed. Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died, strength, fervor, and courage was born.” – Malala Yousafzai

It’s pretty easy to get down about the state of the world these days. Between the civil war in Syria and the gridlock in Washington, it’s hard to find a headline that doesn’t presage more bad news. I’m actually finding it harder and harder to keep up with current events, not because I don’t have the time to read, but because I really just don’t want to know anymore. The news can be so depressing.

You know what I mean? Things seem pretty bleak in the world right now, which is probably why I’ve been turning more and more to “The Daily Show with John Stewart” to get information. And really, it’s not just for the jokes – though admittedly they help. I’ve actually gotten a lot out of his interviews lately. (Which I know sounds a bit like subscribing to certain magazines for the articles, but, well, sometimes even certain magazines really do have good articles. I’m thinking Vogue, what are you thinking?)

Well anyway, John had an interview the other night that honestly brought me to tears. He had Malala Yousafzai on his show, the young girl who stood up to the Taliban; the teenager who was shot at point blank range in the head on her way to school because she has been such a strong advocate for girl’s education.  Some of you may have seen the interview too, (anyone?) or you may have caught this young woman on 20/20 talking to Diane Sawyer. You all know who she is, right? She’s amazing. She’s incredible; the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Nobel peace prize and I think she should have won. That would have been a headline worth reading, right?

Well, she was wonderful in the interview: poised, articulate, right on message. She talked about the power of education. She said that if we truly want to defeat terrorism and extremism while promoting peace, justice, equality, and respect, than education is the best tool to teach us how to live together. And I’d just like to note that she’s got some pretty big figures from history backing her up on that. People like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, you know, like Jesus; so I think she’s on the right track there.

But the part that really got me in the interview, was when John asked her how she handled her fear.  After all, she’s just a kid, and she had already talked about how hard it is for anyone to stand up to the Taliban back in her home town when these men are walking the streets with guns ready and willing to kill anyone who defies them.

She said at first she wasn’t scared for herself so much as for her father. She honestly had a hard time believing they would actually hurt a child. (You’ll remember she was just 10 or 11 when she started speaking out.) But then, after awhile, she did start to think about them coming for her. Right there in front of John Stewart, she held up her little hand in a fist and said: “I thought at first I will hit them with my shoe.”

And that right there… that just broke my heart: the image of this child standing up to a gunman with her shoe.

But then she chided herself, and said “no,” I will not meet violence with violence. Then I would be no better than him. Instead, I would “tell him how important education is, and that I even want education for your children as well… that’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'"

That is the part of the interview that really got to me – the strength of her conviction in the midst of such terrible vulnerability. That’s the part that got to me, and if we were actually watching this interview right now I would pause it right here and I would ask you all to consider: who has the power in this story that Malala is telling?
Is it the man with the gun? Or is it the girl with courage – courage from cor, the Latin word for heart? Is it the man with the gun or is it the girl who refuses to lose heart?

Who has the power in this story?

It’s an old question. As old as time really. It is a question that reverberates throughout scripture from the very first chapter of Genesis all the way through the Book of Revelation. The question of power - what it is, where it comes from, who should have it, and how it should be used - is as central to the history of humanity as it is to the ministry of Jesus.

You know, life has a way of making us think that power is something you either have or you don’t. Because of this, we are taught from a very young age to figure out where we fall in the scheme of things and behave appropriately. Scripture, on the other hand, scripture always invites us to look deeper and question whether the way things appear is really the way things are; whether the way things are, is the way they ought to be. Scripture has a way of questioning the assumptions we make about power; at least it does if we’re willing to listen.

Take these two characters from our readings for today: the Hebrew patriarch Jacob and the persistent widow of Jesus’ parable. Both of these characters begin their story at a distinct disadvantage, the widow because she’s a widow, and Jacob because he is born the second son in a culture that always favors the first.  Like Malala in a little town overrun with Taliban, neither Jacob nor the widow has any power in the eyes of those around them: no claim, no respect, no recourse. Neither character is entitled to what they want most. But what makes them both so special, what elevates their stories to scripture, is their un-willingness to let that stop them from pursuing the good they too deserve.

Jacob, as you might remember, is famous for stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, robbing him of his blessing by playing a trick on their blind father (classy), fleeing for shelter to the land of his uncle Laban, and then robbing that man blind as well.

Does any of that sound familiar? If not, pick up your Bible tonight and read it. Jacob’s story picks up in Genesis 25 right here under the heading, “Breaking Bad.” OK, not really, but, part of what makes Jacob’s story so fascinating is the fact that he was not exactly a good guy.  No, Jacob was a wily trickster, adept at manipulating and deceiving anyone who got in his way.

He knew what he wanted and learned early on to rely on his wits rather than brute strength in order to turn things to his favor.  Jacob was not one to play fair, but in all fairness, the hand he was dealt from day one was not exactly fair either. I mean there’s nothing fair or right about the eldest son inheriting everything just because he was born first, is there? There was nothing fair about Esau getting the whole blessing. And, if you do read his story, you’ll discover that there was nothing fair or right about how his uncle Laban treated Jacob either.

Only here is the thing, neither Esau nor Laban were accountable for any of this unfairness because unfair is just how life is, right? They were born lucky, but Jacob? Not so much. They had the power. Jacob didn’t. They were in a position of advantage and were ready to use it, and had Jacob been the type to play by the rules, he would have accepted this as his lot and gotten in line.

But Jacob didn’t just accept it. He might not have been entirely ethical as he went about subverting the status quo, but with a great deal of ingenuity he kept succeeding at it, and I think that is precisely why God chose him rather than Esau to be the father of his people.

If God had wanted someone straightforward and sure, he should have chosen Esau, who, not for nothing, turned out to be a really nice guy. But God chose Jacob instead: wily, willful, wiggly Jacob; the one who questioned all the rules, the one who tested every limit, the one whose hunger for life and blessing gave him the strength to challenge everyone, even God. God chose him and named him Israel – literally the one who wrestles with God…. because that is what God wants.

God’s chosen are Jacob’s children, not just by blood but by spirit. God’s blessing is upon all those who find the strength to struggle up from down below, the ones who care enough to question any system that blesses some at the cost of others, the ones who are willing to wrestle with the world as it is, contending with God and with people, till the world is remade as it should be. 

Kind of like that widow in Jesus’ parable. Here again, we have a character whose whole life is defined for her before she even gets out of bed in the morning.  She is a widow, literally “a silent one.”  She is as powerless in her society as a person can be and still be considered a person. Did you know an orphan in those days was a person who had lost their father?  Whether or not you still had a mother was irrelevant because a single mother didn’t count.

And yet this widow in Jesus’ parable refuses to accept that her life means nothing. She takes control of the only thing she can – her self - and in spite of the odds goes out everyday to agitate for justice. No one else believes in her. No one else cares about her cause. But she believes in her own self-worth. She is not ashamed. Thanks to scripture, she knows that as a widow she deserves to be treated as precious here and now because she is precious in the eyes of God, and so she persists in her effort to make what is true in heaven true here upon the earth. She keeps pestering the judge, demanding that he see what God sees, and grant her justice against her opponent.

And the crazy thing about this story is that he actually does. Not because he was a good guy.  He wasn’t.  Not because he cared.  He didn’t. He granted her justice because she was a royal pain in the tukus and he wanted to shut her up.  But the point of Jesus story is that  - in spite of her powerlessness - she changed his mind. Her persistence made a difference. Her persistence is the key because her persistence in living in accordance with God’s reality rather than the world’s is what finally moved the unjust judge into a just space. In plain English: she kept living and acting as if she mattered until eventually, finally, she did.

Like Malala, both Jacob and the widow were ostensibly powerless, and yet they managed to re-make the world around them by creatively and persistently refusing to accept the status quo. And friends, Jesus let’s us know right here in this passage that God needs people like that.  God hears people like that. God is counting on people like that, for they are what God is doing in the world.

I think that’s how best to understand Jesus’ strange words toward the end of this reading. Commending the widow’s persistence and highlighting the judge’s decision in her favor, Jesus asks:

“will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

It’s a rhetorical question.  The correct answer should be no, God will not delay. God will be swift to grant justice upon the earth. Which is what Jesus says and would be great, if it were true.  The trouble is, it’s not; at least not on the surface. And yet I don’t think Jesus is crazy for asking his question. I think he’s inviting us, just as the scriptures do, to look at the world a different way.

God is not slow in granting justice because the truth is that justice is here, right close you can almost taste it.  The kingdom of God is at hand because the kingdom of God is within us. The possibility of justice is all around us.

But we need to stand up and name it, claim it, wrestle for it, advocate for it, bother those in “power” for it day and night until they grant it; bother them to such an extent that we come to embody and represent that which we seek.

We need to persist and not lose heart until, to paraphrase Gandhi; we become the change we wish to see in the world.

When the day finally came, and there was a man with a gun standing over Malala, all those beautiful words she wanted to say left her. When he boarded the bus and asked, “Who is Malala?,” the truth is, she was so afraid, she couldn’t speak at all.

All she could do was hold tight to her friend’s hand as the gunman fired three shots, one of which entered her head and lodged in her spine.

The gunman fled.

And yet somehow, by some miracle, the girl survived.

She has a book out now, “I am Malala.” It is not just her answer to the gunman’s question, but her invitation to all of us to stand up for what Malala has come to represent: peace through education, justice through education, equity, equality, understanding, freedom, opportunity for all,
through education.

When 20/20 ran their story on Malala they had video clips of people from all over the world, little girls in Pakistani schools, teenagers in New Jersey, EMT’s in NYC, all saying:

“I am Malala.”

A little girl with great heart…

A man with a gun…

Who has the power the now?