This may be what I do for Sunday — not sure yet.
“You can pray until you faint,” Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, “but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Fannie Lou Hamer knew that truth from her own experience. I read her story in the book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, edited by Michelle DeRusha.[i]
The year was 1962. Fannie Lou Hamer was forty-four years old. She was married to a sharecropper. She was the mother of two adopted daughters. Fannie Lou was a black woman, the first person at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi to raise her hand. She was the first who volunteered to go the twenty-six miles to the county courthouse and register to vote. She was the first in line when the white clerk snapped, “What do you want?”
Fannie Lou knew the risks. Blacks in rural Mississippi in 1962 didn’t register to vote. If they did, they risked public abuse, job loss, physical beatings, and lynching. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared,” she said later. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she continued,” and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”
Mississippi had a literacy test for voter registration. The first time Fannie Lou tried to register, she failed that test. The clerk required her to read and explain section 16 of the Mississippi state constitution. That section described and defined “de facto” laws. Fannie later said that she knew “as much about [de] facto law as a horse knows about Christmas day.” Me, too.
Because Fannie Lou tried to register to vote, she lost her job. Local people threatened to kill her, and she was forced to flee. She dodged bullying and bullets. She also returned to the county courthouse thirty days later to take the voter registration test. This time she had studied. She passed the test.
However, her registration was rejected because she hadn’t paid the poll tax in the previous two years. Of course, she hadn’t paid the poll tax because she hadn’t been a registered voter! Fannie Lou joined the ranks of activists who worked to register other black people to vote. In that role, she was falsely arrested and jailed. she was beaten almost to death. She challenged both local and national power structures.
Fannie Lou Hamer never gave up. And she never gave in to hate. Because of her Christian faith, Fannie Lou Hamer loved even those who wanted her dead. “You have to love ’em,” she said.
“Whether confronting a belligerent voter registration official, lying bloody and beaten on the cold floor of a jail cell, or standing triumphant as a delegate before a national audience,” Michelle DeRusha writes, “Fannie Lou Hamer lived out that love day by day.”
Jesus tells his disciples a parable. This parable is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. Jesus describes a persistent widow to illustrate his point. The widow is a lot more like Fannie Lou Hamer than she is like me.
There’s this judge. He’s not afraid of God’s judgment. He doesn’t give a hoot what people in town think of him. This judge likes his position. He likes his peace and quiet. Beyond that, he just doesn’t care.
And there’s this widow in town. She’s getting a raw deal. The details don’t really matter. Jesus says she’s getting the dirty end of the stick. The judge can straighten things out if he wants to. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t care. If he ignores the widow long enough, maybe she’ll just go away.
But the widow won’t go away. She keeps confronting the judge. “Give me justice against my adversary!” she demands. After a while, the judge has a little meeting with himself. “It’s true,” he says, “I don’t fear God’s judgment. I don’t care about public opinion. But this widow! All up in my business wherever I go! At some point, she’s going to punch me in the face! Best if I do what she wants and get rid of the problem.”
So, the widow wins. She never gave up. She never backed down. She used dogged determination and physical intimidation. The widow got her justice.
Fine, Jesus. Cute story. A little slapstick humor. The underdog triumphs. What’s not to like? But how does this tell me about my need to keep on praying and not be discouraged? Jesus, I’m not quite following you on this one.
“Pay attention to what the unjust judge is saying,” Jesus tells us, “And won’t God bring about justice for his chosen ones – those who are shouting to him day and night? Will God delay in helping them?” The answer seems to be obvious. Of course, God delays in helping God’s chosen ones. Just look at our personal experience and our history. God hardly ever seems to be in a hurry to set things right!
Except, that’s not really what Jesus says. You know, even Bible translators have a bad day now and then. The wording in the King James Version is much better than the NRSV for this verse. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”
Jesus’ story isn’t about how fast God’s response time is compared to that miserable judge. The parable is about how God hangs in there with us no matter how long it takes. The judge doesn’t care about the widow’s case. But God does! The judge delays because he’s unjust. God bears with us until the world is redeemed. If that terrible judge finally gets to the right decision, then certainly our loving God will get us to the New Life where all things are put right.
The story really is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. But it’s not the kind of praying we usually think about. Jesus is talking about the kind of praying we find in our first reading. Sometimes praying means wrestling with God until we’re ready to be blessed and changed. Answers to those prayers don’t come easy. And sometimes we walk away limping.
Many of you don’t know this. But I’m a widower. My first wife died not quite twelve years ago. I took her to the emergency room on November 8, 2010. She died at home on November 20. She was fifty-one years old. It was awful.
My world collapsed. Most of my prayers were screams of anguish and anger. The one answer I wanted I couldn’t get. Sometimes I thought God had abandoned me. But that didn’t happen. As I raged and wrestled, as I shook and shouted, the Holy Spirit remained within me and around me. God bore with me. God waited until God could help me limp across the river of acute grief onto a new path of life.
That’s the personal angle on this parable. God does bring about justice for God’s chosen ones. God bears long with us – even in the moments of deepest darkness. I can’t scare God off with my anger and despair. That’s my experience and my testimony. I’m always glad to talk about that if you’re interested.
But there’s more to the story here. God’s justice is personal, but it’s much more than that. That’s why I started with the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. She testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when she was beaten and abused, when she thought she might give up all hope. And she testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when the unjust judges of this world refused to give her justice.
You may be crying out to God day and night for personal rescue and relief. In Jesus, God is standing with you in that struggle. And God will bring healing and hope in the end. As a community of faith, we are called to cry out to God day and night for social justice as well. The widow represents all who are abused and oppressed by systems of unjust power. She reminds us that God intends to transform victims into victors – no matter how long it takes.
Jesus ends the parable with a question. All the best parables end with questions. I think all the best sermons do too. “And yet,” Jesus wonders, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus isn’t wondering about faith in general. Jesus wonders about finding the widow’s faith here. Jesus wonders if he will find the sort of faith that hangs in there, that won’t give up, that won’t take no for an answer. Jesus wonders if he will find the kind of faith that won’t settle for injustice.
Jesus asks you and me that question. How will we answer?
[i] Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2014), pages 327-333).