Prayer, justice, faith – Oct 20, 2019
“Nevertheless, she persisted.” It was Feb 7, 2017 and the Senate debate about the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General was on. Senator Elizabeth Warren was interrupted by the Senate chair as spoke against the confirmation, and then silenced through a Senate vote. The debate went on and when it was all over, Senator Mitch McConnell said from the Senate floor: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate [a] rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This last phrase was immediately tweeted and re-tweeted and quickly went viral, used in relationship to a whole variety of women. It became a rallying cry, referring broadly to women’s persistence in breaking down barriers, despite being silenced or ignored.
Today we hear a Gospel story about another woman who persisted, despite being ignored for an indeterminate length of time. It comes to us as one of Jesus’ parables. A widow appears before a judge who is described as “neither fear[ing] God nor respect[ing] people.” The widow comes to him, again and again, with the plea: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” We don’t know how many times the scene played out. We don’t know how long this widow had been seeking justice. And we don’t know what the conflict was about or any facts of the case. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” the widow pleads, and maybe we, with the judge, wonder if she really deserves to win the case. Maybe her repeated appeals to the judge were overly self-serving. Maybe she’s just plain wrong and there’s no justice issue at all. How quickly and easily we doubt determined women, especially when we are supposed to quietly accept our place and circumstance. How eager we are to believe in, and trust in, the powers that be. How uncomfortable we become when we witness such a challenge to the status quo, such a plea for justice.
But there is nothing in the story to indicate that the widow’s plea is anything but justified. The judge is even described later in the story as “unjust.” By all indications, the justice the widow seeks is right. And though being repeatedly ignored or silenced… nevertheless, she persisted. And eventually, her persistence wins her justice. The Gospel narrator calls her persistent action, prayer. The introduction to the story says that Jesus tells his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” The widow prays by seeking justice.
Prayer can be a slippery idea, because it can be practiced in all kinds of ways. In this case, a story about prayer and not losing heart, not giving up, transforms into a story about justice. About seeking what is right… through persistence and determination over the long haul. This kind of prayer is about not accepting injustice for fear of upsetting someone, or for fear of rocking the boat, or for fear of making someone uncomfortable. It is, in fact, the opposite. The widow’s persistence in prayer is about her deep conviction. What issue of justice would be worth your such persistence and determination? About what do you need to not lose heart, and repeatedly pray about, by petitioning the powers that be?
This past Friday marked the 90th anniversary of so-called “Persons Day.” It is the day when women throughout Canada were declared persons. [Who here is over 90 years old? Billie?] The process to that moment began 13 years earlier, in 1916, when Emily Murphy attempted to attend a trial of a woman accused of prostitution. She, and the group of women she was with, were ejected on the grounds that the testimony wasn’t fit for mixed company. She appealed to the Attorney General of Alberta who made her a judge in a court specifically for women. Her first day on the job, however, her authority was questioned by a lawyer on the basis that women were not considered to be “persons” under the British North America Act. In 1917, the Supreme Court of Alberta ruled that women are, in fact, persons, but it took another 10 years before Emily Murphy, joined by 4 other prominent Albertan women now known as the “Famous Five,” petitioned the federal government for the same across Canada.
Alongside Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, presented a petition to the federal government on August 27, 1927 about the status of women. In October of that year, a simplified question was referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, asking, “Does the word “Persons” in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” 9 months later, on April 24, 1928, the Supreme Court rendered its decision, with the last line of the judgement reading: “Understood to mean ‘Are women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada,’ the question is answered in the negative.” The justices didn’t even have the courage to answer the question, to say “no,” directly. Nevertheless, she persisted. The Famous Five appealed and the judgement was overturned 18 months later, on October 18, 1929, by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The case came to be known as the “Persons Case” and it is considered a landmark in two respects. Along with the obvious import of women legally being declared “persons,” and eligible to be appointed senators, it also established the Canadian Constitution as a living document that could and should adapt to changing times.
The persistent prayer that fighting for justice requires is about more than the individuals involved. I can only imagine how Emily, Irene, Nellie, Louise and Henrietta must have felt when their petition was denied. But somehow they missed that they were supposed to quietly accept “the way it is.” It seems significant that more than their personal names, they have become known as the “Famous Five.” They were not in it alone. So when one was discouraged or distracted, another could rise through prayer and persistence. It’s why working together for common purpose is so critical. It’s why it matters that 600-odd Calgarians showed up at Knox United last Thursday night to declare together that we care about mental health, social isolation, the environment, and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. It’s why public, communal, commitment matters whether it be through our baptismal covenant, marriage vows, or a simple declaration of “yes, I will work with you,” given by a public official.
The widow in our Gospel story today is particularly remarkable, perhaps, because she is presented as a solitary figure. Her persistent prayer of justice-seeking for herself is remarkable because through all the “no’s”… through all the times her petition was rejected, all the times she was silenced or ignored, nevertheless, she persisted in her conviction for justice. Such a long-term conviction is only possible through passion and commitment deeper than the feelings that come and go. What convictions do you hold, deeper than the fleetingness of feelings, for which you persist for the long haul?
Our Gospel story today, declared to be about the “need to pray always and not to lose heart,” transforms into a story about justice, but it ends on faith. In the end, the persistence of prayer necessary for justice-seeking becomes the definition of faith. In the end, it is the fullness of our lives, our thinking and our feeling, our silence and our speech, our contemplation and our action, our prayer and our justice-seeking, that defines our faith. Today we hear of faith that persists; faith that contends; faith that wrestles. In the end, will Jesus find such faith on earth?