Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: October 16

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He ends the parable with this question: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus gives to us a parable of prayer & faith – the great singer Mahalia Jackson would say that “Faith and prayer are the vitamins of the soul; one cannot live in health without them.” And so Jesus told us a story that goes to the soul.

A widow kept going to a judge, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” He refused. But she would not go to her home and give up. Over, and over again this scene would happen... The judge, as we are told, who does not fear God or respect anyone else, decides to give her justice, not for her sake as a widow or because she is right, it is not for the sake of justice, but so that she stops being a nuisance to him!

The unjust judge in the parable has all the power for he can grant justice to the widow or not. The widow of course, in the time of Jesus, is vulnerable, she can be exploited or forgotten, her very survival could be at stake because she has no husband, and maybe no kin to take care of her.

She is on the margins of that society, insignificant, and would seem to have no power in this situation. And yet, she does not give in to his refusals. She uses what she has available to her, her persistence, & her voice, “Grant me justice.” The widow refuses to be marginalized, does not lose heart and uses her voice to be heard.

It reminds me of an old Aztec fable… Once upon a time a small fire quickly grew out of control and began to consume the forest. As the flames spread, the animals began to flee. An owl making its own escape noticed a small bird, a quetzal, constantly flying back and forth between the river and a section of the burning forest.

"Are you crazy?! the owl hooted. "The forest is burning! You must leave at once!" But the little red and green bird ignored the owl's warning and returned to the river, where it gathered a few drops of water in its beak before flying over to the brush to release the droplets on the flames.

The owl flew down and met the quetzal bird at the water's edge. "What are you doing?" "The best I can with what I have," the bird replied as it gathered another few droplets of water in its tiny beak and returned to the flaming brush.

Inspired by the quetzal's courage and determination, the owl began to help. Soon, other animals - and even humans - joined them, and the great fire was conquered.

The little quetzal bird possesses the spirit of hope and optimism that Jesus asks of us, his disciples. In today's Gospel, Jesus praises the widow's perseverance in fighting for what is right and just and assures us that when we act out of such a heart, the Spirit of God will be with us in our struggle to find the words and courage to confront evil and hurt, to challenge those who threaten to harm us and those we love.

All of us have seen this kind of perseverance: in parents who continue to love their sons and daughters despite the messes they make of their lives; in couples who work together to mend their marriages; in those quiet, committed souls who do their jobs conscientiously not because of the money or demanding supervisors but because they know their work matters. Jesus honors such perseverance in the conviction that what is just and right calls us to live our faith, to pray and not lose heart even when the fight is long.

Georgetown University was founded by the Jesuits in 1789, in Washington DC. In 1838, the university was in dire financial straits. To keep the university operating, Georgetown needed to raise cash fast, so it sold off its slaves.

Two of Georgetown's early presidents, both Jesuit priests, organized the sale of 272 of the slaves that worked at the college and at Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland. The sale raised about $3.3 million in today's dollars, enough to pay off Georgetown's debts and secure the university's future.

The slaves were shipped to estates in Louisiana. Promises of keeping families together and the safe, humane treatment of the slaves were broken; many were brutalized by their new owners. The enslaved were grandmothers and grandfathers, carpenters and blacksmiths, pregnant women and anxious fathers, children and infants, who were fearful, bewildered and despairing as they saw their families and communities ripped apart by the sale.

Like many American colleges and universities founded during that time, Georgetown has been struggling with this dark chapter of its past. Urged on by students and alumni, Georgetown convened a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, made up of administrators, faculty, students and alumni, to make recommendations on how to address the university's historical connection to the institution of slavery.

Georgetown will begin offering admission preference to those whose ancestors were used or sold as slaves by the university - not only the descendants of the 272 sold in 1838, but any slave who worked at Georgetown and the Jesuit farms, just as the university offers preference to the children and grandchildren of alumni. And two buildings at Georgetown, named for the two presidents who brokered the 1838 slave deal, will be renamed. One of the buildings will be rechristened Isaac Hall, named after one of the victims of the slave trade at the time. The other will be called Anne Marie Becraft Hall, in honor of an African-American woman who opened a school for black girls in Georgetown in 1827.

Georgetown has also established a historical research center to provide genealogical information from the university's archives to descendants of Georgetown slaves. A public memorial to the slaves is also being designed. And Georgetown plans a formal apology to the families of the enslaved. While Georgetown has gone further than any institution in facing its dark history, the university realizes it is just a beginning.

Jesuit David Collins, associate professor of history at Georgetown, notes: "The story of the sale that saved Georgetown draws our attention to 272 specific people, and meticulous Jesuit record-keeping unwittingly spares these victims the final indignity of forced anonymity. We know the people's names; when they were born, married and buried; whom they were sold with and whom they were separated from. We can trace their family connections, sometimes even to the present. Those 272 biographies sting in a way a statistic of one million can't . . . this story cries out its injustice against our American tendency to distance ourselves from the ugly realities in our history." [The New York Times, The Washington Post.]

Securing justice can sometimes take a long, long time. But Christ calls us, his disciples, to be as persistent as the widow in today's Gospel, to realize that reconciliation, peace and mercy are values that should be pursued, that the passage of time does not justify injustice or excuse responsibility, that no effort to correct another's suffering is ever too little or too late. Such persistence, such critical self-reflection, is the mark of the follower of Jesus; discipleship recognizes that the principles of the Gospel often put us on a collision course with the values of the world.

We possess a faith that empowers us with hope and courage, enabling us to persevere despite the overwhelming despair, anger, ridicule, hatred and evil that we may encounter. Like the persistent widow of the Gospel, may we always realize that, through God's work of hope, mercy, and reconciliation, we can make God's presence and grace real and alive in our world if we but keep the faith, pray and not lose heart. Amen.

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