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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fred and Ethel and Persistent Prayer

A Sermon for Pentecost XXII - October 16, 2016
All Saint's Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

This is a sermon about persistence. Actually, it’s a sermon about persistence as a manifestation of hope, and hope as the motivation of prayer.

That’s because this morning’s gospel story is about the persistent widow. That’s how we come to know her. Like so many women in Scripture, she doesn’t have a name. Just a title. Like “The Woman At The Well”.  Or, “The Woman and the Lost Coin.” Or, “The Daughter of Jarius.” She is the “Persistent Widow”.

I have been known to be fairly persistent myself. My grandmother said I was a willful child. But, she didn’t mean it as a bad thing. Being willful, in my family, was a good thing. It was a sign of strength. It was a mark of character. So, because I was a willful child who grew up to be a persistent woman, I’m going to name this nameless woman in scripture.

I’m going to call her Ethel.

Ethel, we are told, was a real pest to a certain judge. Her rights had been violated in some way – we don’t know exactly what or how or why – but given the status of women in antiquity that’s not the remarkable part of the story.

Given what we know of the status of women in antiquity, it’s remarkable at all that she was seeking justice for herself. Indeed, it’s flat out amazing that she was persistent in seeking justice for herself.

The judge – Well, you know what? I’m going to name him, too. I’ll call him ‘Fred’ – the judge, it seems, was a pretty arrogant man. He didn’t care two figs about what God thinks, much less what people think.

But, Ethel was persistent and Fred, we are told, got weary of her so finally, he caved in and gave her justice.  Not because she deserved it, necessarily. But, because he was just tired out by her persistence.

Or, maybe because she was right and it was just that obvious.

Fred and Ethel. Weren’t they the upstairs neighbors of Lucy and Desi? They were the Mertz right? Fred and Ethel Mertz. How about that for free association?

I promise, no drinking of wine was involved in the preparation of this sermon.

Jesus told this story about Fred and Ethel to his disciples, we are told, to teach them something about prayer.

Well, here’s what I want to say about that: The first thing is that prayer, at least in my experience, is a very personal thing. Behind every petition of prayer, there is a human face. Indeed, when we pray together the Prayers of the People, we human beings come together to put our faces and our bodies and our minds and our hearts and our souls into those prayers.

They are not just words on paper. They are persistent petitions of hope. That’s why the person reading the prayers often stops and creates a space for people to say the names of the people who come to mind during that petition. Prayer is personal. We can lose site of that with the various forms of our Prayers. It becomes powerfully personal when it has a name. Like Ethel. And, Fred.

I think persistence is a manifestation of hope and hope is a form of prayer.

Think about that for a minute: If you don’t have hope, why ever would you persist? Why even bother? Prayer is fueled by hope and hope sparks persistence and persistence puts the hopes of prayer into action.

Note, please, that Ethel did not sit in the Temple and quietly read from the prayers in the back of the BCP or piously recite the rosary. Well, she might have done that, too, but Ethel must have been a willful child who grew up to be a persistent woman. She took her petition directly to the person who could answer her prayer.

She went directly to Fred.

Not everyone has that sort of … well . . . persistence. Because, not everyone has that kind of hope. Some of us are simply beaten down by the realities of life. We have come to believe that no one will listen to us, even if we tell the truth. That, no one really cares. That we are not really worth it. Or, that if we tell the truth, we might be punished for it or not be believed or have to pay a very high price for it. That it may backfire and not be worth it in the end.

If you’ve been listening to the news – and, who could possibly escape it these days – you have seen or heard a few examples of persistent women. Some of these women have been waiting a long time to tell the truth of their stories.

Three of them have, in fact, been telling their stories for over 30 years. The others had been silent because they had been afraid. Confused. Thought they had brought it on themselves. Thought, well, this is just what it’s like for a woman.

And, in part and for many years, that’s not been incorrect. 

Before this week, they were just women without names who had been talked about. Bragged about as victories of predatory machismo. Topics of locker room banter. Just words, that’s all. Nothing to concern yourselves with.

No harm no foul.


We see the harm done – even after decades later. We see the foul and it is vulgar and indecent and lewd.  The sad truth is that the only justice they may get is in having had the opportunity to tell their story – to tell the truth of what happened to them – and to have people listen and know.

Unfortunately, they are also experiencing some injustice all over again. One woman has left the country with her family because she was being tormented by people who didn’t believe her and thought she was telling the story for other reasons. For some sort of ‘fame’ (Seriously?). Or, possibly, for some sort of financial gain.

Or, maybe they’re just crazy for thinking they were once attractive enough to be molested.

Their stories have touched our stories. Somewhere inside each one of us, we know. We understand. We may not have been molested or groped ourselves, but we know what it is like to have told a deep personal truth about ourselves and not been believed or heard because someone else was rich or powerful and didn’t care.

Please, make no mistake: I am not telling you these things about these women to take a political side in this election. Indeed, there are women on both sides of the political aisle with stories to tell about alleged sexual predators. This is not a sermon about politics. This is a sermon – albeit a difficult sermon – about persistence.

It’s a sermon about persistence as a manifestation of hope and hope as the motivation of prayer. 

I have to tell you that, as a willful child who has grown into a persistent woman, like our First Lady  and many of you, I can’t stop thinking about this.  I know many women – many of whom are also survivors of predatory sexual assault – and many good men, my brothers, sure and true – who who have mothers and daughters and nieces and sisters – and their own stories to tell – who also can’t stop thinking about this.

It has shaken us all to our core in a way that was completely unpredictable.

Although, actually, we probably should have known. We’ve been through this before in our public lives. Anita Hill is one name many will recognize. Clergy who are pedophiles is another. Cops who pull women over for minor traffic violations and then molest them. We should know that, when truth like this is exposed, something happens – something is set free……something is set in motion – in the universe that is unstoppable and irreversible.

It has been said that whenever a person stands up against injustice, whenever the truth is told and a lie is exposed and justice is demanded – something in the cosmos shifts. The tectonic plates deep in the layers of the planet slip just ever so slightly and a tiny fissure – a small crack – begins to open. And, the whole earth groans into the universe, the sound of which reaches a place deep in our souls and we, with the rest of the world, are deeply moved and deeply disturbed.

So, while it would be wonderful to just pretend that this isn’t happening, while it would be lovely, in a way, to be like Fred, the judge in this morning’s Gospel story, and not care two figs about what God thinks, much less what people think, and sweep it all under the rug and just go on with our lives and convince ourselves that church is a place for perfect, happy people and Christianity provides some sort of inoculation against injustice and other bad things… and . . .

.... well… truth be told . . . . I just can’t do that.

It would be dishonest and disingenuous and I wouldn’t be preaching the gospel. Instead, I’d simply just be the Sunday morning entertainment.  That is not what I understand my vocation to be as an Episcopal priest.

The gospel isn’t like that. Did you hear what Jesus said?

Jesus raised up the story of Ethel, the persistent widow, who went to Fred, the arrogant judge, and said, “You want to know what prayer is? Prayer is like this: Look at Ethel over there. She keeps telling her story of injustice even though she is not believed. She keeps telling her story of injustice even though she is ignored. She keeps telling her story of injustice even though she is not given justice”. 

That, says Jesus, is what prayer is.  It is persistent. It is built on the foundation of hope. It is uttered with the understanding that God – the Divine Cosmic Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit – WILL hear your prayer.

God WILL hear your cry.

God WILL bring about justice.

The other important message in this morning’s gospel for me is that it comes to us at this time in our lives of faith when we as a community of women and men who profess a faith in Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected and Christ ascended are being given a vocational charge to have honest, albeit difficult conversations about human sexuality.

Not just homosexuality. Human sexuality.

What we are hearing is not normal. We ought not normalize it by our silence. And, that’s exactly what silence does. It makes it “normal”. It makes it “okay.”

It is not normal.

It is not okay.

Apart from who you will or will not vote for, if we, as a community of faith, cannot talk about and address the evil of predatory sexual assault, who will?

If we, as a Body of Christ, cannot feel the earth shift and hear the cosmos groan with the cry of injustice, who will?

If we, as people who have been baptized and promise to “respect the dignity of every human being,” cannot keep that promise for our mothers and daughters and sisters and aunts and cousins and friends, please tell me, who will?

This is where willfulness is important to the nature and character of a person. This is where persistence is an essential component of prayer and hope is the essence of a life of Christian faith. It does not come without cost.

This is why Jesus told us the story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow. We are not told the exact nature of her “injustice”, leading me to wonder what it was that was too difficult to mention?

Or, was it, perhaps, considered so commonplace that it needed no mention?

It was originally told and meant for times when the first disciples were learning about what it means to follow Jesus.

It was originally told and meant for times such as these, when people today – living in this post modern era – are learning about the true cost of discipleship.

It was originally told and is meant for all those who will come after us – our granddaughters and grandsons and great granddaughters and great grandsons – to whom this story will be told with lessons to be learned by new generations of people.

It is a timeless story of the inordinate importance and compelling imperatives about what it means to be a person of prayer who professes to follow Jesus. It involves risk.

It involves putting your faith into action. It involves hope and belief in a God who loves us enough to inspire us to bring about justice against the oppression of people in our own day and time.  For ourselves and others.

This is a sermon about a judge I’ve called Fred and a woman I’ve called Ethel, because it is important to put a face behind stories of injustice petitions of prayer for justice.

This is a sermon about persistence. This is a sermon about persistence as a manifestation of hope, and hope as the motivation of prayer.

My prayer for us all on this day and all the days of our lives is that we learn to have the persistence of women like Ethel in our lives of prayer, that we may always know hope. 

I will leave you to ponder the question of Jesus, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Amen. 

7 comments:

Barbara Hendren said...

Reading your sermon this afternoon in NC and it brought me to tears ... tears of joy in your persistence and in inwardly digesting this incredible, thoughtful and beautiful telling of the truth of the present situation in our country. I am a retired priest who also has been labeled willful and persistent ... my former Bishop +Michael has called me the female "Winston Churchill". Thank you for your work in the field of our Lord. Barbara Platt-Hendren+

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sometimes, you just gotta preach what the Spirit says preach.

Priscilla Johnstone said...

This is a breath of hope and courage for all of us who have become increasingly dismayed over the recent deterioration of the Presidential campaign and the blatant attacks on the women who came forth to tell their stories. Much of my professional career was spent working with women & children (& men) who experienced devastating abuse and dv. I found myself getting caught up in the misogyny directed toward them, remembering how women were blamed and further victimized when they reported their abuse ( and still are, as we are witnessing). Yesterday our deacon delivered another powerful sermon on the power of one, on hope and persistence. This morning, in reading your post, I realize that instead of reacting to the emotion & vitriol and giving in to despair and frustration, I can reframe this and recognize that our work is not done. We will continue to persist until justice is achieved. We will hold onto Hope until all who are experiencing abuse can feel love and support and Hope for themselves. Thank you for this posting - this and yesterday's sermon have refreshed me, strengthened my purpose and brought me back to Hope for humankind, one person at a time. 💖🙏🏻

Pepper Marts said...


More years ago than I care to remember Bill Countryman said (approximately): "The primary target of every good sermon includes the preacher."

Blessings, dear visible friend.
Pepper Marts

Linda McMillan said...

That was one of your best. Thank you.

8thday said...

Am I the only one who finds this depressing? I mean, over 2,000 years and women are STILL fighting to be heard and to find justice? Over 2,000 years and the story has not changed.

"God WILL bring about justice?"

You are much more hopeful than I am.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I am a very prisoner of hope.