XCovid-19: For our live-streamed Holy Week and Easter Services and more info about Staying Connected when we are apart…Read more

Sermon Archives

Persistence

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Jul 24

Texts: Luke 11:1-13

Every four years, we come to a trio of traditions: the Republican and Democratic conventions, and the summer Olympics. As always, these events give us a context in which we can explore our lives of faith in today’s world, both as Americans and as global citizens. So today, after a week of the Republican convention, the lectionary brings us a word to contemplate: persistence.
Whatever it was that we were expecting from last week’s political convention, I don’t think any of us would have guessed we would have spent a day and a half discussing plagiarism from a recent Democratic National Convention speech. Whether it was unintentional or not, it is fascinating to consider all of the different levels involved: who the speaker chose to copy, how a political speech is prepared and reviewed, and also, many college professors and high school teachers are thankful for a very clear example of how not to use someone else’s work.
I learned, for example, that there is plagiarism software available, used regularly by professors and teachers to review their students’ work. Just for fun, I ran some of my own writing through it. I copied and pasted my sermon from three weeks ago into a free online plagiarism checker. I knew there was a direct quote in the sermon, so I was interested in finding out whether or not it could identify that.
As I waited for the website to analyze my sermon, I was a bit apprehensive about what it would find. I certainly try to be original, but there certainly could be some inadvertent repeating of someone else’s ideas. Preaching is all about re-interpreting the Bible, as well as the work of theologians, historians, religious and secular leaders. The best preachers read a lot of other writers and listen to a lot of other preachers. We try our best to cite our sources.
In a few moments, the results were complete … plagiarism detected! I scrolled through… it found the Elie Wiesel quote. When I clicked on the quote in my sermon, the plagiarism checker took me to a website that included Wiesel’s quote. Pretty amazing! But I was concerned that there were a number of other passages in my sermon also marked as plagiarized. I clicked on the next one… it took me to that text, which the plagiarism checker said was copied 98% from the First Church website, from my own sermon posted there! Much to my relief, that’s all it found.
One of the fascinating aspects of studying any types of writing is comparing similar pieces. I remember one of my divinity school history professors asking the question, “Who would that person have been reading? Whose ideas would they have encountered? How do you put your sources in chronological order?” It’s interesting when something is identical, but it’s also interesting when it changes.
The gospel writers Luke and Matthew are both thought to have had access to the gospel of Mark, which had been written about 20 years earlier, as well as to another hypothetical collection of Jesus’ sayings which did not survive. Scholars think that Matthew and Luke used this collection, but that Mark didn’t have access to it. They think that because there are passages found in Matthew and Luke that are identical or very similar to each other, but are not found in Mark at all. Biblical scholars call this mystery text Q, short for the German Quelle, which means source. Each of the gospel writers used the materials they had, changing the order, or the phrasing, or the vocabulary to tell the story of Jesus to their readers. The Lord’s Prayer is one example of something that must have been a part of Q, since we find it in Luke and in Matthew, but not in Mark.
Let’s look at the two versions, side by side. In Luke, the 11th chapter that we just read begins after the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus instructs them to pray a certain prayer, like our Lord’s Prayer, but a more succinct version:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Luke goes on from there to include a story about the persistence of a friend at midnight, then reassures us that if we ask, we will receive, and then ends the chapter with an example of how God is like the best of parents, giving good gifts to children.
Matthew’s context in his sixth chapter is entirely different. Matthew begins with a command to be careful not to make donations so that others see you and praise you, or to pray on a street corner, so that others will see you, but instead to give anonymously and to pray in secret, knowing that God sees and knows all and will reward you. Then Matthew says, do not heap up empty phrases in your prayers, but pray in this way… and Matthew’s version is nearly identical to the prayer we pray together every week, longer than Luke’s, and without what my hospital chaplain colleague called “the Protestant ending.”
Matthew says, give secretly, pray quietly. Luke says, be direct, keep asking, keep knocking, for your persistence will pay off. Two very different ways to use the prayer that the author of the Q source had written down. Matthew’s version is more inward and personal. Luke’s looks outward and is more public. And Luke illustrates his point with the concept of persistence.
If you go to a friend at midnight to ask for a loan of three loaves of bread so that you can feed unexpected houseguests, and the lights are off, but it’s a good friend, so you knock anyway, and your friend says, “Hey, we’re all sleeping!” If you keep knocking, Luke says, your friend will get up and get the bread for you, not because you’re a friend, but because then everyone can get back to sleep sooner. It reminds me of a child rearing debate: If your child cries in the middle of the night, do you respond right away, or let them cry? Some would say we have to teach them to soothe themselves, and they usually do, but it takes a while. Others recognize that if we respond quickly, everyone is back to sleep within a few minutes. It’s hard to know what is best, short-term or long-term.
Jesus seems to say, if you’re persistent, you’re more likely to get what you want, whether or not it’s the right thing to do. Jesus didn’t have to contend with our 21st century American advertising and marketing culture that surrounds us, or maybe they have taken this message to its absurd conclusion. We’re constantly and persistently inundated with junk mail, advertisements, spam email, and robocalls. An advertiser will send out a mass mailing, because if they send 1000 pieces of mail and get four new customers, it is cost effective. Meanwhile, the wasted paper piles up, not to mention the wasted time of the 996 recipients. Our phones interrupt our dinner preparations with robocalls, offering us power washing, or a time share vacation, or if you’re really lucky, Carmen from Cardholder Services. It’s possible that there are good deals among the junk mail, but the sheer volume of it is exhausting. Is this persistence?
Our culture is based on the elements of consumerism, which then spill over into other areas of our lives. The news tells us the same stories over and over again. Sometimes it’s fact based, and sometimes not. Even if it’s untrue, the ruthless persistence of mis-information seems to follow the theory that if people hear something often enough they’ll just agree it’s true to get rid of you.
We’ve all heard stories of someone who settled a lawsuit not because they had done something wrong, but because it was cheaper to settle than it would be to fight the persistent accusations of the other party. I know of a company that sent someone something they never ordered, and couldn’t use, the company wouldn’t accept back in return, and then sent a bill, threatening to report non-payment to a credit company. It was easier to pay the $50 than it was to keep calling and arguing about the extortion. Is this persistence to be rewarded? Persistence seems to be about who has power and who doesn’t. Who is knocking and who is trying to sleep?
Way before the dangers of our modern excesses, can the 2,000 year old story that Luke tells about persistence teach us something today? I vividly remember a Bible study on this text. The leader began by asking the dozen of us to pair up, with one of us playing the part of a small child and the other, a parent. It was 5:00 and the parent was tired from a long day of work. The child was… well, it was 5:00, “fall apart hour,” as my mother used to call it. The setting was the grocery store, where the tired parent was trying to pick up something quick for supper, and the child was hungry and wanted candy. Those playing the part of the children were instructed, by our Bible study leader, to throw a tantrum until we got what we wanted. The parents were to push us around the room in our imaginary grocery carts. Well, you can imagine that chaos and hilarity ensued, as the “children” whined and screamed and cried, and the “parents” eventually gave the “children” what they wanted.
“How did you feel?” the “parents” were asked. Everyone said they gave in to their child because it was the easiest way to stop the tantrum. They felt angry, annoyed, tired, controlling, controlled, frazzled. They hadn’t lived up to their own standards of providing what was best for their child. How did the “children” feel? “When my parent finally threw the candy at me, I didn’t even want it any more,” one “child” offered. Everyone, parents and children, felt bad about the scene.
Try going from this role play into a Bible study on today’s text from Luke. Jesus tells us to be persistent. But our experience of such grocery store encounters in our own lives reminds us not to bombard God at all hours of the night with requests, not to get so worked up about wanting something that we lose sight of our original, genuine needs and end up feeling horrible if we get what we thought we wanted because we annoyed God.
It is important to be persistent in our prayers, but remember that our persistence is not so much about God as it is about us. God hears us the first time. When we don’t get a response, we try again. Rephrase it, explain it to God some other way. I have a friend who is hard of hearing in one ear. One of the first times we had lunch together, he explained to me, “if I ask you to repeat something, don’t use the same words – I didn’t hear that sound the first time. If you say it a different way, I’m more likely to understand you.”
This story is also about the focus of our persistence. What are we asking for? Remember that the friend was asking for bread in order to feed unexpected house guests. It was for others. If we’re asking for something for personal profit, or personal gain, that’s different. If we’re asking for something so that we can gain in prestige or so that we can bring attention to ourselves, then persistence can quickly turn annoying. But if we’re truly focused on others – working for the common good – then our persistence is an important aspect of our prayers, our ministry, and our mission.
How do we know the difference? That’s why we’re in this together. That’s why we come to gather here, week after week: to talk with each other, to share our ideas, our hopes, our longings, and our dreams; to listen to others speak out, to hear their excitement, to share their ideas, so that together we can be persistent in our prayers. Not to acquire an extra loaf of bread for ourselves, but to feed hungry travelers. Not to improve our own lives, but to better the lives of others. Not to bring attention to ourselves, but to inspire others to join us to make the world a better place for us all.
There are certainly times when I listen to the news, or political rhetoric, or whatever is going on, and I get discouraged. But I also have hope, that there are enough of us tuned in to the common good. That there are enough of us that have to be reminded to put on our own oxygen masks before we help others. That there are enough of us who will help others at the drop of a hat. It’s our job to transform that persistence into the energy and hope required to build a better city, a better country, and a better world for all those who are struggling to find peace and justice. May our prayers persist until justice is present in all the world. Amen.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...