Friday, 18 October 2013

Prayed in Dagenham

21st Sunday after Trinity2 Timothy 3:14-4:5...In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable...
Luke 18:1-8The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’Whether or not you've been aware, this week has seen industrial action by the NUT and at least 3 local secondary schools were closed on Thursday, giving my kids an extra 6 hours sat in front of the TV.

A couple of years ago I went to the cinema to see Made in Dagenham, a film about the 1968 strike by the seamstresses at the Ford plant at Dagenham, staring Sally Hawkins.The 187 women employees at the Dagenham plant were initially classed as semi-skilled workers and paid accordingly.Their job was to sit at a sewing machine for long hours sewing together the pieces of the car seats which would later be assembled by the men in the main car factory.

At the beginning of the film, it is announced that Ford bosses in the USA have re-classified the women as unskilled workers and reduced their pay accordingly.Understandably the women are mortified and outraged at their demotion and arrange a one-day strike.The bosses refuse to accede to the demands of the women, who rapidly realise that the wider issue at stake is one of equal pay with men.They end up striking indefinitely which soon leads to very real tensions within the whole community in Dagenham as, without the women sewing the seats together, there are soon no cars coming off the production line at all, and none of the men can work either.

Cue scenes of domestic tension in kitchens and sitting rooms up and down the region, to the backdrop of realistic 1960s decor.
Everyone’s pay is withdrawn and things become really tough.Equal pay sounds like an admirable goal to pursue but at what cost?As this is, admittedly, a feel good film, there is never any doubt that eventually the woman will get what they desire.There’s the inevitable scene when they travel to Downing Street, no less, to present their demands to the Secretary of State, Barbara Castle, played in flaming red hair by Miranda Richardson.She is sympathetic to the women, to the horror of some of her male colleagues, and the film ends with the women seamstresses returning to work, all smiles and victory salutes, with the promise of equal pay ringing in their ears.

In a film postscript, the credits inform us that the Equal Pay Act was passed within two years of that strike.In addition there are clips of interviews with the actual 1968 seamstresses, women now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, feisty women who, whilst looking a lot less glamorous than their young film star counterparts, are women you would not want to cross!However they had one thing which was vital: they had ‘RIGHT’ on their side.

At some fundamental level, the basic human rights we enjoy in the West– the right to vote; the right to be paid for work; the right to religious freedom – are acknowledged to be worth standing up for.In our reading we heard about another doughty woman - the widow and the unjust judge.
This woman is one of Luke’s powerless ones, along with Jairus’ sick daughter and the elderly haemorrhaging woman and the poor widow who only had two small coins to live on – but the powerless ones have God on their side...Jesus, particularly in Luke, has a special place for the poor and for women.A particularly vulnerable group in first century Palestine, widows had no welfare state as a safety net.To be a widow in Jesus’ time, without wider family, was to be one small step away from destitution.A widow in this very position is the heroine of our story today.She comes to the unjust judge and pleads for justice against her adversary.Jesus doesn't give us many details but it’s possible she is owed badly needed income and is being denied it by her opponent.
The Greek plays around with the notion of righteousness in the text, so that the widow’s opponent is referred to as the anti-righteous one.In the world’s eyes the widow’s opponent is the one with the power, but the way God sees things is different.In God’s schema the widow has right on her side.And she knows it.Her daily perseverance towards the unjust judge eventually wears him down.

We are given a glimpse into his psyche in verse 4, which says that for a while he refused to grant the widow justice, but then he has a conversation with himself.Jesus shows his mastery at story-telling here, and it’s meant to be funny, though the translation in our reading masks the humour.Let’s rediscover it: the judge says: ‘though I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming’ but the Greek could also mean ‘yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face (give me a black eye)’!So the judge decides to grant the widow justice, not because he is righteous, but through her sheer feistiness and perseverance.The helpless widow was not quite so helpless after all!Jesus ends, ‘And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’

I wonder what you make of this comparison of God with the unjust judge…Has Jesus in this story run the risk that we might think God is like the unjust judge in that He appears unwilling sometimes to answer prayer?
Is it that God can’t be bothered with us, but gives in when we wear him down?Why did Jesus tell this story?Luckily we’re told at the beginning: it is so that we should keep praying and not despair.Losing heart, or despair in prayer, is insidious.We may not be wringing our hands as such, but have we secretly abandoned hope that God can have the last word in human society?

Have we unconsciously adopted the mindset that sees a reduced church, trudging along as best it can, in the face of widespread secularism, as rather a sad picture, with God somehow a bit helpless on the outside?We may be tempted to unfaith in the face of unanswered prayer.And then there’s the great, as yet unanswered prayer: ‘Maranatha’ – Lord, come again.For those of us living 2000 years after this story, it can seem like Jesus has forgotten to come back.For us who live reasonably comfortable lives this may not be a big issue.But for the poor, those denied equality, those who live in fear of the powerful and violent, the coming in of the full kingdom of God can seem like a long way off.
Justice will be done when Christ returns.
And we can start being concerned with justice in the here and now.

 So to sum up: Jesus tells this parable so we persevere: if the unjust judge can finally grant the widow justice, HOW MUCH MORE will God grant justice to those who cry to him day and night?
We must not despair. And we must not be apathetic.

In our other reading Paul also urges Timothy to consider the eternal framework for justice: ‘in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires’.

Is there something you are constantly bringing to God, which yet appears unanswered?
Keep persevering.
We are not called to look for miracles, or dictate timings to God. We’re called to persevere to the end.

And finally, a plaintive end to Jesus’ story...
An ‘And yet’...
‘And yet’: always a little moment of anxiety, of reflection, of questioning.
And as Jesus leaves it open, so will we:
‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
Will he find real disciples, real faith amongst us?

1 comment:

  1. Jolly fun stuff. Pity I won't be in church to for the audio visual version :)