I ran track in high school. Specifically, I ran the two hundred meter race. I wasn’t the fastest sprinter by any stretch of the imagination, but I could run a respectable race and a respectable leg on the relay team. My teammate Shannon West, on the other hand, could smoke the track. He could sprint; he could hurdle; he could high jump, and our coach took full advantage of Shannon’s athletic talents. But at a track meet in Newport, Arkansas one fine spring afternoon, Coach Carter made a simple mathematical error. He entered Shannon in more events than the rules allowed. It wasn’t until the runners were called to the blocks for the four hundred meter race—that’s a full lap around the track—that Coach realized his mistake. If Shannon ran the four hundred, which would put him over the event limit, his results in every event in which he’d participated would be declared void. That couldn’t be allowed to happen, and so two minutes before the starting pistol for the four hundred meters was fired, Coach Carter looked at me and said, “Barkley, you’re running this race.”
Never in my life had I run the four hundred meters. I was conditioned to run a sprint merely half as long, and every runner in this room already knows how this story ends. The pistol fired, and I took off like a bullet at the two hundred meter pace to which I was accustomed. I rounded the first curve, and for the first time in my life—in my life—I was winning! Not only that, I was winning by twenty yards. “This is awesome,” I thought, “I should have been running this race all along!”
Then, as we reached the second curve, something happened. It was as if the track surface melted into an oozy glue that sucked at my shoes. At the same time, my lungs felt as if I’d inhaled World War I-era mustard gas. My world suddenly shifted into slow motion. Nobody else’s did. Every other runner passed me. Every one. I hadn’t paced myself for endurance. I’d run a full-out sprint when the four hundred meters notoriously calls for something different. I ran entirely out of steam, and the race passed me by.
Think back, if you will, to the Gospel text two weeks ago. Then, the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” and Jesus responded to them by redefining the very concept of faith. Faith, Jesus taught two weeks ago, is a commitment to do the work of God, and what’s more, to do that work first in our lives, before tending to our own needs, wants, and desires.
I suggested two weeks ago that that’s a difficult message for twenty-first century Americans to hear. It goes against our cultural grain. We have, regardless of ideology, a strong libertarian streak that makes it difficult to put anything or anyone else before our own wants and certainly our own needs. And it’s even more difficult to put someone as ethereal and elusive as God at the front of the line.
Surely, it can happen that we encounter something that inspires our faith and leads us to change our priorities. We see a person in need, or we read a moving story in the newspaper, or we hear a rousing sermon. (A preacher can always hope.) And the result may be that we engage the work of God with renewed gusto. We fire out of the racing blocks at a sprint. But if we’re honest, we’ll admit that, usually, we quickly run out of steam, spent and worn out by the time we turn the second curve. And sooner rather than later, the notion of faith as an actual, daily commitment to God’s vision for the world subsides into the mist.
Which is why Jesus gives us today’s odd little parable. There is a judge who is corrupt, lazy or both. His docket is full, but he does not mete out justice. Those who already have power and influence fare well in his court. The trampled masses who exist on the margins of society leave no better off than they were when they approached his bench.
One day a widow enters the judge’s courtroom. It’s important to note that widows in Jesus’ day had no influence or power. They had no legal standing, and every day their well-being was contingent upon the favor of others. Their very existence depended on those with power protecting them justly.
Such a widow enters the courtroom of the judge today and asks for justice. He ignores her. So she comes back tomorrow. He ignores her. So she comes back the following day, and the day after that, and the day after that. She returns every day for weeks, and finally the judge relents, not because he has a change of heart, but because she is steady, and she is persistent. The judge says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, I’ll grant this widow justice because she’s wearing me out.”
The parable reminds me of a man I knew in Roanoke named Ray, who bagged groceries at the Kroger and attended Sunday evening church at St. John’s where I served. One of my favorite people, Ray grew up in Queens, New York. He moved to Virginia several years ago when he decided he couldn’t stand the city any longer. He’d budgeted enough travel money to ride the Greyhound as far as Roanoke, and thus he stayed. Ray once told me the best day of his life was when he served as a ball boy for the New York Yankees. “How’d that come about?” I asked.
It turns out, every afternoon for an entire spring Ray positioned himself at the entrance where Yankee’s manager Ralph Houk entered the stadium. And every day for an entire spring Ray asked—even taunted—Houk, “Hey, Ralph! When are you going to let me be the ball boy? Hey, Ralph! When are you going to let me be the ball boy?” Every afternoon. All spring. Until, you guessed it, a twelve-year-old kid from Queens found himself wearing a Yankee’s uniform and holding the bat for Bobby Murcer.
What does this parable add to Jesus’ ongoing definition of faith? It tells us that the inspired moment, the mountaintop spiritual experience, the heart-in-the throat that comes from the hearing a powerful word are only the beginning of faith, and if we respond to them too erratically, with too much initial force, with front-end-loaded energy, we risk exhausting that faith before it is able to further grace in the world.
This is hard for us to hear. We live in a society of five minute news cycles, one hundred-forty character Tweets, and reality TV shows in which you get voted off the island if you don’t accomplish something new every week. We are conditioned to expect immediate gratification, and when we don’t, we lose heart and interest. But our error is in thinking that faith is mostly about us at all. Surely, God grants us experiences of inspiration and, indeed, saving grace. God reminds us that we are loved. God reveals to us beauty and gives us peace. But God’s project of redemption is for the whole world, and God redeems us so that we can be co-operators in that project. God doesn’t save us for our own sake. Salvation isn’t indulgent in that way. God saves us so that we can be God’s runners, and it’s a marathon not a sprint. That may not be flashy or romantic, but it’s what will, with God’s help, save the world.
Where are the present-day models for the slow-going, dogged, persistent faith that Jesus describes today? This past week the Faith & Society Seminar which I facilitate read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King, who wrote the letter on scraps of paper while languishing in a sweltering jail cell on the trumped-up charge of parading without a permit, says, “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God.” Martin Luther King surely knew this in his own life, work, and ultimate sacrifice.
Dr. King can be a daunting model of faith, so let me offer you another, simpler one much closer to home. Melissa Elenbaas is a UPS driver here in Houston. She is a working woman, expected by her employer to deliver her packages accurately and on time, which she diligently does. Melissa’s route takes her daily through the Fifth Ward, where (among other endemic problems) there is a chronic problem of abandoned, neglected, and abused dogs. Some years ago, unable to turn a blind eye to the suffering of God’s creatures, Melissa became a foster owner for the organization Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward, taking in dogs that are often near death. Two months ago Melissa found an emaciated and mange-ridden, half-grown dog she named “Mira.” Mira looked so awful that most people wouldn’t dare approach her, much less take her into their arms and their homes. Except for Melissa, who embraced her without a second thought. Melissa wasn’t sure Mira would live. Nursing her to health was difficult and laborious, especially for someone who works long, hard hours and lives alone. But Melissa is committed to this work. It is Gospel work, and at our St. Francis Day blessing two Sundays ago Melissa brought a glossy, healthy, and incredibly happy Mira to be blessed by a priest. And the priest was so taken by Melissa’s persistent faith that he and his family have adopted Mira as the newest Thompson.
The promise of Jesus’ parable today is that God is not like that corrupt judge. The world may be. The world may ignore our labors and our entreaties, yielding only because we refuse to give up the race. But not God. God will rush quickly to our aid, if we’ll dig in for his work. God will strengthen us as God strengthened Martin Luther King, as God strengthens a UPS driver in the 5th Ward. The promise is that God will be with us as we run the marathon. And the promise is that, through our persistence and God’s grace, we people of good will can prevail. In other words of Dr. King, the arc of God’s moral universe is indeed long, but it surely bends toward justice. We can prevail. The only question is, will we? When the Lord returns, will he find such faith?