Sermon For January 18, 2015 ~ The Season Of Epiphany

Luke 18:1-8 & 1 Samuel 3:1-10

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Sermon #3 “Surprised By The Persistence”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to:


The-Imitation-Game-Quad-poster-Benedict-Cumberbatch1This past weekend I have seen two amazing films in the theater, each had as primary themes both persistence and surprise at their heart. Both were fictionalized accounts of real people and historical events. On Friday I saw The Imitation Game at our local Capitol Theater about the work of Alan Turing and a team of world-class mathematicians in England who worked to crack the Nazi codes during World War II and who not only ended that horrific war far earlier than it would have otherwise, but who, almost as an afterthought, happened to create the world’s very first computer. The second movie, which I saw last evening, Selma Movie Posterwas Selma, which was about the work of civil rights leaders, especially the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to end the entrenched and violent system of abuses and practices that kept African American citizens from voting and, therefore, having democracy fully represent them, also.

The role of persistence, patience, determination, and resolve are apparent in both stories. In The Imitation Game there was little precedence, and even less appreciation, for the possibility that a machine could sort through the enormous amount of data that was required to break codes and stop the slaughter of innocent lives. A great deal of tenacity was needed by everyone to both trust the wisdom of this brilliant but as yet untested young man from Cambridge as well as to put up with his quirky behaviors and off-putting temperament. In Selma the protagonist’s skills were well known, but even then the stubbornness of racism and the doggedness of segregation seemed stronger than the non-violent tactics of King and the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, especially, to the passionate leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. An enormous amount of persistence and endurance were required to not let the circumstances devolve into a bloodbath and fulfill the fear Dr. King of who warned, “An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”

But what were the surprises in these stories? The surprises are what make these stories so very exciting and powerful. The colleagues of Alan Turing were surprised by his unwavering passion and crafty management in his work and dedication to creating a solution that would not simply solve one problem – huge as it may have been – but be able to solve an infinite number of problems! Turing was surprised by the gradual but real care and appreciation his colleagues developed for him even though for his entire life before, and sadly, after, the Enigma project he was labeled and treated as abnormal, unusual, and an outcast.

In Selma we are shown the surprise of President Johnson at the staunch persistence of the civil rights leaders in focusing on justice at the polls as the key to their liberation. King, too, has his own surprises. In one particularly poignant scene, King is shown conversing with the young John Lewis, later a long term representative to the United States Congress, who surprised the Civil Rights leader with his own words about not losing heart and never growing weary in the fight for justice and equality.

Parable of Persistent WidowAnd this brings us to our scripture today, one of two parables in the gospel of Luke. Both are introduced as stories that undergird Jesus’ call to “always pray and not lose heart.” In this, the first parable, a widow – whose title alone would give those hearing the story the image of an outcast, a lowlife, one who is powerless – a widow petitions an “unjust” judge for justice for her petition, and so insistently so that she is granted her vindication. The persistence of the widow, in and of itself a bit of a surprise given how miniscule her authority and influence was in society, instigates a second astonishment in the positive ruling from a judge “who feared neither God nor people!”

Respected Disciples of Christ preacher and scholar, the Rev. Fred Craddock, urges us not to look at this parable alone, but in tandem with the parable that immediately follows in chapter 8. In it a Pharisee is contrasted with a tax collector, especially in the manner in which they pray. The tax collector approaches God with extreme humility and even self-effacement while the Pharisee offers prayers that are grandiose and arrogant. Craddock also reminds us not to make any of the characters in either parable one-dimensional or caricatures, reminding us that context and culture define us more than we may want to admit. The surprise Craddock uncovers is that while both parables are about vindication, the first illustrates the vindication of someone righteous, he says a “saint,” and the second exemplifies the vindication of someone who commonly is understood to be shady, or in his words “a sinner.” This both/and approach to God’s truth is absolutely something of which the gospel of Luke frequently brings to light!

CourageDoesNotAlwaysRoarOne of my all-time favorite quotes is by artist and author Mary Anne Radmacher “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”(1) Pastorally I understand this so deeply. Personally I understand this so passionately. And prayer is the common denominator to both. In prayer we must always be persistent but never presumptuous. In prayer we must always be passionate but never petty. Just as the widow pounds on the door to the unjust judge for her personal grievance, so the tax collector bows meekly before the divine with no thought of himself. Just as the widow seems completely oblivious to the general understanding of her place in society, so the tax collector remains painfully aware of what everyone thinks of him. Just as the widow takes what she deserves, so the tax collector gives up everything he has to God.

But both of my movie references, and my interpretation of both of these parables, might lead us to a false premise that the only actor in the drama of our faith that must be patient, persistent, and ready for surprises is we, ourselves. This could not be further from the truth. I believe God, the one in whose image we are created, is also eternally patient and ever eager to be surprised with delight.

Another scripture is one of my favorite stories of God’s surprising persistence, the story of the call of Samuel found in the Hebrew Scriptures in 1 Samuel 3:1-10. In this text the young boy Samuel is serving the elderly Eli, one of God’s prophets. In this delightful and dramatic account on three occasions while Samuel is sleeping, God comes to the boy quietly but persistently in a dream in the night, and calls him to sacred service. Upon hearing of this the older man urges the boy to not discount the divine voice, but to respond, “Yes, YHWH, I am listening.” Upon replying in this manner, God then proceeds to instruct Samuel on his mission in God’s name.

But the ultimate story of God’s surprising persistence dwells in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus we see God’s eternal patience with all of humanity, through the horrors of what we do to ourselves and each other in bloody wars fought and in ancient prejudices that make their terrible presence known in oppression, abuse, inequality, and murder. And, using the wonderful line from one of my favorite songs, “I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry” whose last verse reads “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.” The promise of resurrection, a gift of grace in the light of faith, remains as surprising to me today as the first time I learned of Jesus and his embodiment of God’s persistent love.

So, my beloved, God is a God of surprising persistence and persistent surprises. And as God is, so we are called to be also: tenacious in prayer and determined in our actions to overcome evil with good. Likewise, we are invited to be prepared to be surprised, for both the divine will is crafty and the human spirit is clever, and when those two things join together, who knows what kind of resurrections will be made manifest!


(1) Find out more about Mary Anne at her website: