I remember my ordination day like it was yesterday. It took place at the Sloan Convention Center in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the holiest Holiday Inn and convention center in operation.
Several members of my family, friends, and church members were there with us either in person in Bowling Green or watching online. I truly believe that ordination is not the blessing of God upon one person to lead the church forward, but a time to celebrate how God brings a community together to raise up one pastor. Abbi was with me on the stage, Noah was with our family in the congregation, and I was surrounded by pastors who had mentored me and Bishop Fairley. I am still humbled by that moment, being Bishop Fairley’s first ordained elder, and hearing the words as he placed his hand on my head, “Shannon, take thou the authority.”
It was a holy moment. It was also one that almost didn’t happen. You see, just a year before I almost walked away from the church and my calling.
It was three years ago and I was going through a difficult stretch of ministry. I was experiencing struggles in the ordination process and been denied for one year. I was hurting. I was trying to figure out if, after 10 years of leaving my career, moving to seminary, working in the church, baptizing, leading people through difficult times, and sharing God’s love, if I had it in me to go on. I knew my calling and purpose to be a pastor, but I didn’t know if I had the strength to press forward. I was ready to give up, especially with the church as I knew it.
So, I started to have conversations and began to look at my options. It wasn’t the first time I kicked the tires on quitting, nor would it be the last, but it was the closest I ever came to walking away. I engaged in conversations with a friend about moving to another denomination. Another friend, during this period, told be about an opportunity in another community that I should look into. I looked online for pastoral jobs. I looked at faith-based public policy jobs. I was ready to give up and move on, because I was hurting and didn’t know how much more I had in me to go on.
Ever feel something like that? Have you ever felt like giving up? Perhaps you experienced a struggle that seemed so overwhelming you didn’t know how you could go on. Perhaps you felt like you kept fighting, and fighting, and fighting for something good and holy to the point that you didn’t know if you had the energy to care anymore or to put up another fight. Perhaps you struggled with your walk with Christ to the point that you couldn’t see anything good coming from it and you thought walking away was your only option. Ever feel like giving up?
What word from God do we need to hear, or even remember, in those moments?
It is a question that is posed to us as we reflect upon our passage from Luke 18:1-8. This story is only found in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life. It comes in the midst of an ongoing discussion in the journey narrative that focuses on maintaining the life of faith and discipleship. A message that was a needed reminder in the face of struggles that the church would face, which Jesus had just reminded the disciples about in the previous passage.
Jesus uses these stories as a way to focus on the kind of perseverance needed to maintain our walk with the Lord. The same kind of perseverance that the widow exhibits. Our parable focuses on the actions of a particular widow who was in need of justice. Widows in Jesus’ time were among the most vulnerable in society. Without a husband, a widow was dependent upon their children for care and provisions. If a widow had no child, especially male children, she had no other alternative than to seek help from her community. Scripture recognizes this struggle for widows and mentioned, repeatedly, how they were to be cared for and their needs addressed by the larger community.
For some unknown reason, this particular widow went to the judge looking for justice in a dispute. A judge, in those days, was in charge of deciding upon matters within a community. In the Jewish community, the priests and elders of the synagogue would take matters of dispute. It is likely, based on the context of the story, that this particular judge was a Gentile. That is because he is defined as having no fear of God – no respect or connection – and no respect for anyone else. These were words that were often used to describe people who were wicked.
That didn’t keep the woman going to this judge. She needed someone to hear her case. She needed justice that only this judge could provide. He refuses. He violates the very essence of his responsibilities to care for the vulnerable and passes on the duties of his office. As a result, he sends her away without justice that she needed.
The widow is now faced with two choices. She could either come back and ask again or she could give up. What would you do? How easy it is to say that we would keep fighting, but how real is the temptation and pull to give up when things are tough and struggles mount. We feel the struggles of life, the pains that come upon us, and we wonder if we can keep going on for one more day when we’ve already battled for a thousand. We feel the desire for a deeper faith, and yet we wonder if we have the energy to keep going when we experience a dark knight of the soul, the absence of spiritual growth, or the presence of God. We feel the desire to be a church that seeks to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and, yet, when we experience decline in numbers and witness, we wonder if we can keep the faith or just focus on survival.
So, what do we do when we are faced with these moments? What will this woman do? Jesus says the widow never gives up. She keeps fighting for the justice that she needs and desires.
Every day, this widow speaks up for herself and seeks to gain an audience with the wicked judge. And every day she is denied her justice. And every day she goes back. She perseveres where others may have given up, because she desires for her case to be satisfied and justice to be granted. She will not stop until justice has been given to her.
Eventually, the judge grants her an audience and agrees to grant her justice. Her persistence has paid off. The judge doesn’t grant her justice because his heart was change, but because, according to the Greek, he was worried she was about ready to knock him out.
Why does Jesus want us to hear this story? He says to remind of us the nature of God and to call us to a faith that perseveres. He says that God is bigger than this unjust judge, because he hears the cries of his people and responds not because he has been beleaguered but out of love. God hears our cries and responds with a deep desire for us to experience his love, justice, and grace. God desires us to persevere in prayer and faith, so that we can see the impossible become possible.
The widow in our story had a faith that never gave up and persevere. We are called to have the same kind of faith in our own life. When we are faced with moments to give up and walk away, to stop seeking the face of God, it is those moments that our commitment to God is most tested. The truth of life and faith is that it will not be easy. If we are looking for an easy life, an easy faith, or an easy church, then we’ll never find what we are looking for and will never be satisfied. There will be struggles. There will be moments of difficulties. There will be times when we are tested beyond what we feel that we can handle. This is often when our faith is tested and the depth of our relationship with God is revealed.
A deep faith in God is one that is willing to persevere and maintain our walk with the Lord, even when it is difficult and hard. The faith Jesus desires of us is a faith that is able to persevere and never gives up. That is a different connotation to the faith that we often believe Jesus desires of us. We think that Jesus wants us to have a faith that can recite basic trivia or Scripture passages by heart. That’s important, but it is not a deep faith that perseveres when it is difficult. We think that it is to have the right theology, the right worship service, or the right pastor, but a deep faith goes beyond those things. A deep faith is about trusting God and being willing to seek after the Lord, especially when it is hard to do so.
It is a kind of faith that reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This is the kind of faith that is revealed to us through a deep prayer life where we are crying out to God to hear our pain, our struggles, and our need. Not in a way that expects God to immediately answer or else, but in a way that we are in constant communion with our Abba, Father who desires a connection of heart and soul with us. It is the kind of faith that never stops believing that God hears us. It is the kind of faith that is committed to something bigger than ourselves and is willing to never give up on God, ourselves, or one another.
That is what kept me going through the ordination process. It was the presence of God, and a lot of deep tears and wailing, that I heard a desire to stay focused on where God had been leading me throughout my life. That is to remain in the process, to remain in the church, to keep my eyes on the goal of ordination and serving the Lord through the church. I never gave up, and I am here because of that.
What about us? What will be our response when we are faced with struggles beyond our control? What will be our response when life gets difficult? What will be our response when faith seems more than we bargained for? What will be our response when life and connection in the church is difficult?
Will we give up or will we keep going through prayer and perseverance? Let us never give up, because we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. That is God’s love and desires to be people of hope for you, for me, for all of us.