The Widow, the Crook and the Power of Persistence

The Most Revd Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, gave a sermon at the opening service of the meeting of Primates and presiding bishops in Reykjavík.

Justin Welby

Justice faints and hope fades when the church looks in on itself. The Kingdom of God is proclaimed by a church that is caught up in the glory of God and the reality of the world around.

The widow who won’t shut up is a parable in the midst of Jesus telling his disciples of the final coming of the Kingdom, while at the same time he sets his face towards Jerusalem. He shows us a life utterly caught up and guided in the great and final plan of God which will bring justice complete and hope fulfilled: he shows us a life purposefully walking a step at a time towards Jerusalem. The great purposes of God are delivered by a church with a vision of heaven and feet that walk the dusty roads.

That is our model and pattern, and the widow takes us there. She is poor, helpless an dependant for justice on a judge. As in some many parts of the world he is corrupt, or consumed by position and authority that ignores the cry and call of the weak and helpless.

Lest we look at the world and sneer, let us remember our own faults as a church. In Iceland there is the pain of the crash which took place five years ago. In every Diocese in England churches take part in food banks, in a society which has no need for such imbalances of wealth. On the richest continent on earth we cannot devise an economic system that provides for the poor and yet forces the wealthy and the powerful to share equally the burdens of debt, and the heritage of materialism gone mad.

The widow is caught up in her desire for justice. For her the cause is clear and she will not give in.

Justice is something we seek when it is not against us. The heritage of church abuse and patriarchy reminds us that the church follows the world in its injustice and too often combines its misuse of power with the blasphemy of theological justification. But the widow cries out, and in one of the very rare occasions where Luke explains the parable, we are told that it is to stop people giving up in prayer.

That is the first lesson. As Pope Francis said, the church is not called to be a Christian NGO. One of my churchwardens said something similar many years ago when I was leading a parish, „we are not the Rotary with a pointy roof“. When we lose sight of prayer and the reading of the scriptures, both as individuals and Christian communities, we lose the road we are to travel. Prayer for justice seems vain when compared to action. But Jesus is speaking out of the tradition of the psalms, where the psalmist calls to God to wake up. Prayer for justice, and a church that prays for justice, should be blunt and clear.
We need to find together in the Porvoo churches a regular renewal of our prayer and the forms with which to celebrate, to protest and and to lament. The widow is caught up with the judge. Are we truly caught up with God? Is his life what calls us together, or merely agreement, habit and obligation? In each other do we see the face of Christ and hear the call to follow together the Lord of justice, to encourage each other so that when the Lord comes he finds faith on the earth? Being caught up with God means that faith is found, not organisation, and faith is the assurance of things unseen.

We are all living in societies that change radically amongst Christian communities that are divided in their response, a reality studied amongst us. We will only find renewal and common purpose in the service of proclaiming the news of the Kingdom, and in making new Disciples, when we are together caught up in the prayer and worship of God.

But there is more. God is a God of justice, and the widow finds her answer. Any serious view of the nature of human beings, any proper theological anthropology, tells us that without the action of God the can be no true justice, and that the church is there to be the widow, to cry out and claim and struggle. That must involve action, which may be slight or grand.

A few months ago, in late July, an interview was published in England, in which I’d been interviewed and had among many other things talked about what are called credit unions in England. These are small, local, community financial organisations. Over the last 40 of 50 years they have more or less disappeared. And if, in England, you are in a poorer part of the country, and in much of the rest of the United Kingdom, and you need some money quickly, you can get it very easily. There are many organisations. The interest varies between 2500 percent a year and 5500 percent a year. So it costs you. You borrow 200 pounds for five days. You roll it over cause you can’t pay it back. You roll it over again.

Before you know it you owe two, three, four thousand. I made what seemed to me the fairly obvious comment that I considered this to be usury and usury had been a sin since Moses. Well, it was a quiet day in the press. And they had nothing important to report, so we found that they reported it rather large scale. It was a casual comment. I wish I could say that I had a grand strategy, but I didn’t. It was an accident. But it was an accident in which God was involved. Because it has created such momentum that there is a great new movement to change the way we do community finance. And it is such a powerful movement that we’re even working with the Scots about it. And there is a miracle. It takes a lot to make the Scots willing to work with the English. Understandably, we’ve spent about 800 years ill treating them.

But, what was interesting to me, was a comment by the head of our mission and public affairs department, who said he’s had to rewrite part of a book he’s writing on social action of the church, to say that it is not only about grand statements and about prayer, but in today’s society we are called to action. That in the postmodern society people look for a story of change, of engagement, of commitment, that brings testimony and witness to words and prayers.

So, we have in the widow someone who is caught up with the judge, but someone whose feet are on the ground. We have in Jesus someone who has a vision of the second coming and heaven and calls his disciples to that, but who walks the dusty roads of Palestine up to Jerusalem and a very very solid cross.

How to we respond to this?

Well, rightly one of our other reports, which I was reading recently, was a reflection on the nature of unity and contrasted it with unanimity. To look at the call of church reconciliation and the church to be a reconciler in the world. Unanimity amongst us is first of all a mirage and secondly a diversion.
Unanimity is too busy with checking whether the other person is doing the right thing to hear the call of widow: unity sees and hears her and puts aside our own preferences to stand in solidarity and cry with her.

Unanimity is tidy, it’s all organised, and bears no fruit: unity is irregular, confused, relational, it is an improvisation of celebration and lament, of the prayer for justice, and solidarity with the poor. You make it up as you go along.

If we are to continue to grow closer, so that our communion becomes family, and that family becomes the transforming influence in our society, which is so desperately looking for a new way, after the decades of reliance on material growth have betrayed us, if that family is to become what it should, then we need each other more than ever, not for comfort in the cold, receding tides of Christian faith, but to stretch and challenge each other to ever closer walk with God and evermore passionate fulfilling of his mission. Day to day.