Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Persistent Women

The following is the text of a sermon preached at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on February 17, 2017. The Scripture reading is Luke 18:1-8.

Persistent Women

I’m tired, y’all. I know you might be tired too.

We all have a grind, whatever it is, learning, or teaching, or writing, or attending committee meetings, or making sure our parents are okay, or raising kids, or working to pay the bills, or discerning our call, or being active in our communities. Oh, and if we’re partnered, keeping that whole relationship healthy and whole, too. Most of us do five or six of these things at a time. And having a government in upheaval, whether or not we agree with the policies, is stressful on top of all that.

Some of us pray more frequently nowadays.

This parable from Jesus is about prayer. About the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Most people I know who come from religious families speak of the women who raised them who are fervent, faithful pray-ers. If you stick around the church, you will notice it’s often women who show up to make things happen, who pray unceasingly.

Now, that could be because women live longer, and our churches are full with a particular generation. Or it could be that women speak more honestly with each other about our spiritual lives, because of how patriarchy has shaped men. Regardless, women are often the most present models for a faithful life.

I love that Jesus’ story didn’t feature as its exemplar a man, which would have been his prerogative, and easy enough in a patriarchal society, but this is the gospel of Luke, after all.

Instead he used the image of a widow. Not just a woman, but someone without a husband, without rights, without standing in society. Widows were the poorest of the poor, along with orphans, and immigrants. Women who married left their families and joined their husband’s families, so without a husband, many were without a family at all. Most did not have rights to inherit land or wealth.

This widow petitioned a judge known for not fearing God, not respecting people. Instead of looking at this judge, and giving up on her own cause because of the judge’s record, she went and asked anyway. She pestered him until he granted her justice against her opponent.

Jesus’ widow was no delicate flower. The literal translation of the word translated to “wear me out” is actually “to hit under the eye,” like in boxing (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 2, Gregory Allen Robbins, p. 131). This judge is worried that a woman will give him a black eye. Most of our contemporary examples of persistence are held up as morally superior, never raising a voice or a hand. But this widow Jesus describes is using all of her tools. Respect.

This is a frustrating passage, though. It contrasts this unjust judge, an extreme example, with God, who is just, willing to bring about quick justice. It is frustrating because that’s not what we see. We don’t see a world that caves quickly to demands for justice. God doesn’t respond to every prayer the way we would like. We see record numbers of refugees, wars and upheaval that will not end, persistent food insecurity, stubborn poverty, the new normal of opioid addiction and overdoses. What is our evidence that God is a just god?

Some of us are results-oriented. Those of us shaped by western ideals like to look down the line at our goal, or want to see how outcomes match the original intent of a given process. If those of us in non-profit leadership had a dollar for every time a board member or a community member asked us how our methods brought about intended results, we could probably fund our own organizations pretty easily. And for those of us whose organizations are self-sustaining, we do have to care, a lot, about results. Our actions and methods and processes must be effective.

Some of us treat our faith this way. Prosperity heretics spin lies to enrich themselves and fool those of us they ensnare with false hope: that a faith, a life, lived a certain way, will result in material gain. That physical comfort and luxury is the result of the right sort of faith. If only you believed in your own positive thoughts and prayers, you wouldn’t be struggling.

Hold on to your hearts. Faith is not about results. Faith is about who we are and who we are called to be. Faith is a process, not a goal. The widow who kept coming back to demand justice against her opponent from a judge known to have no respect for God or people… Jesus portrays her as someone who hopes against hope.

This is not a call to persist, because it will pay off in the end.

No, it is a call to persist. Regardless.

We will be denied. Millions of people every day are denied, no matter how they plead. Justice is not done, usually, or at least it seems, in our time.

It would be a mistake to read this passage as Jesus saying God is the unjust judge. That would be horrible, seeing God as a grumpy ill-willed man in power who could put off someone in a vulnerable situation until she pesters him to the breaking point. In fact, the judge is the contrasting figure to God’s justice. After all, if this judge guy who only gave in because he was annoyed, could grant justice, how much more quickly will God, who is just?

But if you’re anything like me, God’s time can be frustrating. Immigrants are being detained and deported, refugees turned back after jumping through 83 hoops to get here. People who make decisions that negatively impact millions of people around the world, people who profit from misery, live long and healthy lives, while people who wouldn’t hurt another living being die too young.

It takes faith to keep on keeping on.

Miguel de la Torre says “we are called to seek justice, not because it is easy or because in the end we will win; we are called to seek justice, regardless of the consequences, for the sake of justice” (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 2, p. 132).

The way Jesus describes this widow… This widow didn’t sit back and pray, expecting God to fix this judge problem she had. She showed up. She persisted. She boxed.

People we know who create change pray. But they also don’t wait passively for God to change things. They know God gave them agency, determination, and compassion sufficient to make change.

We all know persistent women. I used to think persistent women were awesome because women are awesome. But I am seeing how God works through these women. You and I know these women. We know women who became engineers and physicians and business owners and senior pastors and professors and mothers because they were stubborn and persistent. We know women who crossed borders, gave their children a better life, managed to leave abusive situations because they were determined and persistent. We know women who were raised in awful situations, but were better parents than the parents they knew, persisting in loving their own children. We know women who are the “firsts,” the first to graduate college, the first dean or the first engineer or the first senior pastor or the first president. We know women who work to make others the first. We know women who pray, and then go to the streets, or the legislature, or schools. They live their prayers out loud.

In the face of these women, who risk their social standing, disapproval, violence, their community, who are we to give up before we start, just because the judge to whom we plead is known to neither fear God nor respect people?

Are we in this struggle because we are sure we can win? Sometimes. But sometimes we’re just in it because that’s how we can sleep at night. That’s how we make things right between us and God.

I have always maintained that you can tell how just a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable, whether that be immigrants, or children, or women in a patriarchal system. Our call is to pray, and our call is to work towards justice for those most vulnerable. For women, all women, not just those of us who are married, not just those who are mothers, not just those of us whose womanhood matches the gender on our birth certificates, but all women. Because a society with women who have access to education and human rights is also one in which children flourish, and families have higher incomes. Because Jesus recognized the full humanity of the most vulnerable. Because God made each one of us, and it’s past time for all of us to act like incarnation truly matters.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Honoring our Grandmothers

Have you ever been in a space where people speak movingly about the faith of their grandmothers? I always think, “oh, that’s interesting you have Christian grandmothers who talk about their faith.”

My two paternal grandmothers were secular Jews. I saw convictions, not religious practice. My maternal grandmother was Presbyterian, but she certainly didn’t talk about it with me. I saw her actions more than anything else.

Yuriko Nishita, my maternal grandmother and my last living grandparent, lived among us from January 31, 1926 to November 29th, 2016.

I do not have all the facts about my grandmother, and I may have gotten some of the details wrong. What I do possess is my experience of her.

She loved me and made sure I knew it, and she was salty. Whoever came up with the stereotype that Asian American women are meek and quiet probably never met anyone in my family. Over half of the women have (or had) sharp tongues.

In 2010, I told her I had gotten a new job in Atlanta after years in New York and Chicago. I was so excited, because that job was a great opportunity. She said, “Aren’t there any jobs in California?” When I got a job in Kentucky, I told her at least it was further west than Georgia.

I tried to hold her elbow once as she walked to lunch with me and my partner. She snapped, with a smile, “I’m not that frail.” I let go.

Here’s one of my favorite photos of her.

She was a California girl, born and raised. She was Nisei, the second generation of Japanese Americans in the U.S. Her biological father died when she was very young, and her mother’s new husband didn’t want to have to raise so many children, so my grandmother was given to an older, very loving, childless couple to raise. Her adoptive mother died when she was still quite young. The only years she lived outside of California were her teenage years spent in the World War II concentration camp for people of Japanese descent in Topaz, Utah.

As a young woman, she went to Oakland and worked for her room and board, wanting to be in the city instead of on the farm. She didn’t attend a four-year college, but all five of her daughters did (Cal Berkeley, by the way, being the only acceptable school, so I believe I was among the first to disappoint the family in that regard). She traveled the world with my grandfather, who worked internationally as a landscape architect.

Here’s a really cool photo of the two of them somewhere in Europe. Look at those two, all up in the nature in the middle of some architecturally spectacular town square.

She spoke in the plural “we” for as long as I could remember, on behalf of herself and my grandfather. I used to think it was about patriarchy, but now I think it was more than that. It was about her identity. We. Collective.

She experienced a lot of death and displacement in her early life. And in turn, her life taught me gaman (George Takei’s musical “Allegiance” has a song named “Gaman”). I know, I’m dramatic, but I have my own capacity to suck it up and endure. She survived breast cancer, and the second time cancer showed up, she lived far beyond what I had anticipated. She once said, “I might surprise you.” She usually did.

When she met my partner for the first time (who is Puerto Rican), I was slightly nervous. My grandmother smiled, shook hands, and spoke words of greeting in perfect Spanish, surprising every one of us. (I mean, what the hell? Who knew she spoke Spanish?)

My grandmother, for all my small disagreements with her, was a loving, deeply pragmatic, Japanese American woman, who believed in art, nature, beauty, hospitality, tea, gay rights, civil rights, and keeping up with the news. She didn’t coddle your feelings, even as she was kind and generous.

I’m not the kind of Christian who learned about prayer, hymns, service in the church, or Sunday School from my grandmothers. I learned being a Christian (or a Jew or a Buddhist) doesn’t solve your problems for you, when your problems are caused by structural oppression and discrimination. I learned that people should have convictions. I learned from all my grandparents to feed people, and to sometimes feed them a lot. I learned that anxiety about God is overrated. I learned that art and beauty matter. I learned education is the priority. I learned we are more than individuals.

I learned to use my sharp tongue in love. So here it is: I’m terribly disappointed my grandmother lived to see the election to the office of President of the United States someone who threatened to bring back internment camps for Muslims, many of whose supporters believe the Japanese American internment camps were a good idea.

In honor of my grandparents (and perhaps in honor of the work yours did or the indignities they suffered, too), let's not repeat history. No person of any age, race, ethnicity, or religion deserves to be put in a camp to satisfy American bigotry thinly veiled under the guise of security (something that is unsupported by intelligence). This happened after Pearl Harbor, after the attacks of 9/11, and we live on the verge of it happening again.

My family might be college educated and relatively assimilated, but I still see the material and psychological impact internment had on us, even two generations removed.

I owe her. We owe them. So buck up, kids. We have four years to fight like hell in honor of our grandmothers because we were loved and we love (and even if we don’t really love each other, we are bound to each other anyway). We need each other. We are more than individuals. We. Collective.