I admit I was close to tears when I saw the last rescued Chilean miner come above ground, after spending 69 days deep in the lower reaches of earth and surrounded by 700,000 tons of unstable rock. People around the world were transfixed by the news, as one by one, all through the night and into the day the miners emerged from the ground in that bullet-shaped rescue tube.
Initially there were a lot of doubts on whether the miners could be saved. Experts around the world began second-guessing the Chilean plans. The obstacles seemed enormous – to drill nearly a mile below the surface without having the unstable rocks collapse on the mine shaft. Still, the rescuers were determined to save the miners. As one person put it, “This won’t be a success unless they all get out.”
And out they came – all thirty-three of them. They survived because they relied on each other for support. They survived because the rescue workers never gave up hope. They survived because through all the difficulties and darkness of the situation, the miners maintained a strong faith in God.
Apparently the miners prayed a lot, sang hymns and read Bibles that were sent down to them courtesy of the Vatican. The atmosphere underground at times resembled a church service more than a disaster area. One miner put it like this, “There were actually 34 of us, because God has never left us down here.” Another miner said, “I was with God. I was with the Devil. God and the devil were fighting over me, and God won.” Still another said, “I never used to pray, [but] here I learned to pray. I got closer to God.” And who can forget the miner who clutched his Bible as he came out of the rescue capsule and knelt in prayer when his feet touched ground. His first words were “God Lives.”
If you want to know the meaning of faith, if you want a picture of hope in action, if you want to see perseverance and persistence at their best, then look at these miners and their rescuers. They had a fierce determination never to give up even in the worst of circumstances.
That’s the key to resilient living, isn’t it? Some people refuse to give up. If you tell them something is impossible, they will find a way to do it. They refuse to utter the word “can’t.” I suspect that most of the people who change the world are like this.
In today’s gospel we meet a widow in a difficult situation over a legal matter. She may not be buried under the ground like the miners, but she is buried with a heavy weight of problems nonetheless. Her situation is serious, even grave. She knows her only hope is the intervention of a judge, but the judge in her district is a man “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Yet this poor widow keeps coming to him day after day with her plea for justice. For some time he refuses even to listen to her. But finally he says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
The poor widow is the epitome of helplessness. Justice, then like now, was often for the rich or well-connected, and this judge is described as a very self-centered person. The widow has no leverage with him. She cannot bribe him or influence him because she has no money or influence. All she can do is to keep coming back with her request. She refuses to take no for an answer. And finally, she wears the judge down.
What a great lesson for each of us. For the high school student who feels left out and rejected – for whom life is almost intolerable. Hang in there! Don’t give up!
For the middle-aged person who is anxious about his or her job and not at all hopeful about the future. Hang in there! Don’t give up!
For the retired person, alone and living on a fixed income, weary with the burden of living. Hang in there! Don’t give up!
For the victims of prejudice or hate, because of who they are, or what they look like, or where they come from: Hang in there! Don’t give up!
For people fighting addictions, struggling with depression, coping with disabilities and battling sickness. Hang in there! Don’t give up.
In the face of adversity, we can choose to become better or bitter. We can choose hope or we can succumb to despair. We can choose what is most noble and good in the world, or we can let cynicism take over our lives.
I am talking about new life in Jesus. Christians believe in a God of resurrection where the dead never stay dead forever. There are no dead ends in the Christian life, because just when we think it’s all over, resurrection happens and God breaks free from the tomb and miracles occur, and what was deemed impossible becomes possible.
You remember the life of Winston Churchill. In the early 1930s, Churchill’s career had taken a turn for the worse. Entering his late fifties, fattening up and losing his hair, Churchill was widely being blamed for Britain’s financial dislocation in the Depression. During his political career, he made some bad mistakes, paid the price for some faulty judgments, alienated some of his friends and supporters, and on top of all that, lost a considerable sum of money in the 1929 stock market crash. And on December 12, 1931, he stepped off a curb in Fifth Avenue in New York, looking to his right to check for traffic as he would in London rather than to his left as he needed to in America. A car driving more than 50 kilometers per hour blindsided Churchill, knocking him yards down Fifth Avenue. The accident threw him into the hospital, a long recovery, and a severe depression. To everyone around him, both friends and foes, Churchill seemed finished in politics. No one took him seriously any longer.
But on June 4, 1940, Churchill stood in front of Parliament as Prime Minister while Hitler’s Panzer divisions swept across Europe. Most world leaders, including many in Britain, saw no choice but to cede Europe to the Nazis. They expected Churchill to negotiate peace with Hitler, but Churchill said plainly, “We shall never surrender.”
In 1941, during England’s darkest days, Churchill returned to his old school Harrow, where he’d received embarrassingly low grades, to give a commencement address. The headmaster cast worried glances at Churchill, who had fallen asleep through most of the ceremony. But when introduced, Churchill made his way to the podium, stared out over the assemblage of boys, and gave his commencement address. “This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Never give in. Isn’t that the lesson for you and me today? Whatever our struggles in life, whatever the challenges we face, whatever the difficulties we encounter, whatever the heartaches and heartbreaks that inevitably befall every human being, we never give in to despair. We never succumb to cynicism. We keep hope alive, not out of wishful thinking, but because in the end God reigns. God is with us, yesterday, today and forever. God will never abandon us or forsake us. Whatever our burdens in life, we can face tomorrow in the power of God’s love. We can live with the expectation that the best is yet to come. We can handle whatever life throws our way because the personal, powerful presence of Jesus is with us.
Jesus concludes our gospel by wondering if he would find faith on earth when he returned. We saw that faith with the miners. And we see that faith with us, and in all people everywhere who serve faithfully, give generously and love abundantly to make this world a better place for all.
So be like that tenacious widow who refused to give up. Be focused on your purpose in life. Be true to your beliefs and values. Maintain your integrity. Don’t give up on the power of faith, hope and love to change the world.
God reigns, resurrection happens, and Jesus is with us always.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at Saint James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont. He delivered this sermon on Sun. Oct. 17, 2010.