22 October 2007

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

(Delivered at The Church of The Good Shepherd, Athens, OH on 21 October 2007)

The Gospel According to Luke, 18:1-8



Welcome once again to the Parable Parade.

In Year C of the Episcopal Liturgical Calendar, we read a lot of scripture from Luke. And Luke LOVED to relate Jesus’ parables. For those of you who are tired of trying to figure out the real meaning, you will be happy to know that we are almost out of Year C.

In this parable Jesus, as he is oft to do, disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. As we listen to the parable, we go ‘Aha – I know where He is going with this’. In this and other parables, he seems to point to a logical conclusion only to suddenly add a twist that gives us an unexpected ending. All the sudden we are somewhere we didn’t expect.

The parable in today’s Gospel is often called the Parable of the Persistent Widow or the Parable of the Unjust Judge. It is one of the few parables that states the point at the very beginning: Pray and do not lose heart.

But there is another theme in this parable: the desire for change.

According to the customs of the day, a marriage contract stated a husband's obligations to his wife, and on his death she had a right to be supported out of his estate as specified in the contract. The widow had no legal right to inherit. Normally a husband's estate would take care of a widow's needs. But the normal condition was by no means universal. Many widows and their children were left destitute. So common was this state of affairs that "widow" came to mean not simply a woman whose husband was dead but also one who had no means of financial support and thus needed special protection.

The poor widow in this parable wants retribution for a wrong done her so that she can improve her own life. She represents poverty and vulnerability – a victim of exploitation and the abuse of power. However, instead of being paralyzed by the injustice, this widow cries out long and hard with hope. I am sure she figured if she became such a thorn in the judge’s side, he would eventually relent . . . just as he did. Not because:

· it was the right thing to do,

· not because he took pity on her,

· not because her cause was just,

· but simply because he got tired of her harping.

The widow, by constantly haranguing the judge, eventually gets her retribution. Not because the judge saw that it was the right thing to do, but rather to just get her to be quiet and stop bothering him. He readily admitted that he was not a godly man or even had much use for people; he just wanted her to shut up! He didn’t even consider the merits of her case.

Sometimes people feel that God is just a little too much like the judge; not really caring enough to respond right away, but needing to be irritated by constant prayers before answering. If we feel this way, we create an image of God that is aloof and cold. That in order to get his attention, we think we need to pray unceasingly until He perhaps gets tired of hearing from us and decides to answer the prayer so we will shut up.

But is God really like the unjust judge?

Or, perhaps, are we the unjust judge?

Are we not dominated by our own egos?

Are we just looking for what is in it for us?

We neither fear God nor respect other people. Just like the widow, we want what is due us, no matter whether it might be wrong or unjust. The widow not only wanted a righteous judgment, but she wanted revenge. She was shouting ‘I have been wronged and I deserve better than this!’ She wanted to be heard for who and what she was, a person wronged. She did not simply want justice done, she wanted to be avenged.

But if there is vengeance to be given, it will be given by the Lord, not by humans. We may want to have the final say, but that belongs to God in God’s time.

I believe the judge in our parable represents the world, which has no sense of justice or place before God. It is that world that ensures ‘Life is not Fair’. In many ways, I think the widow represents Christianity; Jesus associated with the poor, the outcast, those with disease. The widow represents all three – widows are often homeless, therefore beggars, attacked by thieves, ignored by a disdainful public. Ejected from Jewish synagogues as heretics and hated by the pagan population as Jews disloyal to the Roman Empire, Christians also were alone, poor and outcasts.

We, as Christians, are called to be there with those in pain; to be in touch with the struggles, poverty and all things that make people cry out in our world. But we also must live into the affirmation that God cares, even though the answering of the prayers may not come speedily. We need to build sustaining communities where people can be supported in their crying out and not lose heart, communities where we do not tune one another out, but live in hope and the faith that our prayers WILL be answered by God. We need communities where we do not need to shoulder the burden alone, where we have others who will help us see a glint of hope in the situation. Even in the most corrupt environment, there is the possibility of hope and faith if we just band together to support each other.

In truth, I believe that God is persistent in his love for us. He is like that widow who eventually wears us down by constantly pursuing us. Eventually we yield and let God enter our lives and guide us to do the right thing. Prayer is the means for God to enter our lives and challenge us to change our self-destructive behavior. By praying, we invite God into our spirit; He then begins his work and our transformation. When we pray in a difficult situation, after a failure or during illness, God provides the answer in most unexpected ways: it may be

in a sermon . . .
or a book . . .
in the joy of a student learning in your class . . .
or a movie . . .
or a child in the park . . .
or perhaps in the widow in today’s parable.

God does not force us to accept His gift. We have the choice of whether to be open, ready, alert and listening to the demands God may be making on us.

Let me tell you a story about the power of prayer. Four years ago I finally answered a lifelong call to ordained ministry. I came back from the 2003 General Convention, where resolutions were passed welcoming all people into the church, particularly God’s LGBT children. It was as if God had thumped me on the head and said, ‘alright girl, it is time’. So I began the discernment process. Within a period of six weeks, I had completed the discernment process with my committee, presented my report and case to my home parish and received the vestry and rector’s blessing. I made an appointment with the bishop for postulancy.

But alas, it was not to be. You see, I am a lesbian in a long-term committed relationship. Now the Episcopal Church says that I am welcome and deserve everything by rights of my baptismal covenant, but our prior bishop did not see it that way. So after much waiting, I found out that I would not be granted postulancy. The only course of action seemed to be to wait until he had retired and try again.

The only thing that got me through this rough period was prayer and the support of those around me. I know God must have gotten tired of hearing me cry ‘How long, O God, How Long?’. But my prayers were answered in an off-handed way. For reasons still not completely clear to me, I was contacted by the interim dean of the Anglican Academy to start school without my postulancy. I saw this as a sign from God that it was finally time.

One year passed and the 2006 General Convention passed B033 which, among other things, put a moratorium on consecration of non-celibate gay bishops – and some dioceses chose to filter that down to all gays. Then, we didn’t have a diocesan bishop so no one would grant me postulancy. SO, I had to wait another year for postulancy. Again, although my head understood the issues, my heart was torn and I again was crying to God ‘How Long, O God, How Long?’. But finally, in God’s time and with the blessing of this diocese, this spring I received postulancy. And now y’all have me.

It has become increasingly clear that if I had not been delayed, I would never have been here. Father Carroll would not have been your rector, and I would not have been compelled to ask to serve at Good Shepherd.

And as a result,

. . .all the things I am learning here

. . . and the wonderful people I have met

. . . and will cherish forever . . .

would not have happened.

It wasn’t until the end of last spring (the end of my second year of a three-year program) that I realized that the reason God did not answer my prayers to soften people’s hearts earlier was for a more divine reason.

Because I was delayed by one year, I entered a class of twenty-one, including two other gays. The three of us are very diverse and have given the class an experience which would not have happened had I started school when I originally applied. Because we are sure in our belief that God has called us to the ministry, the other class members have gotten to know us and the pain that each of us has gone through to get this far. One of us is a defrocked protestant deacon and the other signed a pledge of celibacy in order to start school; two of us are partnered in long-term, committed relationships. Because we have all been open and honest about our faith and struggles, the diocese has become more open to gay clergy and laity. I believe that is why God did not answer my prayers sooner.

But he DID answer my prayers. . . just as he answers the prayers of all who pray to him. It may not be on our time schedule, but he loves us enough to answer when it is right for us – even when we can’t see that.

Constantly praying for God’s will builds up not only faith, but hope and charity for all his creatures. Praising and thanking a benevolent God strengthens trust, which in turn gives hope. Interceding on another’s behalf deepens the bonds of friendship and love. Prayer naturally increase faith, hope and love. They empower us to obey God’s commands.

Jesus says in this parable that we are ‘to pray always’. That does not mean that we have to pray every single minute of the day. If we did that, those prayers would be dead prayers; we would never have time to do the work required to answer the prayer.

‘Always’ means we should be faithful to our regular times of prayer. And we should pray in the good and bad times. But Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:7 that ‘long prayers and useless repetition will not make God hear us better’. He already knows our needs.

We need to include in our prayers, not only prayers for help but more importantly prayers of thanksgiving. Think about how many times God has answered a prayer or provided a blessing --- have you thanked Him for those?

Do you pray for God’s will or for your own desires?

Is your faith strong enough to trust God with an unknown future?

“Always” also means that we should always be ready to pray – praying whenever a crisis hits or a need arises. Even the saints found that sometimes their minds wandered, causing them to think about everything else except what they were praying for. In a recent biography of Mother Teresa, she admitted that she always felt distant from God and never was quite sure that He heard her when she prayed. Good prayer habits show our dedication to God and strengthen our relationship with him.

But God is God,

not the arrogant, nonchalant judge of today’s parable.

And He will hear and He will answer

– in his time

- and as you need.

So pray continually and never lose heart.

For surely God will answer your prayers as he has answered mine.

2 comments:

Hoot Owl Hollow Nursery said...

Some comments on your sermon with my ideas on interpretation. Your thoughts on my thoughts are always welcome. There was one thing missing which should have been said loud and clear, not just last Sunday, but every Sunday. Your sermon was all law and no gospel (that's not just a Lutheran thing, though we tend to probably be a bit more obsessed by it). I know that I'm saved and that God loves me, but despite that fact, I want to and need to hear it on Sunday mornings, each and every Sunday morning. That's the point of the sermon - to proclaim the Gospel, not just to tell a nice story and chat about the reading for the day. It's so easy to work into a sermon and such a joy to do so.
That said, a few ideas on this past Sunday's text. First, I don't like to pick apart parables and analyze the characters at face value. Parables use the characters to make a point, but usually one that has nothing whatsoever to do with what we see. In this parable, I think that the widow is us and the judge is God. You've made this so much more difficult than it is. It's about faith, and about persistence, but not persistence as in irritating God until he answers us, but persistence as in patience, in our faith and prayer and knowing that eventually God will answer and give us what we need - not necessarily what we want - when we need it. God doesn't do instant gratification. I guess that's why they call it faith. You have to have faith and trust that God will take care of you. The widow wants justice but gets mercy.
I think that you can then use this as an example of how we are to live our lives. We become the judge and those in the world who are poor, sick or hurting or who have lost faith in God take the part of the widow. Or at least we can use the example as a way to live in the world. They might ask and beg, and we give them what they need when they need it. Not necessarily justice (we haven't solved all of their problems, but might have filled their bellies). We care for God's people and we care for God's earth.
Once we know God's justice and mercy we know God in a different way - our heavenly Father as opposed to our opponent. That faith gives us courage to live in a world where things don't always to the way we might like but where we can make a difference.
A note on my take on prayer: I see prayer as an ongoing conversation with God. I don't see it, at least for me, as specific prayers at specific times of day. When I was a seminary, I kepth that kind of schedule with matins, Eucharist, vespers, compoine and whatever else was offered, but in real life, God and I just chat all day, good things and bad and hopefully not too much whining.
Jane Unger

deniray mueller said...

Jane,

Glad to know that it rained Tuesday so you had time to respond.

I appreciate your comments about the content of the sermon as well as my own personal approach to the delivery.

I had hoped I had covered some of the points you bring up; next time I will re-evaluate the stress that I put on them in my sermon.

We are all children of God and truly and dearly loved by Him. The Gospels tell us that over and over again, in many different ways. Hopefully we can all find a particular passage that strikes that cord in our hearts and constantly re-affirms the wonders of His love.

Thanks again for your comments. I will consider them when I prepare my other sermons.

Blessings to you
deniray