When Nagging Transforms into Hope

Pastor Jim
Luke 18:1-8

Susan Retik and Patti Quigley were each seven months pregnant, picking out the color of their babys’ nurseries when their husbands were each killed on the 11th of September, 2001. Suddenly Susan and Patti found themselves widows, plunged into loneliness and tragedy, trying to answer the unanswerable questions of their other grieving children.

On the morning new shows, these two widows watched the unfolding fight in Afghanistan, and learned about the plight of women there.

Imagine that you are an Afghan women living in one of the poorest countries in the world. You live in a place ravaged by war. You cannot read or write. You have given birth to seven children, but only five lived long enough to learn to walk. You want your children to go to school and have a better life, but the family’s survival depends on your kids working instead, and the nearest girls’ school is a three-hour walk. You are not allowed to go to market without a male escort. If someone assaults you, your best recourse is to keep your mouth shut, because you know that the police and legal system do not support women. Just eating enough every day is already a struggle. Now, your husband has been killed. With his death you have lost not only a companion, but you have lost what little voice and property and social protection you once had.

You are a widow in Afghanistan.  But the two New York widows decided that they would not let their lives be defined by that injustice. They did not lose heart. Together they founded the organization “Beyond the 11th,” which is dedicated to raising funds to support and empower widows in Afghanistan who have been afflicted by war, terror or oppression. The documentary “Beyond Belief” tells their story.

Two women made widows by 9/11 began buying small chicken flocks for women so that they could sell eggs. Now it has moved on to create an Afghan Women’s Center and to support over 1,000 Afghan widows in starting small businesses.
When life gave them injustice, two tenacious widows gave injustice a black eye. The widows win.

Jesus teaches about prayer by telling a curious story. There was a nameless non-trustworthy judge, in a nameless city. Maybe he’s milking the system, who knows. The problem was that there was no getting around him. He held all the cards.

Headed to his courtroom was a widow, as nameless as the judge. She had a case against a neighbor. We’re not told anything about the case, but that she believed she was in the right. This widow from Luke had no way to make herself heard. This story sets up an indifferent judge and a person whose culture defined her as worthless. This judge didn’t give a lick about God or people. She presents her petition. The judge shouts, “Denied.” She files once more, the judge again denies, no doubt he thought, “well that’s the last I’ll see of her.” But she keeps coming back.

You can imagine the reaction in the courtroom, she, a pest, probably not well dressed. She doesn’t talk right. She can’t afford a lawyer, so she presents her own case…. poorly. The judge is exasperated. Why does she keep coming back, just to hear, “denied.” But she has nowhere else to go. She is convinced that she is right. So she keeps coming back. She makes no new arguments, but says over and over, “give me justice.” Finally, after her twenty-fifth court appearance the judge is exhausted, weary of listening to her case. So just to get rid of her, he gives her what she wants. She wins the case. She nagged because she had hope not in the judge, but in her claim.

But remember this story is supposed to be about prayer. So Jesus adds his Coles notes. Jesus says notice what happened to the unjust judge. He is forced to give justice, not out of any desire or commitment, but in order to get some peace and quiet.

And then Jesus says in a daring way, you know prayer to God is more than this. Now he doesn’t say God is like the judge. Some folks think this a rabbinic story arguing from the lower to the higher. Going from a poor example to God the better example.

This isn’t good theology, it’s just rabbinic metaphorical gymnastics. Notice how quickly as opposed to the slow verdict from the judge.

It’s playful. Let’s see how this works on us. You are the woman, the widow.

You’re going to pray and let’s say that it’s early in the morning you have some old pjs on, you feel that you’re not eloquent and often struggle to put words to what you want to say. You feel embarrassed when you talk. Yet your need just won’t go away. Notice that this outcome is not dependent on the universe, or the judge, but depends on the cheeky, persistence of the widow.

This is the court of last appeal. And she wins, by not giving in. I find this parable surprising. Why? because often we are too romantic about our prayer, too Betty Crocker. Often people think that prayer is highway to happiness.

So what’s with this story? The widow is filled with hope. She never gives up in the face of no.  Why is she persistent, because she knows she is legitimate in asking for a resolve?

Often we can get turned off prayer because in the western world we ask for stuff that has nothing to do with ministry. We forget that when Jesus said whatever you ask in my name, I will give. We forget that my name means ministry. Tools and gifts for helping others open up their lives to God and neighbor. 

This widow had hope because she believed that her world could change. She believed that the judge would rule in her favor not because he liked her, but because her case was compelling.

Prayer often depends on that kind of hope, that God who has power in every moment to create a new day, a new person, a new you. The subject of this prayer is justice. It permeates this text. In the story, she says grant me justice, and finally this crusty guy says I will grant her justice. Jesus backs this up by saying God will grant justice and grant it quickly. Quickly in contrast to the judge who took his time.

In our everyday we often think that justice is giving people what they want, or what they deserve by their actions. So we punish bad people, and starve lazy people. The Bible when it uses the term justice usually means that people live in community and are entitled to all that is needed for dignity, peace, freedom, health, joy and security.

So the subject of prayer is to urge God to give justice. Dignity for children, safety to families, homes for the homeless, schools for learners, health care for the poor, food for the hungry, respect for the abused, compassion for men wearied too long, access for those with special needs.

God will answer, Jesus says. When the Son comes will he find faith or despair? Faith that the world can be changed. Prayer is the core gesture by which we stay in faith, by which we hope by which we keep justice before our eyes. To pray always means to hope for a better tomorrow, to trust in God to make new.

Those two widows from New York, were able to pick up their sorrow and use it. Maybe that is what’s meant by picking up your bed and walk.

You have a choice with sorrow. Play at life and go through the motions. Or take that sorrow inside your being and let it channel you into new directions. There is no middle ground. Either like the widow we believe and hope for change or as Jesus says we lose heart. And when we lose heart we quiet nagging and quit caring. We quiet hoping and trusting. When then settle in docility, for a world that will not and cannot change where social problems are accepted as permanent, and intransigent realities.

During the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of the leaders in the church struggle against laws that enshrined inequality. Throughout the 1980’s Tutu and a small band of church leaders would pray, and pray, and pray, and then they would repeatedly, march down to the towering government buildings, to demand that justice be done. There they would be confronted by an imposing phalanx of government and military officials, many of whom neither feared God nor respected people. Tutu’s small group looked like one little old widow in comparison.

But Desmond Tutu would wag his finger at his opponents and say, “We want justice, and we believe that one-day God will give us that justice. End apartheid. Come over to the winning side. Because we’ve read the end of this book, the Bible, and we know who wins!” In 1991, they won, apartheid ended in South Africa. Desmond Tutu was right: the “widow” wins.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

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