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Pentecost 22 October 16, 2016 - The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell

PENTECOST 22  Proper 24 Year C

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, October 16, 2016
The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell
Clever woman,
that widow.
She figured out how to get
what she needed
despite being a woman and a widow
in first century Palestine . . .
a woman, with no voice outside her home,
a widow, apparently without a son,
          and so, with no man
                   to speak for her in public.
She was alone and vulnerable,
her desperation evident
in her continual appearing
          before the local magistrate
despite his constant refusal
          to take up her case.

How to claim for herself
the justice she deserved?
It was no secret
that the judge
was not a God-fearing man.
In fact,
he appeared
rather proud of it.
Perhaps he was a gentile
and felt no obligation
to observe the Hebrew scriptures’ mandate
to care for the poor and unfortunate,
especially widows and orphans.
Nor, apparently, did he care
about doing the right thing
for the people
who brought their cases before him.
His decisions
had more to do with
what would best serve
his own public persona.
In the back of his mind,
he was always aware
of the opinion of others . . .

For he did not sit
behind a high bench
in a closed courtroom
away from the public eye.
Plaintiffs came before him
in the marketplace
bringing their concerns small and large,
from a quarrel with a neighbor
to accusations of theft,
          even murder . . .
supporters of both parties,
          along with the interested,
          and the curious,
looked on,
making their own judgments.
At first, the widow
was just a minor annoyance,
like a buzzing fly
          circling his head
                   to be batted away.

But her constant pleading
day after day
in the sight of all those onlookers,
          astonished at her audacity
          and perhaps moved by her plight,
soon became a major embarrassment.
In a culture in which honor
was the core value,
          the judge’s judicial honor,
                   and possibly his livelihood,
                             were at stake.
So he relented.
In the New Revised Standard Version,
the translation of the bible we use,
he explained his surrender
this way:
“I will grant her justice,
so that she will not wear me out
by continually coming.”
But it wasn’t her persistence
or his widow-fatigue
that was his reason for giving in –

The original Greek text
uses a word associated with boxing
which, instead of “wear me out”
might be better translated,
“so that she won’t give me a black eye . .  . “
so that I won’t lose face, look bad,
so that I won’t be shamed,
won’t lose my position
          of importance and power.
Clever widow indeed
to back him into that corner.
And isn’t that how the powerless:
the poor, the outsiders,
people of the wrong race,
          wrong religion,
          wrong gender,
          wrong sexuality,
Isn’t that how the powerless,
when they have had no voice
          and no one to stand with them,
have always had to operate
          to obtain what is rightfully theirs . . .
by subterfuge, stratagem,
          those who hold all the cards . . .

Oh for a world
where no one
has to resort to such tactics
to obtain justice.
It might look a whole lot
like the Kingdom of God.
That the parable
introduces the judge
          before the widow
tells us its focus
is on the judge,
          the insider,
the one with the power
          to do what he will,
the one who does not fear God
or have respect for anyone.
“If such a person,”
asks Jesus,
“if such a person
will finally give to the widow
what she deserves,
          (and that only to avoid
                   a loss of face),
how much more will God,
whose very nature is Justice,
vindicate those
who cry out to God?”

God will not long delay
in helping God’s chosen, God’s beloved,
God will quickly grant justice to them.
And in that assertion lies a problem for us,
and a challenge.
The problem:
From the time of Adam and Eve until now,
from what we are able to see,
justice for the vulnerable and disenfranchised
          of this world
comes slowly, if at all.
How can we possibly reconcile
the promise of this parable
with the desperation
of refugees,
persons of color,
children hungry, homeless, abused . . .
whose cries for justice
seemingly die out unanswered?
Perhaps we cannot reconcile it.

But we might begin to understand
the original purpose of the parable
if we remember the situation
of the small early Christian community
for whom Luke shaped his gospel . . .
. . . living in an environment of hostility
some 40 or 50 years after the
death, resurrection, and ascension
          of Jesus . . .
. . .  anxiously awaiting his promised return
and the Kingdom he proclaimed,
and struggling
with how to remain hopeful and faithful
in the ever-lengthening interim.
And so the reminder
of the need
“to pray always and not to lose heart.”
And so the story
of a widow who did just that
and whose perseverance and stubborn patience
were eventually rewarded.
Pray always and don’t lose heart.
How to be faithful in the meantime.

And how to be faithful in a world of hurt
where multitudes,
unlike the widow,
go to their graves
never having seen
the justice they deserve.
Perhaps for us,
the parable is not so much about
what we can expect from God
          in the future,
but rather, what God expects from us
          right now
          for the sake of the future . . .
The challenge:
That we are meant to be God’s promise of justice
          active in the here and now,
even if we will not see its fulfillment
          in our lifetime.
For we are meant
to hear, to listen to, to respond to,
the cries of God’s poor and needy,
to do justice for and with  
          the disenfranchised among us.

In the parable,
we, with our middle class privilege,
are not like the desperate widow . . .
in our desire to serve those
who have no privilege,
are we like the callous judge.
Perhaps we are like the onlookers
in that public forum.
Who among us,
hearing the pleas of the widow,
will step forward to stand with this woman,
          and all like her,
to add our voices to their demands?
Or perhaps,
for all our protestations to the contrary,
we are like that judge after all,
comfortable in our position of privilege and power,
and the widow comes before us as God,
pleading with us to set aside our own self-interest
to respond to God’s cries for justice
          for God’s people.

I don’t find my parsing of this parable
particularly satisfying,
but then we don’t preach
a gospel of satisfaction here,
do we?
Our satisfaction
is not what God has in mind.
Discomfort is more like it . . .
discomfort with the way things are,
driving a stubborn determination
          to be part of the way
                   things can and should be.
One of the prayers the presider may use
to collect or sum up our Prayers of the Assembly,
(our intercessions for the church and the world)
asks God to
“Mercifully accept the prayers of your people,
and strengthen us to do your will.”                                  [BCP p. 394]
A dangerous prayer,
coupled with the dangerous prayer
we all pray together
at the end of our liturgy:
“Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart . . .”

God chooses to act
in and through us
to right the wrongs of this world,
no matter how inadequate we may feel
and how foolish this strategy may seem.
And so our need . . .
our need . . .
to pray always for strength and courage
and not to lose heart.