Real Widows of Palestine: model for the church

Real Widows of Palestine: model for the church

Andy Lang
Executive Director, UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns
St. Paul’s UCC
Warren, MI
Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013
Luke 18:1-8 (The Message)

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”

Pastor Terri and I were talking last night about our favorite TV shows, and I can imagine Jesus’ parable as the plot for one episode of “The Real Widows of Palestine” – part drama, part comedy.

Let’s face it: the widow in this story is a stalker. The plot wouldn’t make sense today. Imagine the consequences. The widow confronts the judge—in the garage of the county courthouse, in the supermarket, in the mall; while he’s shopping for a new suit at Brooks Brothers; interrupting his three-martini lunches, leaving repeated emails, voicemails and text messages. The story would have a different ending. After all, he’s a judge. He knows how to work the system. In the “Real Widows of Palestine,” a messenger delivers a restraining order, and that is that.

But apparently restraining orders hadn’t been invented in first-century Palestine, so the widow’s persistence pays off. The poor judge can’t avoid her. “I’d better do something and see that she gets justice – otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.”

Beaten? Black-and-blue? Pounding? The Message is a colorful translation, but this must be an exaggeration. In the NRSV, the phrase is translated as “wear me out.” “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” says the judge. But the Message in this case is more accurate: the Greek verb means something like “poke me in the eye.” So the widow isn’t just pestering the judge. She is relentless. She’s disruptive. She’s unstoppable. She’s a force of nature. She won’t give up.

Who is the widow? In a patriarchal society, where women only had  position through their subordination to men – first, as daughters, then, as wives – a widow was living on the margins—without status, position or protection. By using the image of a fearless widow, Jesus is connecting with his disciples—also living on the margins, without status, and vulnerable. And they are afraid. Don’t give up, he says. Pray constantly. Never quit.

But God is not like the judge, Jesus teaches in this parable. God “will step in and work justice for the chosen people, who continue to cry out for help.” We don’t need to poke God in the eye. But, Jesus teaches, we have to “pray always,” “pray constantly,” never quit.

And why is that?

I don’t really know the answer. I don’t know why some things are easy, and some are hard. I don’t know why some graces come into my life as a free gift, and why some prayers take years before they bear fruit, and some are unanswered.

God “will not delay long,” Jesus says in the parable, or in the more vivid language of The Message, won’t “drag his feet.” But God must live on a different time scale. Every minute of God’s time must be a year of ours; otherwise, it’s hard to understand why justice is delayed, why peace is delayed, why history doesn’t move forward in a straight line, and why we keep on making the same stupid and tragic mistakes over and over again.

So perhaps Jesus is contradicting himself. God “will not delay,” nevertheless, “pray always … don’t lose heart … never quit.” The “delay” to which the Gospel was referring is the space between the present and the future: between the “now” of human disorder and the “then” of God’s just reign. The New Testament church expected that Christ would return, and soon, delivering his persecuted church, and vindicating his elect.

But today that promised future of God’s justice seems more distant, almost a dream. But the promise still remains. “Pray always … don’t lose heart … never quit.”

Prayer in the Bible is active. Keeping hope alive is active. Refusing to quit is active. The Reformed theologian Karl Barth writes about this parable that “the living God … is not an immutable fate before which we can only keep silence, passively awaiting and accepting the benefits or blows which it ordains. There is no such thing as a Christian resignation in which we have either to submit to a fate of this kind or to come to terms with it.” There are times when we must wait, Barth writes, but this waiting “shows itself to be genuine by the fact that it is always accompanied by the haste and restlessness of the prayer which runs to God and pleads to God, by the haste which rests in the knowledge that God takes our suffering to heart, and expects that we for our part will take God’s mercy to heart and really live by it, so that in our mutual turning to one another God may be our God and therefore our Helper.”

So we can be like the widow, after all. Our prayer is not passive, but active. Our prayer can “run to God,” Barth writes. We can believe in God’s mercy, and live by it.

The community I represent—the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the United Church of Christ—learned this a long time ago. Forty-one years ago, when the UCC Coalition was first organized, there were no “Open and Affirming” congregations. We were outsiders, living on the far margins of the church, without status, or position, or protection.

Now, at that time I was a freshman in college and not yet a member of the United Church of Christ. I was also quite convinced that my faith and my sexuality were incompatible. So I wasn’t part of that first generation of LGBT believers in our church. But listening to their stories, knowing their history, I’m still amazed at their passion, audacity, and courage. They were like the Widow of Palestine. They became a nuisance. They persisted. They may have done some eye-poking. They didn’t quit.

They prayed, always, but their prayer was active. In time, the church changed. Today there are more than 1,100 Open and Affirming congregations in the UCC—27 in Michigan—where LGBT seekers know that they and their families are safe. And we are part of an even greater community of LGBT-welcoming congregations—more than 6,000 with nearly one million members—Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Reformed.

That is one story. You have your own story: of times when you refused to give up, when you persisted in prayer, when your belief in God’s mercy and justice kept your hope alive. And even if the outcome is not always what we want, or need, still we run to God in prayer. We never quit. And in that running we will come face to face with the One who is already waiting for us, who will never abandon us, whose love we can trust.

And because your prayer is active, not passive, things begin to change. In prayer, you are acting on God, but God is also acting on you. God is active in your prayer. In time, God transforms us, transforms our families and communities, transforms our church. The reign of God’s justice is not yet complete, its fulfillment still lies in the future, but in our prayer it has already begun.