Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: "The Haunting Widow" (Luke 18: 1-8)

Here is a picture of me and some of my closest friends. The picture was taken 23 years ago, in October 1993. I guess it was a harbinger of things to come, but I’m the bald one, to the right.
We were the Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt Ghost Town Streets Monsters.
It was the best possible job. We got to roam around Ghost Town, the best area of Knott’s Berry Farm, wandering in and out of the fog at night, scaring guests. We also got to watch the Hanging, an outdoor stunt show that mocks the year’s news. One night, I even got shot as part of the show.
It was great.
And when I’d get tired… You know those statues of cowboys and cowgirls sitting on benches? I’d sit right next to one, and be very still. People would walk up to me, and think I was just another prop or statue (because with the mask on, who could tell?), and they’d come real close, and all I’d have to do was turn my head or lift my arm to send them running through the darkness and the fog to get away from me.
While my job was to roam the streets of Ghost Town, other monsters could be found in the mazes.
Each maze has its own theme. This year, the names of the mazes are:
·        Paranormal, Inc.
·        The Red Barn
·        Shadow Lands
·        Special Ops: Infected
·        The Gunslinger’s Grave: a Blood Moon Rises
·        Tooth Fairy
·        Trick or Treat
·        The Dead of Winter: Wendigo’s Revenge
·        Voodoo – Order of the Serpent
Now if I were in charge of the Halloween Haunt at Knott’s, I would add one more experience.
  And I would call it:
The Haunting Widow
Picture it:
The maze is made to look like a house. As you start walking through it, it seems normal, as if it’s your house. It’s dark, because it’s late at night, when people are supposed to be asleep.
You hear a knock at the door. It’s not a loud, banging knock, but it is persistent….
And then, a voice. Again, it’s not a loud voice, but there is a determination to it, a persistence.
And the voice calls out: “Grant me justice against my opponent.”
You know that voice; it’s the voice of an old widow who keeps pestering you. You can’t get away from it.
You come around a corner, and you hear it again: “Grant me justice against my opponent!”
It’s driving you crazy. Just make it stop!
But it doesn’t stop.
You walk a little further, and this time, you see her face: it’s an old face, but it’s also fierce. It’s a face with deep wrinkles, but the muscles are strong. The long, grey hair is not as groomed as you are used to seeing; there is a wildness to it. And the eyes – those piercing eyes! The eyes are a window to one’s soul, and the soul that is before you is one you know will not let you rest, but will keep haunting you!
This face jumps out at you from the darkness. And you hear again: “Give me justice against my opponent!”
You run away, but around the next corner, there she is again: “Give me justice against my opponent!”
By now you’ve had enough. Your only thought is, “Just get me out of this maze!” Yet you can’t find your way out; the path just seems to go in circles.
There she is again: “Give me justice against my opponent!”
“No!” you yell, and you run around a corner.
But there is no escape from the haunting widow.
“Give me justice against my opponent!”
“OK, fine!” you yell. “So you will stop bothering me, I give you justice! Just let me go!”
And then, just like that, you find the exit. You step out, take a deep breath, and you think, “I need a funnel cake…”

The parable in Luke’s gospel that we heard is sometimes called “The Parable of the Unjust Judge,” and sometimes it’s called “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” A few months ago, I briefly mentioned this parable, but today that parable is our lectionary reading, so I can give it a fuller treatment. And based on my research of this parable, I am going to call it NOT “The Parable of the Unjust Judge;” NOT “The Parable of the Persistent Widow;” but “The Parable of the Haunting Widow.”
Jesus told this parable. He may have told it many times, to different groups of people.
Luke, obviously, had heard the parable, and he included it in his gospel. However, Luke attached a meaning to it that I don’t think was there when Jesus told it. I’ll show you what I mean.
The parable starts in verse two. Verse one is Luke’s introduction; it’s not part of the parable itself, so we’ll come back to that.
In verse two, the parable starts, and it’s about a certain judge who had a widow come to him repeatedly, saying, “Give me justice against my opponent.” For a while the judge refused, but eventually the widow got to him.
The judge said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, I do fear this widow. She keeps bothering me… (I think haunting might be a good translation here! She keeps haunting me!) So I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
The English translations have tamed this down a bit. In Greek, we can see that the judge is actually afraid of more than just “being bothered” by this widow. He’s afraid of more than being “worn out.”
He’s afraid she will inflict upon him actual, physical harm – that she will attack him in some way – if he doesn’t give in to her request. He’s scared and frightened. He is truly haunted by this widow.
It’s an absurd thought, right? Widows aren’t always old, but unless we are told otherwise, we can assume that the widow in this story is old, because that is the stereotype, and there is nothing to suggest she wasn’t.
But an old widow who so frightens this judge that he gives in to her request, even though he’s definitely not the type of judge to give in to anyone – that is absurd. Preposterous.
Which makes this a very typical parable. Parables are almost always absurd in some way. There’s always something about them that’s topsy-turvy, something that turns the world upside down, something that shatters our prejudices and preconceived notions.
A fierce, attacking widow is as absurd and preposterous as a good Samaritan. Who ever heard of a good Samaritan? Certainly not those who first heard that parable.
And perhaps you remember the widow who lost a single coin, spent a tremendous amount of time and energy searching for it, and then threw a huge party when she found it, a party that cost more than the one coin was worth.
That’s just crazy.
In the same way, a parable about a fierce, threatening widow who haunts a powerful judge into cowering submission is just crazy.
And therein lies the problem. Sometimes the challenge presented by a parable is so great a challenge, that we miss the point. Our minds just can’t make the leap to that alternate reality.
Luke included this parable in his gospel, but even he can’t make the leap. In verse one, before he presents the parable, Luke writes that this is a parable about the need to pray always and to not lose heart.
That’s what Luke thought this parable meant. And many who read Luke never think to question that.
But as I said, what Luke thought this parable meant may not have been what Jesus wanted it to mean.
Luke wants us to think of it as a parable to pray always and not lose heart. Luke wants us to think of ourselves as the widow, and to think of the unjust judge as God, and to show the same persistence in prayer that the widow shows in demanding justice.
But even though this is what Luke writes in his gospel, there are several problems with it.
First: who wants to think of God as an unjust judge? Would Jesus think of God as an unjust judge? Nothing in the parable itself suggests this, only in the commentary that comes after.
Second: Luke says this is a parable about how to pray. But is nagging God over and over really how we are to pray to God? Are we really supposed to be as annoying and relentless in prayer as the widow is, pestering God until God finally gives in to what we want? That doesn’t seem right, either. That’s not what prayer is supposed to be like.
Maybe we got it backwards. Maybe Luke got it backwards. Luke wants us to think of ourselves as the widow, but maybe what Jesus wanted was for us to think of ourselves as the judge.  
Try reading the parable that way. If we read the parable that way, then we might ponder what it is that is haunting us, bothering us, the way that this judge is being haunted and bothered by this widow.
What is it that keeps us awake at night? What is it that we ignore during the day, but haunts our dreams at night?
In Psalm 77, the psalmist says to God: “You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. So I commune with my heart in the night.”
Like the judge, we often try to ignore whatever it is that is bothering us. We think it will just go away. We think it is incapable of harming us if we ignore it.
But usually, we are wrong.
We underestimate it, just like we might underestimate a widow who we assume to be old, weak, frail.
The thing that is bothering us keeps us awake at night. It wears us down. It haunts us.
What we need to do is stop avoiding the situation, and address it head on. I remind you again of the dishonest manager from a few weeks ago: when fired from his position, he decided to take action. Instead of losing sleep at night, worrying about his future, he addressed it head on. He was willing to change and take action.
There is a lot in this world that keeps me awake at night, all sorts of injustice in this world: Racism. Police brutality. Income inequality. The election. Climate change. Family matters and church matters that need my attention.
But I find that I sleep better when I stop ignoring such things and start addressing them.
I’m so thankful our church is doing what we can to address these types of issues. Our church – and churches like ours – are making a statement for social justice. We hear the cries of the oppressed saying “grant me justice” and we are responding.
We are actively involved, locally and through our denomination, in addressing issues of racism and prejudice. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, and we here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church are in a unique position to play an important role on this important issue.
We are truly a church that is diverse in race, culture, age, gender. Even in 2016, that is a rare thing, which gives us a unique voice, a powerful voice, in our world. We have declared ourselves to be welcoming and affirming of people of all different sexual orientations and gender identities.
We have not ignored the demand for justice.
That helps me sleep better. I still ponder what more we can do, because there is always more to do and more we can do, but I sleep better knowing that we will not ignore those who need justice in this world. If even an unjust judge can learn to grant justice, so can we.

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