Last week we heard about faith and explored faith as being about more than what we can see-recognizing God’s presence and power to bring healing and wholeness. In faith we are made well-warm fuzzy thoughts of the leper healed and restored. But today it seems we see the opposite in the widow. Things are supposed to change, but when? By the time the Gospel of Luke was written, those hearing it expected Jesus to have returned and completed the fulfillment of the kingdom by now. We hear from Jesus that God’s kingdom is present in his life and in our lives this side of the cross. Yet at the same time we too wait for more to come at a time we do not know. How do we keep the faith when our sense of timing is not met and when so much of the news in our world makes us weary? What is God’s word while we wait and live in a world full of unjust judges and burdensome situations? It’s in this context Jesus speaks of prayer as a way to not lose heart, ultimately asking if when the Son of Man returns will he find faith on earth? Will we rely on turning to God in prayer? Easier said than done. What do we do when it’s not the way we expect?
One possible response comes from the show my daughters and I watch- “Glee” which recently tackled prayer and faith in crisis or injustice. One of the regular characters is Sue, a power hungry overbearing high school teacher and coach who regularly butts heads with everyone, particularly the students who sing in the Glee Club. When Kurt, one of the glee club students faces the sudden collapse of his father, now unresponsive in the ICU unit, teachers and students all respond in different ways. Some try to encourage Kurt to pray and have faith in God. But Sue is furious-public school students can’t do this at school. She’s clearly very passionate about opposing this. Then it’s revealed this has hit a nerve from her childhood. As a little girl, Sue idolized her older sister. But at some point Sue realized other people not only didn’t idolize her sister, they mocked her and picked on her. Sue’s older sister was “different”- she was a child with Downs’ Syndrome. Sue prayed to God to cure her sister, so she’d no longer suffer the injustices she faced. Nothing changed.
Sue decided she was just not persistent enough. Yet, years went by and her sister was still a person with Downs’ Syndrome whose life would never be like that of others. Sue concluded that no one was listening to her persistent prayers-God must be a cruel myth. Injustice was an unchanging cold hard reality and “survival of the fittest” was the key. This is the mindset of the judge in the gospel- who cares about this widow who hasn’t mastered the game of life? Yet she continues to turn to him, over and over. And we never hear that the widow prays. When wrestle with times of crisis or injustice, who or what do we turn to? It’s natural to turn to our systems of “survival of the fittest”-of law and medicine and research.
Have you ever noticed how we give incredible latitude to these systems? We need time for the medicine to work, time for research to find the answer, time for the case to come to court, time for the law to be passed. We might whine while we wait, but we’ll keep turning to these systems even when we, like people of every place and time can be tempted to lose heart-in times where we live with our question of WHEN?
When will this crisis I am facing end? When will what I long for happen? When will I know? When will a change of heart take place? WHEN? We continually turn to and pursue every earthly alternative even when we have no reason to know or believe those people or things deliver. When we know the systems are flawed and unjust.
Do we use that same level of persistence in prayer with God? Or do we expect immediate gratification? When we don’t receive what we seek or it doesn’t happen when we expected, do we lose heart and decide that it’s God who is unjust?
Another possible response came in the story of the rescued Chilean miners, trapped in a dark mine since August 5th. One of them, Mario Sepulveda, described the struggle of waiting. During the waiting and wondering he also pondered the injustice of a workplace that caused his plight. He battled losing heart- that sense that all of the injustices and shortcomings really will prevail. That sense of deciding that God really isn’t with us. Sepulveda said of his experience,” I was with God and with the devil (in the mine) and I reached out for God.” This is the heart of our gospel.
God knows that in all of the in-between times it is hard not to lose heart. The parable of the widow demonstrates a God of grace who understands who we are in these times and where we tend to put our trust. The point of the parable is not to simply identify our insufficiency, nor should we come to view God as the unjust judge who might, eventually, relent to some of our persistent petitions. Such a response leads us to believe that it’s just about wearing God down or proving a work of prayer righteousness.
Rather, because of the witness of how God is faithful, we can trust that what God has promised will come. And we should be as persistent as the widow in turning to God in prayer so that we can be sustained, and strengthened, and guided. And in the process maybe even shown new things. In the “Glee” episode, in the midst of uproar at school, Sue visits her sister who lives in an assisted living facility. Surely her sister will agree there’s no God!
But when Sue asks her sister whether she believes in God, she immediately smiles broadly, then asks Sue- Do YOU? Sue explains she doesn’t because she prayed God would stop what happened to her sister, but nothing changed. Her sister emphatically shakes her head and says basically- But I have faith in God and I am not a mistake. She’s able to live now and for the future on that. And she offers to pray for Sue.
Sue’s sister’s physical condition didn’t change, but her life did because of the depth of Sue’s love, care and advocacy for her. Now Sue could be sustained by the love, care and wisdom of her sister who allowed Sue to see things she might never have seen otherwise, including how she was bullying someone else.
When we face all our in-between times in prayer, we find strength when we’re overwhelmed and insight into our own actions. We are not always the poor widow. Sometimes we’re the ones acting unjustly. In continually turning to God first, by naming all of the people and places and situations on our hearts and minds we are shaped by God and not the world. We begin to grasp and trust in God’s different system of justice and timing. God deepens our faith in God’s greater purposes. And the “much more” we have not yet seen becomes God’s promise we work for, and pray for, and in which we can place our hope and trust here on earth.
While I preached this sermon I noticed two people in the campground congregation were visibly moved. Before our prayers of intercession I always ask for prayer concerns or thanksgivings. The man who’d been moved to tears offered that he was thankful because a year ago he was told he had less than six months to live. He went to the doctor with a bulging neck and neck pain. They told him, without testing, that he probably had muscle strain. Being poor he decided to ride it out. They told him to come back if it did not get better, but what does that mean? Until he had a lump and went back to find out that he had a stage 3 tumor on his neck. He could have been mad but instead it had encouraged him to faith because of the witness of people of the campground. He’d come back to celebrate and say thanks because it looks like he has actually beat the odds. And he brought his mom because the campers who told her about worship encouraged her to believe there was something worth experiencing.
Not a dry eye as I left the lectern and came to hug them and bless them before prayer. The best sermon was in his life. Don’t lose heart, have faith even when it seems too much. I am so blessed to have spent three months with them.