All Saints by the Lake, Dorval
October 16, 2022
I confess: I’m feeling cranky these days.
It’s not just having finally come down with COVID after avoiding it for almost three years – though that certainly hasn’t improved my mood over the past couple of weeks! It’s that everything just seems so hard these days. Things that were easy to arrange in 2019 now feel like they take enormous amounts of effort to make happen. Everyone is tired, everyone is burnt out, everyone has been through a lot lately. And it’s certainly not just the church – I have an acquaintance who went to a cleanup day at her local arboretum yesterday and she and her partner were the only people who showed up. Teachers, nurses, activists, are all on the verge of breakdown. We feel like we should be rejoicing that things are mostly back to normal, but we actually just want to curl up and nap for a year or so. At a time when we should all be being extra gentle with each other, it often feels like we have little or nothing to give at all. Add a heaping helping of “you never know whether your plans will fall through at the last minute because yep, someone got COVID” and it’s enough to make you nostalgic for the early days of lockdown.
It’s not the greatest frame of mind in which to hear Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: “be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” It sounds exhausting, to be honest. The time is unfavourable and I don’t feel like I have a lot of patience.
And so this story of the “persistent widow”, as she’s frequently called, in the gospel reading for today, comes as a breath of fresh air. This woman is Fed Up. She is not OK with the status quo and she will not be squelched before she has made sure that things change. And I think she has a lot to teach us in this moment.
First of all, and perhaps most basic: that it is always OK to yell at God. (Assuming that the judge in this story is in fact God … and we’ll get back to that in a minute.) So often, even lifelong church people – especially lifelong church people – feel that there’s something rude, inappropriate, or even sinful, about bringing our less pleasant emotions before God.
Nothing could be further from the truth. From the Psalms to the lamentations of the prophets to here in the Gospels, Scripture is full of faithful people besieging the heavens with their complaints.
I’ve slept a lot over the past couple weeks, since rest seems to be so important not only in recovering from COVID but in reducing the risk of long COVID. I’ve gotten to the point where I actually sometimes have trouble falling asleep at night because I’ve napped during the day. And of course it’s those late-night moments when all the worries and anxieties come crowding in, cheerfully informing you of all the ways you’ve failed as a human being and all the ways your life could fall apart.
One of the ways I deal with those unwelcome thoughts is simply by turning them around and sending them back to God. I suppose it’s even a form of prayer. As is all lament, including the rageful kind that demands justice. God can handle all of it.
And in fact, putting our rage and lament and our anxious midnight thoughts where they belong – on God – helps us not to let all that difficult emotion leak out all over other people, who may or may not deserve to be the recipients of our negativity. A few paragraphs ago I said, “At a time when we should all be being extra gentle with each other, it often feels like we have little or nothing to give at all” and one of the most corrosive things about anxiety is the way it makes it likely that we’ll be nasty to each other when we don’t deserve it. Handing over all that anxiety and sorrow and anger over to God instead – who is more than big enough to absorb it – makes at least a little bit of room for us to be as gentle with each other as we need to be.
Because notice, in the story of the persistent widow, that she isn’t going after the other party in the court case, her “opponent”. She’s going after the judge, the one who can actually render justice. She doesn’t bother trying to get her opponent to see her point of view; she just hammers relentlessly at the person who can actually make a difference in the situation. So let us let the persistent widow teach us to put our lament and rage where they belong, on God, rather than turning on each other.
Let us also let her teach us what to ask for. Because notice that she’s not asking for comfort, or vengeance, or special treatment – she’s asking for justice. She’s simply asking that her case be heard and decided according to the law.
There are a lot of things that we can be asking God for right now, both individually in our own lives, and as a congregation. And God hears and acknowledges our prayers, whether altruistic or self-serving. But when Jesus sums up the parable, he says, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” If we want our prayers to be answered, perhaps we should start by praying for justice rather than comfort; for what we need, rather than what we want.
And yet there’s a whole different way of looking at this parable (that tends to be the case when it comes to parables …). What if, instead of God being the judge, God was the woman? What if God was alongside us in the relentless demanding of justice? How would that change how we pray – and how we act?
Because however you interpret who’s who in the parable, and however you handle the odd atmosphere of crankiness and hostility that hovers over all of it (an atmosphere that I at least can well relate to these days!), it certainly seems to encourage us to put our prayers into action, to work alongside each other and God until we are on our way to justice being done.
And if we need hope, if we need to believe in the promise that God will quickly grant us justice, we can turn to the prophet Jeremiah. Usually full of wailing and lamentation, Jeremiah today offers us a rare word of hope. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” This is a persistent refrain in this portion of Jeremiah: “the days are surely coming.” Perhaps not as quickly as we would like, but God’s promise is sure.
When we are happy and secure, these ancient prophecies seem abstract or even irrelevant. But at times like these, they are like water in the desert. The days are surely coming. God has not forgotten about us. Even in our crankiness and chaos – and the parable has enough of those to be deeply relatable – God’s promises are sure, and if we pray for justice, we may dare to have faith that God will quickly grant it.