October 20, 2019
Pr. Craig Mueller
Recall a time when you were worn out and weary.
Maybe you feel worn out today.
Maybe you feel overwhelmed with your busy life.
Maybe the news or thinking about the future leaves you distressed or despondent.
Corruption, partisanship, climate change—
it’s like there is a pall hanging over us.
When I am worn out, or I have too many mental or emotional files open
(as I sometimes say)
I want to retreat, close down, protect myself.
I admire the widow in today’s gospel.
She is worn out and worn down.
Yet she doesn’t back off.
She tirelessly wears down the unjust judge:
pleading her case, defending her cause, seeking justice.
Jesus tells the parable of the widow to encourage us to pray always—
to live life prayerfully, might be a good way to put it—
and to not lose heart—
to not give up, to keep on keeping on,
to get up again in the morning,
to put one foot in front of the other,
even when everything seems overwhelming,
even when it’s hard to trust—not only in God—but in the goodness of life itself.
I imagine the persistent widow looking a little like Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
who keeps persisting way past the age most people stop working or making a difference in the world,
or Mother Theresa, who dilgently served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.
From a biblical perspective, widows were a protected class of people in ancient Israel.
God—and the prophets—are always holding up widows, orphans and aliens in high regard. When it comes to justice, they are the ones to defend against exploitation.
The word “widow” in Hebrew means “silent one” or “unable to speak.”
No surprise: in ancient times, men did the speaking.
Yet this feisty widow finds her voice.
And in finding her voice, she finds her heart, her need,
and the providential care of God.
In fact, the unjust judge says that because the relentless widow keeps bothering him—
pestering him—he will grant her justice,
so that she doesn’t completely wear him out.
When the unjust judge complains that the woman is “bothering” him,
the Greek literally means to give somebody a black eye.
She is trying to damage his reputation!
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a movie from a couple years ago,
Mildred Hayes is angry about the lack of an arrest
after her daughter was raped and murdered.
She is relentless and rents three billboards to call out the local sheriff for doing not enough.
The characters are complex and not easily characterized as “good” or “bad.”
Instead, like life, there are not neat and easy solutions.
Yet what stands out is this mother’s persistence and cry for justice.
Think of the heart as our spiritual center.
When we are worn out, we lose heart—
we lose perspective, we lose a sense of gratitude, we lose the capacity to trust.
The prophet Jeremiah talks about God renewing past covenants in a new way:
the divine covenant will be written on our heart,
it becomes part of us, it permeates our very being.
Without such a spiritual center, it will be hard to heed the advice in First Timothy:
to proclaim the message, to persist whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,
to be sober, to endure suffering, and carry out our ministry fully.
Like many of you, I remember times I have been so worn out emotionally
that I’ve lost heart—
that to simply say “trust God” or “pray harder” seems simplistic
and discounts the bitter realities of life.
Sometimes we need help with coping.
Sometimes we need to meet with a therapist or a spiritual director.
Sometimes we need medication to help us.
I’ve turned to all of those at some time in my life.
Recently I heard a fascinating program about the placebo effect.
Eric Vance has written a book called Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.
We usually talk about the placebo effect as if its negative—
because the brain was tricked and perhaps medication wasn’t needed.
Vance suggests that the placebo effect, along with a pill,
actually unlocks the power in our brain.
Faith and belief are part of the equation!
Vance talks about a world-renowned pain researcher that admits that he can only help about 40% of his patients.
He often tells lapsed Catholics to go back to church!
In other words, our brains need to believe that good things are coming,
that there is an order to things,
that we can be resilient even when worn out and weary.
Vance challenges people who think they are too clever for belief to change their reality,
that somehow their rationality makes them above such things.
“We all look for patterns,” he adds. “We look for things that make sense.
And when we find those things, we are susceptible to changes,
in our body and also in our reality.”
I don’t know what this all implies for our brains, for medication, for meditation,
for faith, belief, trust and what we’re about in church—
but it is good to be in dialogue with scientific and medical perspectives.
And that leads to what I think is the game changer in today’s parable.
The great thing about parables is we can continue to find new interpretations and new meanings in them.
So: what if God is like the widow?
God is the persistent One who is unrelenting:
desiring your wholeness, but also the healing and well-being of all creation.
When you are worn out, when it is hard to have hope for the future,
when you don’t have the energy to stand up for the widows and marginalized ones in our day and time,
God never gives up. God keeps on.
God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace never run out.
This divine persistence changes your heart,
softens your heart, opens your heart
so that you can get up tomorrow and begin another day.
Maybe one way to think of God is as the energy of persistent resilience
flowing through our bodies.
That’s why we are here today, in community.
To hear again of the relentless grace of baptism,
and to mark a water cross on our foreheads.
To share the food and drink at this table
as we gather around the persistent presence
of the Crucified and Risen One.
As we will sing in a moment—
This is our confidence indeed: God never fails in time of need.