My first semester of my senior year of high school, I took physics. I did, surprisingly, fairly well in that class. Except for one thing. We had a project, like many high school physics classes do, of making a rocket out of a 2-liter soda bottle. The lesson, as I recall, was about aerodynamics. We had to design the nose and wings of our rockets – made out of cardboard and taped onto the bottle – in such a way that the bottle would fly when launched off an air launcher placed in the football field. We were supposed to learn from our first rocket, meaning that we had to make the second fly further than the first by observing the flight pattern of the first. Our grade was based on how much more distance the rocket flew the second time.
Fast forward about three weeks. I was five rockets in and none had flown. Not one. Every one crashed spectacularly to the ground, usually making it no more than a foot from the launcher. Each and every one. We were supposed to make two, or at the very least tweak the first one to make it fly further the second time. I had made five – each one brand new – and still had not had one successful flight. About bottle three – my teacher, who had to stay after school with me to launch these rockets as I attempted to complete my assignment, started to closely inspect my work. He would carefully look at the bottle, the nose and wings I had attached, and declare them perfect. He, a seasoned teacher who had probably launched thousands of bottle rockets in his career, could not find a single flaw. This one will fly, he would declare over and over again. And, inevitably, it would do nothing. Each one failed in a spectacular fashion. He could not figure it out. I could not figure it out. No one could. My teacher and I became frustrated. My mother became frustrated, as we were not big soda drinkers at home, and she was getting sick of buying 2-liter bottles just for us to dump out to make another rocket. Everyone was frustrated, except my friends. My friends were amused. They started to gather in a small group and watch each attempt. Not in a mean way, they genuinely wanted me to succeed, but it was starting to become funny. Because, somehow, I had stumbled upon some method to defeat the laws of physics. The semester was dragging on, it was starting to get cold out, my teacher was tired of it, I was tired of it. We had dumped liter upon liter of soda down the sink. One last go, my teacher said, and this one will fly. He looked at it very closely – I remember him spending several minutes examining it. Perfect he said. This one will go for miles. He had long ago taking over running the launcher, and used his years of knowledge to place the bottle just right, to use just the right amount of air pressure, to trigger the release gently and smoothly. Remember, the goal of the project was for the bottle to fly down the field. Forward distance was the key. So, the bottle was launched, it went up about 10 feet in the air and, somehow, landed about 20 feet to our right, exactly in line with us, not moving one inch forward along the field. Six rockets, and not one had done what it was supposed to do.
My persistence never paid off, though my teacher did eventually give me an ‘A’ for effort. The catchphrase made popular a few years ago, ‘Nevertheless she persisted’ had not been coined yet, but I can’t help thinking about it. There is something defiant, hopeful, revolutionary even, in that phrase. My bottle rocket experience of persistence, however, never felt defiant, hopeful, or revolutionary. I kept trying, and trying, and trying – but it could seem like nothing ever came out of it. But, that’s not true. My physics teacher became a trusted adult who would be someone I could turn to. I learned the important lesson of accepting defeat, even in the face of my need for perfection. And, it has become a good story that I can tell. My persistence didn’t get me what I was expecting, but I still learned a lot along the way.
‘Nevertheless she persisted’ could also be used to describe the widow in today’s scripture lesson. She persisted against an unjust and uncaring judge, but, in her case, she succeeded. The judge, tired of her consistent nagging, granted her justice against her opponent. The widow’s persistence led to justice. But that’s not the end of the story because the parables of Jesus are never as simple as they seem.
The whole point of parables is to consider how God is at work in our lives and the world in a way that is digestible. Relatable. So, as we hear these parables, we place ourselves in the story. We identify with a character. In my own little parable about trying and failing to launch a bottle rocket, you likely placed yourself in the role of one of the characters. Perhaps you related to me – trying and trying, but struggling to achieve. Perhaps you placed yourself in the shoes of my teacher – supporting a student who is doing the best she can and not loosing patience along the way. You may have even placed yourself in the shoes of my friends – watching from the distance the determination of two people trying to make something fly – and having a good laugh along the way. So, let’s do that today. Let’s take a couple of minutes to place ourselves into the shoes of the characters of today’s scripture parable.
First, let’s imagine the lesson from the perspective of the widow. We are stubborn, refusing to give up. Refusing to allow someone to deny us what we are owed. We are persistent in the face of an unjust judge. But to make this feel real, we need to imagine who the judge is. Who is this judge that we are persistently coming before? You may not be saying it, but…God right? That is where just about everyone goes with this story. We are the widows, not giving up in asking what we need, not giving up in asking for justice, persisting. And the judge is God, who eventually grants justice. Who eventually relents to our requests and lets us have our way.
But, wait, that can’t be right can it? Is that the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us? That all we need to do is ask and ask and eventually we will get what we want? And, more importantly, is Jesus saying the character of the judge – someone who has no respect for people – is the character of God? Is Jesus saying that God only responds to our prayers so we will go away? So, we won’t be a bother anymore? That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the Gospel message – it is contrary to everything else about the character of God that we read in the scriptures. This God, unlike the God we find in both the Old and the New Testament, is one that doesn’t seem to care. Even in the scriptures in which God is angry and punishing humanity, it is never because God doesn’t care or can’t be bothered. The God we learn about in the Old and New Testament is one who is committed to humanity. Who provides manna from heaven – even when the people are complaining. God is one who knows our comings and goings. God is one who loves, who shows inexplicable grace and mercy. God cares about humanity. This judge does not represent the character of God that we have come to know. So, who then, is this judge?
Well, let’s try to figure that out by putting ourselves in the judge’s shoes. We are now the judge. Someone comes to us asking for justice. This person, a widow, is someone who we have learned to view as less than deserving of our time and attention. She is someone we have been told does not carry the same value as we have. To help us place ourselves in the shoes of the judge, we must ask, What would that look like today? Who are the widows, the voiceless, in our world today? Perhaps they are homeless person suffering from addiction. Perhaps they are children detained behind bars at the border. Perhaps they are the African American man demanding fair representation in the court room. Perhaps they are the Muslim asking for acceptance. Perhaps they are the farmer whose crops have been ruined by bad weather and unjust trade practices. The widows of our world today are everywhere.
These widows of our time come to us and ask for justice. They demand equal pay and equal representation. They demand sustainable farming practices. They demand religious tolerance. They demand government support for addiction and affordable housing. They demand their humanity and the humanity of their neighbors. And many are relentless in their demands. Over and over again they make us, the judges, listen to their pleas. They make us, the judges, recognize their humanity. We hear their pleas, their demands, their cries – and we are expected to respond. And the question we must ask ourselves, is, how do we respond? Do we grant justice because we are worn out? Do we do it simply so we don’t look bad in the eyes of others? Are we like the judge in the parable – saying we will grant justice just so they will go away? How do we respond to the persistent widow?
I think that is the question Jesus wants us to ask ourselves. In what ways are we like the judge in this parable and how can we do better? In what ways are we like the widow in this parable and how can we persist in demanding our humanity and the humanity of our neighbors? Because there are times when we are both. We have demanded justice and received only annoyance in response. We have sat in judgement of people and done what we could to get them to go away. We can walk in the shoes of both the judge and the widow.
So, then, where is the good news? Where is the call to active stewardship that I am supposed to be giving you today? The good news, I believe, exists in the character of God and how the community of Christ responds to that character. The call to be stewards of the community comes from the understanding that we are both the judge and the widow – and both can be exhausting – so we need community to lean on. We need community to help us recognize when we are the unfair judge and to lovingly move us toward justice that is authentic and real. We need community when we are the widow, speaking up and out for what is right, and needing to do so persistently, even in the face of an unloving and unjust judge. We need community to be a space where our strengths and our weaknesses are welcomed. We need community to help us remember who we are as people of God and how we are to be in this world. We need community to journey alongside of us as we navigate a world that is over-whelming, demanding, and at times too much to bear alone. We need this community and therefore we must be stewards of it to make sure all have a place here. To make sure that this community will live and thrive into the future. To make sure that both the judge seeking justice and the widow using her voice have a place to rest and renew. We need this community so we can persist in all that we do. As people of God, as people of a just and equitable judge, we are to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. It is in a community like this that we can achieve that. We can achieve justice and kindness and humility together. Even in the face of tremendous grief, pain, and fear we can persist together. Beloved community, do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Love mercy, now. Do justly, now. Walk humbly, now. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to abandon it. We must persist – and if an unjust and uncaring judge can grant justice, then just imagine what God can do with that persistence. Just imagine how God, whose character we have come to know in the life and ministry of Jesus, just imagine how God will respond. In the face of all that the world gives us to contend with, nevertheless we will persist. And we will do so as a community of imperfect people committed to God and one another. And to participate in this community, as members and friends, does require a tremendous commitment of time, energy, faith, and financial resources. I encourage you, I pray that you, dive deeply into this community and become stewards of it. That way we can, and will always be able to do justice, together. To love mercy, together. To walk humbly, together. Amen.