Sunday, October 16, 2016 / Year C
All Saints’ Episcopal Church / Brooklyn, NY
When I was 12 years old, I was selected to be in an oratory competition. This was kind of a big deal and it was hosted at the local rotary club. The challenge was to write an essay on a specific topic and then deliver it as a speech, and compete against other local sixth graders.
Here’s what I remember: I remember working very hard on my essay and practicing my speech over and over again. I remember going to the event on a school night and I remember that I was wearing shoes with a small heel that were very uncomfortable. I remember feeling uncomfortable in my body in the way that 12 year-old girls are specifically prone to feeling.
I remember the boy who won, and I remember his speech, which was all about, as he called it, “nucular war.” In my memory, he was pacing back and forth telling us that in the future, we would all be engaged in “nucular war,” and we would have to live in special shelters and a new kind of human would evolve.
And I remember thinking, how did that win this competition????
Ok, but here’s the other truth of it–the flip side, honest, side of the story: I truly do not remember a thing about what I said in my own speech. Even though I know I practiced it over and over again, I can’t remember a word of it.
I think, from my memory of the winning speech, the topic was something like “our vision of the future.” And if I had to guess, I would guess that my speech was very measured. Very Even-tempered. I hope optimistic, but probably also very pragmatic. Probably pretty boring, to be honest.
And that is the parable of winning a sixth grade oratory competition. Go big or go home. Make them remember you.
This morning, the Gospel story is another parable, the parable of the persistent widow. The parable of winning against an unjust judge.
So this story is calling me to talk to you, in church, about Gender and Winning. And you might be rolling your eyes if you know me, because you knowwwwww I love talking about gender. And you might be rolling your eyes even if you don’t know me, because you can’t miss it; you can’t miss what’s going on in America this month, and how we all seem to be–no matter our opinions–watching the national stage from behind our hands, peeking through our fingers. And there’s a lot of scary, disruptive, upsetting talk about gender, about women and our bodies, at the center of it all.
So I hope what we can do together today, this morning, is remove that hand from our faces. Take a deep breath. And be in a safe space where we can listen. Just listen. Not to politics, not to the news, but to the Gospel, and to each other.
Let’s listen to this persistent widow. I love this woman. She is one of my favorite characters in the whole bible. It is such a short little story with few details, and Jesus tells us the story is about prayer and not losing heart:
Here’s the whole story: A woman, a widow–someone we know is at the fringes of society–has been wronged and she keeps going to the judge and demanding what is due to her. We don’t know what it is! We don’t know what happened to her. We just know she is right. And the judge finally sighs and says, “okayyyyyyy” and gives in to her, not because he agrees, but because she is annoying him.
And this is how Jesus tells us to pray: to cry to God day and night, and do not lose heart!!!!!
I love hearing that today! Do not lose heart!!!! Do not lose heart!!!!!!!
When we hear a parable, which is in essence a simple little story, it can actually be deceptively tricky to parse out exactly what’s going on. In this story, we might tend to see ourselves as the widow, begging for justice–and begging hands do so closely resemble prayer hands–and we might see the judge as God, giving in to us, but annoyedly, resignedly. God as an old cranky curmudgeon.
Or in my first parable of the sixth grade speech competition, maybe you thought I was drawing a parallel between us kids and our current candidates for president. But I promise you, I wasn’t. It is not that simple. And I promise you, too, that the judge in this parable of the persistent widow is not God.
In fact, If there is one thing we can all remember from this sermon today (even me, trying to remember what I said some time in the future) it’s that–in this parable–the widow is JUSTICE and the judge is INJUSTICE. Those are the two things at odds with each other: justice and injustice. So God is not on the side of the judge in this story, because God is not on the side of injustice, ever. God is on the side of the widow.
This is how we pray, says Jesus. We fight and we fight and we fight and God is on our side. We persist even when we know we are annoying. And God is on our side. Do not give up, God is on the side of justice. God is always on the side of justice. Do not lose heart!
That’s where I want to bring in the gender question. Because I know I can be annoying when I am always talking about the same thing. About how toxic it is always to think of God only as a man. About how much God-imagery in our liturgy is associated with male dominance, when we know this is not what God is about.
But I think there is a reason why it is so easy for us to misread this parable, for us to think that the judge is God. And that is because our brains, our poor little socialized brains, leap to men in power as stand-ins for God. And it is as ancient as this very text that this is just NOT TRUE. Our brains also leap to reading righteous women as annoying; have you ever noticed that?
Yesterday, I was at the cathedral of St. John the Divine for an ordination service, and I had the chance to walk around the edge of that vast building into the side chapel behind the altar where there is an exhibit of a sculpture called Christa, by artist Edwina Sandys. It is an anatomically female body hanging on a cross, and it sits over an altar. When this was first displayed in the 1980s, it was so controversial that it was removed early, but they’ve brought it back this month, in 2016.
And I have to tell you, when I saw it yesterday, I was struck by how simultaneously beautiful, moving, and utterly unremarkable it is to look at. A body is a body is a body. Not any one of our bodies looks the same, whether we are male or female or in between. Cast in iron and nailed to a cross, the striking image is not that Christ has distinct breasts, but rather that she is on a cross.
The striking thing about Christa is the reminder that we humans insist on destroying each other. And, as crucifixion surely was at the time of Jesus, we often insist on destroying each other through political means.
We destroy each other through mass incarceration of black and brown people. Through absolute inequality in the work-force across genders. Through no regard for our planet and no means of caring for the precarious communities destroyed by weather disasters.
But I am telling you, in this parable, God is very clear about what she is telling all of us to do. Get annoying. Get persistent. Find that nagging injustice in the world, and there are many, and name it. And don’t just say it one time, say it a million times, until even your friends are annoyed with you. Until no one can stand to listen to the sound of your voice, maybe not even yourself.
Do not be like 12 year-old Julia, do not be reasonable, do not be pragmatic, do not be boring. Be memorable, be persistent, work for justice.
And that, Jesus tells us, is prayer. When we do it together, we are praying, and God will always be on our side. Amen.