Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Today I was at Christ Church in Fitchburg, a wonderful parish served by the Rev. Bennett Jones, Rector, and the Rev. Carolyn Jones, Associate Rector. Below is my manuscript for today's sermon. 

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The Year C lectionary has us focused on Luke’s Gospel. Especially since Pentecost Sunday—twenty-two weeks ago—we have been moving slowly and methodically through Luke’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ. Even for those who have been in church every single Sunday since May, however, you may find it difficult (as I do) to maintain the flow of the narrative. So to review: over the past five months we have been “on the move” with Jesus and his followers, making that long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem toward the cross – a distance of about 120 miles or so at a walking pace. Over these past couple of weeks, the conversation along the way has turned to prayer.

Now I’ll get to that, but let me just take a short detour and just say a word about this “people of the Way.” I think the Church in our day is beginning to rediscover the power of this metaphor, of our roots, of what it means to be a people who not only sit in beautiful church buildings like this one to worship Jesus, but who take up our cross to follow him into the world beyond these walls and into our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and the streets of Fitchburg. We, too, are called to be a people on the move—a people on the Way. Quite frankly that looks different in Holden or Westborough or the Brookfields than it does in Fitchburg or Gardner or Worcester. Context matters and one size will not fit all. But part of what I am learning in this new job is that even so, there is way more that binds us together than keeps us in our silos. We face similar challenges in a secularized consumer driven postmodern world, which means we need to be a people who are on the Way together.  Whatever else our challenges and our differences may be, we are called to share this work in the name of the risen, living Christ.

So back to this conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples about prayer. Last week, as you may recall, we heard the story about the healing of ten lepers in the region between Samaria and Galilee. Only one of those ten returned to say, “thank you.” And he was a Samaritan, Luke tells us with some incredulity! This encounter reminds us that gratitude takes us to the very heart of what Christian prayer is all about. Not too long ago, a friend of mine posted these words as his Facebook status: “Envy is the art of counting someone else’s blessings.” We might turn that around and remember that gratitude is the art of counting our own.  Or as Meister Eckhardt put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it will be enough.”

So today, Jesus is speaking about persistence in prayer. He sets before us this parable of a persistent widow who wears out a corrupt judge in her pursuit of justice. It’s important to note that this is a parable, not an allegory. Sometimes people get confused. A parable is meant to help us think in new ways, to break through our defenses and to challenge our theological certitudes. Very often parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and wondering what just happened. In an allegory, the characters are meant to stand in for something else: so if this was an allegory then the unjust judge would be like God. But that gets confusing and unhelpful and I don’t think that’s the point here. If God is like the unjust judge, then He just answers our prayers to get rid of us, because we have been so annoying. But the God who hears our prayers created us in love and has claimed us in love. God wants to spend time with us in prayer.

As for this widow, I suspect that most of us, when we hear about widows, tend to think of little old ladies. I have known my fair share of them, but none more influential on my own journey than my maternal grandmother – a woman who outlived her husband by decades. In fact I never knew my grandfather, who died when my mother was still a child. So my grandmother cut it very close financially, literally living from social security check to social security check. Yet never did I hear her complain about money. She was a strong and wise woman who counted her blessings every day. So maybe we picture someone like her.

But I wonder if it helps us to hear that parable in new ways by picturing “the widow” as someone more like, say, Julia Roberts in the film Erin Brockovich—who takes on a corrupt legal system because she’s is out of options. Or perhaps Sally Field in Places of the Heart, a young widow desperate to save her farm and get the crop in against all odds. Or even my own grandmother before I knew her, when my mother was still a little girl and she was raising her on her own. All of them embody determination and tenacity, perseverance and courage, and hope.  

The widow in our parable keeps coming to the judge to plead her case, day after day after day, because she has no other recourse. Until finally she does just plain wear that old judge out, who decides the case in her favor simply because she was such a pain in the neck. That woman will do whatever it takes, like a young widow raising her children alone or trying to hold onto the family farm or fighting against a corporation that is polluting this good earth. And so, Jesus asks: what would happen if people prayed with that same kind of determination and persistence?

What if we really did pray like that widow—as though our lives depended on it? It seems to me that much of what passes for prayer in the church is just plain anemic. Sometimes we pray as functional atheists, praying because we know that is what Christians are supposed to do. But deep down we aren’t really sure we expect much to happen, either in the heart of God or in our own hearts. But Jesus invites us to take note of this persistent widow and then says: pray like her.

That doesn’t mean we will always get exactly what we asked for. I sometimes joke when I am asked to pray for good weather or a Red Sox victory that I’m in sales, not management. But underneath the joke lies a more serious point. We are all in sales; not management. Ultimately God gets to be God. We can and should offer prayers of intercession and petition with persistence, but there is always a shadow side to such prayers, because if we aren’t careful it can start to be like we are telling God how to do God’s job!  So we can and should keep praying for that friend who has inoperable cancer. But the answer to that prayer may not be a miraculous cure. It might be that our friend finds the courage and trust to die well and with fewer regrets and after reconciling with an estranged family member. We may be praying that God would send an angel to guard over our friend in her time of need, but the answer to that prayer may be that God means for us to go knock on her door and hold her hand so that she will know the love of God through us. Such answers to prayer are not always the ones we want, but they may well be the ones we get. They are not evidence that God wasn’t listening, but rather, raise the question: are we?

The catechism of the Book of Common Prayer says that prayer is “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP 856) That’s a pretty expansive definition of prayer. Many of us carry around an unexamined view of prayer that is pretty passive: something like being seated on the lap of a Santa-Claus God with our wish lists. So I think Jesus invites us to rethink this by putting this persistent widow before us today. Pray like her,he says. Pray like you mean it!

Next weekend Jesus will still be “on the way” and he’ll still be talking about prayer. I’ll leave that text for your rector, but here’s a preview of that coming attraction: there will be these two men praying in the temple, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. The Pharisee prays in a way that isolates him from his neighbor—he even has the audacity to say out loud, “thanks that I’m not like that guy!”  In contrast, the tax collector offers a humble prayer that neatly summarizes the first three steps of a twelve-step program:  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

As this week unfolds, I invite you to reflect on your own prayer life. There is not one right way to pray. But we can all improve our prayer lives if we link these three gospel readings together like beads on a prayer chain. Taken together, last week, this week, and next week we are invited to do three things toward that end: first, cultivate gratitude. On the worst of days, waking up in the morning is better than not. There is so much to be thankful for, so make a list, and count your blessings. Second, be persistent in prayer. Even when it feels like nothing is happening, keep at it. Be like that widow. And third, be humble. Remember that you cannot confess someone else’s sin; only your own. All of us fall short of the glory of God. Yet God’s grace is bigger than our failings.

Pray without ceasing, by thought and by deed, with or without words. But keep praying—as if your very life depends on it. 

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