Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pray Always, And Do Not Lose Heart

Today, on this twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost I made my first visit to the good people of  St. John's, Ashfield. The gospel for the day can be found here.

As you may know, there are three years in the lectionary cycle: A, B, and C. (If you don’t know this, then sometime when the sermon is going long you can check out pages 888-920 in The Book of Common Prayer. But not today...)

Year C has us focused on Luke’s Gospel. In November, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll turn to Matthew’s year and then we’ll rotate to Mark thirteen months later. Your patron, St. John, doesn’t get his own year because we mix John in along the way, especially in Year B since Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. All of this is inside baseball – trivia so that if you ever end up in Final Jeopardy and the answer is “The year that liturgical Christians read Luke’s Gospel” you can write down, “what is Year C?”

The larger point is that we have spent the past eleven months or so with Luke, and especially since the Feast of Pentecost (which was 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 a quick review is in order. 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. Recently, the conversation has turned to prayer.

Now I’ll get to that, but let me just take a short detour and 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 our streets. Our new Presiding Bishop talks about this being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement – that notion of being a part of a movement is what it means to be people of the way, a people on the move. And our own bishop – the “ordinary” for whom I work – likes to be out there walking the diocese. This Saturday we’ll be walking with the Bishop of the eastern diocese from Northboro to Southboro, about an eight-mile journey.  

Context matters and one size will not fit all. But part of what I am learning in this work as Canon to the Ordinary that takes me all over this diocese is that 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. And to keep on moving…
So back to this conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples about prayer. If you were in church last Sunday (or even if you were visiting with Roman Catholic or United Methodist or Lutheran friends someplace else) we all 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.  As Meister Eckhardt once put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you it will be enough.”

So if last week Jesus was focused on gratitude, today he 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. This is a parable, not an allegory. Sometimes people get confused.

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. If God is like the unjust judge, then God just answers our prayers to get rid of us, because we have been so annoying. But that gets confusing and unhelpful and as I said this is not an allegory, it’s a parable. 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.

A parable is meant to help us think in new ways by breaking through our defenses and challenging our theological certitudes. Very often parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and wondering what just happened. Or laughing out loud.

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 faith 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, Erin Brockovich—who takes on a corrupt legal system because she’s is out of options. Or perhaps Sally Field’s character 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 decades 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. 

Or maybe we need to picture the mother of Trayvon Martin or Philando Castile or Eric Gardner or Michael Brown or Alton Sterling – mothers who insist that black lives matter and have to matter, too, if this nation is ever going to live into our vocation to make all lives matter. Mothers who also, time and again, stand before the cameras asking for protests to be non-violent. Mothers who cry out again and again for justice and embody determination, tenacity, perseverance, courage, and hope.

The widow in our parable keeps coming to the judge to plead her case to plead for justice, day after day after day, because she has no other recourse. 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 or fighting for young black men’s lives. 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.

Jesus asks: what would happen if people prayed with that same kind of determination and intensity and persistence? What if we prayed as if 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. Pray always, and do not lose heart. 

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 we 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 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. Even if we don’t have our wings yet.

Such answers to prayer are not always the ones we want, but they may well be the ones we need. 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 passive: 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. Pray always, and do not lose heart. Even in an election year.

Next weekend we will continue to be “on the way” with Jesus – part of this Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. I’ll be with the good people at St. Paul’s in Gardner. I’ll leave that text for your rector, but here is 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 twelve-step programs:  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. Third, be humble. Remember that you are dust – and more importantly that God remembers that as well. All of us fall short of the glory of God, and yet God’s grace is bigger than our failings.

Pray without ceasing, by thought and by deed, with or without words. But keep praying—and do not lose heart. 

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