Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. (Luke 18:1)
Back in seminary, I knew I had a problem with prayer, specifically, with praying out loud. I loved my classes. I enjoyed the debates and discussions. But at the end of the day, I worried about what kind of pastor I would be if I couldn’t say a decent prayer?
When we pray, we put our faith on the line, don’t we? Is there a God or not? Is God listening? Does God care? What do we ask for? How do we expect God to respond? What do we think we are doing when we pray? Prayer brings all these very personal and frightening questions to the surface. Praying out loud just made it all more intense for me. Yet I learned a lot about my feelings, my theology, my faith, and myself in this way. Praying out loud keeps it real. Maybe that’s why researchers say married couples who pray out loud for each other are more likely to report being happy in their marriage. Maybe it could be helpful in strengthening relationships with the rest of our family and friendships too. After all, prayer is certainly central to cement and deepen relationship with God.
Like anything, prayer becomes more natural with practice. You have to be O.K. with feeling awkward. Long ago, Paul exhorted Christians living Thessaloniki to rejoice always, give thanks in all circumstances and pray without ceasing for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17) Even so, we may become weary in the face of so many struggles.
Anyone who takes a life a prayer seriously experiences long stretches- years, or maybe a lifetime, when “nothing happens”: no miracles, no voices or fluttering of angel wings, no perceived coincidences, no sign of reciprocity from the Divine. (Suzanne Guthrie, At the Edge of the Enclosure) Or we may become weary with confronting injustice, abuse, racism, gender discrimination, poverty and hunger –you name it. A faithful Christian is tempted to give up.
The disciples felt the same tension. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, they implored Jesus “increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5) Much of what follows here in chapter 18 (this week and next) is an answer to that plea. What is Jesus’ answer? Faith is strengthened through prayer.
In prayer we encounter the love and mercy of God to forgive our shortcomings, heal our wounds, and renew our courage. In prayer, we encounter the life and mind of Christ that calls us from shallow self-centeredness and sets us again on the path toward a meaningful life well lived. In prayer, we find insight, inspiration, and readiness to act when the moment is right. Through prayer we learn compassion and solidarity with those who suffer. Through prayer in public worship we learn the quality and depth of our collective faith life can be measured by the decrease of suffering and injustice in our society and in the world.
The persistent widow in today’s gospel is a good example for us. In order to answer yes to the call of the gospel, pray night and day like she did to be tireless in nagging people in authority who neither love God nor have any respect for people to do what is right.
Widows in Jesus’ day not only lost the financial support of their husbands when they died, but could not inherit their husband’s estate. (By the way, this remained the law up until about a century ago.) This parable teaches the faithful to examine society’s care for widows, orphans, and strangers in our midst. It warns us not to link God’s providence with God’s compassion. It serves as a graphic lesson on the importance of prayer and patient endurance, and challenges us to examine quality and vitality of our faith. Can we doubt that God will vindicate the little ones against those who inflict hardship upon them or fail to do what is in their power to ease their plight?
This widow is tough. Our bible says the judge feared the widow would ‘wear him out’ with her complaining. Actually, the Greek uses a term from boxing: the judge is worried the widow will give him a black eye –perhaps physically, or through publically shaming him—or both.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9) Ask and keep asking even when the answers are no or you are being ignored. Search and keep searching even when the answers are hidden behind secrets. Knock and keep knocking, even after your knuckles become raw.
This week people throughout the southeast are cleaning up and assessing the damage caused by hurricane Matthew. In Haiti, misery was deepened by human failure. According to eyewitnesses, entire towns are in ruins; thousands of people are without food, water or shelter; clothes and belongings are strewn across the landscape; the dead buried in mass graves. Nearly seven years after an earthquake wrecked Haiti, killing perhaps 200,000 people, disaster has struck again. This time it was wind and waves that brought devastation. Perhaps 1,000 people have died. (The Economist, 10/15/16)
The story of the poverty and vulnerability of the Haitian people is already many decades old. In a wonderful inspiring book called Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House, 2003), Tracy Kidder tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer’s tireless work in Haiti to eradicate tuberculosis and other diseases. Farmer says, “I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory… We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”
How long must the widow stand and knock at the door? How long must we cope with the hungry, the tortured, the homeless, the refugees and all those whose only prayer is their own existence in need? How long will our own unresolved grief and suffering cry out with the widow?
To all those suffering now, our gospel is full of promise. God does answer, more surely than does the self-assured judge. God does offer blessing. By our wounds we uncover the capacity to heal and to impart wisdom. Our assembly gathers each Sunday to hear and remember that final merciful judgment and to encourage each other to live on the grounds of grace even when it doesn’t appear to be effective in the world. But listen to Paul’s letter to Timothy: Continue, abide, and dwell in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus so that you may “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:5) and may we at Immanuel be strengthened to carry out our mission, to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.