— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~19th Sunday after Pentecost~~~
Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. (Jesus) said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’
“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice – otherwise, I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”
Then the Master (Jesus) said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for (God’s) chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t (God) stick up for them? I assure you, God will. God will not drag feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (From The Message by Eugene Peterson)
Here’s a story from Storycorps that has an eerie similarity to the one Jesus told. This one, however, is from a real event in our history as a country that has always struggled to embody our ideals of equality before the law ….
When Theresa Burroughs came of age in the late 1940s, she was ready to vote. But in her Alabama town, it took two years of effort just for her to register. Accompanied by J.J. Simmons, a minister who would not let her back down, Burroughs went down to the Hale County Courthouse on the first and third Monday of each month.
“The white men,” Burroughs says, “they would not let us register to vote.” The chairman of the board of registrars, remembered by Burroughs only as “Mr. Cox,” posed questions meant to disqualify black voters, such as “How many black jelly beans in a jar? How many red ones in there?”
When Burroughs responded that Cox didn’t know how many jelly beans were in the jar any more than she did, the answer was quick: “Shut your black mouth.”
But Burroughs, with (Pastor) Simmons’ support, kept on going, despite the embarrassment. “We’re going to go until the building falls down,” Simmons said.
On the day that Cox finally relented, he asked Burroughs and Simmons a simpler question —to recite part of the preamble of the Constitution — and also gave her a final insult. “You’re going to pass today. Because we are tired of looking at your black faces,” Burroughs recalls him saying. Then he handed over the slip of paper that meant Burroughs was a registered voter. Burroughs voted in the next election. And she hasn’t stopped since. “It shouldn’t have been this hard,” she says. “I knew it shouldn’t have been this hard.” (Storycorps, 1/12/07, NPR)
Jesus with his story about the widow and the judge was teaching the disciples to be persistent, but he was telling them much more than “stay the course,” or “keep steady.” Jesus was telling them and us something about God. If persistence works with a judge – as in Jesus’ story – who neither feared God nor had respect for people, if persistence worked with a registrar – in Ms Burroughs story – who cared nothing about justice, how much more will persistence in prayer work with a God who has compassion for God’s children. Jesus was telling the disciples, telling us, that we can trust that God is, indeed, good, loving and compassionate and always on the side of justice and wholeness and well-being for God’s good creation and for God’s children.
But let us not shy away from it, there is, to be sure, great mystery as to how God works in the world. It is not a simple formula – pray hard and God responds to the request. Be persistent and things will go your way. There are too many good and faithful people who pray long and hard for things, good things, wholesome things, righteous things that never come to be in the lifetime of the one pleading with God. Too often the children of the world do not come back from war, the innocent of the world are subject to abuse, the broken of the world are not healed. Prayer for many of us is hard because things do not always work out for us even when we are persistent in our prayers.
In my first church as a minister of Word and Sacrament I was 26 years old and an associate pastor of a fairly large church. I split duties with the senior minister; so, I preached every now and again – that was mostly his job – but I visited people in the hospital, nursing homes, and, when called upon, in people’s houses. I remember well a call that came from the Adamson family (not their real name). The wife and mother in that family was in her early 50s and she was dying. She was in her home and in her bedroom. She nor anyone else in the family could accept it. They had hand-made signs plastered all over the room “By his stripes, I am healed” (this is a verse from Isaiah 53, and refers to the suffering servant). The wife, mother, family would not let anyone in the room who did not believe she would be made well. They invited me to the house for a visit.
I was met at the door by the husband. He asked me if I believed she would be healed? I told him “Yes, God will heal us all.” I was young in the ministry, but I already had a sense that bad things happen to good people and the best way to think of such things is to think in terms of tragedy, not in terms of moral or spiritual failure or a lack of persistence in prayer. I was young but I had and still have a sense that ultimately God heals us all, but I leave room for that healing not happening until beyond this life. Maybe I was not answering the question he was asking, but I thought it made more sense to answer the way that I did than to offer a theological treatise on the mystery of prayer and God’s involvement in the state of our affairs. At any rate, he invited me into the room and asked me to pray. I did. I don’t know what I said but the family seemed glad to have me there, and Mrs. Adamson seem to take some comfort from the fact that I held her hand and we prayed together.
Mrs. Adamson went the way of all flesh a few weeks after my visit. She died. The family was devastated and moved away. I trust healing has come to them and maybe a sense of faith that acknowledges the mystery of suffering and lose on this side of the grave. I sincerely hope they have grown beyond seeing the early death of Mrs. Adamson as a spiritual failure, a lack of faith in the power of prayer. They were fervent and persistent in prayer, but Mrs. Adamson’s healing was to come on a different plain than the time and space continuum within which we all live on earth.
Like the Adamsons, I, too, have prayed fervently for outcomes that never came within my earthly vision. I have prayed and prayed and prayed only to have broken relationships, ill parents who were not healed, friends taken by disease, nations including ours enter into foolish wars and foreign policies, I have pounded, pounded, pounded on the door of heaven and the answer that came back was silence, and the devastations I had hoped would be averted came with a force and power as dark and indifferent to my pleas as hurricane waves pounding the shores.
On one level, prayer is complex. We might sometimes wonder if we are talking to ourselves when we pray. Which, in and of itself, is not such a bad thing. Even if prayer is only that – talking to oneself – it can still be important. Frederick Buechner, writer and ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), has said of prayer:
Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love too. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don’t, you may forget what matters most to you.
Even if you don’t believe anybody’s listening, at least you’ll be listening. He goes on to say: Believe Someone is listening. Believe in miracles (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, page 71).
We may have a hard time believing in miracles. Our minds may have difficulty making the leap. Partly because there is no consistency. Why would God help some and not the others? Why would one person find healing and another only death? Why would the storm roll ashore in one place and not the other?
There are no easy answers to these questions. In fact, in this world there are no answers that do not come with a large dose of mystery and wonder. And Jesus knew it too; yet, he tells us to pray and not to lose heart because God is loving and just.
Sometimes prayer is not so complicated and we pray instinctively and without a lot of wrestling with what it all means. Prayer can be as spontaneous as “Help!” or “Thank you!” or “Have mercy.” Our lips can raise a voice to God without even contemplating just what it is we are doing. We see a loved one suffering and God is summoned to bring relief. We see a beautiful sunset and all we can do is say to the universe, to God, to the Higher Power, “thank you.” We make a decision that we know is wrong and we know will hurt other people and be detrimental to our own life and we moan to God… “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Prayer can be reflexive, sudden, without calculation.
Kathleen Norris, poet, writer, Presbyterian lay-person, has a short chapter on prayer in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. The chapter begins with this recollection:
Prayer was impossible for me for years. For a time I was so alienated from my religious heritage that I had the vainglorious notion that somehow, if I prayed, I would cause more harm than good. But when a priest I knew asked me to pray for him – he’d been diagnosed with a serious illness – my “yes” was immediate, sincere, and complete. I wasn’t sure that I could pray well and was shocked that the priest would trust me to do so. But I recognized that this was pride speaking, the old perfectionism that has dogged me since I was a child. Well, or badly, that was beside the point. Of course I could pray, and I did (page 58).
One of the simple messages of this story Jesus told is to be persistent in prayer – don’t give up. Stay at it and you will find that things will change. We may not understand God’s ways. We may not be able to discern why God tarries. We may not know if our prayers are heard, but Jesus tells us to keep at it. Jesus teaches us to be persistent in prayer. It is as if our prayers, no matter where they go and what they do in the heart of God, those prayers will change the world, at the very least, by expanding our hearts and our commitments to God’s kingdom come.
To be sure there is great mystery to how God works in the world. Some people are healed, some people are not. Justice does come for some but others will die in their oppression. It is hard to know just when and how God will redeem God’s own, but Jesus is telling us that God will triumph over all that separates us from one another and from the Holy One. Prayer keeps us in touch with this deep hope. So, let us pray and pray and pray and pray and pray…..