Faith's Prayerful Perserverance
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 16 October 2022 [Proper 24]:
Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
One of the disadvantages of the way our liturgical tradition uses scripture is that it can be a challenge to recognize the “big” God-story amidst the weekly, episodic installments. While I firmly appreciate the fact that we have and use a “Common Lectionary” with most other Christians and that the weekly offering of scripture is episodic and sequential (and not left to the whims of a preacher), still going from one biblical segment to another – which is referred to a reading scripture “in course” – can obstruct seeing the overarching “big” story about life with God.
We are in the midst of one of these big-story cycles. For those who are counting, today is the third Sunday in a row in which Jesus uses parables to illuminate the nature of faith. Accordingly, for the last three weeks my sermons have all sought to link faith in terms of doing our jobs, giving thanks, and today in terms of perseverance. And teaser alert, next Sunday’s focus will be on the part that humility plays in faith: A fourth expression of faith in action. (And for those who are wondering: Yes, this will all be on the test!)
So, what do you think the connection is between faith and prayer? I pose this question because uncharacteristically Luke prefaces his telling of today’s parable by letting the cat out of the bag and telling us what “the moral of the story is” right away. In the opening line of this gospel lesson, Luke says that Jesus told the following parable to illustrate his followers’ need to pray always and not to lose heart in doing so. OK: Then, the parable of “the Unjust Judge” is told and features a lowly widow who activates the narrative’s main character, the “unjust judge”. Right away, careful parable listeners might begin to register two difficulties with this particular set up.
First, to what extent does the widow’s badgering the unethical, callous judge speak to the meaning of prayer? For instance, are we to conclude that we must be prepared to harass God to have our prayers acknowledged? Moreover, is this the true nature of our relationship with God as Jesus revealed it? I ask this because (as I just mentioned) the first thing Luke does is tell us that the parable’s point concerns praying in a way that never gives up. Is the point that at its heart, prayer is a battering ram that overwhelms? And is God as uncaring as the judge? I’ll return to this point shortly.
But the second aspect we need to notice about this parable’s set-up stems from the fact that all of Jesus’ other parables present a central character who represents God and the God-life. Yet, can it be that Jesus intends for us to identify God through the character of the unjust Judge? If so, the image of a wrathful, Zeusian tyrant, with thunderbolts at the ready is confirmed. So, we are faced with at least two problems in the telling of the parable of the “Unjust Judge”. One is discerning what this parable has to do with how we need to pray and what our prayers say about our relationship with God. The other problem is the depiction that for God’s people to gain God’s attention, we must be badgering pains in the divine neck. What’s up with all this?
One quick “What if?” about a possible perspective on the parable’s functioning. In a conversation with a Lutheran colleague about this gospel, my friend posed a curiously interesting possibility. In terms of which of the parable’s characters is God, my Lutheran friend proposed a fascinating “What if?”. Since all of Jesus’ parables have a surprising twist to their point, what if the surprise of this parable sees the widow as the character representing God? What would that do to our understanding of the story and the reason Jesus told it?
Now I admit that I can’t get too far with this notion, save for the fact that if the widow does represent God and God’s life, then perhaps the point is that like the widow, God knows intimately what it is like to be vulnerable in the face of the world’s heartless opposition. Think the cross and what that means for us to have our God be that vulnerable. Moreover, from the interpretation of God manifesting himself through the image of the widow, Jesus might be challenging those of us who dare to acknowledge her plaintiff cry with the responsibility to respond in our lives by acting for justice. In this case, do we risk being the unjust judge”? “What if?” – what if we are tasked with needing to provide justice to God’s people within the unending voice of God crying out to us, his partners, to act?
I think there is something to this viewpoint; but I choose to take another interpretive angle on this because this parable of Jesus (if memory serves) is unique in that in posing the “unjust judge” as the expected God-figure, it may be that Jesus attempts to move us beyond simple, direct, symbolic correlation to one of drastic contrast. Where the “unjust judge” relents to the widow’s persistent and harassing complaint from simple self-preservation, by contrast how much more will God our heavenly Father respond to those who have entrusted their lives to the Holy One? As bad and repulsive as the unjust judge clearly is, the One whom Jesus calls “Abba” is the stunning opposite of this hard-hearted arbiter. Once again, think of the cross as a sign and symbol of how radically far God goes to love us and save us.
OK, the character reversal clarifies the problem of interpreting the parable’s God-figure; but what about all this informs the way we pray? More to the painful heart of the matter, what about prayer that (for all intents and purposes) seems not to be answered? How do we not lose heart? What is Jesus trying to teach us about these demanding spiritual situations in which we pray and pray and pray some more, until we seriously wonder: “What’s the use?” And this is where I believe a careful and honest appreciation of the widow’s role comes into play.
On February 24th of this year, Russia invaded Ukraine for what most expected would be a short, mop-up, military invasion. Almost immediately, members of St. Philip’s, led by Becky Taylor and Sue Breines, gathered in response to this dangerous act of aggression and hubris. In answer to that gnawing question of “what can mere mortals do” in the face of such overwhelming issues, a small group of parishioners organized a peace vigil here at our church. (The sign announcing this ministry still stands in our front yard.). At first, they organized this small band of pray-ers into teams of two, with each team being responsible for conducting the prayers in a context of silent witness. As the summer emerged, it was necessary to move from a weekly three-day vigil to a two-day vigil; and even though our peace vigilers were almost always alone in their prayerful witness, they nonetheless continued to show up and to keep the prayers.
Recently, with consultation and more prayer, the group decided that they have fulfilled their witness for this time and in this manner and will conclude their vigil at All Saints Day. In talking with the vigil organizers, I recognized that the weight of their prayerful testimony was heavy and raised some difficult questions. Of course, the nagging question was present: What difference were these prayers making? The war continues. The posing and posturing of Putin and his nationalists deepens at the cost of blatant human rights violations and a scorched earth militarism. And truth to tell, despite some advertising and invitation to the wider community, our folks were alone in this ministry.
But the group did not lose heart. Curiously, meeting in the silence of this worship space, lighting a few candles as outward and visible signs of their prayerful witness, casting some light upon the darkness of this war, gradually something happened to each of these folks. Beyond the small numbers of participants, beyond what appears to be unanswered prayer, these pray-ers gained a sense of being a part of something holy, something life-giving, something of God. And that insight cannot ever be erased from their awareness. Besides which, who is to say how God will use that new awareness next?
And I think and believe that this is the point of today’s parable. Whatever persistence and perseverance we can muster in our praying (that is, in our participation of belonging to God), it is an implicit answer to Jesus’ closing question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When the Christ returns to complete the work of God’s reign on earth as in heaven, will he find in us the faith to continue to show up and dare to be changed into the Holy One’s instruments of peace, hope, and lasting life? Even if all we can do at times is badger God to do his job (which we can see from today’s parable is an honorable expression of faith), it’s using the prayerful connection that is between us and God that changes us in order to change the world. Praying to the Creator of heaven and earth requires persistence and perseverance because by definition we still have a lot to learn when it comes to living in God’s will.
So, like the widow, we need to keep showing up, keep working at being in Communion with God, and keep being honest and open in what we pray for. Prayer and the life of prayer is a long-haul affair. Our persistence and our perseverance with the prayers always has a purpose. It is our “yes” to Jesus’ question about how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” [The Message]. Our prayers shout that “yes, we’re still here. but please Lord Jesus, don’t be too long. Amen.