Genesis 32:22-31 Psalms 121
2 Timothy 3:14-5:5 Luke 18:1-8
A woman arrived at the Pearly Gates. While she was waiting for Saint Peter to greet her, she peeked through the gates. She saw a beautiful banquet table. Sitting all around were her parents and all the other people she had loved and who had died before her. When Saint Peter came by, the woman said to him, “This is such a wonderful place! How do I get in?” “You have to spell a word.” Saint Peter told her. “Which word?” the woman asked. “Love” said Saint Peter. The woman spelled the word correctly and was welcomed into heaven.
About a year later, Saint Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day. While the woman was guarding the Gates of Heaven. Her husband arrived. “I’m surprised to see you, how have you been”: asked the woman.
“Oh, I’ve been pretty well since you died,” her husband answered. “I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were sick. And then I won the multi-state lottery. I sold the little house we lived in and bought a huge mansion. My wife and I and I have traveled all around the world. We were on vacation in Cancun where I was waterskiing today. I fell and hit my head, and here I am. What a bummer! How do I get in?”
“You have to spell a word,” the woman said.
“Which word?” he asked.
Just when you think you have Jesus figured out as a teacher, a healer, and a man of prayer, he goes and tells a parable like this. Who knew Jesus could be a comedian? We can picture his listeners throwing their heads back and slapping their knees as they laugh at this ridiculous story. A woman pounds and pounds on the door of a rotten politician who could care less about her troubles, until finally he sticks his head out the window and shouts, “All right, already! Knock it off! I will give you what you want if you will just be quiet – just give me some peace and quiet!” They laugh because they know this woman. She always gets a raw deal, because she has nothing – no husband, no inheritance, no social standing. They know this judge too, the one who is only out for himself. He is public servant. So they giggle at the idea of one of their own, this powerless woman, annoying this guy everyone loves to hate until he finally does something good in spite of himself.
Good story! They laugh and then they sigh, and they remember that Jesus told them that this is what a prayer is like. By now Jesus may even have all of our attention too. How many of us hammer away at God’s door, but see no apparent benefit? The mother of young children is struck down by cancer, so we pray and we pray and we pray, but death comes anyway. A young child is stricken with cancer, gets better, then worse again. The whole community is praying. We are worn out from praying for comfort and relief in the wake of yet another natural disaster. Media of all kinds brings us news of more conflict causalities around the world, even though we continue to pray for peace. Is this really the way it is supposed to be?
To persist in prayer and not give up does not mean endless repetition or painfully long prayer sessions. Always praying means constantly keeping our requests before God as we live for God day by day, believing God will answer. When we live by faith, we are not to give up. God may sometimes delay answering, but the delays always have good reasons. As we persist in prayer, we grow in character, faith and hope.
What hope is Jesus offering? He insists that God is nothing like the unjust judge. If he is pledging even speedier relief to our persistent prayers than the widow got from the unjust judge, our people are not feeling relieved. If it is a speedy return of Jesus to earth so that justice is fulfilled, the credibility gap in the modern church widens. Luke wrote his gospel about 60AD, when the early church had been through so much. We learn that sometimes we all grow weary and give up on prayers that don’t seem to be heard. How can this parable land meaningfully in our hearts when God does not fix things for all who persistently ask? Most of us are not exactly waiting on rooftops for Christ’s return.
Jesus seems to anticipate our dilemma when he wonders about those who still have faith. Then, he turns the tables. “Stop speculating about when I will return, and start praying faithfully now.” Wondering when the Lord will return is a good question, and it is precisely because of this question that Jesus tells this parable about the “need to pray always and not lose heart.” Life is not only about telling God what is on our wish list. Life is about constantly lifting up every joy and concern, every fear and doubt, every lament and plea to the One who hears and answers. The answers may not come when we think they should. It is difficult to take the long view when we are praying our hearts out, and bruising our hands as we continually pound on heaven’s door.
Jesus says, “God will not delay. God will help. God will grant justice.” If the Son of Man is to find faith on earth, we must understand that our prayers do not constitute so many unanswered pleas; rather, they are our participation in the coming reign of God. By praying continually, and not giving up hope, we live in the surety that God has not abandoned this world. Living in hope, we work, in whatever ways we can, for the justice and peace that is coming.
Whenever we gather together, we are faithful to Jesus’ instruction, when we hold hands and pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Once again, Jesus is making it clear that faith is actively hoping, eagerly anticipating the coming reign of God, never ceasing in our prayers for others, for the world, even for ourselves.
I love praying the General Thanksgiving at the end of Morning Prayer, it makes my heart soar. The words, “And we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…” What if we truly lived what we prayed? How would that look? What if we live for God not just in what we say, but in the whole of our lives? …. that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service…..
The mission and ministry of the church must bring hope to those who are suffering. It is important to know, to feel, to experience hope so that others may know. It is necessary to actively and continually pray so that when tragedies happen, there is a strong foundation of confidence in God’s love and care for all of us. When people are face to face with challenges or crisis, it is sometimes difficult for us to hear and feel a sense of God’s faithfulness. If we have not experienced it in the best of times, it is a challenge to feel it in the worst of times. When there is active faith at work, faith that is lived as we strive toward the coming reign of God, then hope remains alive, and we can praise God, even if our voices crack with emotion.
I had two good and loving parents. They did not give me everything I wanted. I am the youngest of four children. Sometimes, my requests were heard and denied. The new bicycle had to wait another year. All those things in the Sears catalog remained pictures, dreams. I understand that I always received what I needed, but not always what I wanted.
That is a part of what Jesus is teaching the disciples and us, in this parable. The early church surely prayed for things it did not get – safety, protection from persecution, peace. But it did receive what it most needed: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness and the strength and fortitude that it needed to survive. Jesus reminds us that we can count on God to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. We can count on God to hear those who have no place else to turn. We can count on God to hear the prayers of our hearts and to respond as a loving, patient parent.
We are in our Stewardship Campaign. It is a time to look at what God is calling us to pray about, to do, to respond. The mission and ministry of Grace Episcopal is funded by all of us. We have to have the courage and faith of the widow in the parable. God is calling us to make the world a better place – a place of love, respect, compassion, forgiveness and mercy. To accomplish this, we need to listen with our hearts and our heads.
Stewardship is more than money – it is the commitment to God – to the Church that is the vessel and vehicle for God to spread the reign of God. George Mueller wrote, “The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety.” Is that what the persistent widow felt? Is that what we would really like to experience?
Where there is no interest, there is no investment. I read, ““Faith hears the inaudible, sees the invisible, believes the incredible, and receives the impossible.” The mission begins with a vision - Growing in faith together. The stewardship of God’s resources is how we live into the vision, and it is fleshed out as we become the hands and heart and feet of Christ. This happens with our time, our talent, and our treasures. …. that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service….. Amen.