The following is an edited version of my sermon from October 20, 2013 at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, based on Luke 18:1-8.
In today’s gospel passage from Luke, Jesus tells the disciples a parable about their need to pray always, and not lose heart. The story take places in a certain nameless city, and features two main characters. First, there is a judge who has no fear for God, and no respect for people. A dangerous combination. One embodied in any number of leaders in our own day, in political power plays and displays of confidence that lack both nuance and compassion. No fear. No respect. No justice?
Second, we are introduced to a widow who comes to this fearless, disrespectful judge and pleads, repeatedly, for justice. She is persistent in her request, even in a situation where justice seems impossible, a situation where the person in power himself proclaims, “I have no fear of God and no respect for people.” What good could she expect to come out of petitioning someone who professes no respect for anyone? A powerful figure who does not even pretend to have her interests at heart? What justice could she expect from such a man as this?
Still she keeps coming. At the risk of being perceived as a nuisance, a nag, a joke even, she persists. She might feel a bit like some people in North Carolina today, those who seek economic justice, education, access to basic health care, for themselves or others. How many times do you call your congress person before you give up?
The widow persists. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she pleads.
She is foolish, isn’t she? This silly widow, petitioning for justice. Doesn’t she know this judge has no respect for anyone, least of all someone like her? Still she persists, and finally, if only to get her off his back, the judge grants her justice. He doesn’t just hand her a plate of cookies like the governor of North Carolina did this summer, to the women’s rights advocates outside his gate. The judge in our story actually grants the widow’s request, though his reason for doing so is far from righteous. No, he says, she “keeps bothering me.” He grants her justice so that she’ll leave him alone. He’s worn out by her persistence.
For a story that is supposed to teach us about prayer, this is odd. Is God like this judge, somehow? When considering what it means to bring our petitions before God, it’s a little uncomfortable to think of God as a powerful judge who only answers our requests to get us to stop nagging.
But Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to [God’s] chosen ones who cry to [God] day and night? Will [God] delay long in helping them?” If this unjust judge will help the widow, how much more so -- how quickly -- will the God of justice respond to our cries?
Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That question hangs in the air, unanswered. Are you persistent the way this nameless widow is persistent? Do you make a nuisance of yourself in your pleas for justice? Pleas to earthly powers to grant justice despite a lack of true justice in broken human systems of power, but also -- especially -- pleas to God, large and small. Who among us will, like the widow, persist? Will we cry out, day and night?
Prayer is an act of persistence, of making a nuisance of oneself in the face of injustice that seems insurmountable. Even prayers that seem doomed from the beginning, because prayer itself is an act of faith. Both humble and audacious, prayer exhibits our extreme lack in the face of the demands of this world, and simultaneously the boldness to ask. What might it mean to say that we assume in our very act of prayer that God answers us?
Do we believe that like the woman in the parable we will obtain what we request? That even when we do not know for what exactly we ask, the answer to our prayer is nonetheless certain?
It doesn’t matter that our prayers are weak; it only matters that God listens to them. This is what I see in the widow, in her persistence. Why continue as she does if you do not believe that, in the end, you will receive an answer? This is the practice of living in the presence of God, living in a way that acknowledges our estrangement, while we are also united in prayer.
Contemplating this story this week I kept digging in and coming up empty, not sure what to say. I saw that it was supposed to be about prayer -- the text itself told me it’s about prayer. But prayer is hard. I’m not much good at it, though I have been trying to change that, challenging myself with new ways of praying -- labyrinths, prayers beads, candles burning in the darkness. Small physical acts so that my pleas feel more tangible. In Sunday school, too, we ask the children for prayer requests, even if some of those requests end up being for dollies and imaginary friends. Pray is hard, for a lot of us. It seems worth starting to learn young.
Lately, I have asked a lot of people to pray for my dad, as he prepared for heart surgery. It was so strange to hear my family talk about prayer so much this past week -- asking for prayers, offering prayers. We don’t do that often. Yet on Friday we were inundated with prayer while my father was in surgery.
My sister Holly played the Steinway grand piano in the lobby of the Cleveland Clinic for much of that morning, and though I wasn’t there I felt like I could see -- almost hear -- her, while I sat in my apartment, candles burning. The thought of it felt like so many days at home in Kalamazoo, in my parent’s living room, in the house I grew up in -- a living room with no space for a couch, because it contains not one but two pianos.
When Holly comes home to Kalamazoo she goes immediately to one of those pianos, because she doesn’t have one in her apartment in Grand Rapids. She might play Bartok, Chopin, Bach, or Haydn. She might play Adele, Ingrid Michaelson, or the soundtrack from a favorite film. Sometimes she sings, but mostly she plays. I cannot remember a time I have ever heard Holly pray out loud; it made perfect sense to me that her pleas on Friday would be without words.
As she played, miles away, I remembered these lines from one of Picasso’s letters: “And then” he writes, “I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an aesthetic process; it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires.”
Perhaps prayer is like that. Not a form of magic per se, yet like one, in a sense of mysterious holiness.
Christ, our mediator, is the one interposed between us here in what Picasso calls “the hostile universe” and God -- Christ, our intercessor.
And prayer -- prayer is a means of imposing form on our terrors as well as our desires, as we bring our fears and hopes, our needs and wants, nameable and unnamable, before God, believing that God answers, believing that a prayer -- like a song, like a painting, like a few words strung together into sentences and paragraphs and stanzas -- that a prayer itself is at times the thing we need most.
We pray, and in our prayers, we show that we are faithful. We show that when the “son of man” comes he will find faith on earth.