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Persistent Prayer

Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield, October 25th, 2020

I must begin with telling it plain: I love this parable. I likely love this parable for all the wrong, not very Christian reasons. I love this parable because the most vulnerable, least powerful person gets vindicated. The widow with no real recourse, no protection unless it is granted to her, no official status or leverage, gets justice, which could also be translated as “avenged” or even “take revenge.” The long- exploited woman gets revenge. The underdog wins and this is such are rare occurrence I want to celebrate it to the fullest and high five her and say, “You go, sis!” and maybe even wear a t-shirt that says, “And yet, she persisted.” She who was likely so beaten down by the world, beats down that unethical, callous, uncaring judge through her tenacity and unwillingness to give up. How satisfying is that?!

And maybe it is ok to have just a moment of shouting: In your face! To the system that has exploited and rendered her dependent upon the kindness of strangers, but I think Jesus’ point is much bigger and less self-congratulatory than that. He tells us flat out at the beginning of this text that his point is for his followers to always pray and not lose heart which, truth be told, does not lend itself to victory dances in the metaphorical end zones of life. The very occasion of this parable should cause us a moment or two of introspection given that is comes directly after Jesus’ talk of the coming kingdom that notes that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected. The last line of chapter 17 instructs those watching for God’s reign to look where the vultures are gathered around the corpse. Funny, I’ve never seen that verse of Scripture calligraphed and hung on the wall. “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Sounds more like a line from Hitchcock than Jesus, but there it is.

This parable today is more about our not losing heart in the face of circling vultures than running a victory lap around the sanctuary.

If we want more evidence of that we need only keep reading in chapter 18. It is a study in contrasts with the persistent widow and the unjust judge, the tax collector and the Pharisee and their respective assessments of themselves, the children coming to Jesus and the disciples who want to turn them away, the rich young ruler who cannot give up his wealth to follow and then another prediction from Jesus about how he must be “mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him they will kill him and on the third day he will rise.” The writer of Luke adds, “But they understood none of these things.” Even when Jesus tells us explicitly what to expect we seem not to get it and to lose heart rather quickly as a result. We like the prosperity gospel a lot more than the one Jesus proclaims. We want karma not grace. We join the collective beating down of those we think need to learn a lesson instead of being merciful, forgiving and wanting good for all.

I am right there, by the way, this election season. My default mode is not loving my enemies or praying for those who persecute the vulnerable. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells this parable given that I think only the very few consistently live that Sermon on the Mount sort of life. When I read this parable I want to cheer for the stalwart eventually rewarded widow and I may not be that callous judge, but more often than not I am a self-absorbed, oblivious by-stander too wrapped up in my own inconveniences to go with the widow to court and help her make her case, or do something about the systems and polices that force her to beg for justice in the first place. Does that make me any better than the judge?

Jesus tells this parable to the effect that we ought to always pray and not lose heart. Notice that the “always pray” takes precedence. Seems an odd place to start in the face of suffering and rejection and injustice and pandemics and rancor and economic upheaval and wars and natural disasters and, well, the list goes on.

What does this widow’s persistent pleading to the unjust judge have to do with prayer? What does prayer have to do with justice? Ethics? Not losing heart? What does it have to do with us as we come toward the end of a really difficult year with the prospect of another one on the horizon? Don’t we get and give a collective eye roll when someone mentions “thoughts and prayers”?

And yet Jesus prays a lot, doesn’t he? He is praying at key moments of his life in ministry, when he is baptized, transfigured and on the cusp of his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus goes off to pray alone, leaves the needy crowd and goes up the mountain to pray. He talks about prayer, teaches his disciples to pray, warns us not to pray for show, but instead to pray to God. The heavens open up when Jesus prays and he does not lose heart in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done.”

Jesus tells this parable to teach us, his followers, that is it necessary at all times to pray in order to not grow weary. Without prayer we are bound to give up, give in, throw up our hands, feel sorry for the widow but do nothing to help her or change the circumstances that render her desperate. Without prayer we may well grow not just weary but callous, high fiving when our enemies fall from grace and commending ourselves for our own righteousness. Without prayer we lose our orientation toward God and desire not God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but assume our will is divinely ordained and not subject to correction or critique. Prayer enables us to advocate for the widow and honestly hope that the judge is changed in the process. Prayer allows us to persist in working for justice and walking humbly with God and loving kindness even when it feels like a perpetual Good Friday with no resurrection in sight.

Prayer is not so much a detached, disembodied, spiritual endeavor. Rather, it is a long term, perpetual relationship with the God who opens the heavens, comes down to earth and relentlessly works along side us as we seek to beat down all that thwarts the abundant life Jesus came to earth to give all people. Prayer springs from the depths of longing and comes to our consciousness unbidden at times when there is nothing left for us to do. We pray corporately, sometimes dutifully and daily, but I think this widow prayed so as to show up and face that uncaring, dismissive judge day after exhausting day. Perhaps that’s our true and only power, too, the power that propels us into courtrooms and into city council meetings, prisons, hospitals, classrooms and onto the streets.

It is so easy to lose heart right now. We are weary, collectively, individually. How can we not faint from time to time in the face of such inequity and suffering? But Jesus instructs us to pray without ceasing, reminding us of the end of the story, the sure and certain end of God’s salvation story and therefore, ours. The divine telos of justice, reconciliation, resurrection, life eternal and abundant.

The immorality of that judge is immaterial in the face of God’s unchanging character. Our own limitations cannot thwart divine will, not ultimately. Some days we will relish when it is revealed that the emperor has no clothes but many, many days we will recognize that the least of these are forced to live on less and less. What do we do then? Those brief moments of seeing poetic justice on the 6 o’clock news cannot sustain us for the long journey of following Jesus all the way to the cross. We will only stand with those whom Jesus stands, speak truth to power, forgive seventy-times seven and sing alleluia as we go down to the grave if we pray always and constantly, knowing that the Spirit translates our sighs too deep for words into a language that moves mountains and beats down the forces of evil in this world.

I remember listening to the John Lewis speak at Montreat and he said that the first time he was arrested while non-violently protesting for civil rights he felt free. He was speaking in August of 2015, just a few months after the horrendous shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that fateful night when those faithful Black Christians welcomed a white young man into their Bible study only to be shot by him when they bowed their heads in prayer. Just weeks after that night Lewis admonished us to be happy because we serve a God of mercy and love and grace. He asked rhetorically, “Is it possible for us to be kind to everybody?” This man beaten and still bearing scars from attempting to secure voting rights for African Americans in the South, still keenly aware of the racist hate alive and well in our nation, said to us, a largely white audience, “Never, ever let someone pull you down so low you hate them.” He charged us, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. Keep the faith and move on continuing the story.”

That was 2015 and I would contend we need Lewis’ charge more today than ever. But if we are going to keep the faith and continue the story all the way to the end, through to the Garden of Gethsemane and to the arrest of Jesus and brutality of the cross and the darkness of Friday and Saturday, and all the way through the confusion in the graveyard and our obliviousness on the road to Emmaus and the instruction to love not only our neighbors but our enemies, too, we must pray. Without ceasing. Together. Alone. With crafted words and the ones Jesus taught us, with groans and lament and sighs that have no words, through tears and with praise until crying is no more and ever tribe and nation worships together in the kingdom of heaven. Such tenacity for goodness and justice, kindness and grace, wholeness and mercy comes when we pray again and again, always and without ceasing, in words and in spirit, embodied and enacted:

Lord, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

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