10/17/2010 -- Anne-Marie Jeffery, The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

posted Nov 10, 2010, 9:28 AM by Unknown user   [ updated Nov 10, 2010, 12:28 PM by Terry Brady ]

Persistent in Prayer

Luke 18:1-8

One thing that a person new to working with the homeless quickly learns to say no. When you are in daily contact with those in desperate need, and not the occasional encounter in the street, most people unless they are millionaires, can’t come close to meeting the requests. This happened to me as a newly ordained deacon working at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown DC who where many homeless drop in during the day.  I found myself giving a dollar or two here and there to help out with bus fare and other similar needs, but then realized that these small amounts were too much for me when I encountered so many. I made the decision to not give money - not even 50 cents.  It didn’t take too long for people to catch on and requests were soon prefaced with – Pastor, I know you don’t give money, but could you get me some gloves.  However, there was one woman, Joan, who was amazingly persistent in asking for money. She never asked for more than a few dollars – sometimes as little as 75 cents.  No matter how many times I told her no, she would still ask.

I couldn’t understand why this woman was homeless. She was intelligent and good with people – often telling others where they       could get help.  She didn’t seem to have any disabilities that would prevent her from    working or going back to school. I liked her. She and I would chat from time to time sharing stories of our families, but always as I turned to leave, she would say – can you spare some change?  Do you have a couple dollars for a cup of coffee? Time passed and I left the Church of the Epiphany to work at a church in Maryland.  One day after seeing a movie at Gallery Place in Chinatown in DC, I ran in to Joan. We exchanged greetings and she asked me how I was doing. I asked about her children and she asked about my mom.  Finally I said – It’s good to see you and turned to leave and she said – Pastor, could you spare some change for the bus. In exasperation, I told her Joan, you know I don’t give out money.

I walked away surprised and slightly irritated by her persistence, but as I think about it now, that is most likely a big part of how she survives.  Even though she is on the street most days, she gets by. Her persistence reminded me of the persistence of the widow in our gospel story – that ability to keep asking even when you are refused again and again. The widow asks the judge again and again and again for justice. Finally he relents and gives her what she wants - not because he has had a change of heart, but because he cannot take her continual nagging. That persistence pays off seems to be the theme of this morning’s gospel. We are to be persistent in our prayer. As the gospel writer said, the purpose of the parable is to pray always and not to lose heart. Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

And here is where it gets difficult. How many of you have prayed and prayed and received no answer – at least not one that you could perceive? I have more than one friend at the moment that I have been praying for and who have still not found relief from their particular situations. When I tell them that I will continue to pray, I find myself wondering if my   words sound empty. Many people have been praying and praying for them and so far for each of them nothing much has improved. On a bigger scale, think about the state of the world and how much injustice exists. What do we make of Jesus’ words from the first century saying - And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.

As I struggled with this text, I was grateful for the perspective from my favorite commentary called Feasting on the Word.  The writer[1] turns everything around by asking us to first focus on God’s persistence rather than ours. The writer goes on to say that one way to summarize the biblical message, the Good news of the Old and New Testament would be to speak about God’s persistent, unshakable, everlasting love for us, for all creation. “God is persistently in love with us. God’s love is so sovereign and unshakable, that we can trust in this God to bring about justice.”

If we go back to the parable, it is we who are the unjust judge and God who is the widow who persistently asks to be a part of our lives. Our persistent prayer is a response to this persistent love of God.  We believe that while we live in the world where pain, fear, and injustice exist, God is persistently with us in our suffering. This is our belief and how we live our lives as we continue to pray in the time in-between – between God’s promise and its fulfillment, in the life of Israel and in the life of the church living between the first and second coming of Christ, in the waiting for God’s justice to break into the world.

It is in our persistent prayer that we are shored up and prepared to meet the challenges of this world presents us.  It is in our persistence in being in God’s presence that we are able to walk in the dark days where all seems lost and there is no hope apparent.  Prayer allows the ongoing presence of God to have power over our lives and brings us into deeper relationship with God.”[2] And when we get to those times when we can no longer pray, we are surrounded by our community of faith and our friends – those who take up the cry when we can no longer go on.   

This gospel reading calls us back to prayer and to trust in God’s persistent love. We have been given the promise God is present with us always even though we may not get the response we want and need.  We trust that God is in charge and that God’s plan will be revealed in God’s time. This is the promise we made at our baptism – that we would turn back to God again and again and the promise that God made to us is that we will be led from death by Christ’s resurrection into everlasting life. This is the gift of our life with God. We bring this hope to our prayers – we who are marked as Christ’s own forever.

Today Anna Surresco will be baptized at St. Margaret’s and welcomed into this community of faith. She becomes part of the community of Christians who are called to pray persistently and who live in the hope of God’s promise to bring about a new world.  She will be marked as Christ’s own forever at St. Margaret’s, just as her       brother, Liam, was, just as her mother was and just as her grandfather was. Their tradition of being baptized in this place for generation after generation reminds me of the theme of persistence.  Again and again they have returned here to become part of the Body of Christ. Again and again they have been prayed for by this community and will continue to be prayed for by us. While the call to persistent prayer does not provide easy answers, it brings us into a community who prays with us, who supports us and who hopes with us for the time where God’s ways break in on this earth. Our prayer strengthens us and helps us to remember that God is with us through whatever we face. We are God’s people - Christ’s people. Let us stay attentive in prayer to what is given to us so persistently – the love of God which is with us always.

[1] Margit Ernst-Habib, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Proper24.

[2] Synthesis, Year C, Proper24.