22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Sunday, October 16, 2016, Year C
Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who invites us to pray always and not lose heart, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Last week Monday night and Tuesday many of us watched the news and our facebook pages to keep track of Hurricane Matthew and its rampage through the Caribbean islands and it’s eventual landfall in southeastern United States. I kept scrolling my newsfeed to make sure my friends in Haiti were still alive and how other friends were fairing on the east coast.
As post after post of devastation started to pop up, I continued to scroll my newsfeed only to be shocked from interspersed photos from Aleppo Syria. Again and again I saw pictures of bloodied and dead children…bloodied and dead children.
Then I read a relief envoy was bombed and 20 aid workers in Syria were killed. I heard of 11 Christian missionaries, including an 11 year-old boy, being crucified and killed. All this and more last week out in the world, only to be bombarded by divisive politics here in our own country.
How difficult it can be, my brothers and sisters, to not lose heart. How are we to pray? How are we to keep trusting God when it seems like everything is falling apart, when prayers seem to go unanswered?
An elderly African American minister once read this parable from our Gospel reading this morning and gave his congregation a one-sentence interpretation: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke18x1.htm)
The widow in the story knows what prayer is. Day after day she gets up and demands justice from a judge who Jesus tells us has no respect for God or people. She has no reason to believe she can win, but she doesn’t lose heart. She is so persistent she wears the judge out. Even though he is unjust, he grants the widow what she needs just to keep her from bothering him any longer.
What Jesus is saying to us in the parable is that if even a judge who cares nothing for God or for others can grant justice, how much more so will God, who is not like the unjust judge, give what is needed to those who cry out day and night in prayer?
It is my experience in life and witnessed to in the Bible that in times of intense or long suffering, there is no shortage of prayer. Shortage of prayer comes when things are going pretty well, or when we think we don’t need God.
But our knuckles bleed when one receives word of an illness or death. In this situation there is a deep need within us to cry out to God for hope. When one can’t pay all the bills, or is in an abusive relationship, or suffering from addiction, we cry out to God for a way through the darkness. When war and poverty seem to have the loudest voice in the world, we cry even louder to God for justice and peace.
There is a deep need within the well of our soul to pray and actively cry out to God to make things right. Sometimes what we witness in the world, or our suffering is so deep and real that we have no words, then our every breath is prayer because we can do no other.
It reminds me of Romans 8, when Paul writes: “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Even our sighs become prayer.
We all know that answers to prayers don’t come quickly enough, or if ever, at least the way we see it. It is no secret that we don’t always get what we ask for, but perhaps we get what we need, not always knowing what that is.
One example of this has come up multiple times over the last six years, as I have been a pastor here. Students have told me, “When I was on the outs I did pray…I prayed that I wouldn’t get caught.” Then once here, they reflect that God answered their prayer in a way they didn’t expect, admitting that being here has saved their life. God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we expect.
The same holds true for Jesus himself. In the garden on the night of his arrest, Jesus prays to God and asks if the cup could be removed from him. It isn’t. Jesus cries out in prayer form the cross and receives no answer, and then he dies. Was God not with him; did God not hear even Jesus?
If the story ended here we would have cause to doubt, but it doesn’t. It is true that God did not spare Christ from death; but God did something even greater … God raised Jesus from the dead, a prayer answered for him and for the whole world.
Jesus’ asks the question in our Gospel reading: “Will God delay long in helping those who cry out day and night? God will quickly grant justice to them,” he says. Now, quickly as it is used here, doesn’t necessarily mean, “right now.”
Like if I pray for something it will happen tomorrow. What it means is that God will answer prayer surprisingly or suddenly. I know of a woman who prayed for 25 years that her husband would stop drinking, then suddenly, one day he did.
What Jesus is saying to us is, “Even if you have to pray 25 years…even a life time, keep praying and do not lose heart. God will answer your prayer.”
A colleague of mine once went over to a friend’s house. His friend’s mother was there and had been suffering from multiple-sclerosis for some time. She was confined to a wheel chair with little or no movement. My colleauge asked his friend’s mother: “Don’t you ever pray to God to heal you?” She looked up at him and said, “No. I pray to God each day to give me strength.”
Prayer isn’t about getting what one wants, or simply something we do before we eat. Prayer is the language of faith. It is the life-breath of who we are as we are in relationship with our Creator. It is trusting in a God who loves you.
Prayer can be as little as thinking about a person in your life, saying their name, and lifting them up to God’s care.
It can be as simple as author, Anne Lamott’s prayer: help me, help me, help me…thank you, thank you, thank you.
It can be as much as waking up every day and spending an hour and a ½ reading Scripture, meditating, and praying.
It can even be demanding like the wrestling match we heard about in our first reading between Jacob and God.
It can be sighs to deep for words.
The experience of prayer is so different for everyone, but people who pray understand its importance because it does something for us.
We pray because it is good for us, because Jesus asks us to, because it helps us to persevere in hard times, and because it shapes and forms us into who God is calling us to be. If there are some days I feel that I am unable to pray, I ask someone else to pray for me and with me.
We can pray our heart out for the things we see that are wrong and hurtful, and not see any apparent change. We can become frustrated and want to quit, but it is then that I ask you to not only look at what you are praying for, but also pay attention to what is happening inside you.
How is prayer shaping you, changing the way you feel about something, or giving you strength for another day? How is it helping you hand things over to God that are not in your control? When all of our security and falsities are stripped away, there is nowhere else to turn to receive life but to God.
When I pray for people in Syria, and those who were hit by Hurricane Matthew, they remain with me and in my heart. I lay them in the hands of God. Same holds true for each of you when I pray for you. In this simple and powerful act of prayer, we are granted faith in the One who raises the dead to life.
Sister and brothers, may you be persistent in prayer, knowing that your prayers are not in vain. Amen.