Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts. For believers, it is a powerful source of hope in times of trouble providing comfort and strength to press on. There are, of course, a variety of prayers. Some prayers need no response from God. They are prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. A 4-year-old girl was asked to say grace thanks before Thanksgiving dinner. The family members bowed their heads in expectation. She began her prayer, thanking God for all her friends, naming them one by one. Then she thanked God for all her family members, one by one. Then she began to thank God for the food. She gave thanks for the turkey, the dressing, the fruit salad, the cranberry sauce, the pies, the cakes, even the Cool Whip. Then she paused, and everyone waited–and waited. After a long silence, the little girl looked up at her mother and asked, “If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know that I’m lying?”
Some prayers, however, need a response from God. Unfortunately instead, they are met with moments of awkward silence. When we pray, there is no answer. Yes, we may become so dismayed and disappointed with God’s inattentiveness to our needs and the timing of our prayers that we wonder if there is anyone out there listening to us. One thing, I know from scripture, you and I are not the only ones who have struggled to experience God’s mercy and truth through prayer.
Today’s gospel reading from St. Luke was intended to be Jesus’ warning to his closest disciples that their petitions to God might one day seem to come back empty, but that they should not give up. Instead, they should fight on and not lose heart. That is the lesson that I would like to share with you this morning as well.
Jesus began teaching his disciples with the parable of a widow going before a distant, unsympathetic judge who had no regard for God or his neighbor. God, of course, is nothing like such an unjust judge. Our God is loving and caring, and intimately engaged with the needs and concerns of his children. So rather than comparing God to the judge, Jesus was contrasting the character of the widow’s persistent faith with that of his own disciples. Day after day the widow journeyed through the dusty streets of the village. Everyone knew where she was going. With steadfast determination she headed to the village magistrate, the unjust judge. The village marveled at her tenacity and grit. She simply wouldn’t lose heart. Some thought she was eccentric. Others commended her for her courage. Those nearest to her thought she was basically desperate. But whatever the reason, the widow returned time and again to the unjust judge annoying him and she never lost heart.
That certainly is a different image of the prayer warrior than we may be used to, and the annoying, ceaseless prayer of the widow may be a different kind of prayer. She’s not praying in a synagogue or a church, she’s not praying in her house, she’s not praying before bed or before she eats, she’s not holding prayer beads or wearing a prayer shawl, she doesn’t have her eyes closed, her head bowed, her hands folded, nor is she kneeling down. Instead, she prays by ceaselessly marching into that judge’s chambers demanding that she be given justice
Finally, the judge broke down. The very man who had boasted that he feared neither God nor man, had begun to fear an aging woman. She had worn him out. So, my friends, if even the most unjust of judges would finally relent to the ceaseless petitions of a defenseless widow, then how much more will our loving God who is, after all, a good judge answer your prayers?
I rather suspect that everyone gathered here today has known some occasion when you have lost heart; when you were ready to give up hope. Yes, in those painful moments, it is easier to regard God as an unjust judge who refuses to listen to your ceaseless prayers than to wait for a loving word or sign of hope. Perhaps it was a prayer on behalf of an ailing parent; the struggle with divorce; the heartache of bringing yourself out of poverty; a child who has become your prodigal son or daughter; or your own struggle with disease. How many times have you prayed and prayed for God’s promise to be fulfilled in your life only to hear God’s long silence? In such awkward times, people often fall into despair and reach for easy answers. It was not the course of action of the widow and her persistent faith.
Jesus wanted his disciples and us to understand that to pray always does not simply mean giving God a “to do list” and then sitting back expecting him to magically fix everything. Some may believe that the power of prayer is about convincing, cajoling, persuading, or wearing down God so he will do what we ask. Such a notion suggests that God is out there somewhere and not here, unaware or uncaring about us and this world. That is not what Jesus meant to pray always.
No, Jesus his disciples that to pray means that you offer your cry to God and then like the widow you do whatever you can to bring about the change you are seeking, trusting that God also is already doing what he needs to do. For your prayer life, that may mean seeking counseling or a support group. Seeking justice in prayer, may also mean doing justice. Just as we pray for peace in the world, we must actively work for peace. Just as we pray for the hungry and needy, we must show compassion to them so that our prayers to God may be fulfilled. We make our case not just before God but with him.
One thing is clear from Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge, even with the power of prayer and the persistence of the widow’s faith, there was still a time for waiting. How long? When will it change? I don’t know. But I do know that waiting does not mean that God is absent or uncaring. The widow, you see, was not simply waiting for God. She was waiting with God. Prayer was what kept her from losing heart, and it was prayer that kept her showing up day after day at the judge’s door trusting that God sees, hears, and acts. To pray always and to not lose heart is what keeps us, in thought, word, and deed, present to and in relationship with God so that when he does act, we will be there.
Years ago when I was teaching at a mission school in India, I became acquainted with a missionary who had spent time with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India. He wanted to experience first-hand her prayer life. I was surprised when he told me that he was disappointed the first evening, when he heard her say her bedtime prayers. It was simply, “Lord, thank you for another day.” He was expecting prayers filled with beautiful imagery, and extended litanies of the people in her care. The following day, the missionary asked her why her prayers were so brief. She replied simply, “I have been in prayer with God all day, why do I need to bother him at night.”
Yes, in the midst of the world’s poverty, pain, disease and despair, Mother Theresa did not lose heart. She knew that God’s kingdom kept coming and that there was nothing that could stop its course. Prayer is the holy gift of communion and relationship that keeps us connected to God until his relentless kingdom breaks down the will of the unjust judges in the world, and his good and precious will shines through. That is the purpose of a persistent faith, active in prayer. It keeps us tied to God.
Of all of the relationships I need, my relationship with God in prayer is the greatest. It is easy to be disappointed and frustrated with the changes in this world. It is easy to become frustrated with those we love and even the church. But what a privilege it is to take my concerns to God in prayer. No, I am not closing down my relationship with God even if my prayers today seem unanswered. I will keep my heart open in the face of delay. I will try to act every day like that eccentric widow, who kept asking until she finally received, knocking on the door until it was finally unlocked, and flinging prayers into the silence until the answer finally came. I know and trust God will be true to his promises and his kingdom will come. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.