The Gospel reading this morning opens with this: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Jesus says the disciples have a need to pray always. It’s a necessity. It’s not a suggestion or a tip, but it’s necessary. That’s pretty strong language. And maybe as good Lutherans we don’t like to hear that language of “must,” but when we think about prayer as our means of communication with God, it is pretty important stuff!
In thinking about prayer, I spent some time on that most theological of resources, YouTube, watching movie clips in which people try to pray. While one from the end of Bruce Almighty was very touching and heartfelt, most of them were funny. Usually, in these scenes people unaccustomed to praying are asked to pray before a meal or before a group of people. They try to build a prayer, stringing together bits and pieces of religious language they’ve heard, along with song lyrics (a little Godspell perhaps?), and even the Pledge of Allegiance. People look up from their prayers, eyebrows raised, concern on their faces and awkwardness and hilarity ensue.
Now watching these clips gave me a good chuckle, but these movies also pointed out another truth: many people are uncomfortable with prayer. Maybe that’s why Jesus spends a great deal of time encouraging the disciples to pray, especially in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus praying and discussing prayer more often than in the any of the other Gospels.
Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow must have struck his listeners and the early church as pretty funny. Here’s a vulnerable widow persistently harassing a judge who is neither objective nor impartial to give her justice. The odds are not in her favor, and yet, she never gives up. Finally, he gives in, figuring that it’s in his best interest to give her what she wants. And what we miss as English speakers is that the judge actually says he’s going to act “in order that she doesn’t finally strike him in the eye.” Yes. That’s what it says! So Jesus is telling a parable where the powerful judge is worried about a vulnerable, powerless widow giving him a black eye. This lady might not only physically make him look bad, but also ruin his reputation by continually seeking justice. The image must have been quite an absurd one to Jesus’ hearers!
Jesus goes on to say that if even this terrible guy gives justice to the widow out of his own selfish interests, how much more will a good and loving God give ear and justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night?
Right before this story, Jesus spoke with the Pharisees and explained that the kingdom of God was already present. He explained that it was not completely here and that it was unlike any other kingdom they might have seen in the world. Instead, he said that it was here already, growing in and among people. He then spoke about how the Son of Man would come again unexpectedly. It is in this context that we hear about the need to pray always.
In the first communities to receive and hear Luke’s Gospel, the faithful believers were eagerly waiting for Jesus to return and to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. But they needed encouragement to hold on and to be faithful during this period of waiting. The Romans had destroyed the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, and the believers were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Christ in the Roman Empire. How long must they wait for God’s reign and justice? How long must they hold on until Jesus returned? And how could they hold fast in the meantime?
The answer was to be persistent in prayer. And the same is true for us today. Prayer is a means of communicating with God. As Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer wrote, “Prayer, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.” It’s a way of not only telling God what is on our minds and in our hearts, but of being open to listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit. It’s also a way of connecting with one another in community. Listening to others pray not only inspires us to pray, but also opens us to the concerns and needs of those around us. And coming before God to intercede for others brings us closer to those for whom we are praying. Prayer shapes our attitudes toward God and others and transforms our hearts in the process.
Prayer is an incredible gift and yet I still find that I don’t pray as often as I’d like to or as I should. And maybe it’s the same for you. I’d love to tell you that I pray every day for an hour, but that would be lying. When things are difficult, perhaps it is easier to pray more, but what about when things are going pretty well? It has been my experience that God is always patiently and persistently reminding me of my need to pray. I am reminded of this through others requesting prayer and also through others in the body of Christ reminding me of the importance of prayer. I also experience God calling me to prayer through that still, small voice that seems to gently say, “spend time with me in prayer.”
And even then, I confess that I sometimes put it off, metaphorically sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, “la la la la – I’ve got other things to do!” But I’ve found that once I make that time to pray, it is almost always the case that I feel a greater sense of calm and peace. You see, God always faithfully pursues, calling us to spend time with God in spite of ourselves. Out of amazing love, God has chosen each and every one of us. And so, God wants to hear everything that we have to say, even if we’re angry or frustrated with God. That’s incredible.
But then there are the other times when prayer is a struggle. Sometimes it seems as if God isn’t listening and that things will never change. Sometimes the prayers seem to go unanswered. Sometimes it seems that the right words don’t come and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that peace or calm showing up. Sometimes even though we feel called to serve or to take action, it can seem that what we’re doing isn’t making any difference. What then?
It is then that we are to be persistent – to continue praying and bringing our needs, hurts, hopes and dreams before God in prayer. It is then that we can remember that Jesus continued praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion even though it was difficult. It is then that we can remember that Jesus prayed for his disciples and continues to encourage us to pray. It is then that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. It is then that we persevere and push onward, trusting that God does hear and will act.
And it’s crucial to remember that we are a part of a community. We’re not just praying alone or for our own needs, but with and for others and they for us. As Martin Luther wrote in A Simple Way to Pray: “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers. Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain. Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’ That is what Amen means.”
When Jesus asks if he will find faith when he returns, I think he’s talking about this dogged, messy, stubborn, persistent faith that keeps on praying despite the odds. It’s a faith that keeps on keeping on even though it doesn’t make any rational sense. It’s hanging on tightly to God, even when it may seem foolish to others to do so. It’s the faith that follows the way of the cross, believing that in death there is life.
In the words of one of my favorite singers, Audrey Assad:
My faith is not a fire
As much as it’s a glow
A little burning ember
In my weary soul
And it’s not too much
It’s just enough to give me hope
Because your love moves slow
God calls and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to persistent prayer and faith. God invites, reminds and emboldens us to keep a steady ember aglow, waiting for God to fan us into faithful flames, capable of setting the world on fire with God’s love.
Unlike the unjust judge, God longs for us to spend time in prayer, pouring out our hearts, silently and aloud, through words and actions, individually and in community. As Luther reminds us, “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of His willingness.” Praying to God is not wearing out a selfish and partial judge, but persistently embracing and enjoying God’s goodness and the relationship God wants to have with us.
In the week ahead, I invite and encourage you to experiment with prayer. Pray for each member of your family – even the extended family. Pray for your neighbors. Pray for Community Lutheran. Pray for the people you pass on the sidewalk. Pray for people with whom you have a hard time interacting. Pray for the person who cuts you off in traffic. I know, that’s a tough one! Request that others pray for you. See what happens! Remember, you don’t have to be eloquent or use big theological words – you are talking to God, the One who knows you better than anyone else, even yourself. God has given you a voice and a way of praying, so embrace it and use it! Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
Audrey Assad singing “Slow:”