Between Exodus and Promised Land: Persistence
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Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart. There are so many things that seem hard about this for me. First whenever Jesus tells a parable I kind of brace myself, because if I’m really listening and understand the context then this is going to hurt me a bit. Parables are those stories Jesus uses that have a sting in their tale. They are going to make the listener say “ouch” when they realize what is being said. We are given an insight into what this parable is about: the need to pray always and to not lose heart. When I look around at the world today there are lots of things I know I want to pray about but it gets overwhelming and I have to ask “are our prayers working, why do things seem to get worse instead of better?” But we are not to lose heart so there must be hope here in this story and teaching about a way forward. So lets look at this story.
There is a widow and an unjust judge. We are not meant to like the judge because how he is introduced is that he doesn’t fear God and doesn’t respect people. Hmm…he sounds like a winning character. Enter character two: a widow. Ok we should all have an idea about what a widow means if we have been paying attention. Widows are the bottom of the barrel in the society that this is set in and yet they show up all the time as main characters in the Bible and they do really amazing things. Widows are cast as those with the least power and here we see her matched with judge who would have had a lot of power.
Nagging, pestering and bothering are not normally seen as traits we want to affirm but here in this story the widow persistently brings her request before the judge. Finally he says “Enough”, and grants her what she wants before he become exhausted by her continual asking.
In sitting with this text leading up to this sermon I kept asking “is this judge a representation of God?” Really, is God portrayed as the one who doesn’t care? But then I heard echoes of Matthew 7: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” and the end of the parable for today responds with “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” This judge is painted as the opposite to God, but even an unjust judge gives way under pestering, so wont God listen even more to God’s beloved people – to us.
Who is this God that we are praying to? If we think of prayer as a conversation between us and God, than we need to consider who we think God is because it will change our conversation. If you are talking to a best friend or your parent you will have differing degrees of openness. If you are talking to a political leader with power or someone you idolize you want to come across in different way. Who do we think this God is that we are crying out to?
A few years ago there was a National Study of Youth and Religion done here in the USA. This study found that for a majority of young people their picture of God was that of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This understanding is that 1.God created and is watching earth. 2. God wants people to be good and nice. 3.The goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. 4. God doesn’t really need to be involved in your life unless you need God to fix a problem. And 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Before you write this off as just a young person thing, the research went on to say that this view of God was being shaped by what the adults in these young peoples lives who were teaching them and modeling this for them. What they were learning about God was this:
“God is: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one's affairs--especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”
This is not the God who thunders from the mountain, nor a God who will serve as judge. This undemanding deity is more interested in solving our problems and in making people happy. "In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process."
I tend to think about this God as a personal Santa Claus in the sky that we take a shopping list of wants to and who can soothe us into feeling better about ourselves. This is a God shaped by our dominant culture and almost completely divorced from the God we meet in scripture.
What is the picture you have of God? What does a conversation with God look like for you? Who are you praying to? Does God in your prayer life reflect both the creator God who has the power to shake the earth but also speaks through silence? A God who is a just judge and who mourns over the wrong doing of God’s people.
The second big question that this passage asks us to consider is what is prayer? If what the widow does in this parable shows us how to pray, then we are being told to pester, to come back again and again and to continually repeat our request to God till God responds or gives in.
This week I felt myself needing to go back to the basics asking questions like: what is prayer, who is it for, how should we pray, does prayer change anything? Can our persistence change God? I know as a pastor you think I have this all figured out but really as Christians we have to keep wrestling with these things and understanding them in new ways.
When I was a seminary student I served as a camp pastor at a summer camp. One night as I was praying with a few young people by the fire a 12 year old ask me “why should I pray if nothing changes?” I think every seminary student should have to deal with answering that question to a 12 year old. How would you have answered? I know I stumbled and struggled.
We are in a culture that pushes us to be an individual, to get results and to want thing immediately. If I have to wait two minutes for a website to load I am prone to deep sighing, eye rolling and wondering why the universe is against me. Two minutes of waiting! If our picture of God is that of a God who comes to our beck and call, then no wonder we think that pray doesn’t work if we don’t get answers.
But do we get answers? Does prayer change things? We know that when we study something we have to go back and review and repeat things so we learn them yet with prayer coming back again, especially to pray the same prayer can feel empty and meaningless. Didn’t God hear us the first time? What kind of a God makes us repeat ourselves especially when we are crying out over a justice issue? But we are shaped in and by the praying.
We want instant gratification, we want our own way! But one commentary tells us that we are “Being shaped through the long persistent prayer to be a vessel that can hold the answer that comes”. That same commentary told this story “an elderly black minister read this parable and gave 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.”
Prayer is giving up our idea that we have the power and can change everything and holding ourselves out to a God who can shape the world beyond our understanding. Prayer is us giving up the idea that we are in control. In prayer we are able to see where God is working in our world – learning to know God and thus that knowing shaping our desires and actions.
As storms raged in Haiti this past week I was pestering God with my prayers. Why in a country where there is such poverty are they hit with something like this? I know that there are faithful people in Haiti who were praying even more fervently than I was so was God not listening to their prayers? If God is a God of care and justice how could God let something like this happen? Why is God waiting to answer while people are dying when the parable we heard today says “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
But God isn’t a controlling and manipulating God. Our world is broken and as Phil talked about last week we are between the exodus and the Promised Land – we are in the already but not yet. God is present and acting but is not our fairly godmother waiting for our call to come fix things.
The passage ends with a question: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Is this us having faith in the slow work of God’s justice. Us having faith that even when our pray is not answered the way we want it to be, that God is still working, still acting, still the just and loving judge and not the unfeeling unjust judge. We are not to lose faith and we are called to come back to God in prayer persistently, to be shaped by that process, to be part of how God is answering pray.
What is the prayer you need to pray right now. Is it a prayer that needs to be prayed prostrate before God or in tears? Do you need to throw your hands up in the air with a loud cry or shake fists in frustration? Do you need to kneel with head bent letting your body take the shape of submission and concentration? Who are you crying out to God for and what situations do you need to keep banging on God’s door making sure your persistent knocking is heard? What is the prayer you need to pray in these wilderness times of injustice?
In this parable, through this widow, Jesus is telling us to pray in hope and with persistence. Our faith is that we don’t lose heart even when that means coming back again and again to our God who is listening.
Lets commit ourselves to prayer and action as we respond by singing together "How can we be silent?"
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