Keeping On Keeping On
August 20, 2000
Luke 18:1-8 and 11:5-13 The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
We are about to hear two parables about prayer. The first parable has two
characters: a judge and a widow. Let me be quick to say that the judge in
our parable and the retired judge reading the parable have nothing more
than their profession in common! The second parable also has two
characters: a man and his friend in need. Let us now listen for the word
Luke 18:1-8 and 11:5-13
"Jesus told them in a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart." Prayer is a problem for many of us. Does God hear prayer? Am I really talking to God or am I only speaking to myself?
And the problem, says Tom Long, is not only that we are uncertain about prayer, but we have the good sense to know that, when we pray, we are really putting our faith on the line. Is there a God or not? Is there is a God who listens? Is there a who cares for us, who hears and responds? These are frightening questions. No wonder, many people prefer not even to try to pray, rather than risk it.
If you think that prayer is a peculiarly modern problem, think again. Why would Jesus have told this parable to his disciples if everybody then believed in prayer's power? Throughout Luke, there is plenty on prayer. All of which suggests that prayer not simply a modern problem--it is a problem for anyone who believes in God. Prayer raises threatening issues, troublesome questions. Is there a God? If there is, is there a God who hears and acts for us? [First three paragraphs taken from a sermon by William Willimon, On Not Losing Heart.]
Both of our parables today deal with prayer. Both talk about the idea of persistence in prayer. In one parable a breadless friend rouses his neighbor in search of bread and in our second parable a widow seeks justice from the judge. Heres how one preacher describes this story:
Jesus tells a parable about a truly disgusting judge. He is a sleazy jurist, probably put in his position through some political shenanigans. This poor widow, without political protection, totally powerless, what hope does she have before this judge's bench?
She does have one thing. She has the ability to pester. Leaving messages on his answering machine, constantly banging on his door, giving him no peace--she is persistent.
Finally the judge says to himself, "Even though I could care less about God and can't stand humanity, I will give this woman what she wants, just to get her out of my hair.".
So, I ask myself, is the lesson pretty simple in both these parables? Is the lesson plainly communicated that we need to keep on keeping on, that when we think we have prayed so very long for something and we start to lose heart we should remember that persistence is rewarded, that if at first you dont succeed, try again, that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that if we bug, badger and bother God we will finally get Gods attention?
Well, true as it may be that we are called to both persistence and patience in our Christian walk, and surely there is a place for these in our prayer life, these parables push us further to another point. It comes across a little more clearly in the parable about the two friends. In the commentary following the parable we heard Tom Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Maybe these stories are not so much about persistent prayer as they are about the character of the One to whom we make our prayers. If even that reluctant, annoyed, sleepy-eyed friend is willing to share his bread in the middle of the night, if even that sleazy, rotten judge opens up his hand to those who seek justice, how much more so will God?
William Willimon suggests that we think of prayer not as asking God to do this or that for us, but rather as asking God to be God, to be who God is.
Then he says, When as a child you suffered some injustice, received some blow from life, what did your mother say? She attempted to comfort you. "There, there, she said. "It's all right." What did she mean when she said that? She didn't mean that your pain was silly, for why would she comfort you if you were not in real pain? She did not mean that everything is going to be all right in that moment. You know enough of life to know that often things don't work out all right.
What she meant was that finally, ultimately, in the larger picture, the world is structured in such a way that things will be right. Pain does not last forever. Even the worst setbacks can be integrated into life and you go on. In other words, when said, "There, there, everything will be all right," she was making a statement of faith about the ultimate character of the world.
These parables are stories, not so much about the efficacy of prayer, but about the character of God, the trustworthiness of God.
I love those stories in the Old Testament in which the great ones of faith hold God, in prayer, to accountability. I especially think of Moses and Abraham and can hear them saying to God, "Didn't you say . . . or Didn't you promise . . . or Remember, you are the one who said . . .. They aren't really pestering God, persisting in prayer, they are calling God to be who God has revealed Godself to be. It is like they are saying, "I believe that you are a just, merciful and loving God, whose desire is goodness for your children, so I count on you to act like that.
In persisting in prayer, we dont just show patience, we show our confidence that God hears, and cares and acts. We dare to believe in the wild grace, the astounding mercy, the scandalous justice and the unimaginable love that is the very nature and character of God. Prayer is a way of letting God be God. Prayer is the courageous determination to let God be God. Prayer is keeping on keeping on, not because we are so good at persistence and patience, but because we seek to beseech and allow God to be the God of love, grace, mercy and justice.
Do you think of God as the detached Master Controller of all events, pulling some kind of cosmic strings to manipulate people and events? Then your prayers might be ones that bargain with God, or ones that ask that you might be able just to resign yourself to things as they are. Or perhaps this view leaves you feeling so helpless that prayer seems altogether futile.
Do you think of God as detached and having no control? Do you see God as the one who originally set events into motion and now leaves them to run their course according to our choices and chances? Then your prayers might be ones that ask only for strength to handle whatever life might hurl your way. Or perhaps you find that prayer is not necessary at all.
Somewhere between these two extremes - God having total control, and God having no control - I find a middle ground. It is one in which God and humans find themselves in partnership with one another. Sometimes I pray boldly for things, asking, seeking, knocking. Sometimes, like the neighbor, like the widow, I am shamelessly persistent in prayer, hounding God about something I really am passionate about.
Sometimes, I ask only for the strength and courage to endure the circumstances in which I find myself. Sometimes I find great comfort in sitting back and believing that God is in control. But always, I find that prayer moves me to DO more than just pray. Whatever else prayer might change, I know that it at least changes the one who prays. When I pray and ask God to comfort a person who is mourning, it is often clear that the answer to that prayer is in the form of me going to be with that person. Prayer and action go hand in hand.
I also believe there is great mystery in prayer. Somehow when I speak the words to ask God to be with a person in need, somehow when I picture in my mind a sick friend being restored to health, the power of God's love is released a little more in that person's life. I can't explain it, but I do believe it and I have experienced it.
Many of you know that my mother is seriously ill and in the last days and months of her life. Day after day I pray for her and I ask God to give her rest, to receive her into those divine arms of love and reunite her with those who wait for her. Day after day, she continues her difficult existence in this world and I wonder, is prayer any good? And then I think about the stubborn neighbor and the nagging widow and Jesus teaching that we should ask, no conditions given, and it will be given, seek and we will find, and knock and the door will open, I draw the conclusion that I must keep praying. I must stubbornly petition God to answer the door and act as a merciful, just, loving God. And so with some times faltering faith, I call on God to be God. And sometimes with courageous faith, I call on God to be God.
Some of you sitting here today are seeking God for healing for cancer or other devastating diseases in your own life or in the life of someone near and dear to you. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God. Some of you sitting here today are seeking God for healing broken relationships with family members or friends. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God. Some of you are seeking for help for your children who struggle with the challenges of daily life. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God. Some of you sitting here are seeking for guidance, patience, and wisdom for yourself and for your aging parents. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God. Some of you sitting here today are restless or even miserable in your job, some of you have lost your job, some of you are wondering what meaningful work you could do. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God. Some of you are sitting here seeking to know whether your marriage is salvageable. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God. Some of you are sitting here suffering from the guilt and pain of sin. And so with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith you must pray and trust God to be God.
All of us come today with needs and desires for God to act in our lives. All of us come with hope and doubt about how God might act in our lives. Our scripture for today reminds us that we should keep on keeping on at prayer and not lose heart as we persist in our determination to let God be God and as we with sometimes faltering faith and sometimes with courageous faith pray and trust God to be God. Amen.