Don't Lose Heart
Don’t Lose Heart
“All I know is that when I pray coincidences happen;
and when I don’t, they don’t.”
~ William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II,
This past Tuesday night, in the midst of boiling potatoes and frying up kielbasa, my phone rang with the sort of news every pastor dreads. Within minutes, I transferred dinner from stove to table, bid my family goodbye, and found myself in the car on my way to the pediatric ICU at Bay State.
All I knew as I drove down was that there was a boy in critical condition and a family gathered around him in need of love and support.
And so as I drove, I prayed.
I prayed for him and I prayed for them.
I prayed that the boy would, by some miracle, be okay.
Because that is what we do in these situations, whether we believe in prayer or not.
We pray hoping for the best. We pray hoping that God will hear us. We pray hoping that if we pray hard enough or long enough that our prayers will make a difference.
We pray even though we all know - we all know - that sometimes, our prayers do not.
Which makes today’s parable not just confounding, but infuriating, insulting, devastating. It’s really and truly hard to know what to make of this strange little passage in Luke where Jesus seems to tell us that if we just pray with enough persistence God will not only help us, but help us quickly, when that is simply not true?
I will tell you right now that I have the historical and exegetical knowledge to make some sense of this passage. But I also need you to know that I am acutely aware that none of that is worth a fig to a mother sitting anxiously at the bedside of her little boy.
What good is an explanation when what we really long for is reassurance and results?
So let’s begin by acknowledging that Jesus’ would not have told this particular story to his disciples if they were not in search of reassurance and results too.
He meant for these words to serve as an encouragement to them to pray always and not lose heart, because they too were living in the midst of dire circumstances; circumstances that gave them every reason to give in to the pain and give up on God.
Whether we are talking about the disciples Jesus was speaking to directly or Luke’s first century audience, we must always keep in mind that we are talking about people who were sorely oppressed and brutally persecuted.
We are talking about people who are trying to believe in the promise of Jesus, the promise that another world - a more just and peaceful world - is possible, while living in a present that was causing those they loved to languish, suffer, and die under the heels of the Roman Empire.
These are people who desperately want to believe that God cares, that God is on their side, that God has not forgotten about them but hears them and sees them in their distress. But most of all, these are people who want to believe that God has the power and the will to show up and help them- not someday in that great by and by - but right here and right now.
Jesus knows they are in pain. Jesus knows they feel powerless. So Jesus tells them a story about a widow who is also in pain and frankly doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting what she wants either because the callous and corrupt judge assigned to her case couldn’t care less about her or anyone else.
But before you go conjuring up an image in your mind of some ancient old woman hobbling to the courthouse every day with her walker, nagging the judge to treat her fairly, you need to know that the word here translated as “justice” is actually the word for “vengeance.”
(As in, “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord). Like many people in the crowd that day around Jesus, it’s very possible that this widow was young and strong and outraged because her husband, like so many others, has died…died too young and too soon at the hands of a violent and corrupt state.
If that is the case then in some ways the worst has already happened. God didn’t protect her husband. God didn’t save him. The very fact that she is a widow means that he is dead. She is devastated by loss and consumed by a need to bring his killers to justice.
But try as she might, her pain is met with nothing but callous disregard by the one person with the earthly power to punish the ones responsible or reform the system that led to his death.
At this point in her story she could have embraced her lot as a tragic figure; a powerless widow with no rights or recourse. She could have accepted the status quo. She could have lost heart and given in to bitterness and despair.
But she doesn’t. For whatever reason, she persists. She keeps coming. She has no hope and no power but she refuses to back down. She doesn’t give up. She doesn’t give in. And finally, finally, finally, the judge grants her request, not because he cares for her or her cause, but because he’s actually afraid of her.
In our translation the judge relents so she won’t “wear him out,” but that phrase is better translated as “give me a black eye.” Her single minded pursuit of justice scares him…scares him into doing the right thing. Against all odds, her refusal to back down changes the dynamics of the world around her.
Jesus tells us them this funny little story about a woman with no power but a great deal of fervor, and a judge with tremendous power but no compunction, to say look: if these two can finally work together to avenge her, how much more will God who is just and who does care work with you to build a more just and generous world?
“…will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” asks Jesus. “Will he delay long in helping them?”
It’s a rhetorical question and I’m pretty sure the right answer is “no.” God will not delay, except for the pesky fact that God does.
But again, Jesus knows this. He knows that his disciples know this. He knows that we all know this. So I think he’s pushing us to look deeper, not just at God, but at ourselves. Not just at what God is willing to do for us but at what we are willing to do for God.
Friends, what if God is not slow in granting justice? What if the justice we seek is already here? What if the kingdom of God - that more just and generous world we all long for - is at hand because the kingdom of God is within us just waiting for us to embody it, stand up against all odds and lay claim to it, bother those in power for it day and night until they grant it, persist and not lose heart until we become the answer to God’s prayers…God’s prayers for this world?
I think Jesus is reminding us that more often than not we have a choice. We can look at all the pain and injustice in the world and say woe is me, I am nothing but a poor, defenseless person with no power who can’t possibly affect change for myself or others, totally at the mercy of the forces of this world. Or we can lay claim to the reality that our desire for a more just, peaceful, and generous world aligns us with the most powerful force in the universe…and that alignment can make a difference if we are willing to show up day after day and fight for it like the widow.
That being said, I don’t think this parable is the first or last word on the power or purpose of prayer. What it is, is a window, a window that gives us a glimpse into what prayer can be for and how prayer can work.
I don’t think today’s reading is about having the right words, but inviting us to adopt the right posture, a posture that aligns us with God. I don’t think Jesus is talking here about a pious, passive form of prayer wherein we invite God to come save us and change our circumstance, but an invitation to consider that the power of God is already within us to effect change even in the most hopeless of circumstance and do what we can to save one another.
Maggie Dawn, writing for The Christian Century, reminds us that:
"…constant prayer shapes the person who prays. Repeated, habitual prayer gradually tests and sifts what you believe is really important and what is of ephemeral value. If something doesn’t matter that much, the momentum for prayer will diminish. But if it does matter, an unanswered prayer becomes like grit in an oyster—something that worries and annoys you until you are determined not to take no for an answer….Prayer as Jesus taught it isn’t just a private matter. It’s not personal therapy or a crutch for the weak. Prayer is about refusing to believe that the way things are has to be the way they will always be, about imagining how the world could be, and gaining the wisdom and the energy to bring it about. …prayer makes us refuse to accept a system that deals out injustice and gives us the determination to see it change." https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2007-10/prayer-acts?code=xN7ZFk6YZm67Udui6qPs&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=73b807ea1c-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2022-10-10&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-73b807ea1c-82656707
Friends, Jesus is inviting us to persist in prayer because prayer keeps us connected with God and God’s dream for a better world. Jesus is inviting us to persist in prayer because prayer keeps us focused on the work at hand. Jesus is inviting us to persist in prayer because when we pray we hold space for hope… the hope and promise that things can change.
And so we pray without ceasing not just with our mouths, but with our hands and our feet. We pray on our knees but we also pray at the ballot box. We pray in church and we pray at the soup kitchen. Our prayer becomes our life and our life becomes our prayer in the hope that a prayer filled life and a life filled with prayer can shape the world around us by shaping the world within us.
As Angela Davis once said: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Prayer keeps us on the way even as we keep making a way for prayer.
I think that’s what this parable is about… but what does any of that mean to a mother keeping vigil at the bedside of her son?
When I arrived at the hospital, I sat down beside the boy’s mother and we talked. She wasn’t sure how to pray in this situation and the truth is, I wasn’t entirely sure either. I told her up front that I wasn’t the type of pastor who believes that if we just pray hard enough God will intervene and change the outcome. “But we can still hope,” I said, “and I believe our hope is our prayer.”
“You can’t prepare yourself for the worst,” I said. “Our hearts don’t work that way.” All we can do is hope for the best and give our hope to God trusting that God is really and truly with us in our hopes for healing and wholeness, whether we are praying for our loved ones or praying for this whole big beautiful world that God so loves.
God is with us in our hope for all that is good and when we pray we are with God in God’s hope for all that is good, and that has to count for something.
So we keep at it…whether we believe in prayer or not.
We pray hoping for the best. We pray hoping that God will hear us. We pray hoping that if we pray hard enough or long enough that our prayers will make a difference. We pray so as not to lose heart, because that is what Jesus taught us to do. Amen