October 16, 2016
Proper 24 Year C
A few weeks before I was ordained, Bishop Beckwith, my ordaining Bishop, invited me to a meeting and lunch at his office in Newark. He asked me to reflect with him on my process leading up to ordination, which, as you may know, was a long, demanding, and oftentimes uncertain 6 years. Our meeting went well, but at the end of our time together, the Bishop couldn’t help but offer some words of wisdom. “Remember,” he said, “your first and most important job as a priest is to pray. In fact,” he said, “it is so important, that you will now be paid to pray.”
I took the Bishop’s words seriously, and in the years since, I have followed his advice. I have prayed.
I have prayed for those who are sick and suffering, that they would be made well.
I have prayed for those who are dying – whose families and friends love them dearly – that they would live.
I have prayed for those who’ve had a sense that they are about to lose their jobs and for those who were let go without any warning signs at all. I’ve prayed for those who are lonely, and for those who are lost in addiction or depression. For the healing of memories, and the healing of emotions. And over and over and over again, I have prayed desperately for the healing of the violence in this world.
I have prayed like someone getting paid to pray. I have prayed like a professional.
And yet, in the years since I’ve been ordained, I have to confess to you that the number of sick and suffering seem only to grow. That those I have loved and begged Jesus to allow to stay in our lives have died. Jobs have been cut and many have suffered through the pain of rejection, and endured month after month of fear concerning the unknown next steps. Addiction and depression and loneliness still imprison more people than I can count, memories still wound, and this world, well, I don’t even need to tell you how the hatred and violence continue to rage.
Sometimes I wonder if all of this is because I pray using the wrong words. Or because I was absent that day in class when they taught us how to flip the switch which makes the balm of Gilead rain down. Or maybe I was asleep the day they told us the combination which unlocks the door of healing, and energy, and life. And I have to wonder if I am paid to pray, and I do, but all of this still happens, is it because of my incompetence – does it mean I am a failure as a priest, as a professional pray-er?
Well thankfully, no, it doesn’t mean that - at least according our Gospel lesson today which teaches us several truths about God and prayer. First and foremost, unlike the unjust judge in the parable, we learn that God always listens. God as listener is such a profound and comforting image, because in our society, listening isn’t given nearly as much merit as speaking, as making our point of view known. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found healing simply because I was heard. God is not an unmoved mover – detached from us or our prayers, too busy with the world’s big problems to listen to the prayers of our hearts – but rather God hears, and grants justice to his chosen ones.
A second lesson from this morning’s Gospel (thanks to my friend and colleague The Rev. Martin Elfert’s insight) is that prayer also smashes the illusion – this is one of the greatest myths of our lives – the myth that we are ever alone, that we are ever separate from God. God has known us intimately from before we were born, constantly shares with us the joys and sorrows of our lives, and has never – not once - left us alone. So we do not lose heart.
The persistent widow in today’s Gospel makes this point for us. It’s easy to imagine her. See a petulant 3-year-old in the aisles of Toys R Us. Or a willful teenager arguing for a later curfew, or an investigative journalist who won’t take no for an answer. The widow wants justice. She wants it now, and day after day, she shows up to plead her case before the judge. But what if that willful and persistent widow is actually a stand-in for God in this story? A God who never stops seeking justice. God who never stops creating and working in this world. God who knocks on our door, over and over and over again, never gives up, while also desiring – insisting upon a response from us?
Think about it. God-as-the-widow in this story is not such a stretch. At that time, losing your husband meant you lost everything. Your status. Your power. Your claim to any kind of authority. Widows were lowest of the low, powerless and vulnerable. But does that sound familiar? So was Jesus. God Incarnate, Jesus, emptied himself of power and equality with God when he became human like us, utterly vulnerable as a baby, and he accepted a criminal’s brutal death on the cross . . . while at the same time, never, not-ever failing to listen to our cries – our prayers – and persistently, doggedly, knocking on our door in the name of mercy and justice and love, desiring a response from us.
You see, prayer is not a monologue, but a conversation. God calls us to name injustice and calls us to name pain. God-as-widow wants most of all to hear and to be heard. Conversation. Relationship. In the story today, the judge finally stops looking at his email, puts his stack of bills away, comes down to answer the doorbell, where he finally stands face to face with the widow. And then they seek justice together. Not that the judge is such a great guy, but he just finally takes notice. The widow is finally in relationship with the judge, which captures the real meaning of Grace. God doesn’t call out to us because we are so unbelievably good and deserving. And yet God is just like the persistent widow, calling out to us because God loves us and needs us to be in conversation.
Now, when we intentionally answer that persistence, it’s what we call ‘prayer,’ and when we open ourselves up to relationship through prayer, the Holy Spirit moves. Boldly. There are times for me when someone or something just suddenly shows up in my prayers. At other times, I hear my own voice calling out for help and mercy. Sometimes I am comforted by prayer, but being honest, very often I remain distressed. But this distress shapes our response, informs how we act in the world, and allows us to stay connected to a God who is always calling out to us.
Today’s Gospel reminds us that prayer is a powerful pathway to God, one that is open and accessible to all of us. Through prayer, we are able to respond to God’s persistent search for justice, mercy and love with healing in this world. It doesn’t require the ‘right’ words, a particular technique, a password or a combination. And no, you definitely do not have to be a professional. You just have to pray always, and not lose heart. Amen.