October 20, 2019 — Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Pray Always and Do Not Lose Heart
All three readings today are about PERSEVERANCE. What a timely message for all of us!
The prophet Jeremiah is preaching endurance and hope to the people in exile in Babylon. The days are surely coming, he says, when God will replant you in your own land, and your exile will be over. The days are coming when God will make a new covenant with them, “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” And no one will have to teach about God because everyone will know God.
Let’s pause for a moment and take that in. On some level, we are all in exile—we live in a world that falls far short of what God intended—a world rife with violence and suffering. The prophet promises us that it is not forever, that a new day is coming, that we human beings will someday be so close to God that God’s ways will come naturally to us. We will be replanted in this beautiful world, to live in peace and harmony as God intends.
What extraordinary words of grace to a people in exile, strangers in a strange land, wondering if they would ever see their home again. Do not give up, wait patiently, persevere—God’s work is not done.
In the Letter to Timothy, Paul counsels a young evangelist that he trained, Timothy, to continue, to be persistent, to proclaim the message whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. Timothy has evidently encountered some opposition and is discouraged. Convince, rebuke, encourage with the utmost patience, says Paul. Do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. Again, what a gracious word to one who is trying to share the good news of God’s love and is frequently greeted with hostility or indifference.
In the gospel, Jesus goes to the root of the matter—how do we persevere? Pray always, he says, and do not lose heart. Perseverance is rooted in prayer—it is only through prayer that we can keep going in the face of obstacles and overwhelming odds. Jesus gives us the parable of the widow and the judge to show us what perseverance looks like.
The set up is perfect. The widow is by definition poor, because women could not own property. She is alone in the world—if she had any male relatives, they would be speaking for her because women were not supposed to speak in public. And she is powerless—we know that the judge is shameless—he neither feared God nor had respect for people. She can’t even appeal to his moral sensibility because he had none. All she has is the courage of her convictions and her persistence.
And she was persistent. She went to the judge again and again, demanding that he grant her justice against her opponent. Finally, the judge says, even though I am shameless, I will give her what she wants so she doesn’t wear me out by constantly bothering me. The Greek can also read, I will grant her justice so that she won’t give me a black eye, or put me to shame. Her persistence finally wins out over this derelict judge.
What does this parable have to do with prayer? I think all of us have had moments of feeling like the widow—powerless to affect some situation that troubles us deeply. Sometimes we wear ourselves out praying and praying for something to change but we don’t feel that God is listening.
Sometimes a family member is facing chronic illness or addiction and nothing seems to help. Or we face our own health problems or financial worries that wear us down. Maybe we are in a relationship with difficult dynamics that we can’t seem to shift.
And most of us are affected by the suffering and injustice we see in the world. There is a word for it in German: Weldschmerz, or world pain.
I go to sleep thinking of children in detention camps and refugees being abused at our borders. I think of our prisons and the way people are treated in them and the shockingly disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated—in too many cases for a profit. I think about how money has corrupted our democracy and I worry about the future of this experiment in self-government. I’m pretty sure you all could add your own worries to this list.
We pray and we pray, and we wonder, are our prayers doing any good? Sometimes it seems that nothing changes. God does not always give us what we want, nor does God act according to our timetable.
It would be easy to give up. But Jesus says the opposite. He tells us to pray always and never lose heart.
And he gives us this strong courageous widow who absolutely refused to give up, who kept going back until the judge had to listen to her. She reminds me of Sojourner Truth who was the first African American woman to prevail in a lawsuit in this country. She sued her former owner for custody of her son after he had sold her son down south just as slavery was ending in New York. And she won.
Prayer may not produce the change we seek immediately. We may not even see the change that we long for in our lifetime. But never doubt that prayer makes a difference. Prayer led Sojourner to an encounter with Jesus that changed her life. She knew from then on that Jesus loved her and would always love her. Prayer gave her the courage to proclaim the gospel of freedom, to work for abolition and to fight for her family. When we pray, we find our hearts strengthened, our hope renewed, our strength revived. God gives us new insights, inspiration, direction. Prayer gives us a glimpse of what God is doing in the world, and shows us how we can play a role in God’s work, no matter how powerless we may feel at times.
Sojourner Truth preached the message of freedom everywhere, and finally, when she was 65 years old, and had been preaching abolition for 19 years, slavery ended. It took 225 years for slavery to come to an end in this country. But in her words, “the truth is all powerful; it will prevail.”
It took from the mid-1930’s until earlier this year to pass legislation affording farmworkers the same rights that other workers have in the State of New York. It was a long time.
God’s timetable is not our timetable. But God is the God of justice. “Justice is the grammar of things,” as Frederick Buechner says—it is woven into the fabric of the universe. We are not where we should be yet. Our work is not yet done. And God is not finished yet either. God will not rest until “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Prayer allows us to step back from the world as it is—the status quo that falsely claims to be inevitable—and opens us to the world of possibilities, the world as God intends it to be—a place of freedom and peace, love and connection, a sacred home for all living things.
So, pray always, and do not lose heart. Do the work of an evangelist and carry out your ministry fully. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will write my covenant upon your heart and I will be your God and you shall be my people.