Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Oct. 16, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Oct 16, 2022 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Oct. 16, 2022

If today’s parable is about our need to pray always and not to lose heart, it takes a hobbling route to get there. As we just heard, an unjust judge is repeatedly asked by a widow for him to grant her —justice. The word  is translated everywhere else in the New Testament as ‘avenge’ or ‘vengeance.’ We like parables to make us work for their meanings, though we tend to prefer someone be readily identified as either hero or villain, or maybe underdog or oppressor. One of them should be God or Jesus, right? Another might be us, or the bad example or the good example. We don’t get that here. Jesus doesn’t give us enough to go on, other than showing both characters are definitely flawed. The correlation with prayer comes as a summary rhetorical question; “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Implying a “Yes” response, for God is vastly more concerned with us than an unjust judge would be. Still, it is an unsatisfying conclusion to a story which began with Jesus telling disciples of their need to pray always and not to lose heart. For one to pray and not lose heart presumes we see some point in doing so, and since we are gathered to pray this very morning I will assume this is true for most of us. We pray to God about something hoping it will have an effect, even if not quite what we asked for. Yet sometimes ‘not losing heart’ can be a tall an order, as when we pray for healing or safety for ourselves or those we love, or for peace and forbearance in the world, and it doesn’t happen. We might pray for God’s wisdom or guidance, to receive strength or to find calm —and pray that what comes is of God. One of my most frequent prayers is asking God to take what I’m wrestling with (or what I think God is ignoring!) and use it for good, even if it’s not for my good or benefit. I don’t need to understand it or even have vision to see it, and I may not know that my prayer has been fulfilled. I can however trust God to be infinitely creative (with my messes and failings) and infinitely loving (far beyond what my mortal mind can imagine). 

Years ago an esteemed older churchman told me I must pray to receive the gift of the mind of Christ. What? I didn’t understand, such a prayer sounded horribly self-aggrandizing. Nonetheless I prayed, and very gradually came to a better understanding of it. Though I’d thought it an absurdly presumptive thing to pray for, now I know that there is a vast difference in praying for something, and getting what I pray for. Praying for the mind of Christ wasn’t about attaining  it, the prayer was about seeking it, and letting God shape me.

Prayer is like that—we tell God our deepest strongest hopes, we ask for their fulfillment, we give thanks for so many graces in life, and we still do not get to full understanding. St. Augustine wrote (and because the source eluded me I paraphrase liberally here) that thinking about God is like trying to see our own eyeballs. Full knowledge of God belongs to God alone.

Looking back to our hero-less parable, perhaps our difficulty in ‘domesticating’ this parable is our way in. Neither widow nor judge make a shining exemplar. Strip away stereotypes and image them today; Do any of our widows come across as helpless, needy, or powerless? Is the judge unjust because he settles cases without regard for their merit, or because he wouldn’t hear her? If we can see these two as individuals we might know, instead of stereotypes, their story might be ours as well. More about ourselves and how we grow in love and service, than which character is meant to be God. Can we see ourselves in the unjust judge and in the widow who is so relentless? When does God keep at me asking for me to pay attention and act with more justice than judgement? Asking me to listen and care? The judge in the parable doesn’t fear God and has no respect for people, even as I imagine this guy as someone truly awful I know I can be that way too. Sometimes I can be closed up or unresponsive, I can be unaware of someone’s pain or neglect to be responsive and thoughtful. Do I came to a task faithfully and with intention, or just to get it to stop setting off my phone alert that I haven’t done it yet? 

I’m not proud of it but I know that judge is part of me, so I need to oust or rehabilitate my internal hard-hearted judge or convert her to a sister in Christ. John Donne wrote,

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 

My prayer is to ask God to break out of me the stubborn unjust judge and critic, the one who doesn’t want to hear the insistent knock at my heart’s door, and instead listen and welcome it.

Last Sunday our Intern Elizabeth Holland had a really good conversation with our teens, in part about prayer outside of church, and how it can be different from person to person. She likened personal prayer to times we talk to ourselves. Whether she knows it or not, she’s in great company there; Frederick Buechner said exactly the same thing! 

“Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea. Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love too. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don’t, you may forget what matters most to you.” (Beyond Words, HarperOne, 2004.)

Praying also includes those wordless moments; quiet awe at a sunset on the water, the baby only days old, an anthem that makes you feel God’s spirit. Prayer’s wordless moments are also the painful ones, like being struck silent with shock at a frightening diagnosis, learning you were conned out of your savings—whether these stunning wordless moments are about ourselves or about someone else they are palpable and real, and Buechner and Elizabeth, you and I, know they are also true prayers. They don’t need to begin with “Almighty God…” or end with “…Amen.” They are heard by God even if we never utter them, there is holy hope in that gasp or in the deep sigh. Talk to yourselves and we are also speaking to the Holy One who knew us before we began, our God who knew our prayers before we uttered them, and yet is so glad to hear us find them.

All of our readings have persistence as part of their message—the judge who relents because the widow persists, the letter to Timothy exhorts them to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Our psalmist shows God as the very model of holy persistence;

He will not let your foot be moved
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep. …

The Lord himself watches over you …

So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. …

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.

Our own persistence in faith, be it small or growing or great, is imbued in us by God, by who God is, and in being made in that image. Rather than tire of the repetition or be exasperated by our coming to ask in prayer yet again, I think God hopes for it, knowing we are strengthened by it and drawn ever closer through it. People sometimes tell me they’re angry with God or don’t want to pray because they’ve been let down or feel abandoned. That’s the time to remember that God can withstand whatever we have and whatever we bring. Perhaps God is the ultimate extrovert energized by our constant calling, and joyful in seeing we keep coming, whether in pain or thanksgiving, raging or rejoicing, because it means we have not given up and we have not lost heart.

I cannot count how many times the gospels tell us Jesus prayed or spoke about the need to pray, to keep at it. We don’t get all we ask for and we don’t know if our prayers change God. They do change us, and we return persistently. It’s like the snow we shoveled, first in Utah and later in Minneapolis. If you didn’t shovel your walk and driveway, you couldn’t go out – not to church or work or school, and no one could get to your door either! And once it was all done, you sometimes had to start over again because the snow had kept coming and we still needed a path. Jesus said to pray always and not lose heart, not because God demands we shovel a path to God’s door or that it won’t open otherwise. By our path-shoveling – our prayers,  we are really clearing the path to our own door, to invite God in.

Jesus asks at the end, “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?” Faith isn’t about having all the answers settled or being certain of a predetermined divine plan, or even a prayer life good enough to be graduate level disciples. 

That “faith on earth” dwells in our persistent response to God; Listening, praying, raging, wrestling with life and pain and joy. Faith is continuing to pray even when we don’t get what we ask for. Faith is in those moments of wordless prayers. And in trusting that bidden or not bidden God is present with us always. 

Note: Carl Jung had these words carved over the door to his study; Vacatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit, or Bidden or not bidden, God is present.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Oct. 16, 2024.