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Praying with the Heart

Joel 2: 23 – 32
Luke 18:1 – 8

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Prayer
O God, you have spoken to us in gracious and surprising ways.
You have spoken through your prophets and apostles;
you have spoken in scripture that is always new among us;
you have spoken by the stirring of your Spirit within us;
you have spoken to us in Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh.
Speak to us now in this moment of worship.
Amen.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a well-known Russian author. He has written many books, perhaps the most famous of which is his first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. He spent eight years imprisoned in a labour camp in Siberia during the reign of Stalin. Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labour and slow starvation.

The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair. On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.

Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners. As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing.

Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt, his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet seeing the cross drawn in the dirt reminded him that there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union, something greater than any world power. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the cross, anything was possible.

Slowly, he rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

What the skinny, old prisoner did for Solzhenitsyn, Jesus does for us today in telling us about the insistent widow and the unscrupulous judge. As Solzhenitsyn desperately needed a renewal of hope, so we need encouragement from time to time. The skinny, old prisoner made lines in the dirt. Jesus does something different: he tells us a story. In a certain city there was a judge…and in that city there was a widow…

It is interesting to note the context of this story. It follows right on the heels of Jesus’ very scary story about the end of the age. He is asked, when and where will the kingdom of God come? When will God come in final judgment to bring justice and peace to the earth? Jesus offers some rather cryptic comments, and then takes a breath and continues with the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow.

This is our clue that he is not talking about just any old kind of prayer. He is talking about prayer that asks God to come, and to come soon. He is talking about the line in the Lord’s Prayer which we say every Sunday – “your kingdom come” – a prayer that begs for God’s presence, God’s justice, God’s compassion.

Do you know what I find to be the hardest part of preparing for our Sunday services? It’s not preparing the Bulletin. It’s not researching and writing the sermon. It’s not thinking about the children’s time. It’s writing the prayers! “Let us pray for the world”, I write, “Let us pray for the people of…” and here follows a list of the current trouble spots around the world, situations which affect about twenty or thirty million people. End of prayer.

How can that be effective prayer? What is the value of pointing out to God that the people of the Haiti are still in disarray months after the earthquake, or that the people of the Gaza Strip are crying out for justice and peace? Presumably, God knows that better than we do.

A more honest prayer might be: “Dear Lord, you know perfectly well, better than we do, in fact, where all the problems are, and you also know what you are going to do about them, so please get on with it and do it, and let us know when we can help.” We don’t know what God is going to do, we don’t know how God is going to do it, and we don’t even know, in fact, if God is going to do anything at all.

I have several nieces and nephews, and you’ll probably hear me talk about them quite a bit – partly because I love them and love talking about them, and partly because they often provide me with wonderful sermon illustrations. One of my nieces, Sarah, turned 10 a few years ago and I happened to be present when she was celebrating her birthday.

After a delicious dinner, we brought out the birthday cake with ten candles on top. It was placed in front of her as we sang happy birthday, off-key as usual. She leaned over to blow them out without making a wish. “Aren’t you going to make a wish?” her mother asked. “You have to make a wish”, her father said. “Make a wish,” her sister demanded. Sarah looked as if someone had just run over her cat.

“I don’t know why I keep doing this,” she said to no one in particular. “Doing what?” I asked. “This wishing thing,” she said. “Last year I wished my best friend would not move away, but she did. I wished that I would make the soccer team, but I didn’t. Last year I wished my teacher would come back from the hospital, but she died. So why do I keep doing this?”

Since the issue was wishing, not praying, I left her alone that afternoon, but I know that sooner or later Sarah and I are going to have to talk about prayer. I do not want her to lose heart. I want her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, but I know I will need some explanation for why it does not always seem that way.

This is the same problem Jesus was having with his followers. Things were not going well in the prayer department. The disciples wanted God to make clear to everyone that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God (all these titles were interchangeable!), but instead, there were warrants out for his arrest and even he was telling them that his place at the table would soon be empty.

By the time Luke wrote it all down fifty years later, things had gotten even worse. Rome was standing over Jerusalem like a vulture over a corpse, and there was no sign of the kingdom of God coming any time soon. Jesus had said that he would be right back, but it didn’t happen. People were losing heart, so Luke repeated the story that Jesus had told, about the wronged widow who would not stop pleading her case.

Luke does not tell us what her complaint is about, but it is not hard to guess. Since she’s a widow, her case probably concerns her dead husband’s estate. Under Jewish Law, she cannot inherit it – it goes straight to her sons or to her brother-in-law – but she is allowed to live off of it, unless someone is trying to cheat her out of it. The fact that she is standing alone in the street is a pretty good indicator that none of the men in her family is on her side. If she had any protectors left, they would have kept her at home and gone about things in a more civilized manner. But she has no one holding her back, and as the judge soon finds out, she is quite capable of taking care of herself!

The judge in Jesus’ time sat at the city gate. He is probably sitting on a pile of cushions, surrounded by assistants. All kinds of people demand that their case be heard first. Some aggressive ones elbow forward, others present a bribe to the assistant, to get his attention. Meanwhile the widow, with no bribe to offer, comes every day and loudly cries for justice. This parable is actually meant to be quite humorous, but the humour is lost in translation.

In the original Greek, the judge uses a boxing term for the widow. A literal translation of what he says would be, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out with continued blows under the eye.” The image this conjures up, is that the judge does not want to walk around town with a black eye and have to make up stories about how he got it. Since he cannot stand this idea, he grants her justice to save face (literally, in this case!).

Now, Luke tells us that this story was told to teach us about prayer, to show us that prayer is about not giving up. It is a risky story to use, because – instead of just taking the point about persistence – we rush to make the woman a symbol for us, and the judge a symbol for God.
We should never give up praying, we think, because eventually that reluctant old God will give in, just like the judge.

But Jesus never says that God is like the judge. What he is pointing out is that God’s love is opposite to the judge’s reluctance. However, when so many of our prayers SEEM to go unanswered, God does begin to seem like a reluctant judge; and our persistent prayer, we think, is supposed to turn him kind.

But suppose we try another approach to this story. You see, typical of Luke’s style, this parable is about a great reversal. The unexpected happens. No one would expect the poor widow, a woman in a man’s sphere of influence, to win. So, let’s suppose we are the judge, sitting on our cushions, with lots of things vying for our attention. We are free to make decisions about what this world will be like. Suppose God is like the persistent widow, respecting our freedom, but never leaving us alone. God is the woman who plucks at the attention of a reluctant judge.

God the widow; us the judge. Imagine! God praying, plucking at us, calling us by name. Moses, the reluctant shepherd, heard beside a burning bush: “Moses, you’re the one I need now.” Others have heard this same voice: “You’re the one I need now, Samuel… Ruth… Jeremiah… Mary…. George… Doris… Fred….”

In this understanding, God is not a remote power outside the world, ready to invade with help, if we ask properly. Rather, God is a persistent presence in the world, standing there day after day, like the widow, watching other causes elbow forward and bribe us to take up their cause.

Like the widow, God pesters us, crying through the groaning of creation, through the voices of the homeless, the hungry, through the cries of the orphan children of Haiti, through the wailing of the widows in the Gaza Strip. God stands through it all, plucking at us for intended justice. Our prayer, therefore, is not something WE initiate. It’s listening to the widow’s voice. It is opening ourselves to God’s presence which calls for justice on our streets and throughout the world.

Mother Teresa was once asked what she says to God when she prays. She replied, “I don’t say anything. I just listen.” When the interviewer asked her what she hears God say, she answered, “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.” “And”, she went on, “if you can’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.” You see, there is a listening beyond words, a silence that gives meaning to speech. In that silence, we know God, and we are known by God.

One day, when my niece Sarah asks me outright if God answers prayer, I am going to say, “Oh, sweetie, of course God answers prayer. But God uses US as the answer.”

In praying for others, we are not telling God anything new. We are not reminding God, who has not noticed already. In fact, we are catching up with God, whose eye is on the sparrow, who cries over our tears, who moans with our pain.

To pray for something – a person, a place, a country, peace talks, famine relief – is to see the person, the place, the situation held in the hands of God. Such an act of praying – to see the person or cause held in the hands of God – is the simplest and at the same time the most powerful thing we can do. We do not understand what God will do, nor how our prayers will be translated into human action. We do not understand God, but we may contemplate God. Our prayers keep our hearts chasing after God’s heart, and we do this so that we will not lose heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back.

In fact, we should always be careful how we pray, because WE may be the answer!

Amen

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