(Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2010 || Proper 24 Year C RCL || Luke 18:1-8)
On August 25, 2010, a crucifix traveled 2,300 feet down into the earth. The Apostles’ Creed tells us that Jesus, after he suffered and died on the cross, “descended to the dead.” This crucifix, this representation of the cross supporting the weight of the crucified Lord, descended to the living. Twenty days had passed since the mine collapsed, trapping 33 miners nearly half a mile beneath the soil of the Atacama region of Chili and nearly ten weeks from rescue.
Backing up to August 5th, the day of the collapse, a single thought began to spread from the miners’ families to the community to the city to the country to the world: Oremos por nuestros hermanos, “Pray for our brothers.” On August 22, a note scrawled in red marker came to the surface: “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” The message was a glimmer of hope. And over the next several weeks, the glimmer turned into a beacon of hope shining in the depths of the earth.
That crucifix, that image of the suffering Christ, which descended to the living, was a physical representation of the hope that was already present in that shelter half a mile down. The persistent, unceasing prayers of the world – from the pregnant wife of miner Ariel Ticona to the bus driver coming off a double shift in Boston – sustained the hope of the miners. And so, in a fit of divine synchronicity, the Gospel reading for the Sunday following the miners’ rescue would, of course, begin like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
Rarely, if ever, in the Gospel does the writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Every once in a while, the writer will explain a parable once the story is over. But most often, parables stand alone, with neither introductory material nor closing explanation to help the reader. Indeed, Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. So, when Luke prefaces Jesus’ parable today with the story’s apparent meaning, we’d be justified in being a bit indignant toward our Gospel writer. Luke doesn’t give us the chance to figure this parable out for ourselves. He tells us the meaning of the parable like a teacher going over the answers to a test before passing out the exam.
But while our indignation toward Luke might be justified, I think we should let him slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. Living out this parable helps us live lives full of God. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about praying always and never giving up, or to put the meaning in positive terms, to have the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time.
We’ve seen over the last seven weeks in Chili that prayer and hope are linked together. In the midst of disaster, prayer and hope rose to the surface and sustained the people affected by the mine’s collapse. Now, let’s be clear. We use the word “hope” for simple, everyday situations such as “I hope the train is on time” or “I hope this week’s episode of Glee is better than the rest of the season, which has been pretty dreadful.” This everyday use of “hope” is of a different magnitude than the hope we are talking about here.
Hope (you might call it capital “H” hope) is the active component of not losing heart. In a world that excels at distracting us from following Jesus Christ and seducing us with the ease of apathy, hope keeps us relying on God to direct us down the right paths. Hope in God allows us to take the long view of our own futures, trusting that God, like a master chess player, has already seen twenty moves ahead. Hope in God opens us to possibilities for our lives that the urgent need of now simply dismisses offhand. Hope in God tells us that God will never lose heart in us, and therefore, we should never lose heart in God.
Hope is the active component of the heart’s steadfastness, and prayer is the active component of hope. Prayer nurtures hope by reminding us that, despite the world’s distraction and seduction, God is present. The Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer says this about prayer: “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deed, with or without words.” Notice how this definition adds much needed depth to the popular understanding of prayer. The popular understanding simply makes God the recipient of our prayers: if I pray for my cat to stop scratching me, and the next day she does anyway, I am liable to think that God is not present. But the Catechism’s definition goes back a step in the process of prayer. Prayer is “responding to God.” Therefore, each and every time we pray, we are participating in the life-changing act of acknowledging that God is present in our lives. God calls prayer forth from us. We respond by praying. Each time we enter this exchange of call and response, God fuels our hope with God’s steadfast and eternal presence.
This is why Jesus tells the disciples a parable not just about the need to pray, but the need to pray always. A continuous life of prayer, of response to God, offers us continual awareness of God’s presence. This awareness leads to hope, which, in turn, enables us to live lives open to all of God’s possibilities and to trust in God’s directing creativity.
The widow in the today’s parable exemplifies this need for continuous perseverance and dedication. She keeps coming to the judge, and, in the end, her persistence pays off. Her unwavering commitment to obtaining justice moves the judge, who grants her request simply to get her out of his hair. If she had gone to court once, been dismissed, and never returned, the judge wouldn’t have given her a second thought. But her persistence changes her situation.
This persistence, this dedication to a life of prayer changes our situations, too. Like the persistent widow, our commitment to prayer signals our commitment to respond to God in every situation. The more we commit to prayer, the more apt we are to invite God into our lives and our decision-making. And opening ourselves to God’s presence allows us to soak up the hope that radiates from God’s movement in our lives. Seen from this angle, prayer works very much like food. If your mom or your husband calls you downstairs for meatloaf, you don’t call back, “No thanks. I ate last month.” Prayer leads to openness and trust and hope in God only when we integrate prayer into our daily lives.
The miners surviving 2,300 feet below the surface fed off of the hope generated by God’s presence, a presence proclaimed by the vast multitude of prayers descending on Chili from around the world. Upon his rescue, miner Mario Sepulveda spoke haltingly about his own persistence and hope: “I was with God and I was with the devil, but God won. I held onto God’s hand, the best hand, and at no point in time, how do I explain this, at no point in time, did I doubt that God would get me out of there.”
Sepulveda’s persistent awareness of God’s presence allowed him to survive for 69 days beneath the earth. The parable of the persistent widow teaches us that a life of prayer leads to hope, and hope leads to renewed lives lived in the fullness of God. I invite you to enter into a life of prayer, to find the hope that proceeds from that life, and finally to share the joy of our hope in God with everyone you meet. This happened in Chili: Elizabeth Segovia, wife of trapped miner Ariel Ticona, did not lose heart that her husband would be rescued. She joined her prayer with the prayers of millions. And halfway through the seven-week ordeal, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. And she named her “Esperanza,” which means “Hope.”
Quotations and dates for the mine rescue from CNN.com.