Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-18
Today’s Gospel lesson begins like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
This is strange: rarely, if ever, does the Gospel writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. 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. But I think we should let the Gospel writer Luke 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. “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 having the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time.
But in today’s world, hope can be hard to come by. We live in a divided country, where partisan rancor and an inability to share across differences open old wounds and cut fresh ones; some would say, “hopelessly” divided. We live in a world with challenges ranging from desperate poverty to natural disasters to refugee crises; some would say, “hopeless” challenges. In our own seemingly idyllic community, so many people suffer from food insecurity and teeter on the edge of homelessness; some would say, “hopeless” suffering.
And yet we doggedly believe in a God of hope. Some would say such hope is naive, misplaced, even foolhardy. That’s what hope looks like sometimes. Hope looked naive and foolhardy on Good Friday, when our Lord was dying a torturous death on a Roman cross. And yet we know what happened three days later.
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 sees the totality of our lives. 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 the 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. Think of prayer as a phone call. You and I never dial the number: we only have the option to answer the phone when it rings. When we choose to answer, we affirm our desire to participate in our relationships with God. Prayer, then, is the inclination of our lives towards God, our response to what God is already doing in our lives. And what God is already doing in our lives is fueling 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 trouble is when we get stressed or overtired or “crazy” busy, you know what is one of the first things to go? Prayer. The very moments when we need God the most are the exact moments when we tend to stop responding to God, when we stop praying. This is what makes things look hopeless.
I am intimately acquainted with this tendency. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping. When I’ve had a few consecutive nights in a row of waking up at 3:15 in the morning, I sink into the absolute worst version of myself. I take offense at the slightest perceived fault. I get angry easily. I look out at the world and it seems leeched of color. I stumble through my day in a zombified fog, just trying to make it through. After a few days like this in a row, everything seems hopeless. When I finally get a good night’s sleep, I’ll look back on my exhausted days and realize I hadn’t prayed a single time. And my only response to God was hitting the snooze button on our relationship.
But the zombified fog or the crazy busy-ness merely suppresses the truth that hope exists even when we feel hopeless, even when we feel stuck on Good Friday. Hope is still there, right around the corner, at the empty tomb, in the shining reality of the resurrection. Holding on to this hope can be the most difficult thing about following Jesus. That’s why he holds up the example of the widow in the parable. She exemplifies the 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. And soaking up this hope gives us the opportunity to pour it out on all those we meet who feel hopeless. Sounds exactly like the kind of thing we should do everyday
Indeed, prayer is like food; prayer fuels our hope as food fuels our bodies. If your mom or your husband calls you downstairs for spaghetti and meatballs, you don’t call back, “No thanks. I ate last month.” We eat everyday. We pray everyday. We hope everyday. Because God is faithful, and our hope will not disappoint us.