Calling to You

Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2022 || Proper 24C || Luke 18:1-8

“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So Luke tells us before sharing the story of a woman whose primary attribute is her unflagging persistence. But I wonder how many of us might like to tiptoe past Jesus’ reason for telling the story in the first place – his desire for his followers (then and now) to pray with dogged persistence, to pray always.

We might like to tiptoe past this notion because it seems so unrealistic. How could we possibly pray all the time? Maybe Jesus is thinking that if he starts as high as “always,” then when we bargain him down, we’ll still be praying sometimes.

Or maybe not. Jesus doesn’t really seem to be one for haggling. Maybe he really does yearn for us to pray always, to pray with the same unflagging persistence as the widow demonstrates in her quest for justice. If that’s the case, then the popular understanding of prayer isn’t going to cut it; that is, an understanding of prayer as simple wish fulfillment. We need a bigger definition of prayer.

To find this bigger definition, please allow me to tell you the story of the beginning of one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. This is how the fourth book, The Silver Chair, begins.

Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole are trying to escape a mob of bullies at the Experiment House, their horrible boarding school. Jill has been crying, and the bullies can smell tears from hundreds of yards away. From their hiding spot, the two targets hear the angry shouts of the searchers. Eustace looks at Jill and wonders aloud if they might be able to escape to That Place, namely Narnia. He begins calling out, “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” Even though she doesn’t know what Eustace is saying, Jill follows his example: “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan!” The bullies draw near. Eustace and Jill scramble through the laurels and up a steep slope. The weathered old door in the wall is always locked, but this time – miraculously – the knob turns. And the two children step into Aslan’s country.

Immediately after they arrive, Eustace falls off a cliff, but a lion arrives just in time and blows him safely to Narnia. The lion – naturally – frightens Jill Pole. She tries to slip away, but the lion begins questioning her. Her showing off caused Eustace’s fall, she confesses. For that display of pride, the lion gives her a task to perform. “Please, what task, Sir?” Jill asks.

“The task for which I called you and him here out of your own world,” the lion says. This response puzzles Jill. Nobody called them. They called out to – Somebody – a name she wouldn’t know. Wasn’t it she and Eustace who asked to come?

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says the lion, Aslan, the Christ-like figure of Lewis’s fiction. This exchange between Aslan and Jill Pole illustrates the foundational principle of our bigger definition of prayer. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.

The Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer states the same thought like this: “Prayer is responding to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.”

Before I learned this definition of prayer, I had never thought of prayer as anything more than asking God for stuff – a very Santa Claus understanding of prayer. But such a narrow understanding begins too far up the ladder. It begins with me, with my initiative, rather than with the Foundation-of-All-That-Is.

The foundation of prayer is God’s presence in our lives and God’s call upon our hearts. “Prayer,” says the Catechism, “is responding to God.” We never initiate a prayer. Our prayer is always a response because God has always been active, has always been breathing our lives into being.

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. You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you. 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.

How full of light and love would those lives be if we took seriously Jesus’ desire for his followers to pray always? How much light and love would we bring to those around us if we strove with unflagging persistence to respond to God in every situation?

If prayer is everything we do in response to God, then Jesus’ call to “pray always” seems a little more realistic – still challenging, still demanding discipline and rigor, but more realistic.

Monastics down through the ages have practiced this bigger definition of prayer. Even the lowliest jobs at the monastery – peeling potatoes or weeding fields – were prayer. Monks prayed many times a day in their chapels, and the labor they performed in the meantime was prayer, as well. They “prayed always,” because they saw everything they did in their lives as a response to God’s presence. While we don’t have strict priors delegating our labors, we can still import the monastic example into our lives.

Look at your day, your week, your year. How do your actions and interactions display your response to God’s movement in your life? As  members of  families, God calls us to love and enjoy and forgive our spouses, children, parents, and siblings. As people made in God’s image, God calls us to discover our authentic selves, the versions of ourselves that God sees and celebrates, and then to honor the image of God in all people. As servants of God, God calls us to discern the best way our God-given gifts and passions can bring light and love to the lives of those around us. When we respond to God in all these areas of our lives, we pray. We affirm our relationships with God. We live the abundant lives that Christ offers to all.

The prayers we pray this morning in our worship service, the lessons we hear, the music we sing, the meal we share, all nourish us for a life of prayer between now and next Sunday. Jesus yearns for us to pray always, to respond to God’s movement at all times. This brand of unflagging persistence is definitely challenging. But the good news is this: even attempting to pray always is a response to God. Even realizing that we aren’t praying always is a response to God. Every impulse towards generosity, welcome, hope, joy, love, and service is a response to God. As are the cries of our hearts when all is bleak and broken. Each day of our lives, we are met with myriad opportunities to pray, to be responsive to God’s movement.

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” says Aslan to Jill Pole. “We love because [God] first loved us,” says the writer of the First Letter of John. Likewise, we pray because God first called us – called us into expansive, abundant relationship with God. And God gives us the grace to respond.

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