As I prepared today’s sermon I found I could not get past the first verse: Jesus told a parable about the need to pray and not lose heart. Jesus told this parable because he knows we need to pray. We need to pray. Full stop. We need to pray. We need it. God doesn’t need it. We do.
We need to pray because we need to connect with God; we need to be in God’s presence. That is where our peace, power, strength and healing come from. As a church we (as Episcopalians) are steeped in prayer. Our entire liturgy is prayer. Prayer and scripture are the hallmarks of our faith. Our BCP is a collection prayers most of which are based on, or drawn from, scripture. Those prayers frame every day of our lives—if we let them. As individuals, our prayer practices vary widely: Some pray every morning when they rise, give thanks before every meal, and pray again before they sleep. Some pray all the offices of the Church—morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer and compline. Some pray through their day as they see situations unfold around them, like praying when you drive past an accident, fire or funeral procession. Some set aside time daily to remember the concerns of those they hold dear. Some pray in traffic—I maintain that some of those curses are actually prayers. Some pray when—and only when—in distress.
However we pray, however much we pray, there is space and grace for us to grow deeper in our practices of prayer. We need to pray and not lose heart because our practice of prayer is not like someone else’s or even like ours used to be. God is glad to hear from us and does not berate us for how long it has been since we called; in other words God is not like some of our mothers. God’s arms, ears and heart are open to us whether we just spoke this morning or it’s been so long we figure we ought to start off by reintroducing ourselves.
Pray and don’t lose heart. Pray like there’s a God who hears. Pray when you feel like it and even when you don’t. Pray and don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right. Just pray. Don’t worry about how you pray or how someone else prays. Just open your heart to God. Stand, sit, kneel; pray in bed or while walking or driving. There are many kinds of prayer: adoration—blessing God, prayers of confession, contrition and repentance—surrendering our faults and failures to the forgiving grace of God, prayers of thanksgiving—prayers of pure gratitude for all God is and all God does, and prayers of supplication—prayers in which we ask God for what we, others and the world need, and sometimes what we want. There are many who think supplication for ourselves and intercession for others are the only kinds of prayer. It is alright to ask but prayer is so much more than asking.
Prayer is our conversation with God, our time with God. Whatever the form of our prayer, words from our hearts or the shared language of the Church from our prayerbooks, what we often lack is silent time with God. We need to sit in God’s presence and listen, wait and be present. This is hard. There are so many distractions and we have so much to say, not just on our behalf but on behalf of this crucified and crucifying world. Jesus said, we need to pray and not lose heart. No matter how broken the world, how impossible the problems, we need to pray and not lose heart. That means now, in this election cycle. Pray and don’t lose heart. When bodies are piling up in the street, pray and don’t lose heart. When women’s bodies are reduced to objects to be grabbed and groped, pray and don’t lose heart. When your own private griefs are known by no one else, pray and don’t lose heart. Pray like there’s a God who hears.
We need to pray and that means we need to listen to and for God as well as pouring out our hearts. Most of us will not hear God speak in an audible voice. So we need to spend enough time with God that we learn to recognize how she speaks to us, though our own conscience and inner voice, through the words of scripture, through the words of others—I don’t mean through the folk who love to say God told me to tell you… Sometimes God speaks through folk who don’t know that they are bearing a word for someone else. Prayer is listening, as much as if not more than, speaking. Above all we need to sit in prayer whether we feel like it or not, whether we hear back or not, whether we feel anything or not, even whether we feel God’s presence or not. We are nurturing a relationship and being transformed by it, and that takes time.
Jesus said we need to pray and not lose heart. God knows it’s easy to lose heart. Honestly, anyone with good sense would lose heart. Have you seen our world? Do you watch the news? Read the paper? Have you looked at social media? We live in a world in which the empire that would swallow the world killed Jesus and our empires are no better. We are surrounded on every side by rising tides of death, and destruction. Black folk are still being killed by police at rates unequal to any other group and often being denied the right to a trial by execution in the street. Financially vulnerable countries that we have helped exploit suffer catastrophic losses of human life on our doorstep. As we are reminded every October, victims of domestic violence are killed by those they trusted to love them every day of the year. In the face of so much death, despair, destruction, disease and crushing debt, people are living with anguish and anxiety. Prayer grants us the strength and courage to face these difficult times, the clarity to know what it is we must do when there is something we can do, and the peace to trust God with all that is beyond our strength.
Jesus used the story of an unjust judge—a broken justice system—and a widow—one of the most vulnerable members of society, normally emblematic of deep poverty though she is not described as poor here. She is due justice no matter her financial means. She resorts to the justice system expecting to find justice and instead finds injustice and indifference. Two thousand years later many women are still looking for justice from legal and social systems that that don’t hold men accountable for sexual assault and harassment while blaming women for their own assaults or calling them liars, and sometimes both.
In this age of #BlackLivesMatter, people are crying out for justice to the very ones entrusted with delivering that justice just like that widow and being met with anything but justice. And just like that widow we are committed to showing up day and night until we get justice, even if things get a little rough. The judge knew that protest over justice denied inevitably escalates. The NRSV translation that we use says “so that she may not wear me out.” That is one possible translation, but the verb hupopiazo also means slap or punch in the face and blacken an eye or two. Saint Jerome translated it as “beat me black and blue.” (Vulgate: suggillet; Peshitta: mahro,“harm”) Other bibles have “beat me down.” (ESVS) Justice cannot be continually denied with no expectation of upheaval or uprising. The judge knew that he could not continue to deny her justice and remain unscathed. And so, out of concern for his skin and only his skin, he ruled in her favor.
Jesus and his imaginary widow make it look easy. In the space of three verses the judge gives the woman the justice she is due. It has been 2000 years since Jesus was lynched for preaching and protesting against injustice and telling folk to demand justice and not give up. We have found that it takes a bit longer than it looks like in the gospels. My ancestors were enslaved for four hundred years. They prayed and didn’t lose heart. Oh, I’m sure some did, but there were others praying to take up the slack. Black folk petitioning unjust judges in counties and states for the right to vote were just like that woman. It took longer than in that parable but they prayed and didn’t lose heart.
Our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers petitioned the church and the state for the right to marry even though both had long histories of discriminating against them. Some of them were prayerful people who prayed and didn’t lose heart. Unjust judges and county clerks are granting marriage licenses they withheld for too long and our church is not alone in saying all of the sacraments are for all of God’s children. When I start to lose heart I look at all praying people have accomplished and I don’t lose heart.
Three years ago I was wrestling with why I pray for peace in this world that seems to have never known peace this side of the Garden. I revisit these words when I need to be encouraged to keep praying:
We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.