Year C Proper 24: On the need to pray always and not to lose heart

The days are coming, says the Lord, says Jeremiah, the days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. The days are surely coming. And Jesus affirms the words of the prophet: Will not God listen to those who cry out day and night? Will God delay to do justice? The days are surely coming.

But what do we do while we are waiting?

Patience is not easy to come by. We live in a world run riot with fast this and instant that and quickie the other. We are barely able to contain ourselves while we fast forward through the adverts to get back to our favourite show. Heaven help the person who hesitates for half a second when the traffic light turns green – unless she’s a big fan of the car horn symphony orchestra! Waiting for the yes or no on a job application can be all-consuming. Waiting for medical test results, school exam results, waiting to find out whether the fog will lift and the plane will leave, waiting in line for the drive through when there are four, count them, four whole cars ahead of us! – most of us don’t do so well with waiting. We change lanes repeatedly to try to find a shortcut through the traffic jam when really, everyone’s on the same road. We check our email compulsively, almost convulsively, to see if the answer’s come through yet. We want what we want, and we want it now!

But that desire can be a good thing, it can be a driving force for getting on, for learning, for growing, if it is tempered with patience rather than impatience, persistence rather than frustration. Because patience is not necessarily passive, and persistence doesn’t have to be rude.

You may have noticed a certain theme to the hymnody that we’re using this morning. It’s a harvest festival, celebrating the in-gathering of our gifts to the food pantry, our successful first season in the garden, our ongoing stewardship campaign, and highlighting the offerings of our music ensemble. You know, to learn a musical instrument takes tremendous amounts of both patience and persistence. If you are too impatient for perfection, you will all too easily give up hope and lose interest in the instrument. It’s easy to make a horrible noise on a school recorder. It takes a lot more effort to make it joyfully, knowing that it is one more step towards something beautiful.

Growing a garden takes a mixture of that practical persistence and passive patience. You have to keep the faith: watering and weeding and waiting; but there are so many variables that are out of our control: the weather, the wild animals, the variety of whims to which nature is inclined. But, says the letter to Timothy, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

Of course, the letter-writer is talking not about practicing the piano or growing a garden, but about sharing our faith, persistently and patiently, whether the time is good or bad, his point being that there is never a bad time to share the love of God, the hope that is in Jesus Christ, the promise that the days are surely coming when justice will prevail and God’s kingdom will come, God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. There is never a bad time to advocate for justice. But like so many good things, it takes patience. It takes persistent and faithful patience, persistent and patient hope.

The widow, in the Gospel story, is anything but patient. She is more like us in the traffic gridlock, angry and a little bit out of control. She is, in fact, literally beating up on the judge. The words that our translation uses are very gentle, but the image of the original language is much less genteel. We are used to reading parables as allegories: this stands for that; we are the widow, God is the judge; but this judge is the epitome of all that is godless, and the widow is a cartoon character of a little old lady beating up on him with her umbrella. We do not, I think, see ourselves following the widow’s example by beating God into submission with our prayers.

So what does it mean for Jesus to tell a parable about needing to pray always and not to lose heart?

I wonder if the key is there at the very beginning: do not lose heart. I wonder if it is there at the end: will the Son of Man find faith, that patient and persistent hope?

I know that God listens to our prayers. We don’t need to beat God like a lazy judge – God is swift with mercy and abundant in grace and love. God has promised seedtime and harvest in their due season. The days are surely coming, says the prophet, when God will say, they will be my people, and I will be their God. Remembering, when times are difficult, when progress is patchy at best, when the harvest doesn’t grow or gets washed away, burned away, buried by snow; remembering that God is faithful, that the days are surely coming; that is what takes patience and persistence.

And prayer, talking to God, staying in touch with God, recognizing that our lives are lived in the presence, the ever-attentive, responsive presence of God; prayer helps. It helps to keep us hopeful. It helps to keep us connected. It helps us to recognize God’s mercy when it happens, God’s unexpected graces when they fall.

Sometimes, when our prayers are repeated week after week, we wonder if we have the patience to persist; but like a musical talent blossoming or a garden blooming, the only way forward is faithful devotion, persistent practice, and perhaps a little patience.

Does prayer change the mind of God? I really don’t know how to answer that. I know that God is not a lazy judge who needs bullying into action; God is always good. But I know, too, that prayer does change us. It changes the person praying, entering into partnership with God in a moment of intentional intimacy. It changes the people prayed for, too.

One morning this week I woke up knowing that the day to come would be something of a trial. I began to pray, but it was difficult. You know when your thoughts are on a loop and it’s hard to find the end of them in order to find the beginning? It was difficult to know where to start. Then I remembered the people who had promised to pray for me that morning; the five women I meet with every Monday morning to discuss these scriptures and share their applications to our lives and ministries. I remembered that they were praying for me, and resting in their prayers, I found myself able to join with them, and to enter the day with the confidence that is within the gift of God’s grace.

(Not long afterwards, when I turned on my phone, the first thing that popped up was an email from one of the women, saying, “We’re praying for you,” followed by a chorus of Amens from the others. I wasn’t just imagining it!)

In a few moments we will join together in the Prayers of the People. We will pray to God for the church, the world, for ourselves and for our families and friends. We do so in faith that God is listening, and will take our prayers to heart, and answer them as God best can: God’s will be done, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. In praying together we can encourage one another in faith and trust, knowing that there is no unfavourable time for God’s mercy, no poor time to pray.

I am going to ask you, then, to think as we move towards our prayers together, of what it is that you are waiting patiently for, what problems persist, where you need God’s promise in your life, in our lives together. Remember those thanksgivings, too, which prayer recognizes. Bring those prayers to the silence between our petitions, and speak them to God. Speak them into the silence, and know that God is listening; and be at peace.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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