A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

Luke 18:1-8

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

October 13, 2013

Habakkuk 1:1-2:4; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5;

The disciples gave Jesus a pop quiz when they asked him to teach them how to pray. And so he began:  “Our Father who art in heaven …” But if we want to really know what Jesus thought about prayer, we need to listen to this parable …

Quite simply, Jesus says the key to praying is to simply keep at it. In Jesus’ mind, prayer is not about technique, nor is it about public piety, or flowery language. Prayer is not a matter of saying the magic words that activate the all-powerful God to intervene in the activities of the world on our behalf. Rather, it’s more common than that … it’s about dogged persistence. Maybe we feel we don’t have whatever the right something is needed to get God’s ear: The right attitude, the right life, or the right formula of sweet words whispered in God’s judgmental ear. Prayer is not rubbing a spiritual rabbit’s foot, or the luck of the draw betting against the odds that God will miraculously, capriciously draw our prayer in some divine lottery.

Mary Gordon understood it:  “Prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to.”  In that way, prayer is no more than a conversation between two good friends. We should accept the simplicity of prayer as an invitation to spend time with God talking about what’s on our hearts with room in the conversation to listen to whatever God might wish to say in return. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that connects us to the God who created us and who wants to hear about those things that burden us. Prayer is a listening lifeline God tosses our way on those days when that’s all we have.

Frederick Buechner believes “whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea … (So) talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don’t, you may forget what matters most to you. Even if you don’t believe anybody’s listening, at least you’ll be listening. Believe Somebody is listening. Believe in miracles … Believe Jesus who said, ‘All things are possible to him who believes’ (Mk. 9:14-29). Just keep praying, Jesus says.”[1]

All that leads us to the Word-of-the-Day:  Importunate. Not Important, not Unfortunate; rather, the word of the day is Importunate. That’s the chief characteristic this woman relentlessly demonstrated to the uncaring judge. The woman was importunate in demanding justice. Admittedly, we’re living in a pesky time when shrill voices are the tenor of the day, voices demanding to get their way. German novelist Günter Grass shines a different light on this when he advised “it’s the job of the citizen to keep his mouth open.” In our society, those voices are most often loud voices from either the left or the right.

Today’s lesson from Luke is about persistence in prayer but don’t think this is an easy lesson or that you’ll feel any comfort by it. We think prayer ought to be easier than it is because we think of prayer as magical thinking. We bring childlike thinking to prayer and think of God as a heavenly parent we can get God to act by either asking sweetly or manipulating God in some kind of triangulation to force God to act on our behalf.

What we get instead is a troubling version of God one writer described as, “God as Anti-Hero.”[2] But this is not the only time Jesus uses a moral contrast to describe God when Jesus used a questionably bad person to represent some aspect of God we would not recognize in any other way. God is like a friend you go to at midnight to borrow bread. The friend tells you to drop dead, but you go on knocking anyway until finally your friend gives you what you want and he goes back to bed (Lk. 11:5-8). Or, this story: God is like a wicked judge who refuses to hear the case of a certain poor widow, presumably because he knows there’s nothing in it for him. But she keeps on hounding him until finally he hears her case just to get her out of his hair (Lk. 18:1-8). Even a stinker, Jesus says, won’t give his own child a black eye when she asks for peanut butter and jelly (or something like that), so how much more will God give the child what she needs (Matt. 7:9-11)?

But there’s more to this idea of prayer. Remember during the experience of the Babylonian exile, when the people of God watched as the great Temple was destroyed and the aristocracy class of Jews were forced into slavery, the prophet Isaiah came along and challenged them to take their suffering and put it to use for a new future?

He taught them to use the crisis to accomplish the redemption of the world:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him,

to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant, these will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer …

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people (Isaiah 56:6-7, NRSV).

The anti-hero God reaches beyond all our expectations and our small-minded view of the world. In the house of prayer, God creates a covenant of inclusion offered to all who humble themselves and pray. In doing so, outsiders become insiders! The outcasts are brought into the place where God and humankind meet through prayer and are given shelter and welcomed as God’s people.

Stephen Shoemaker clarifies what this means: “(God) tore down the walls of the holiness maps which divided people into clean and unclean; (God) crossed all boundaries which divided people into good and bad, superior and inferior, and invited all people into the presence of the Lord. This was why (God) cleansed the temple; this was why the veil of the holy of holies in the temple was rent when Christ died. This is why Paul wrote, “Christ is our peace, who has made us all one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Those far off have been brought near. The cross has cleansed us all. Jesus paid it all.”

So we can all be clear about this … “A house of prayer is not a house of prayer unless it is a house of prayer for all people. It is not a house of religiously privileged, the morally and spiritually superior; it is a house of prayer for all people.” [3]

So Jesus told them this parable to urge us to pray always and never lose heart. The parable rests on two unsettling characters:  A judge who had neither reverence for God nor regard for people, and a woman, but not just any woman, she was a widow. The judge flicked her away like a bothersome bug but she kept bugging him until he said, “Though I have no fear of God or respect for anyone else, I’ll grant this widow justice so she’ll stop bothering me and wearing me out with her constant cries for justice.”

Perhaps our greatest spiritual poverty is this:  There’s not enough calling on God. There are no set formulas to follow, no right or wrong ways to pray, just calling on the name of the Lord.

And in the house of prayer, if my prayers are welcomed, so are yours. And so are the prayers of any humble enough and persistent enough to say them.

If a cold-hearted judge would yield to the persistent nagging of a poor widow, how much more will a loving God respond to our persistent praying? We have more power than we can ever imagine if we’ll seek the kingdom of God and ask persistently for the right things. “You have not because you ask not,” says James. Let’s ask God and if necessary, we’ll persist until we get our answers.

[1] Frederick Buechner, “Prayer,” Wishful Thinking, A Theological ABC, NY: HarperCollins, 1973,71

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, “God as Anti-hero,” The Parables of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, 171-77

[3] Stephen Shoemaker, “The Church as a House of Prayer for all People,” Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, TX

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