19th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
The late Fred Craddock, who wrote commentaries, but was a long-time preacher, wrote of prayer:
The human experience is one of delay and honestly says as much, even while acknowledging the mystery of God's ways. Is the petitioner being hammered through long days and nights of prayer into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes? We do not know. All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, and waiting, trust sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry. Persons of such prayer life can only wonder at those who speak of prayer with the smiling facility of someone drawing answers from a hat. In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”
Preaching: Commentary on Luke, Frederick Craddock, p. 209-10
We could easily get tired of talking about prayer and yet, it is the cornerstone of how we relate to God in Christ and continue to grow in that relationship. Prayer deepens our sense of faith and understanding of God’s grace and mercy, whether we pray in community, by ourselves, or have hands of healing laid upon us. Without prayer, we as people of God are truly lost. With persistent prayer, we can forge a strengthening faith that has the possibility to do great things with and through God in the world and to awaken a joyous faith that, for most of us, has been elusive up until now.
But we so often don’t pray or spend little energy in it because we don’t really know what it does. Fred Craddock’s little paragraph brings to the fore two vital ideas about prayer: one tells us what prayer is, and the other, what prayer is not. Prayer is not, we really need to understand, about putting our coins of petition and need into a Godly vending machine and getting our packaged request at the bottom. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if prayer actually worked that way? But, in my experience and of the people in my life, prayer doesn’t work that way. And, when we find out it doesn’t, as Craddock says above, we can become discouraged and, understandably, angry. Secondly, Rev. Craddock tells us, perhaps, what prayer is or might be. It is about us knocking at the locked door, our knuckles bleeding … or, more telling, it is about hard days and nights of prayer, seemingly not hearing God, but all the while, through faithfulness in seeking God in prayer, we are actually being made into spiritual beings capable of hearing God’s voice. But, sometimes, we have to stop talking first. Sometimes, we have to move past need-based prayer alone and begin to seek relationship.
Jesus offers his parable about the unjust judge who grants the petition of the widow not because he thinks she has a good case, or because he is a God-fearing, good man. Jesus tells us plainly he is a scoundrel, a nasty–wasty skunk. He grants the woman’s request because she simply is not going to go away; she will not leave him alone. God, Jesus also tells us, is not the unjust judge who gives us our way because we persist in prayer. God responds to us because His desire is to be in relationship with us; and He loves us. Prayer is not for God’s benefit but for ours. But only through our persistent prayer can we begin to be shaped into beings who can actually hear, understand, and live in hope of God. Persistence is faith and our response to faith is prayer, which grows faith and brings us closer and closer to Almighty God.
There are many ways that we pray. We pray each Sunday, as we come together. From beginning to end, from the opening Hymn to the dismissal; the Eucharist prayer, the Confession … all we offer as prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and hope. But our prayer together is only one form of prayer and, if we do it often enough, we feel that bit of growth closer to God’s presence. But once a week is not enough for us to be shaped into the vessels that we need to be to hear God’s voice clearly. We must find time to be alone with God, too. I invite you to sit, for a few minutes at least, each week or when you are traveling in your car, to cut off the radio/Pandora, and simply invite God to join you and just be quiet for a few minutes, actively thinking about God, no words, no attempt at words, and merely listen for God. See what happens ...
Reading Scripture is also a form of prayer. When we read Scripture, we might actually be engaging in the purest form of prayer. Each week we hear scripture read, including a psalm (sung or said) and do we really listen. Finding a few moments each day is vital to read scripture and inviting God into the process. Even if it is reading the single verse at the top of a Forward Day by Day reflection that you can think about during the day; scripture is a pathway to growing relationship with God and understanding God’s will for our lives.
There are many other forms of prayer but what I believe Jesus was really after, is will He find people of faith, true commitment and devotion to God, in His name, when he returns as He has promised? I believe what Jesus means by persistence in prayer is working toward a life that is prayer; a life of prayer that defines who we are and what we wish to be. The prayer that I have described helps us get there, but this is a step further but involves reorienting our thinking about God in our lives, rather than changing our daily lives in radical ways. We are called to begin to think or our actions, our work, our relationships in terms of God’s presence in them. How do we understand our lives as prayer?
One of the favorite adventures that I went on during my time in England was to Ely Cathedral, just south of Cambridge. Begun at the end of the 11th century, Ely is stunning in its beauty. I spent nearly a whole day there, on the inside, outside, praying, thinking, walking. One of the things that I was really glad that I did was take a tower tour. With our trusty and knowledgeable guide, I walked up 288 steps to the top of the west tower with a young mother and her two sons, all who had done the tour before. Our guide told us many fascinating facts, one about the monks and their fondness for making and drinking beer … a story for another day. We went around to the north side of the tower and there was an embossed relief, carved into that side of the tower, the image of a very contemporary looking man. He was not a bishop or cardinal; no important churchman or wealthy benefactor. He was, in fact, the foreman who had led the last set of major renovations done at Ely. And I began to think of all the men and women who had worked on the Cathedral over the millennium since it was begun, particularly the stone masons, who exquisitely cut the stones that were nearly perfectly laid into place. Parts of the cathedral have stood for a thousand years.
Perhaps they did not think of their work this way, but I certainly do: their work was work of prayer. The cathedral is a center and place of prayer but I believe it is, itself, a prayer to God, soaring to God, representing not only the prayers offered in it, but the lives of prayer of those who built it and the masons who continue to repair it. There are many here who do wonderful things for this place and for the community and world from this place. It is a place of prayer, where prayers are offered but it is, itself, a prayer of all those who have built, repaired, and lived the way of Jesus in this community for 147 years. What would happen for us in our lives if we began to think of our very actions, relationships, and lives as prayer to God? How would it change us and, by extension, those around us? But it is not something we can do once or twice; our lives of prayer, like the prayers we are called to offer, can only bring us closer to the One who made us and saves us, if we are persistent, as Paul says, no matter if the times are “favorable or unfavorable.” Our lives are in God’s hands; our prayers acknowledge not only that reality, but the reality that we are stronger, happier, and feel more blessed when we are moving toward the God who created us.
Our annual appeal for stewardship begins today. As always, we will ask for you to pray intentionally as you reflect on what you are able to give to help not only sustain our buildings and maintain our staff. Our pledges are part of our prayer of growth in our life with God. They are not measured in amounts, but in our persistent commitment for this to be a place of prayer; we hope that our prayers in and from this parish can be a way for the world to grow in relationship with God. Our prayers are not fundamentally for our needs, but rather for our growth in understanding who God is and who God can be in our walk upon this earth. Let us begin.