October 17, 2010

Giving up on prayer?

Passage: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8, Luke 18:1

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

A recent article in the “New York Times” described the sorry state of most churches in Europe; although there are pockets of great religious fervour the vast majority of Europeans long ago stopped attending church. The Times interviewed many people as to why;  one reason cited a number of times was the simple fact that most Europeans see prayer as totally irrelevant and useless--a whistling in the dark that is a sorry substitute for actually doing something about life's difficulties. It seems that once people stopped having the faith that fuels prayer, suddenly the whole of the Christian life withered and looked out-of-date. Once you've given up on prayer, then going to church looks about as futile as a vegetarian going out for dinner at a steakhouse. What's the sense? There's nothing for you there anyway.

In a sermon by Thomas Long on this text of scripture he related the story of the musical theatre MASS written and produced by the late Leonard Bernstein.  In this work Bernstein said that he found that the Credo—I believe in God—was not a difficult line of the Mass to treat;  Bernstein had set out to treat the mass honestly; that is he meant to reflect on it in light of a sceptical age that had given up on faith.  What he was referring to was that many people believe something about God; many hold to the notion of some vague vapour-like god; a belief in God in a speculative, arm-chair philosophical sort of way.

The words Bernstein said that are much more difficult to treat are “let us pray”.  When you pray all vague ideas of God have to be brought into sharper focus; it can’t be left as a speculative, arm-chair thing any longer.  Questions have to be answered; is there a God who hears; is there a God who responds; is God really listening to me; will this God speak to me?

1. Jesus had been talking with his disciples about when the Son of Man comes; when God would finally put all things to right; the time when God will put an end to injustice.  Jesus is speaking about his second coming.  He knows the hearts of his disciples well; Jesus anticipates that delay will make their hearts anxious; anxiety has a way of exposing the cracks that makes us waver. Jesus tells them a parable  about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Approximately a generation has gone by between Jesus speaking to the disciples that day and when Luke writes his gospel.  Clearly Luke senses the same need for the church not to lose heart in light of the delay in Jesus’ return to put things right. Luke wants his hearers crystal clear about the point of the parable so he announces the point before he relates the parable. We live generations removed from the disciples; Christians have lost heart about praying for his return such that it gets scant attention in many pulpits; Jesus’ word to pray always and not lose heart needs to be heard today as well.

There are lots of other things, besides the delay in Christ’s return, that result in losing heart and ceasing to pray.  I can think of things that I prayed for a long time and I lost heart because it never seemed to materialize.  It seems I acquiesced to a perception of reality thinking things were never really going to change.  It wasn’t that one day I decided as a deliberate act to stop praying for what I longed to see; it was more like a wilting of hope; I forgot to pray for it one day, remembered  the next, then it fell off the prayer radar for three days.  The missed days became for more frequent until I wasn’t praying for it at all.

People have all kind of problems with prayer.  Practical problems like finding time in a busy life.  Ethical problems are noted as well—when I meet with a person who is dying and really needs to let go is it right to pray for them to die?  Theological problems too; when people prayed for the rescue of the miners in Chile did God hear them because they were rescued? If we did not pray for them does this mean that God would do nothing?  We are praying for healing today—would God do nothing about our health if we did not thus pray?  Lots of things make us lose heart resulting in intermittent prayer.

3. If you were to tell a story about the need to pray always and not to lose heart would you repeat Jesus’ parable?  The story Jesus tells is about a widow who through badgering convinces an unjust judge to grant the justice she seeks.

We all know people just like the characters in the story.  In Jesus’ day a woman had little status and a widow no influence at all.  Widows are commonly spoken of in the Bible as those who needed special protection precisely because of their vulnerability.  Under Roman law she had no legal standing from which to appeal to the judge to grant her justice against the opponent seeking to take advantage of her.  She has only one weapon in her arsenal; and people with only one weapon tend to use it.  She badgers him; when he is on the way to lunch she is in front of the restaurant calling to him, as he leaves the court she is there shouting in a loud voice; she calls his office incessantly; leaves lengthy voice mails; sends several emails per day; she hacks into his Facebook page to post messages; she started a “Unjust Judge” webpage to expose the lack of attention this judge gives her.

The judge neither fears God nor has any respect for people (these two things often go hand in hand but we will leave that point to explore in a future sermon).  He is the quintessential slimy political leader whose only reason for doing anything is in the calculation of what is in it for him; the chances of him granting justice to anyone—apart from quid pro quo—are slim to none.  The comedian Bill Cosby once spoke of moments when children come demanding justice from their parents when sister or brother has taken the toy they wanted to play with.  Cosby noted that in these instances children operate under the false assumption that their parents are actually interested in justice; what the parent is interested in is quiet. So the judge grants her justice so she will stop bugging him.  What are we supposed to conclude from this story?

Are we supposed to enter the story through the character of the judge; Jesus seems to indicate this direction when he says: “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”  Is this a story to tell us that even an unjust judge will do the right thing in the end?  Is Jesus saying that, in spite of appearances, deep down God has a structure in place such that at the end of the day things will turn out as they should?  I don’t think so.  If that were the case Luke would have indicated that the point of the parable was something like: “take heart, things aren’t as bad as they seem.” (The Bible doesn’t say reality isn’t as harsh as it seems, injustice is exposed for what it really is). No, the point was “pray always and do not lose heart”.

Well, what about this persistent widow; are we to enter the meaning of the story through her character.  Is this a story about how persistence can bring down corrupt structures?  The story is told of a wealthy businessman and his partner who agreed to meet with Mother Teresa; she was coming to ask them for money for her work.  Knowing this they agreed on a strategy that they would politely listen and then say they had given all they could to other charities.

After listening to Mother Teresa’s appeal they gave their response. Mother Teresa then prayed; she then launched a second tine into her appeal and prayed again after similar response.  By the third round the men broke out their chequebook to get rid of her.  Is that what this story is about?  If that were the case the point would be “pray always”.  IF prayer worked this way always producing the thing asked for simply by persistence you couldn’t keep people out of the prayer room.  But the point of the parable is “to pray always and not lose heart”.

4. The parable is neither a bumper sticker that prayer reveals things not to be as bad as they seem nor a motivational slogan about the power of persistence; the parable isn’t about the character of the unjust judge or the character of the widow.  Ultimately the parable is told to tell us something about the character of God.  If this powerless widow can be granted justice by a judge who has no interest in her or justice how much more will God—the God who loves us, who has the hairs of our heads numbered, who daily looks to the welfare of all his creatures, who loves justice—grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.

The point is akin to the one Jesus makes in another saying Luke records.  “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’” (Luke 11:11-13)

Can we—will we—trust the honour and faithfulness of God; trust that God will honour his own commitments to his people; trust that in fact God is honourable?  It seems to me that it is our trust in God’s character—in spite of the contradictions of reality—that will sustain us not to lose heart.  I am thinking about a friend of mine; I have complete confidence in his commitment to our friendship; if he told me he would do something and did not I would conclude that this is out of character; I would start to worry for him that something was wrong.

In our world we live with much contradiction and injustice that makes us wonder about God; can we in fact trust God to honour his commitments?

5. I have heard a number of answers to this question that go something like this; things looked awful for a while but in the end God not only answered my prayer but in an “above and beyond way”.  In no way do I wish to diminish the experience that difficulty does pass; and as the Psalmist said after difficulty that “God has brought me into a spacious place.”  I have experienced such myself.  Still, my experience of life is riddled with the contradictions of injustice; the complete irrationality of sin and evil; some get ill others do not; some recover others do not; some behave badly and have all the comforts of life, others live by the book and are oppressed.

When Dr. Victor Sheppard was in seminary he played on the school’s hockey team; when the team was returning from a game the car in which he was riding was in a terrible auto accident; three of the occupants were killed; Victor was badly injured and returned to live with his mother, for some of that period in a body cast.  Well meaning church folk would come to visit; one visitor made the comment that God must have something for Victor to do having survived the crash.  Victor’s mother exploded: do you mean to tell me God didn’t have anything for those other boys to do and that is why they died?

I am with Victor’s mother on this; I find these sorts of explanations unsatisfying.  I point you today to look where Luke points us—I know of nowhere else to turn.  To get to where Luke points I want to go briefly to something our other scripture readings say about scripture.

We read in the call to worship from Psalm 119—all 176 verses extol the wonder of the scriptures because through them we are addressed personally by God—this why the Psalmist said: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” The Apostle Paul comes at the same truth from another angel of vision when he said to Timothy: “All scripture is inspired by God” (literally God-breathed).

We haven’t time to fully explore the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture today; I want to lift up to you one aspect of it. Because scripture is inspired by God it unfailingly accomplishes that purpose for which it is given.  Without fail, as often as it is read, the Father will send the promised Spirit, and the Son will loom before us to seize, save and sustain.  Scripture never fails with respect to its purpose, an ever-renewed encounter with Jesus Christ.

That God is addressing us in this parable is precisely Luke’s point; then Jesus told them a parable.  The only place I know to point you is to cast yours eyes in the direction of who it is that is telling you this parable.  Jesus—the one who gave his life for you and me, who bore our sins and carried our sorrows; whose stripes are for our healing; Jesus—who said if you have seen me you have seen God, you have seen the face of God.  Jesus is addressing each of us personally inviting us to trust him when he says that the Father is honourable and can be trusted to grant justice and help.

If Jesus isn’t here in our worship to save and sustain; to encounter you and I; then our worship service is little more than a theology class, a theology class that could be good or mediocre depending on the work put in by the minister any given week.  What we need isn’t another rationalization trying to make sense of the contradictions we face; we need to hear the word of assurance from the lips of God.

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.