Sunday, October 17, 2010

Faith and Prayer

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
October 17, 2010

Year C: Proper 24, The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Faith and Prayer

I know I’m a little disoriented because the seasons are different here, but it feels like time is passing very quickly. It’s hard to believe that in just six weeks we will begin the season of Advent – the season in which we both prepare for Christmas and also look ahead to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

It’s during Advent that we are most aware that we live in an in-between time. Jesus has lived, died and risen, changing everything for all time. Yet, when we look at the world around us nothing much seems to have changed at all. Most people, including most of us, just go about our business as usual. But Christians have always understood that we live in an in-between time – the time between Jesus’ resurrection and his return. We live between the twilight of an old world and the dawn of a new world.

For the early followers of Jesus, this in-between time was a very difficult time and place.

It was difficult for a lot of reasons. First, the earliest followers of Jesus had expected that Jesus would return very soon, perhaps today, maybe this week.

Since that didn’t happen, by the last decades of the First Century when the gospels are written, there was understandable anxiety. When Lord? How much longer, Lord? Where are you, Lord?

On top of that, the first followers of Jesus had to deal with their neighbors, who were at best suspicious and at worst openly hostile to the Jesus movement. It was very hard to remain faithful to an apparently tardy Jesus when one’s safety was constantly in danger. The longer Jesus took to return, the easier it was to lose heart.

Today’s parable of the widow and unjust judge from the Gospel of Luke clearly addresses these very real concerns of Jesus’ first followers living in this in-between time. Luke spells out parable’s meaning right from the start:
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”

There are only two characters in this parable. There’s a judge who lacks both religion and scruples and one very determined widow. In Hebrew Scripture there is a very heavy emphasis placed on taking care of widows – an emphasis that this judge at first chooses to ignore.

Since, as a woman the widow had no standing before the judge, she should have gotten a son or a brother or some other male relative to plead her case. Since she goes to the judge, we can assume that not only was she a widow, but she was utterly alone and very vulnerable.

Yet, despite her aloneness and vulnerability, she persists. She really persists, and she finally gets what she wants. In our translation the judge says, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” Other translations are a bit more vivid: “I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face.”

So, maybe literally to save face, the judge gives the persistent widow what she wants.

We’re meant to conclude that if the unjust judge gives this woman what she wants, then certainly God who is infinitely more just and loving will surely answer the pleas of us, God’s people.

Luke quotes Jesus as asking, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”

And then Jesus concludes with one last question, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

So, what does all this mean for us?

At first this seems like a pretty straightforward parable – if we are persistent in prayer – if we cry to God day and night - if we keep the faith - then God will quickly give justice to us.

But, we all know that doesn’t mean that God is like a pushover parent or grandparent. God giving justice to us doesn’t mean that we can get whatever we want from God if we’re just persistent, if we pester God, if we nag God, if we just pray hard enough.

And even if God does grant us what we want, we don’t necessarily get it as quickly as we’d like. There are surely many praying people who wait a long time for justice.

So, I really struggled with this passage over the past few days. And, as I grappled with this parable, I kept circling back to the basics: faith and prayer.

Faith and prayer.

Jesus asks, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

But, what is faith? I think when most of us think about faith we think of a list of propositions that we either believe in – or not. In a few minutes we’ll all stand and say the Nicene Creed. In a way, the creed is a checklist, and we can check off items depending on how much faith we have.

But, I don’t think the checklist is the type of faith that Jesus hopes to find on earth when he returns.

During this in-between time the most important kind of faith is trust. The great challenge for us as Christians past and present is to put our trust in a God who operates on a timetable that is not the same as ours. Our great challenge is to have faith – to put our trust in God – even though in this in-between time we can’t always see how God is at work in our lives. Our great challenge is to persist in faith – to persist in placing our trust in God.

And that’s why we’re here today. Since persisting in faith can be so hard, we gather here each week to tell the old stories, to sing the hymns, to encourage each other, and to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

And since persisting in faith can be so hard, we also look for inspiration to the lives of Christians who’ve gone before us. We remember the holy women and men who have also faced challenges and persisted in putting their faith in – placing their trust in - God.

On Friday the Church remembered Teresa of Avila (and today here at St. Michael’s we are honoring our Teresa of Avila chapter of the Daughters of the King.) Teresa is a great example of a woman who faced many challenges and obstacles and yet persisted in putting her trust in God.

Teresa was born in 1515 to a wealthy Spanish merchant family. Against her family’s wishes she became Carmelite nun. A couple of years later she suffered a devastating illness, which gave her fainting fits, heart problems and even paralysis. At one point she seemed so close to death that a grave was dug in preparation for her burial.

But, she recovered and devoted the rest of her life to reforming the Carmelite order, opening new convents, writing, and, most of all, prayer.

When we look at the lives of Teresa and all the holy women and men who have persisted in faith we find that the best way for us in this in-between time to persist in faith is through prayer.

The persistent widow is a role model of one kind of prayer – petition – asking God for what we want – sometimes over and over and over! And there’s certainly nothing wrong with petition. We do it all the time – here in church and in our own lives. And God certainly wants us to ask for good gifts for others and ourselves.

But petition is just one kind of prayer – and not the most important.

Teresa of Avila understood this. She was a great mystic who wrote profoundly about prayer. Here’s her beautiful description of what she called mental prayer - simply spending time with God:

“For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

Teresa described the Christian spiritual life as an “interior castle.” Through our own prayer we enter the first few rooms of the castle but then when we are quiet and simply spend time with God, when we make time for God, when we are open to God, God draws us ever closer. As we move deeper into the “interior castle,” our faith – our trust in God – becomes more and more complete.

And isn’t that the kind of faith, the kind of trust and closeness, that God predicts and dreams of in today’s lesson from Jeremiah? God says,

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

It’s six weeks to Advent - time is passing quickly, but you and I are still in this in-between time. Jesus has lived, died and risen again, but we’re still here trying to remain persistently faithful.

The great challenge of our lives is to put our faith – our trust – in God. And it’s through prayer – here together in church, at home and in the quiet of our own hearts – that our trust deepens, our faith grows, and we come to know the God whose nature and name is Love.

It’s through prayer that when the Son of Man comes he will find faith on earth.

The basics: faith and prayer.