Pray always. Never give up.
Rev. Mary Trainor
October, 20 2013
Pray always. Never give up.
Pray always. Never give up
Sermon, Proper 24C, The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 20, 2013
The Rev. Mary P. Trainor
Blessed be the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m pretty sure that most of us have run up against something in our lives that has overwhelmed us. Something so big that we just felt defeated in the very face of it.
It is hard to march on in the presence of seeming unbeatable odds. When it seems too big, we may even give ourselves permission to give up. You know, that old saying: You can’t beat city hall.
Of course, it’s true that not everything that opposes us is of world-shaking importance. For those lesser woes, giving doesn’t seem to have a price tag. Giving up may even seem to be a wise choice. It may even be a wise choice. Either way. We give up.
There’s a risk, however, that lies in wait for us there, a risk of giving up too easily on things that actually are important, giving up before we even try. Giving up can become a life pattern, so much so that we don’t even see it as giving up any more.
That’s why it’s important for us to hear stories about people who don’t give up, people who face their lives with grit and gumption. In the face of unemployment, lawsuits, illness, unpopularity, disability of one sort or another, some people just keep going, maybe even thrive, under conditions that might completely undo others of us.
Here’s a good story about someone who always faced insurmountable odds with great courage.
Some years ago, Mother Teresa planned a visit to the office of super-lawyer Edward Bennett Williams in Washington, D.C. Her purpose was to enlist the lawyer’s assistance in building a hospice for AIDS patients. At that time, AIDS was still a fairly controversial topic.
Somehow Williams learned the purpose of Mother Teresa’s visit beforehand, and confided to a friend that AIDS was not his favorite charity. So, together they developed a polite refusal, one that would stand up under the future saint’s scrutiny. Williams practiced it several times before Mother Teresa’s arrival.
When she arrived, she made her proposal. Williams nicely but firmly said that he was sorry but he could not help. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray,” and bowed her head. Williams rolled his eyes, but bowed his head anyway. Mother Teresa prayed.
After her prayer, Mother Teresa once again asked Williams for money to build the AIDS hospice. She made exactly the same appeal that she had made before her prayer. Williams again politely but firmly told her that he was sorry but he couldn’t help. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.” Williams rolled his eyes again, but what was he going to do! He bowed his head as Mother Teresa prayed.
The sharp lawyer saw the handwriting on the wall. Mother Teresa had him trapped in his own office. Finally, as her prayer ended, Williams said, “All right! All right!” and pledged his support to her cause.
Going into the conversation, it sure looked as if all the cards were stacked against Mother Teresa, and stacked in favor of Edward Bennett Williams. But Mother Teresa ignored the odds and just kept pleading her case.
It’s a story that’s virtually identical to the one from our Gospel reading today, Luke, Chapter 18, Verses 1 through 8.
“[Jesus] spoke a parable to them that they must always pray and not give up.” That’s how our lesson today begins, and this is one of only two instances where Luke tells us the purpose of Jesus’ parable before relaying the parable: In this case, the purpose is, pray always, do not give up.
In the parable itself, we encounter a widow who brought her needs before an unjust judge, one who Jesus describes as a man who did not fear God, and who did not respect people. As if to emphasize this point, the Gospel’s author has the unjust judge describe himself in this same way: not fearing God, not respecting humankind.
The widow was a person without stature in first century Palestine, indications of which are included in both testaments. A widow did not inherit her husband’s estate, meaning that were dependent on the compassion of the community.
We know from our reading of the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomy, that God has special affection for the vulnerable, often identified as widows, orphans and aliens (Deuteronomy 10:18-19) and that those who fail to meet the needs of vulnerable people “shall be accursed.” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
But none of that would matter to our unjust judge because he neither feared God nor respected humankind. The widow would have been nothing to him, maybe even less than nothing.
When she asked him for defense against an unspecified adversary, the judge turned her down. But she just kept coming. Finally, she wins him over. Let’s be clear. He is not won over is the sense that he is moved to compassion. He is not. Rather he is moved by virtue of his self-concern. Our text says he considers that “she will wear me out,” but the Greek suggests another translation: “She will make me look bad.”
Regardless of his motive, he ends up doing the right thing, simply because the widow would not relent.
Why does Jesus tell this parable? The message to never give up is always a good one, but still, Jesus’ stories are usually included for a particular reason. Why does Luke choose to share this parable? A bit of context might help.
Today’s lesson has close ties to the scriptures that precede it (17:20-37) and follow it (18:9-14; 19:11-27).
By most estimates, the Gospel of Luke was written in about 50 or 60 CE, some five or six decades after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The church of Luke’s day is experiencing persecution and longing for the promised Parousia—the Second Coming--which believers expected to vindicate them and to end their suffering. However, the Parousia seems long overdue, and those early disciples were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their faith.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus’ discourse on the coming of the kingdom addresses those issues related to the delay (17:20-37). The coming of the kingdom will not be a dramatic, visible event (17:20), but is among us (17:21).
Jesus says, “The days will come, when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (17:22)--exactly the situation of the believers to whom Luke is writing.
Our Gospel lesson (18:1-8) continues to address issues of faith in difficult times, and to reassure the disciples that God hears their prayers. It calls all of us to maintain heart in dark times. It tells us that discipleship is not easy. It reminds us that God will vindicate faithful disciples.
Living as we do, centuries after Luke’s community worried about the Second Coming’s delay, we no longer are worried about the Parousia as a faith concern. They expected it to occur in their lifetime. We do not. But that does not automatically make our faith walk any easier.
The continuing concern for any community of faith, any person of faith, is to remain grounded in God even when the outside world seems to be pummeling us and when the world seems to be winning.
The Second Coming—the Parousia—is a beautiful and happy construct of our faith, but day to day it is not likely the motivating force of any given person’s journey with Jesus nowadays.
Most of us, I would wager, seek to live our lives faithfully, peacefully, positively, productively. We mean well, we do good, we act with integrity. Those are wonderful things to say about ourselves. But here’s the rub: The world does not always cooperate with this and, in fact, it sometimes seems that all the forces of the world work against us doing these very things.
What does Jesus say to all of this? Pray always. Do not give up.
One writers notes journeywithjesus.net): “There’s no mysterious meaning here. The parable is straightforward. Despite our feelings of fighting a losing battle, of supporting a losing cause, don’t give up. Keep praying.”
As Bernanos writes in Diary of a Country Priest, “Keep marching to the end, and try to end up quietly at the roadside without shedding your equipment.” No matter how difficult our ministries may become, no matter how much we worry that our church isn’t successful enough. Pray always. Do not give up. Do not shed your equipment.
In JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the elves of Lothlorien admit that they’re losing their forest lands. But it doesn’t matter. They carry on, struggling in what they describe as “fighting the long defeat.”
Here’s what Tolkien himself said (Letters of Tolkien, 195): “Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory."
Using this same idea, Paul Farmer describes his “losing battle” for health care for the poor. In a biography (Mountains Beyond Mountains) of Farmer, he is quoted as saying: “I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing… [Everyone wants] to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”
How do you fight the long defeat? Pray always. Never give up.
The faith we share today comes to us, in great measure, because many people long ago did not abandon Christianity in times of persecution, in times of indifference, in times of cultural disapproval.
The faith we share today comes to us on the whispered prayers of those who form the communion of saints, those holy and trusting people who prayed always and who did not give up, who struggled during the long defeat to pass along to us—people they would never know—the story of Jesus, the infant born in a smelly manger, the man who wandered the countryside preaching good news to the poor, the Son of God who died on a cross, the Eternal Word who rose from the grave.
The story of Jesus is our inheritance. It is the only power we need to carry on the faith, even in the face of what seem to be insurmountable odds. Pray always. Never give up.
Mother Teresa may well be the perfect example of a Christian going about ministry. We would never expect to find her with her tools laid down. Even so, there may be a tendency in us to sentimentalize her, to see her as a meek and mild woman who served the poor, who loved all whom she met, who never raised her voice or had a cross thought about anyone.
We would not, in other words, think of her as a sharp business-minded person who could outfox a Washington lawyer.
But she did just that. She kept her focus on what was important. She prayed always. And she never gave up.
Thanks be to God.