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Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2013

In my health club, there is a poster just outside the entrance to the gym that shows a woman doing an exercise. She is covered in sweat and obviously exhausted. The poster says, “Just five more.” Just five more reps. Just three more minutes on the elliptical. Just another 20 ab crunches. Working out is the price we pay for a toned and strong body. It is going to the gym in the rain when you don’t feel like it. It is following the direction of your personal trainer, even though you stretch and strain and say, “I can’t do this many.” It is sweating and gasping for breath and having your muscles ache. It is keeping at it. It is enduring. It is quiet persistence. On the other hand, have you ever heard a little voice in the back seat of the car say, “Are we there yet?” Have you ever BEEN the voice in the back seat of the car saying “Are we there yet?” Having  been the mother of a small child who asked this question about a million times on a long car ride, I can safely say that this kind of persistence is not the quiet persistence of a person doing yet another rep at the gym for body toning. This is what I call pesky persistence. It is right up there with continually repeated ads on the radio for all manner of products, and the traffic on I-95 – or just about anywhere in the metro area – during rush hour.

Jesus tells a parable about pesky persistence to encourage his disciples to pray always and not lose heart. There is a widow who has a grievance against an opponent and the judge she is assigned to is known to be unjust (and admits to it). The widow has no one to help her. She is without family or money or influence. All she has is what she can do herself. And she can ask. She can ask every day when the judge is in court. She can cry out to the judge when he leaves court and heads for home. She can make a complete nuisance of herself. And that is what she does, until finally the judge grants her request and gives her what she wants. He does not want to, but she is driving him crazy with her incessant demands and he just wants to be rid of her. Not a very good reason for dispensing justice.

But, Jesus says, if even this unjust judge grants justice eventually, then God who is just will quickly grant justice to God’s children who pray persistently – who cry day and night for justice. God will answer the prayer quickly because God hungers and thirsts for justice in the world. God longs for the hungry to be fed, the naked to be clothed, the oppressed to be free. God longs for people to be safe in their beds and know that they can live in peace. God wants all people to have enough and to spare, so that their lives may be happy and productive.

God’s relentless desire for justice can be seen all through the Scriptures. When the Israelites treat their neighbors badly, God punishes them for paying lip service but not heart service to the laws to love God and neighbor. Jesus talks about the justice of the kingdom of God. To love God is to desire justice as God does; to love neighbor is to do justice, to help bring about the kingdom.

This text is set in the context of the second coming of Christ bringing in the kingdom in all its fullness. The Pharisees have asked about the timing of the event and as always, Jesus says it is the wrong question. Then he tells the disciples that there will not be observable signs – that the kingdom will come suddenly, without warning. Their response to being between the already here kingdom that began with Jesus’ coming and the not yet kingdom of the Second Coming is prayer – unceasing, constant, unfaltering prayer for justice. Jesus has taught them in the Lord’s Prayer to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. This is what they are to pray, for the world, for others, even for themselves (Kimberly Bracken Long). It is their most important work as Christians (Charles Cousar).

Let me emphasize that God has a different opinion of persistent asking than the unjust judge since God longs for justice. God wants to hear the prayers of God’s people. God wants people to make their requests known to God. The more persistent people are about prayer, the more God likes it. God wants God’s people to be faithful and endure even through tragedy and heartbreak in their longing for justice.

But there is a disconnect here, a question that cannot be answered. Luke is speaking to a group of Christians several generations removed from the time of Christ. They are undergoing persecution, and yet God has not answered their prayers for justice. God has not come quickly to answer their crying day and night. Jesus thought the kingdom of God was coming soon, but it had not proved to be the case. What did come was vindication for God’s people in the death and resurrection of Jesus – that only took three days. What did come was the gift of the Holy Spirit – that only took 50 days. What did come was the wherewithal, the hope and expectation that would help the disciples pray unceasingly for the justice of the kingdom to come.

But the words Luke puts in Jesus’ mouth about whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth emphasize the time lapse before the kingdom and the concern that the disciples will weary of prayer and cease to trust God. They will turn to other ways and separate themselves from their Abba because they have given up.

In the 21st century, we have not had only generations to ponder the question of God’s coming, we have had centuries. It has been over two millennia, and the world is still broken. People are still oppressed. Wars still rage, and people still live in poverty. Governments are corrupt, and immigrants are still treated badly. If what we have been praying for has not come, why should we keep praying? We keep praying because God wants us to. We keep praying for justice because God wants a just world. We cry day and night to the Lord to help us, to send us what we need to make the world a better place to live for everyone. There are surely times we are weary and disheartened. There are times we do not feel like praying anymore when we see one more injustice take place, such as the plight of people brought to the financial brink during the government shut down. It is at those times that the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to pray when we do not have it left in us. It is at those times that the remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection can give us hope that God really is working for our good and for the good of all our neighbors.

Prayer is not just about talking to and listening for God. Prayer is about acting for God. One recent example is Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has been persistent in her work for girls’ education rights, even though she was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban a year ago. They hoped to silence her, but instead they have given her a broader audience. Face still partially paralyzed by the wound that came within a hair’s breadth of killing her, she has been traveling and speaking on behalf of the rights of girls. “If a terrorist can change someone’s mind and convince them to become a suicide bomber,” she says, “we can also change their minds and tell them education is the only way to bring humanity and peace”.

I am passionate about hungry people. I have never known hunger and I hope I never do. But for many people, especially children, hunger is a daily reality. The only meal they may get is the free lunch at school. And what happens to them in the summer? Almost every day the poor and hungry are at our doors, asking for help with food and rent and utilities just to make ends meet. AFAC is one agency that offers food to the poor. Through our work with them, we can “do prayer” to feed those with empty stomachs.

What are you passionate about? Where is your thirst for justice? Where is the God in you urging you to take a stand? Work for justice in this area and pray unceasingly for it. Keep praying even though God’s time is not our time and God’s ways are not our ways. We can trust what Jesus says about God because he is the revelation of the God who longs for justice. Keep the faith. Know the hope of the Holy Spirit. Be persistent in banging on God’s door, and justice will come. God has promised. We can count on it.

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 4 (Louisville,KY: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 192
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 564.