Pray Frequently, Listen Constantly

Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016 || Proper 24, Year C || Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8|| Amy Whitcomb Slemmer (postulant for the priesthood)

I hope that you are enjoying Fall. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall,” and it does feel like a different, more full schedule than the one we enjoy during the perhaps slower pace of the summer. I imagine that most of us are fully engaged in our busy Fall schedules, and I am delighted that your calendar for today included coming to church, being part of and checking in with your community, and offering prayers and reflections to God.

We are twenty-nine weeks into Ordinary Time and our continuing practice of trying to live as God would have us live following the lessons and examples offered by Jesus. We have back to back Sundays with Gospel lessons in the form of parables. Next week we have the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector going to the temple to pray.

This morning’s Gospel lesson, as we just heard, includes the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent, perhaps annoying widow. This is not one of the most well known of Jesus’ parables. It appears only in Luke’s gospel, and is full of contradictions and subtleties that we can walk through – and about which dissertations have been written. This morning for our purposes, we may just give thanks that Luke tees the story up with the introductory explanation that Jesus used this parable to teach the disciples that they need to pray always and not lose heart. I am grateful for this obvious context clue, because the story that follows is much more mysterious without this introduction.

I always hope that our service provides an opportunity to reflect on the week just ending, to consider how we measured up and met God’s expectations, when we perhaps were aware of God’s presence and when we may have forgotten that God was with us and we may have gone our own way. In other words, how did our practice of Christianity measure up this week and what might we do to improve in the coming weeks?

Today’s readings invite us to focus on one particular skill and requirement for living a holy and Christian life, and that is to pray – frequently, reflectively and to never give up. When I began to focus on this morning’s Gospel, I could not get the movie Galaxy Quest out of my head, because in it, the main character played by the vocally compelling Tim Allen repeats the catch phrase “Never Give Up, Never Surrender”.

It becomes a parody of a catch phrase and its hokiness is a thread throughout the movie – a space opera really, rather than a soap opera, until this phrase actually becomes an anthem to boost morale and motivate its unlikely heroes – I recommend the movie. It is funny and unexpectedly poignant after a significant sidetrack through silliness.

Not silly, but definitely poignant, is Jesus’ story about a widow who keeps after a judge, begging him to mete out justice for a wrong-doer. In modern times it is easy to skip over some of the extraordinary social mores being smashed to bits in this story. A woman in Jesus’ time would never be allowed to approach a man, to whom she was not married, and the idea that she would in any way pester or impress upon a powerful and respected Judge to do her a favor or kindness would have seemed unfathomable to the disciples who heard it. This is one of those stories that upset the accepted power dynamic in Jesus’ time.

Parables are stories told through the ages that are designed to make universal truths apparent, and remind us of the moral behavior God expects. These stories are not supposed to be filled with familiar characters, but instead are populated with archetypes that symbolize various features of the society in which Jesus found himself.

Here the widow is meant to represent any vulnerable person.   Luke refers to widows and orphans fairly frequently as proxies for the powerless and disenfranchised. In this parable we have to be careful not to conflate the Judge with God, because this judge is described as neither fearing God nor respecting other people. In other words he is corrupt. He becomes the central figure in the story, as he reflects on how annoying the widow is, and that in fact he decides to grant her justice just to get the widow to leave him alone – sort of the “all right already, give it a rest,” or “I’ll do it if you please go away,” approach to decision making, as he eventually caves to the widow’s persistence.

But Jesus isn’t telling us that God is going to answer our prayers, or deliver justice on our behalf because we finally wear Him down, or because God wants us to move on. Thank goodness the gospel writer gives us the heads up with the introductory sentence that summarizes the parable – “Jesus told about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”. It is the widow’s persistence that we are to model, and the writer’s inference is that if this corrupt judge was willing to grant her justice, imagine how much faster and more complete God responds to our consistent prayers of gratitude and intercession.

I am the grateful recipient of this community’s weekly prayers on my behalf. Every week for what seems ages, you have generously prayed for my continued discernment during my path – my long and winding road toward ordination.

And as Margot announced last week, that path has joyfully returned me to this parish- definitely prayers answered. I have returned to Cohasset to work with Margot and to serve you and our young people throughout the academic year. I expect this to be my final placement before ordination in June.

Your weekly prayers have sustained me since my discernment committee first gathered  — I could not have asked for a more remarkable committee or representative group to help me hear God’s call and expectations for my ministry. Your weekly prayers have buoyed me and kept me connected to this community. No matter where I was – and I have served at two other parishes, St. Stephens in the South End, and All Saints in Attleboro, and as a chaplain for Health Care For The Homeless – at each of those placements, I felt our connection and your prayers and support.

I am grateful to be the recipient of prayers for continued discernment, and my experience has proven time and again the connectedness and benefit that comes from frequent praying, with special connections and insights realized when praying in community.

I am excited to officially return here and to share some of my experience with our young people. It is a gift to be focused on some of our ministry and offerings for our teens and tweens as it is so important that they know that they are not alone, that God’s presence and love is immutable.

Margot is so committed to making sure that our young people feel at home in this place – that this is their church and that what we learn and practice here must be taken out into the world, and I am pleased to be able to work with her even on a limited basis (about ten hours a week) and with our youth leaders to explore what that means for them.

Sue McHugh and the youth leaders have great energy and enthusiasm for our programs this year. Friday there was wonderful turnout and discussion for Family Movie Night. It was the talk on the soccer fields on Saturday! We are considering replicating this success for our older youths and their parents and loved ones.   Stay tuned.

We have invited the youth to participate in a walk and talk with our Bishops and the Bishop of Western Mass next Saturday to hash out some of the election rhetoric and to discuss some of the political engagement and expectations that Episcopalians have for this and every election or pursuit of public office and honorable public service.

David Bigley and Sean Kisler are talking about taking our CIA group (the middle schoolers) to a synagogue, a mosque, the second Congregational church in the village and to several diocesan events. Our High schoolers under the care and encouragement of Cathy Forest are being invited to a ropes course, a lock in, to an activity that supports Syrian refuges including Syrian teens. There are lots of great ideas which are taking shape, being scheduled and will be well coordinated. We are even talking about changing the time that these groups meet to be most convenient for parents and youths. If you have young people in your family, if you haven’t already, you will receive a call looking for your feedback about what may work best.

We want to ground our kids in the love of God and then invite them to take what they know and have experienced here at home – out for a spin around the Commonwealth. We want to prepare them so that when they graduate and leave us and your nests, they are equipped to face the questions they will have, the contradictions they will experience in the world, the hardships and thorny choices that will come their way. Our shared success for this ministry is that our young people will carry with them the rock solid assuredness of being beloved children of God. Made in God’s image, and created to and for God’s own delight.

And based on today’s Gospel- we want them to be able to connect to those blessings, to their community, world and each other, through prayer.

Let them be like the widow – not necessarily annoying to the judges in their lives, but vulnerable and assured in their connection to justice and God. Known, heard and appreciated.

We want to raise our children to understand the power and divine purpose of prayer – and we want to know and live this discipline ourselves. God lavishes generosity on us, yet I find my prayers are directly answered when my requests are consistent with and reflective of God’s will in my life. And I check in about God’s will and what we know of God’s desires by praying in community.

We can pray for anything – for big ticket items to appear in our lives or our driveways – to receive a fancy dress or a feast, or perhaps to be given the Frozen backpack or that some boy or girl will call – or text us, or for the raise that we deserve, or for détente in our relationships — and those things may happen. God’s message today is that we are to ask frequently – and my experience is through frequent prayer and not giving up, my understanding of what God wants for me and for the world changes and evolves. That shared and enhanced understanding is part of what we are invited to find during our corporate worship.

This year, I am delighted to spend time supporting our youth ministers and you as we practice frequent prayers and we model keeping heart, so that we never give up, or surrender.

Let us pray:

Lord, let us feel your loving presence break through the static of this morning. Crowd out our “to do” lists so that you can hear our prayers, and we can feel your will. We pray for reminders to pray often. We pray to understand your will in our lives and for boldness to speak your word humbly even as we have the courage to model your love for others. Help us know your warmth and strength and love for all, and to act with assurance of your constant company, as we do your work in the world. Amen.

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