Monday, October 22, 2007

Persistent Widow Sermon

Luke 18:1-8

October 21, 2007

Eighth Sabbatical Sunday

Parable of the Persistent Widow

I was a third year intern at church I served in seminary. One of the areas I had wanted to explore in my internship was pastoral care. So I had been making pastoral calls to hospitals and nursing homes with the Congregational Care ministers for two years now. Finally the time came for me to go alone. That particular day one of the members in the hospital was having a birthday. The associate minister I usually did visiting with was too sick to go to the hospital but she wanted this man to know he was loved and cared for by his church, so she sent the intern. As I entered the room I stood by the bedside of a tired man. Today was his 97 birthday, he was struggling with prostate cancer and other aliments that made him have more bad days than good ones. He looked at me with a sad but appreciative look as I wished him a Happy Birthday. After a few minutes of chit-chat I asked if I could pray with him. He looked away from me, toward the window and slowly shook his head, “no.”

Of course I can never be sure exactly why he said no that day, but I think my friend was all prayed out. He was tired, he was in pain, and he was ready for an end to his suffering and had probably prayed for as much. Yet, here it was, another birthday. Who had come to see him? Not a beloved child, not the associate pastor who visited him regularly, not the senior minister of the church, but an intern he had only met one other time. He just didn’t have another prayer in him. That’s the trouble with prayer you know, it isn’t as easy as it looks.

Jesus told the disciples this little parable we read this morning precisely because he realized they needed some encouragement in their prayer lives. He wanted them to continue to pray and not to loose heart. So he told this tale of a persistent widow. She would not be satisfied with a no answer. So she hounded and hounded the judge for justice. And even though his intentions were not pure, he granted the widow what she asked for because she was so faithful (or was it annoying?) about coming to ask..

The line of communication is always open between ourselves and our Creator, and yet- prayer is not easy. Although we don’t know exactly what trouble the disciples were having with prayer we know some of our own trouble with prayer. One trouble with prayer is that it takes time. You must remember to pray when you open your eyes in the morning, or at meal times, or before bed, or when you’re stuck in traffic and the trouble is that there are so many other things competing for our time- and they all have much louder voices than God’s still, small one.

Another trouble we may have with prayer is that it may not seem to work. That’s the trouble with prayer- God is not simply a divine wish-granter. Instead God is the holy presence of love in our lives who can see more of the big picture than we can. Perhaps my friend in the hospital felt like his prayers weren’t being answered so he decided he was done asking. Anytime we make ourselves vulnerable enough to share the deepest desires of our hearts with God, we risk hearing an answer from God that may sound a lot like silence. I think many of us are afraid to allow for the silence it takes to hear God’s voice. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says about prayer, “Sometimes I think we do all the talking because we are afraid God won’t. Or conversely, that God will.” (When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor, pp. 51)

Are we afraid of that silence that sometimes follows our prayer requests? Are we afraid that our concerns are too trivial to take up God’s precious time? Have we simply lost heart like the disciples? The truth is that prayer isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve found its very easy to say to someone, “I’ll pray for you about that.” And yet it is more difficult to carve out a space to meet God in prayer and open yourself to whatever answer it is that God has for you. You can see why it is easy to lose heart.

If you are sitting here this morning thinking to yourself, yeah Sunny, that’s me, I’ve lost heart. I don’t pray as much as I should, or at all. Then please know that you are in good company. It saddens me that every time I begin to get stressed or overwhelmed by my own life, or tasks at church, the first thing to go is often my daily prayer time. Now, isn’t that sad that when I am stressed out the very most, is when I often forget to pray? But this scripture was written for you and for me, encouragement from the mouth of Jesus directly to us.

That encouragement that Christ gives us today is that we must continue to cry out to God. When there is something in our lives that we need help with, some injustice that is troubling us we can cry out to God. When we see some an unfairness in our world that makes us sad or angry, we can cry out to God.

One of the best things that has happened lately in my personal devotional life is reading through the Psalms. I read in the pages of the Psalms God’s people crying out again and again whenever they need the help of God. In Psalm 35 the Psalmist cries out, “How long, Oh Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.” There are some terrible things happening in the Psalms, and the Psalmist is not afraid to cry out and tell God about how bad the situation is, but always there is praise of God’s majesty and power as well.

We must continue to seek God’s justice for ourselves, and for others who we see hurting. Now, we have no idea what wrong the widow in the parable had been done. We only know this, as a widow she would have had absolutely no power to demand justice from anyone expect the judge. The judge was there to hear the complaints of the people and help restore peace. The widow would not be satisfied with a no. She kept asking, she kept seeking, she kept knocking, until the door was opened to her.

Christ said, “ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened.” In other words, God loves us and wants to hear our prayers, but we must be persistent in calling out to God. Fred Craddock was once in a gathering of folks when he heard an elderly black minister say about the struggle for civil rights, “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, you knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” (Interpretation, Luke, Fred B. Craddock, pp. 210)

We must continue to knock, even when it seems the door will never be open, when change is taking too long, even when God’s answer sounds like silence, we must seek justice from our God. We must keep praying, keep praying, keep praying. We need to pray for justice in God’s world. We should pray for our own needs and the needs of others like the widow who have less power than we do. We must continue to stand at God’s door and knock.

This week I read another story about a persistent woman. You will know this woman, she was not a titan of industry, but a humble nun who served in Calcutta, India for a number of years working with the poor and outcasts. Preacher Thomas Long ( tells this story about Mother Teresa.

“Mother Teresa went to visit Edward Bennett Williams, a legendary Washington criminal lawyer. He was a powerful lawyer for Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others. Evan Thomas’s biography of Williams tells the story of when Mother Teresa visited Williams because she was raising money for an AIDS hospice. Williams was in charge of a small charitable foundation that she hoped would help. Before she arrived for the appointment, Williams said to his partner, ‘You know Paul, AIDS is not my favorite disease. I don’t really want to make a contribution, but I’ve got this Catholic saint coming to see me, and I don’t know what to do.’ Well, they agreed to be polite, hear her out, but then say no.

Well, Mother Teresa arrived. She was a little sparrow sitting on the other side of the big mahogany lawyer’s desk. She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, ‘We’re touched by your appeal, but no.’ Mother Teresa said simply, ‘Let us pray.” Williams looked at his partner; they bowed their heads and after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the hospice. Again Williams politely said no. Mother Teresa said, ‘Let us pray.” Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling, ‘All right, all right, let me get my checkbook!”

The amazing thing about this parable is that it is unlike many other parables. We do not easily identify the characters in this parable as us and God. In fact, surely God is not to be identified as the unjust judge. No, instead this is an “if… then,” parable. If this slimy, wicked judge was able to grant justice for a pushy widow, then how much more will our Father in heaven listen to the cries of his children. God longs to be in relationship with us in prayer. We should send our prayers to God with confidence that they will be heard by all-knowing, all-compassionate God who loves us more than we could dare to dream.

I wish for you this morning the resolve in your prayer life that the persistent widow had. I pray for you the determination of Mother Teresa, making that plea to the lawyer. As a church community, let us be a praying people, who see the needs of others, and cry out to God for justice. Amen and Amen.

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