Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity: Pray always and not to lose heart – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 16 October 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green. (2 Timothy Ch 4: v 14 – Ch 4: v 5; Luke Ch 18: v 1 – 8)
Colin Morris, a one- time Methodist Minister, in his book “Include Me Out” relates a conversation he had with an African friend that ends with these words: “The trouble with you, Colin, is that you think God is a white English Methodist, when I know that he is a Black African Anglican!”
This is further illustrated in present day Nazareth at the Basilica of the Annunciation, where in the Cloisters there are representations of the Annunciation from all over the world. Mary is an African, an Indian, a Chinese, a South American, a Mauri, and of course a European. Our image of God is very much influenced by our background and culture, and we can all too easily transpose a parable into our own time and setting.
In our Gospel reading this morning we heard the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, and what is interesting is that there was already a similar story in one of the books of the Apocrypha.
In the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach there is a passage about divine justice. Ben Sirach mentions a widow whose tears run down her cheeks as she cries out for justice. The story then moves to a man whose service is pleasing to the Lord, and whose prayer will reach to the clouds.
Jesus makes two important changes to the passage. The parable becomes an exhortation to persistent prayer, and now the widow is at the centre of the story throughout. Both these changes, though subtle, would have made people sit up and take notice.
This parable is part of a sequence of teachings on that final road to Jerusalem, which Jesus is determined to make despite the threats from Herod, and in the face of opposition and threat, Jesus encourages his disciples “to pray always and not to lose heart”. The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is both illustration and encouragement. The widow has no status, no one to speak for her, but she is determined.
If a man harasses a judge as she did, he could expect a violent response, but custom dictates that the widow must not be treated violently. She has a case, a just case, and she will not rest until she receives justice.
The judge has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. Nothing that the woman does or says can lower him in the estimation of other people, yet the persistence of the woman wears him down.
Jesus’ message is clear. If the unjust judge can respond to the endless pleas of the widow, how much more will a righteous God respond to the disciples’ prayers?
The parable raises two questions. Firstly, “What do we think we are doing when we pray?” Are we trying to manipulate or influence God or asking Him to suspend the laws of nature on our behalf? Or is it something more subtle? Perhaps it is about God influencing us, not us influencing God. Committed persistent prayer is an opening up of self to God, and in that we are changed, by God’s grace to become more like Christ. Prayer then becomes a process of aligning our will with God’s, rather than seeking to move or influence God. This is encapsulated in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done”.
Secondly, we have to ask the question: ”Who are the unjust judges?”. If we see prayer as aligning our will to the will of God, it is our self-serving prejudices, our tendency towards intolerance, and our frequent rush to judgement, that we fail to see others as children of God, and show them the love our heavenly Father has for them.
If I may be autobiographical for a moment. My wife died in 1996 at the age of 53. She first became ill some four years earlier. Naturally we prayed for her, and she received the Ministry of Healing on several occasions. From the outset a specialist at Southampton Hospital saw her, and we soon established a routine involving oxygen cylinders and inhalers, because rheumatoid arthritis had attacked the lungs, however as time passed there seemed slight improvements, but gradually she became more oxygen dependent. Several spells in hospital ensued, but each time she came home. It came to holiday time in 1996, and we decided to go to our chalet in Pembrokeshire armed with oxygen cylinders and much paraphernalia including a wheelchair, unfortunately at the beginning of the second week she developed a chest infection, and a day later died in her sleep. Here are some of the last words she wrote: “I believe I have received much blessing for my poorly lungs and my life will never be the same. Healed I shall be, but to a new state. I shall not be picking up the old ways”. Her death was a great loss, and being in a group of rural parishes her presence was sorely missed. Had God answered our prayers? From the outset I began to see all kinds of positives. She died in her sleep, being oxygen dependent, and I knew nothing until I awoke the following morning. The doctor didn’t think it was necessary to have a Post Mortem, and I have no memory of her dying at home. At her funeral there were five arrangements of flowers, so I was able to put an arrangement in each of our five churches. The last words she said before going to sleep that night was, “Dear Jesus”. From this experience, and all the events that followed I could see God at work, and I know that God answers prayer. Let us pray always and not lose heart.