Pray always, and don't lose heart!

Proper 24C

In the name of God who is steadfast – even when we aren’t.  Amen.

You may or may not have noticed, but we have entered into one of the holiest seasons of the year.  It’s not a liturgical season, and in fact – in a stroke of poor judgement that separates us from the experiences of the people we’re meant to serve in the world – the church typically fails to honor this holy season at all.

I am, of course, talking about football season.  Now – this isn’t some self-serving proclamation – I’m not just saying this is a holy season because I enjoy watching football (or even because my beloved LSU Tigers are ranked second in the nation right now…).  But if you ever do turn on a game, you can tell this is the holiest season of the year, because God so readily and so quickly intervenes in the games themselves to choose the winner.

After just about every game, inevitably, some player will be interviewed on camera, and will quickly give credit to God for their win.  Strangely, however, we never see similar interviews with the ones who didn’t win.  We never see them cursing God for failing to answer their prayers, or prostrate in confession for their lack of true, authentic faith – faith strong enough to have triumphed on the turf.

But, of course, we know that prayer doesn’t really work that way.  God isn’t a genie in a bottle.  God doesn’t exist at our command.  We don’t speak God into existence, God, who is the creator of all that is, speaks us into existence.  But that hasn’t stopped people from interpreting this Gospel story that way, for a very long time.

This morning we heard the “parable of the unjust judge”, or sometimes called the “parable of the persistent widow”.  Jesus tells the disciples about a woman without any social standing.  But even though she wasn’t held up as a person of honor in her community, even so she had needs.  She needed justice.  If she had been a person of greater influence, she could have just made an appointment with the judge.  Perhaps, even in a patriarchal society, she might have gained influence when her husband ran into him on the golf course or at some exclusive club.  But she had no such standing.

So she uses the only recourse she has available to her – her persistence.  She goes to the judge by night – probably the only time she could get through the more “important” people, and get his attention.  For a while, the judge was able to ignore her.  But the widow kept coming back.  She kept demanding his attention, and that he give her justice.

Eventually, he can’t take it anymore.  Exasperated he says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming!”

Jesus uses this parable to talk about the nature of God.  An “unjust judge” is oxymoronic.  It goes against even itself.  Justice and judges are meant to go hand in hand.  So, to a degree, the story is about the nature of justice.  Well, the nature of God is justice – how much more is justice the essence of God than it is, even for a judge?

You may have to plead with a judge.  You may even need to be persistent in your pleading.  You may need to pester the judge.  But not with God.  With God, justice is a part of the package.

But that’s why the prayers and exclamations of praise at the ends of football games don’t quite line up.  The woman’s persistence was not to satisfy her greed or her personal gain.  She was persistent in her pursuit of justice.  And God is always about granting justice – which isn’t the same thing as granting wishes.

Jesus tell his disciples, at the beginning of this story that it’s about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  But that doesn’t mean it’s about pestering God until God gives in and gives us our way.  As much as anything, it’s about not losing heart.

Don’t lose the heart of Christ’s message.  Don’t lose the heart of what you know about God and God’s essence.  Pray always.  Prayer is more than just a mental wish list.  Prayer is about getting in touch with God, and discerning who God is calling you to be and how God is calling you to be.  Prayer is about connecting with the heart of God, and making space for God to connect with your own heart, and your own essence.

I’ve never bought the idea that God was just on the side of the winners after every football game.  Partly because oftentimes, my team doesn’t win.  But really, it’s because what we know about God is that God is one who cares about the people and the creatures no one else seems to care about.  God is the one who keeps reaching out to the exiles and outcasts and who keeps promising to bring them good things.

I don’t think it’s as simple as God answering the prayers of the winners, or as simple as God choosing sides in any human interaction.  God is on our side – whomever that “our” happens to be.  And as a reminder of how much God hasn’t left anyone out, the stories of our faith again and again are stories of the God reaching out and caring for the ones we most easily leave out.  The widows and orphans and foreigners and all the others whom we, in polite company, would sometimes prefer to forget.

That’s the heart of God - or at least some of it.  Don’t lose that heart.  Stay persistent.  Pray always.  God will be there.  Amen.