Hoping into faith

RCL Year C, Proper 24

With this gospel coming right in the midst of stewardship season, I am tempted to draw an allegory: Here I am, the widow, the church who comes back over and over again insisting that you listen to me when I talk about pledging. Here you are, the unjust judge? sick of hearing from me. But in the end, I’m going to wear you down, and you will make your pledge to ECA. Persistence will pay off.

But Jesus didn’t tell this parable about stewardship and pledging to the Episcopal Church in Almaden. He told it about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. So I think I may need to go in a different direction with our sermon today.

The story itself is simple: a widow is seeking justice for some wrong. A widow is the ultimate symbol of powerlessness in the society of Jesus’ time, but this widow isn’t staying powerless. She comes to complain regularly about what’s been done to her. Even so, the judge she seeks justice from ignores her. He’s a bad judge, a person who ‘neither fears God nor has respect for people’ – someone with power and total impunity. But since the widow keeps coming at him over and over again, he gets sick of her – his words are literally ‘this woman is giving me a black eye!’ – and he figures he’d be better off settling her case and getting her off his back. So he does. The judge isn’t changed by the widow’s persistence – he’s as unpleasant at the end as he is at the beginning – but her perseverance pays off and gets her what she wants.

It is certainly a story of the way things are, of powerlessness meets power and what might happen there. But Jesus says it’s about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. And wrapping up the parable, he says, ‘and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? …when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ We’re supposed to draw a comparison between God and this judge, it seems. Taken all together, it sounds something like Jesus’ point is, God will seem to be ignoring you just like the bad judge in this story, but if you ask and ask and ask, eventually you’ll get what you want because you’ll wear God out – and that is the definition of faith. Not a comforting thought – but if we’re honest, we’d admit that this is certainly how it feels sometimes.

Will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes? What is faith, anyway?

I talk a lot about relationship, about our relationships with God and each other and how we set our priorities around those. But of course in our human relationships, we see some give and take. Sometimes we’re the one reaching out and sometimes others reach out to us. When we find ourselves in relationships where we seem to be doing all the pursuing, we might just wonder whether that relationship is healthy for us. We might try to get the other person to understand our concerns, get them to work on things with us. If it’s bad enough, and if we have a choice about the relationship, we might just end it – cease to be friends, break up, walk away. If it’s family, however, we might stick it out, knowing that the other person just can’t relate the way we want, but we love them anyway.

But with God, relationship is a different thing. Sometimes in our faith journey we really do feel the immensity of God’s giving to us. We have times when the warmth of God’s presence is wonderful, overwhelming, breathing into us fuller and richer life. We pray and we know God is there, just as if we can see God sitting there next to us in the room.

Other times, though, we might not feel much of anything at all. We might be trying hard to pray, but not getting any sense of God being there with us. We might be seeking God’s counsel and direction for our lives, asking for help with a decision, but just feel stuck in our muddle. We might ask and ask and never hear a response.

Spiritual writers through the centuries have named this – the experience of spiritual dryness, what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. It is, they say, a sign of maturing in the faith, paradoxically enough – God may encourage us at first with all the delights of spiritual consolation, but in order to draw us on and mature us, God withdraws a little bit. We have to walk a few steps on our own feet instead of being carried – it’s the only way we learn to walk. Don’t worry about feeling God’s presence all the time, in other words. Our salvation depends on God’s grace, not on the goodies we might receive – we can trust God to be good no matter what we’re feeling.

But if it can’t guarantee us an answer, just what is prayer for, anyway? Partly – not completely, but partly – it is simply about us. Studies about the brain show that when we repeat an action over and over again, enough to form a habit, pathways are laid in our brain and the action becomes wired into us. Once we form the habit, we no longer spend short-term memory space on it – we do it without consciously thinking about what we’re doing, and our brains are freed up to think about other things. If we break the habit, then changes occur again in our brain – so if we later return to the activity, we might have to learn it over again before it becomes as unconscious as it was before. This applies not just to physical habits or learning a new skill, but also to habits of thought – which means we can train ourselves with help to break through destructive thoughts and emotions. Do something enough, and it literally shapes us and becomes part of us.

Prayer is something that shapes us. I’ve seen it in myself, and maybe you’ve seen it for yourselves too: The more I pray, the more I become a different kind of person – one who is more able to trust, less anxious and more at ease with uncertainty. I spend a lot less time on the same old thoughts in my head. I’m more inclined to hope. And I’m readier to give and serve others in need.

That hope ultimately is what faith is. As one writer put it, faith is the willed determination that God can be relied upon. Being a person of faith doesn’t mean that hope comes easily. But to persevere in prayer, to continue to show up, leads us further and further into hopefulness.

The widow asks for justice, and seeks that justice persistently even in the face of the judge’s hardness of heart. By all rights, she should have given up long ago, knowing that she had lost in the game of life. But she persists, believing that she can receive the justice she yearns for – and, with persistence, she does receive it. She refuses to despair, in other words – she lives in an attitude of hope and yearning for what could and should be, and she does all she can to make it happen. She asks and asks and asks again, living in faith that it will be done. She is a person of faith. And she changes, and her situation changes, because of it.

‘Jesus told this parable about our need to pray always and not to lose heart.’ This is not a parable about the nature of God. This is a parable about us, and what it’s like to live the life of faith in this world. God is always ready to give, always working for justice. But we sometimes need some work before we’re ready to do the same. Praying our way into hope means not simply yearning for God’s help, but becoming people of new life and new hope ourselves – people who give easily and who do justice for all, people of light to chase away the darkness around us. That is what Christian faith is, that is the hope we are called to in this world and the next. Amen.