There is the story told about three men named Joe, Bob and Dave. One day they were hiking in a wilderness area when they came upon a large, raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea of how to do so.
Joe prayed to God, saying, “Please God, give me the strength to cross this river.” Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in about two hours, although he almost drowned a couple of times.
Seeing this, Dave prayed to God, saying, “Please God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river.” Poof! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour, after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times.
Bob had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God saying, “Please God, give me the strength and the tools, and the intelligence, to cross this river.” Poof! God turned him into a woman. She pulled out a map from her backpack, examined it carefully, and then hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards and walked across the bridge.
As Christians we believe in prayer don’t we? As Episcopalians our whole service revolves around our prayers. Our worship manual is called the Book of Common Prayer. We have a prayer for every occasion. Historically during the Reformation the great leaders of the church contemplated what activity is it that draws a person to God the most? What is it that changes a person so that that person is more converted, is more Christ-like? At that time the Roman Catholics would say and would still say that the most important thing to do is to have Holy Communion. And their service typically is all about the Mass. For hundreds of years the service was in Latin and the people did not understand what was even being said, but it didn’t matter because they were receiving the Body and Blood during Holy Communion. Luther and Calvin, the other Protestants felt that the most important thing was learning and knowing God’s Word and Scripture talks about being transformed by having one’s mind renewed. So in a protestant church typically the most important thing is the sermon. But in England the reformers like Cranmer thought that it was prayer which would really change someone. Spending time with God, being in his presence every day changes our attitudes and perspectives. So while we certainly believe like the Roman Catholics that Holy Communion is very important and we believe like the other Protestants that having our minds renewed through Scriptural instruction is really important we believe and understand that prayer is integral to spiritual growth. So with that as a background you will understand that when we come across a section of Scripture where it specifically talks of prayer we as Episcopalians tend to get really interested.
In our gospel account Jesus tells a story about a widow and a judge. Widows had a difficult place in Palestine — around the world, in fact. Normally in the first century Palestine, the wife of a deceased husband had no legal right to inherit her husband’s estate, so when her husband died she couldn’t take for granted living in his house on his land. If her deceased husband had no children, the estate reverted to her husband’s male relatives on his father’s side — his brothers, his father’s brothers, and then the nearest family kinsman. If she had grown children things would be easier; they would take care of Mom. But a widow with small children might have to contend for property rights with her in-laws, and if they didn’t happen to like her, things could be very difficult. In some cases, she might manage the estate to be inherited by her young children as a trustee, but that was by no means a sure thing. The main reason there were so many places in Scriptures that talked about protecting the widows and orphans was because they were easy to take advantage of and people commonly did just that. Apparently that was taking place in this story Jesus told so the woman went for help, went for justice from the judge. Unfortunately, the judge is not the kind of judge Moses had stipulated at all when he set up the system. Under Moses the judges were supposed to know and respect God’s law first of all and secondly to be compassionate. Well this fellow in our story was neither one. He neither cared about God’s laws nor did he care about anyone else.
So far in the story things look pretty bleak for this poor woman. She has no protector; she has no advocate. She has to go to court by herself, for herself, in a judicial system that would not accept a woman’s testimony as valid. In the first century in a court of law, a woman’s word had zero value! As a little side-note for any of you who are feeling offended for the women of that time, it is interesting to note that the first and primary witnesses at the resurrection of Jesus were women! God certainly values their testimony! But at that time their society did not. She was rebuffed in court not once but repeatedly. She was ignored and sent away over and over again. But note that she did not give up. She came time after time to say to the judge, “Give me justice.” Finally the judge relented and indeed gave her justice.
So what is the point of the story? In this story we, you and I, are the poor widow. We are the ones who are in trouble. We are the ones who are suffering. And what can we do? To whom can we go? As Jesus points out, we go to our Father God in prayer. But notice that these prayers are not said once and then we stop. We do not just quit praying. Unlike the story at the beginning of this homily, usually in life there is no poof and then the answer. No in our gospel story, we are told that this woman went repeatedly to the judge. In the same way we are to go to God repeatedly. Jesus says that we are to pray day and night. So the first lesson for us as people of prayer is that when we are in trouble or when someone else in the church is in trouble we are to pray not just once, but over and over again. We are to pray every day for this situation whatever it may be.
Secondly we need to notice that Jesus uses the phrase “cry to God” day and night. When we pray we are not simply to pray like we are reading off of a grocery list. “Dear God, please help. Amen.” No, we are supposed to be emotionally involved in our prayers. Notice that the widow was desperate for help. She was urgent as she pleaded her case. She listed reasons; she showed historical evidence; she asked for compassion. Remember how Jesus prayed. We are told he offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. How do you and I pray? Do we put our hearts into it? Or do we simply say words?
Prayer is important. Clearly Jesus expects us to go through troubles and each of us do. But we are to pray for help about our problems not just once but continually. And we are also supposed to pray with our hearts. We are to pray with feelings.
The parable ends with the promise that God will grant justice to his people and when it comes it will be swift. The question Jesus leaves his disciples is will you remain faithful? Will you remain persistent? Jesus will return, we need to remain faithful and be persistent in our prayers. And on that note of faithfulness and persistence I now want to give a brief message to our members and regular attenders: This week you received a letter along with a pledge card from Craig, our senior warden. This weekend we begin our stewardship campaign here at St. Andrew’s. I hope you will take the time to pray about what you will be able to give to St. Andrew’s this coming year. We as a church are only able to minister to our community and to each other because of your faithful gifts. Amen