Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity 21 2016

Exodus 17:8-13
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8
Beware! Watch out! Disaster is looming! You’ve got to know how to deal with it when it happens! No, I’m not talking about Brexit, or the rise of Donald Trump, or even the national shortage of Marmite. I am talking about today’s Gospel reading.
 “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart.” To understand why Jesus gives this teaching at this point we need to understand where we are in the story that Luke tells in his Gospel.
So, Jesus at this point is walking to Jerusalem with his disicples. It is, in fact, his last journey, at the end of which he will be killed. He has tried to explain this to the disicples already, but they have not understood him.  Just before he gives this teaching on prayer, he has warned them again in very unsettling terms:
“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it… he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation… where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
This must have been bewildering and upsetting for the disciples to hear. Something terrible is going to happen, the disciples will be overtaken by disaster – but they don’t understand. So Jesus tells them about the need to pray continually and never lose heart.
This parable is enigmatic and puzzling. It is a story of an unjust lazy judge and a persistent widow. We might initially think perhaps that the judge stands for God, but his corrupt behaviour suggests otherwise. So maybe it’s the widow who is meant to be like God in this parable, continually knocking on the doors of our hard hearts and saying, “I want justice, what are you going to do about it?”. Or perhaps we are meant to keep in mind both God as judge and God as the demander of justice.
And we might bear in mind the literal Greek translation of what the judge thinks the widow will do: “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face!”
What we do get from this parable is the need for persistence.  The parable ends with justice - eventually. But the widow has to keep on demanding it, and must not lose heart and give up. This parable is about staying faithful in those times when justice seems mysteriously absent.
Jesus is going to be betrayed and killed. He will undergo suffering that is utterly undeserved and completely unfair. And it is as he warns of this that Jesus says to his disciples, be persistent in prayer, do not lose heart, stay faithful.
Suffering happens. The Bible is clear and completely realistic about that. And suffering happens to good people as well as bad (as if we could make such a distinction). Things that are utterly undeserved and unfair happen, and we don’t know why. There are times when, like the lazy judge, God seems to be absent. Our life is turned upside down, our world is thrown into chaos, what we thought we could depend on is taken away from us. And it seems as though heaven is deaf to our cries.
It’s really important to know that the Bible acknowledges that. Not just in today’s Gospel reading but in lots of places. Many of the psalms are lamentations and complaints against God – why is this happening to me?, the psalmist cries. The book of Job is a long study of the sufferings of an innocent man, and his complaints to God.
And yet the Bible does not give us an explanation, or an easy answer. Our complaints are allowed, they are understood. But they are cries of lament addressed, very often, into silence. Sometimes people say, well, when we see everything we will understand it was all for our good. But actually the Bible doesn’t allow us to say even that. The response to human suffering, so often, is darkness and silence.
But the darkness and silence are not empty. This is where we need to be persistent in prayer and stay faithful. God is there. God hears. As Tolstoy once said, God sees the truth, but waits. Most of all, God is there in the darkness and silence of the cross.
It is against the backdrop of his own coming suffering that Jesus warns the disciples to pray continually and never lose heart. God is present in the darkness and silence that Jesus is about to enter. God in Jesus is enduring everything that it is to be human, including death. And God is acting even in the darkness and silence to bring about a new justice, the Kingdom of God revealed in the resurrection.
Therefore, pray continually, be persistent, never lose heart. God is acting, even if he seems to delay.
Persistence in prayer is a matter of habit. It’s not just firing off a quick plea for help, and then giving up because there seems to be no answer. Prayer is something we have to train ourselves to do, so it becomes second nature.  The essence of prayer is persistent attention to God, waiting on God, especially in the times of darkness and silence when God seems absent.
We can’t be saying prayers all the time of course, we have other things to do. But whatever we are doing our hearts can still be attentive and watchful, centred on God in the present moment, in the task we are doing.
We need time set aside each day for verbal prayer and refelection on scripture. But that is not the whole of our prayer. Verbal prayer helps to develop the habit of attention to God that can then permeate our whole lives whatever we are doing. And whatever the circumstances are.

That way we can be persistent in prayer even in the midst of suffering and turmoil, even in the times of darkness and silence and absence. Because God is working in the darkness and the silence, and he will grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.

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