Scripture - Luke 18:1-8
Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
Have you ever been an answer to prayer?
Stop and think about that for a moment…..Have you ever been an answer to somebody else’s prayer?
There’s a wonderful story that Kenda Creasy Dean shares – and if you happen to listen to Ben’s Podcast (Reports from the Spiritual Frontier) – you may recall this moment from their interview. Kenda is a professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and is at the leading edge of research around the future of the church in the United States. Take a moment and listen to her story about leading a youth group mission trip.
[Answer to Prayer story; from beginning of clip to 2:01]
By putting the trailer back on the blocks, this youth group became an answer to this family’s prayer, which gave a whole new layer of meaning to the work they were about in serving this family. And when I read this passage of scripture for this morning, this parable Jesus tells about the widow and the judge, the story we just heard is the one that came to mind.
When we think about this passage about prayer, we often cast ourselves as the widow and God as the judge - we are the ones who plaintively make our case before God day after day, night after night, and God, like a parent who has heard their child’s request for ice cream twenty thousand times, will begrudgingly give in just to stop the nagging. Prayer then becomes this laundry list of requests that we give to God to check off “yes, no, maybe later.” (Being a parent, the “maybe later” line is one that I use all too often).
We could move beyond this initial reading and consider how this parable is less about our prayer and more about God’s nature – after all, if a unjust judge, someone who cares little for others or for God – finally grants this poor woman’s request, how much more will God, who us abounding in steadfast love and compassion, hear the suffering of God’s children and the cries of our hearts? And this is certainly true, that God hears us in our hour of need; that our hurts and pains are known to God and that God will move to respond.
But such a reading ignores the fact that we have two very specific characters here in the story – the widow and the judge. Each person would have represented something very particular to the crowd of 1st century Israelites.
We’ll start with the judge. Judges in that day weren’t like our judges; there was no jury, no external laws that separated church and state. Judges were tasked with keeping God’s peace – God’s shalom – among God’s people. They were to maintain harmonious relations and listen to disputes among members of the covenanted community. They were charged with listening to all cases, from the biggest to the smallest, with fairness and no impartiality. They were the sole representatives of enacting God’s justice. So with our judge in this passage – it would have been his religious duty to hear out the case of the widow, but because he is described as one who neither feared God nor had respect for people” it’s clear he is not fit for the job.
Widows, on the other hand, were nobody. The Hebrew word for widow means “silent one” or “one unable to speak” – that gives us a sense of how little they were regarded in Biblical times. They were not allowed to inherit their deceased husband’s property, it going to the husband’s sons and brothers – and yet within the covenant, the community had a responsibility to take care of widows and orphans. Throughout scripture, God’s care and concern was consistently with these people – the orphan, the stranger, and the widow – and yet we read so often in the prophets God’s indictment of the people in failing to live up to this task as a community.
So we have a widow – a silent one – who decides to use her voice to make a grievance and is asking for God’s judgment. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, time and time and time again, until finally the judge, the one who is supposed to be representative of God’s compassion and mercy and shalom, gives in to her cries and her suffering and gives her justice. The judge becomes the answer to her pleading, persistent, prayer – even despite himself.
Perhaps we aren’t the widows then, in this story. Perhaps we may be more like the judge than we care to admit - and the question asked to us through this parable is Do we hear the voices of the “widows” around us – the people who are crying out for God’s justice – and are we willing to listen and act? Are we - people who are followers of Jesus and are called to share that same care and concern for the silent ones around us - are we willing to be the answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of creation crying out as we face the most significant global crisis of our time in climate change? Do we hear the voice of Greta Thunberg, 16 year old activist from Sweden who has championed awareness of this threat, and the thousands of young people who have marched and protested for a dramatic change in how we treat our environment? Watching the response her speech at the United Nations reminded me of how threatened those in power can feel as they dismiss the righteous protests of our youth. And yet creation itself cries out with rising temperatures in our atmosphere, more extreme weather patterns, migrating wildlife and sealife, and droughts and famine across our planet. Do we hear it – and if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of our children, who live in a more complex world than the ones in which we grew up – our school kids who have organized because they are angry about school shootings and are well aware of the risks they take each day by going to school – who are weighed down by anxiety and depression at higher rates than ever before – who experience bullying and sexual harassment and self harm and navigating the pressures of being a teenager in this day and age and who are rightly worried about their future on this planet. Where is the safe space for them? Do we hear the cries of their suffering – and if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of our African American sisters and brothers – and others who have been oppressed and abused because of their racial or ethnic background, particularly immigrants? Do we hear them as they are shot in their homes and in their places of worship, as they are turned away at the border, as even those who are here legally live in fear of being deported? Do we hear them as they live with economic injustice and disrespect each and every day? And if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers?
Do we hear the voice of those who are poor, those who have no homes, those who struggle with addiction, those who live with mental illness, those for whom we pray each and every week – do we hear their cries? And if we do, what is our response as God’s people to be an answer to their prayers – and to be an answer to the prayers we lift up on their behalf?
Let’s return to the story we heard earlier about the kids on the mission trip. [Return to clip - play until the end]
The reality here is that being an answer to prayer isn’t just about doing good work. It’s not about the moral and ethical responsibility we have to our neighbors. It’s not even about those “good feelings” we get upon completing a task for someone else.
Being an answer to prayer is about holy work. Redemptive work. About being the church - because there will always be people who are more capable and more efficient at most things we try our hand at...but that’s not the point. The point in being an answer to prayer is to be steeped in a story far greater than our own, to be a part of God’s restoring and transforming work in the world and right here on our island, to give of ourselves to the people and places who are crying out for it the most - not because it’s a good thing to do….but because it is the holy thing to do.
What voices do we hear crying out for us? Where can we be the answer to prayer?
This doesn’t take a committee decision. It doesn’t add items to our to do list. But it requires us to be attentive to the hurts and sufferings of those around us. It requires us to show up for each other and for this island and for people we may never know - because we’ve chosen to be a church engaged in the holy, redemptive work of God. It requires us, as Ben shared a couple of weeks ago, to save each other’s lives each and every day - or at the very least be honest about the fact that we have other things to do.
It requires us to make the space and intention to listen...and to respond.
It is my hope and prayer that we wrestle with this question and answer honestly where we believe God is inviting us to be an answer to somebody’s prayer - and that as we begin to hear the cries of those all around us, that we step into this holy and redemptive work so that we might be the church - emboldened by the Holy Spirit to love and serve our neighbors near and far together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.