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Inspiration, Faith, and Prayer: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 16, 2022:
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Luke 18:1-8

Prayer is a layered and maybe even fraught topic these days, even amongst people within the Church. I expect there is a diversity in our prayer lives, and our experiences of prayer. Not to mention our thoughts on prayer, like how or if it works (or even if that is the right sort of question).

But we are people of ‘common prayer.’ No matter what our ideas, opinions, techniques, or regimens of prayer, we all overlap for at least an hour a week. Though even if we think about it, our liturgy works in both a horizontal and a vertical way. Sometimes we’re clearly talking to God, and sometimes we’re talking to each other. (That’s why sometimes I’m looking at you, and sometimes I’m looking up or down or at a book. If I’m looking directly at you while talking to God, then I guess I have a VERY high opinion of you. Though the other side of that is that I’m going to ask some very big things of you.)

In my life as a Christian, and as an ordained person, I can think back on how people have found comfort and encouragement, and even miracles through prayer. (Just a week or two ago, at a retirement home, someone said “I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I was in terrible pain all day, and it went away after you gave me communion.” So people even expect me, a priest, to have difficulty with answered, seemingly miraculous prayer!)

I’ve also known times when people have struggled to pray — to find words, or the right words, or to get beyond words, or to deal with sometimes difficult words. Or been angered or saddened by the seeming futility of prayer. Or folks who have used prayer as a way out of other, more this-worldly considerations. The God-given wisdom or God-given resources that surround us.

I love those times when, in our human frailty, our heritage of common prayer brings us together. More than once I’ve experienced someone long-since non-verbal or unconscious, coming to life through the words of a familiar hymn, or the 23rd psalm, or the Lord’s Prayer. Where our commonly-held language of words, images, and symbols binds us together and helps us say and hear what we need in those difficult moments.

I’ve also known times when families have asked the hospital to call on a cleric to be with them in their loved one’s end-of-life situation, reaching back into family or societal collective memory, and thinking that ‘this is something that we do’ at those times. And in those cases half of the eyes well up with tears (of sadness, but also gratitude), and half the eyes look at me with suspicion… Because the person with the collar embodies something of which they are suspicious, and prayer is, again, one of those things we all have different, sometimes complex relationships with. I imagine for some people it is just strange. And perhaps there is a beauty to that. Maybe it is intriguing. But there are also times when it seems to get in the way of action… (thinking of how “thoughts and prayers” is a phrase that has gone into disrepute in the States vis-a-vis the issue of gun violence).

There’s a musician I sometimes mention, a singer/pianist named Nick Cave (he did the music for that Marilyn Monroe movie that’s on Netflix right now). He has a website where he publishes responses to fans’ questions, and recently he grouped together someone’s question about inspiration (“I feel so uninspired. Inspiration. Can I have some of yours?”) and faith (“I lack faith in something greater. Be it God or the universe… in myself. …I would really like the comfort that faith brings.”) And that kind of connects with the parable Jesus just told. The character of the judge is a problematic one, and might not be a perfect or ideal image for God. But maybe we can relate to the widow. Someone uninspired by the state of things, not to mention the responsiveness of the judge. Someone looking for comfort, for justice, in an imperfect, even downright bad situation. Maybe we can relate to feeling unheard: by the unjust world, or by God. And yet the message here is “pray always” and “[don’t] lose heart.” Continually come back to prayer. Because if God clothes the lilies of the field, God will clothe you [Matthew 6]. And two sparrows may just sell for a penny, but none of them fall to the ground without God noticing [Matthew 10]. “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” And God is a more kind-hearted and attentive judge than the one we heard about just now.

And yet we might still have questions, of inspiration (‘how do I stick with this? how do I keep praying?’) and faith (‘where is God, while we’re stuck in this mess?’) That singer I mentioned, wrote back to his questioning fans, saying “Inspiration and faith are similar in so far as they both ask something of us. They each require real and constant practical application…. I must… sit down each day, pick up my pencil… and get to work…. I undertake it through the good times and the bad, through the dry periods and the periods of abundance, and I keep on going regardless of my successes or failures.”* [It calls to mind the eucharistic prayer in the Book of Common Prayer: “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee…” At all times, and in all places.]

And that’s the thing with prayer: we might not understand it or we might struggle with it, or we might not know what we make of it, but through the good and bad, the dry and the abundant, we’re called to pray, with the persistence and commitment of the woman in the parable. On this same wavelength, Rowan Williams has written that prayer is something we have to do, not because of a sense of obligation, but because our prayer is rooted in the prayer of Jesus. Jesus prays in us. We stand in the place where he stood, as God’s beloved. We pray to the Father, like Jesus did, because we’ve been adopted. So, he writes, it’s “the Spirit… surging up inside [us]. Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing — there comes a point where you can’t not do it.” And because of that “it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, [and] hard to speak about.”**

And while the language of obligation is sometimes not the most helpful, there is the reality of words we hear each week: “do this in remembrance of me.” As a community, continue to gather together, and offer up the blessings and the brokenness of our lives, and of our world, up to God in the thanksgiving prayer of the eucharist. And that might be a helpful image of prayer: not, as we often assume, pulling God down from heaven and into our problems. Instead, lifting up the world and its needs, up to God. Identifying, like the widow in the parable, the things that are amiss, and raising them to God. Maybe not knowing exactly how things will play out from there, but it is part of Jesus’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. If that is our yearning, it is worth naming. And that can be prayer.

That Jesus prayed on the night he was betrayed, and prayed in agony in the Garden, and prayed from the cross — even if they were words of despair — it tells us something about the ongoing task of prayer. Today’s Old Testament reading spoke of the reality and severity of the ups and downs of life in the world. But it also spoke of the renewal of the covenant, the relationship between God and the human community. Whether or not people recognized and responded to the covenant, it was still in effect. For us, we’ve been “grafted on” to that vine of covenant, as latecomers. We weren’t formed formed through the experience of escape from Egypt and years in the desert. But we’re formed at the table. Formed as a family. Fed, and then sent outward. And called to continue with this rhythm. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Even, and especially, in difficult times: the call to prayer. As Paul would write “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” [1 Cor 11:26]. And here we find the answer to the Lord’s question: “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* https://www.theredhandfiles.com/i-feel-so-uninspired/

** Being Christian (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 8.