Homily preached by the Reverend Vicki M. Davis, Guest Celebrant & Preacher
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 17, 2010
“Pray always.” “Do not lose heart.” “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Strong words, and a tough question. We have all witnessed the miracle of the safe and successful rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 68-69 days after the collapse of their mine. They prayed; they did not lose heart; and the Son of Man surely found faith on earth in Camp Esperanza. There is so much to be learned from the witness of what happened in Chile.
I have heard the parable in Luke’s Gospel today, often referred to as the Parable of the Unjust Judge, interpreted as somehow equating God’s interest in and response to our prayers with the action of the unjust judge, the judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people, in response to the widow’s request for justice. We aren’t told anything about the nature of the dispute. He initially refuses her request to grant her justice against her opponent – no reason given – but after awhile, he reflects that even though he has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, just because she keeps bothering him, he’ll give her the justice she asks for so she won’t wear him out by continually coming.
The fact that in the body of this very short parable, twice, we are told that this judge does not fear God and has no respect for people, surely underscores that it is not Jesus’ intention to draw a parallel between this judge and God. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to listen to what the unjust judge says – by way of contrast: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
Still, it is a parable that is troubling, that challenges us – as most of them do, and are intended to do. Surely we can all recount experiences of prayers that have gone unanswered when we have cried to God day and night – at least as far as we can see or tell. Keep in mind this parable is directed at Jesus’ disciples, those closest to him, his inner circle. He’s warning them that this is not an easy road, this journey of faith. And part of that journey is the necessity of constant prayer, persistent prayer, and not losing heart no matter what transpires. It is part of our life in witness to Christ. It may not be within our power to see why some prayers appear to go unanswered. There have been many explanations offered for unanswered prayers, or for delays in answering prayer, things like purifying the motive: We learn about ourselves through our persistence in prayer, maybe discovering that what we began with changes shape; maybe the intensity of our desire for what we have been praying for begins to diminish, loses its importance to us, surely an answer of a kind. Or the opposite occurs: The urgency and intensity of what we have been praying for only grows. We become more fervent, more determined about our prayers, having become clearer about ourselves. Maybe we learn patience, in a culture that does not hold that up generally as a desirable virtue, and yet, the patience of the saints is one of the strongest indicators of faith, to persist in the fight for justice against all odds, and against all disappointments.
What would we gain, really, if prayer operated more like Aladdin’s lamp – make a wish, rub the lamp, and presto you have your wish granted? Would we really like that, or benefit from it? Or would our requests just keep ratcheting up? Prayer calls us to something so much more powerful. It is the nourishment of the soul, the strengthening of the bond between us and God. Just as we come here to this table to share in the body and blood of Christ for our nourishment, so, in our prayers, we continue to be challenged and nourished. Jacob wrestling with that angel is an excellent visual image for prayer, and sometimes in that wrestling, we, too, are left with something out of joint, the way we walk permanently changed.
It is also often the case that prayers are answered, but we don’t see it, we don’t notice, either because it occurs in a way we do not expect or look for, or it only becomes clear long after the fact. It is told that Galileo went to the tomb of St. Anthony as a young man, intending to pray for himself, for health for his children, a healthy old age for his mother, but instead he found himself, as he meditated on the life of St. Anthony, asking for illumination of mind that he might confer some boon of new knowledge on mankind. Galileo lived in the 16th , into the 17th centuries; he was an Italian scientist/philosopher. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and astronomical observations made possible thereby. That prayer of Galileo’s asking for illumination of mind to confer some boon of knowledge on mankind was clearly answered, though Galileo himself may have been unaware. That for which he is most known is his claim that the sun was the center of the universe, rather than the earth, which met with bitter opposition in his day, particularly from the church. His views were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as false and contrary to scripture. He was tried by the Inquisition for heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Publication of his works was forbidden. He continued his scientific inquiries during the years of his house arrest, continuing to add to the boon of new knowledge for mankind, as he had requested in his prayer. I wonder if he knew his prayer had been answered despite what happened to him. It wasn’t until 2008, in connection with the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope, that the church reversed its position on Galileo, and recognized his achievements.
Galileo’s is a good story to remember when discouraged in our own prayer life, questioning why we don’t get the results requested. We, as disciples of Christ and witnesses to Him in the world, are given this charge, one we cannot ignore or deny: You need to pray always, and not to lose heart. Collectively, by persisting, persevering in that holy and life giving command, we can shape an answer to Jesus’ question that expands well beyond one Chilean mine: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Amen.