October 17, 2010: Persistence That Pays Off

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

The one who persists prevails. The squeaky wheel gets the grease – yeah, we know all that. We’ve seen it. Have you ever watched a dad push a grocery cart into a check-out line? Seated in the carrier is his little princess. As soon as she spots the candy rack to her right, and dad turns to unload the cart, little sweetie morphs into a devil in diapers – pointing and shrieking loudly. People turn and stare. If she just wails long and loud, she’s learned she can get a candy bar. “Here – now be quiet,” red-faced dad pleads, as he nods and smiles to a staring audience.

Relentlessly on a mission because they are convinced they’re right, a nagging soul can whittle a person into submission. Nothing yet known effectively slows them down. Sometimes, though, nagging is good – prods you to get that cough checked, take a nap, write the report, take the car in for an overdue oil change. Have you ever had a nagging pain? Whatever generates pain, we’ll do what it takes to stop the nagging – regardless of the source.

Jesus uses the story of a persistent, nagging woman to tell the disciples to pray often and pray hard – don’t give up. The parable ends by jumping ahead to the end of time. When Jesus returns he wonders if he will find faith on earth. Sandwiched in between the opening and ending is the parable.

The widow has a big problem. Being a widow is problem enough. A widow’s social standing was just below the lowest rung on the ladder. The woman’s problem, she wants a judge to grant her justice, and she’s got a pit-bull gene for him if he won’t. Jesus says this judge neither fears God nor respects human beings. He’s arrogant and unjust. Of course he won’t give a widow the time of day. What he doesn’t realize yet: she’s not going away until she gets what she wants. Day after day she shows up at his chamber’s, pounding the door, and creating an unbearable ruckus – making herself as annoying as an unattended car alarm going off in the middle of the night under your window. Finally he can’t take anymore. He caves and grants her justice, not because he’s had a change of heart – fears God and has come to love widows. He grants her justice so she’ll go away and leave him alone.

This parable is one of those good cop-bad cop deals, or good judge-bad judge. If this crummy, heartless judge will grant a widow justice, just think how much better God will treat you – gives us what we ask, listens closely to our prayers, and won’t keep us waiting. I guess we won’t have to persist as much or as loudly as that widow. So we pray with confidence because God hears and acts. We hear prayer stories, “I couldn’t find a parking space. I was about give up and drive home. I prayed, and one appeared. Prayer really works.” “I got the job I told God I needed. Prayer really works.” “I prayed the Badgers would stomp the Buckeyes. Prayer really works.” God gets a lot of credit if the cards fall our way.

But what happens when our prayers go unnoticed by the Almighty? Does persistent prayer always get the unemployed the job they want? Someone offends us. Then we remember, “Vengeance is mine says the Lord.” So we pray, “Go for it, God,” and nothing happens. How will a homeowner who prays that their house will sell, maintain faith, when month after month they get the same result? We pray for healing and get sicker. We step it up – pray a little louder. Nothing changes. We start to wonder, pray less, and give up. Being persistent when God is silent is no easy spiritual practice.

Maybe Jesus realizes we will wear down, and others will say we are “naive and falsely optimistic” – and can come to a place we think maybe they’re right. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” We are human and count on the Almighty to faithfully keep his keep his promises. How can we have faith to keep praying when it seems prayers do no good – ever been there?

Honestly, it takes enormous courage to believe in God and not give up when we are discouraged. It takes courage to have faith when we suspect God forgets our name.

But here’s another way to think about this parable. Would we be more likely to keep faith and pray to think God could be the pesky pursuer who won’t take “No” for an answer? God doesn’t pester us like the widow. God waits for us. And it doesn’t matter how far we stray, where we go, if we ignore or reject God, God persistently goes looking for us, loving us and with us. If we don’t get what we want, that doesn’t mean God isn’t after us. And all around us are people who long for this kind of faithful love. They don’t yet realize they already have that love, that God is on their side, and they don’t have to live depressed, desperate, anxious lives. They are the beloved, too. Why does God stay after us, going to all lengths to love us faithfully in spite of ourselves – times when we ignore, deny, reject, or misrepresent God? God is persistent for us.

Jesus embodies God’s persistent, loving pursuit of all of us. This is good news – that we are so wonderfully loved. Pray persistently to hear it, know it and absorb this good news into your heart. You will be changed and transformed by love.  Living lives of gratitude, counting blessings even when heaven is silent, to believe we will get what we need, and not always what we want – that’s a faithful response. As we turn and become persistent for God, a spirit of gratitude fills us and we embody that love for others – even when we struggle to maintain faith.

People long to hear the story we are given. Yet we have to know the story before we experience and can tell what we believe. They need to see it in us. As we are humble and courageous enough to listen and hear their stories, hungers, hurts, and confusion, then they might trust us enough to listen to our story – of all God does in our lives, that God won’t go away, but waits to embrace us all with the love we already have. That’s good news. Pray for that – and pray sincerely and persistently, and then live in love with one another. That’s the persistent faith I suspect Jesus looks for in us – and the good news of God’s everlasting love that all already have.


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