A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson on October 16th, 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but at a young age, my family became friends with another young family from my dad’s work. Both our families had kids of the same age, and our parents had similar interests. The dad’s hunted together and the mom’s shared a love of gardening and canning, swapping recipes and tips. We spent a lot of time together, often with my mom babysitting their kids and their mom babysitting my brother and I as need arose. I remember, even at that early age how much we enjoyed and shared in common. But, one thing we did not share, or so I thought then, was a faith. We were, at the time, Free Methodists, or as we often self-identified to others, Evangelicals. They were Catholics. I remember being somewhat uncomfortable with their prominent picture of Mary on the wall, and am sure there followed some tricky conversations with my folks about the differences between our piety and theirs. But, the most troubling of all the differences that my young mind could comprehend was that when we prayed over a meal at our friend’s house they never closed their eyes. I don’t know about you, but from ever since I can remember, if someone said “Let us pray”, whether learned or instinctual behavior, I bowed my head and closed my eyes. That’s how you pray, Right? But, these Catholics, with their pictures of Mary and the sign of the cross, prayed with eyes open, staring at me and each other over the meal we were about to consume. It felt preposterous, even heretical.
How do you pray? Is it over a meal or at the close of the day? Do you murmur supplications for those in need as you pass on the street? Do you get up and say the Daily Office with our Morning Prayer ministry on Facebook or in the Evening do you open your Book of Common Prayer and say Compline? I love that scene from my favorite movie, A River Runs Through It, where the younger son, Paul, refuses to eat his oatmeal, and the family is unable to conclude their meal until he does so. Finally admitting defeat in the face of Paul’s stubborn defiance, the father, the good Presbyterian pastor, calls everyone back to the dining room. They sit, Paul still in front of his untouched bowl of oats, and then kneel beside their chairs to say the final word of grace. Do you kneel at your bedside or bow over the food, fold your hands or raise them up? Do you hold in your mind the needs of the world or speak your prayers aloud? How do you pray?
Jesus tells the parable today of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. A parable that begins with the teaching that we, his disciples, are to pray always, and not lose heart. Then he proceeds to bring together two seeming unrelated ideas of prayer and justice. Biblical scholars tell us that early readers and hearers of Luke’s gospel would have been familiar, even steeped in the Jewish prophetic tradition and teaching, such that the invocation of a widow, would immediately bring to mind lessons of God’s preferential option for widows and orphans, and the command to do justly by these. Indeed religious tradition regarded widows and orphans, the alien and the lame as needing a special kind of care and protection by the faithful. Yet, here, in Jesus’ telling, the widow needs no protection at all. Her persistence and power are lifted up as exemplary. This is how we are to pray, with persistence, an unflagging determination, to be just a little pissed off about the unfairness of our lives and inequities in the world, and to seek and strive in word, and body, toward real justice. How often when we pray do we connect prayer with justice? So much of our religious life relegates these two things to separate spheres. We pray for our needs and the needs of the world. We pray as an act of personal spiritual piety, seeking after feelings of comfort and peace. We may work for justice. Most likely we are comfortable with service, and acts of charity. But, praying for justice, like the persistent widow, with such earnest and fervent desire, showing up to act and work for justice as if to embody our prayers – that might seem a bit out of our spiritual wheelhouse. But, prayer, our tradition believes, practiced with persistence and with an eye toward the injustice of the world, holds the power to transform our hearts and minds into doers of the word. Prayer can move us, in body as well as spirit, into actions on behalf of justice.
But, how do we have an eye toward injustice? In part, I think it comes by getting into right relationship with God, which is part of the point of prayer. We don’t pray to ourselves or to some unknown other. We pray to a God, experienced in the person of Jesus, who desires among other things, that we not lose heart. We pray to a God who can be known and experienced, a God with whom we can wrestle and against whom we can rage. We pray to a God with whom we can have a deep and intimate relationship, who seeks to be known and one with us. Theologian Dorothy Soelle says that born of this kind of relational understanding of our prayerful connection and communion with God, we are not brought “to a new vision of God but a different relationship to the world—one that has borrowed the eyes of God.” You see, we can only perceive true justice, when we see with eyes wide open, the pain, brokenness, and injustice of the world, through the eyes of God.
My centenarian grandmother, the one I mentioned in my last sermon, a widow herself, has a small bookshelf by her favorite chair. And, on that bookshelf are pictures of each and every one of her 6 children, their spouses, her 20 grandchildren and their spouses, and now her growing flock of great grandchildren. She calls the shelf her prayer tower, and she insists that we send her updated pictures periodically and that the pictures be close up enough that she can see each of our faces. Every morning, as she reads her Bible and prays, she looks at each of us, in the eyes, and prays for us by name. I can imagine how such a persistent practice of prayer might deepen her love for us, and her desire for each of our flourishing and joy in the world.
Today’s parable calls us to pray always and not lose heart. That kind of prayer, might move us into action and relationship with a world full of injustice and pain, with eyes wide open, seeing and knowing and then acting on behalf of God’s justice. Such a praying might help us see how our bodies are all kin to one another – women’s bodies, cis, trans, and non-binary bodies, queer and straight bodies, white, black and brown bodies, the bodies of the poor, middle class, and rich, the incarcerated and free, immigrant and indigenous bodies, neuro-typical, neurodiverse, and differently abled bodies – and together we might not only serve those most in need, but we might also lift our voices in a prayerful, persistent, and unwavering plea for justice. We might act, and march, and speak, and vote for the end of oppression, for the freedom to choose, for the ability to be in our bodies without fear or threat of violence. So, let us as Jesus taught, pray always and not lose heart. With eyes wide open let us put our prayer in action in knowledge that with God’s help, justice is never out of reach.