Sunday 29 • 16 Oct 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Rev. Chris Udy

When Ginie and I lived in Gordon
I regularly visited a woman
who had been lying on her bed
in a nursing home
every day and night for 5 years.
She got up only when she had to,
when the staff made her stand and walk,
when she was cajoled to eat a meal,
and when she had to go to the bathroom.
The rest of the time she simply lay on her bed.
She couldn’t read or watch television
because she could hardly see;
she sometimes listened to her transistor radio,
but she turned it off whenever the music stopped
and anyone started to speak;
she had sores and ulcers
because her skin was so thin
and because she didn’t move,
and every day and every night
she prayed to God to let her die.

When we lived in Lithgow
a woman in the congregation there
spent almost a year
travelling between her home
and the hospital in Sydney
where her teenage son
was being treated for leukaemia.
She had two younger children
and every time she talked to them
she could see they were struggling
with problems of their own -
but trying not to show
that they were jealous or frightened
because they knew
something dreadful was happening in their family.
She saw her oldest son lose his hair,
and then saw his face and body
changed by the treatments he was trying -
and every day and every night
she prayed to God to let her son live.

What happens when we pray?

For some people
prayer is something only children do.
Sometimes they’ll tell stories
about when they gave up on prayer:
they’ll talk about praying
when something was important to them -
when they faced a moment of crisis;
a time when life and death were in balance -
and they’ll finish their stories by saying -
either with sadness or with anger
“but nothing happened -
God didn’t answer my prayer.”

Other people will tell stories
of miracles and wonders,
when they saw someone healed in a moment,
and they felt the heat
and sensed the power of the Holy Spirit
flowing through them.
Sometimes their stories will be astounding -
and they’ll ask us to believe with them
that what they saw and felt and did
happened just the way they describe it.
Sometimes they’ll talk about a miracle -
and then describe something
we might think
as natural and normal as a rainbow.

So for some people,
prayer is a religious delusion - or a deception.
For others,
prayer is a button that works every time.

For most of us,
prayer is something in between.

For most of us,
praying doesn’t necessarily change
the situations we face
or the problems we’re in.
No amount of praying
is likely to help us pass
an exam we’re unprepared for,
or change the result of a critical election
or increase our bank balance
before the credit card payment is due.
But, at the same time,
many of us would say
that when we’re disciplined about prayer –
when we’re part of a worshipping community,
or when we’re praying regularly and honestly,
we live with a power and with peace
that is not there when we don’t pray.

For most of us,
praying is more like good food
than like a drug -
it doesn’t bring instant relief or ecstasy -
but it does make us healthy and strong.

So it’s interesting to recognise
that when Jesus talks about praying,
he never talks about praying
for miracles and healing.
He talks about praying for justice -
about praying for faith,
about praying for forgiveness and guidance.
The only time he even mentions
healing and prayer together
is when he answers questions from the disciples
about why they couldn’t release a young boy
from what they described as demonic possession –
and even then he was talking about
the disciplines and attitude of the disciples,
not the boy.

When Jesus taught his disciples about prayer,
he used parables like the one we read today.
There was a woman - he said - a widow,
who had no-one to defend her,
no-one to take her side in a dispute she was having.
So she went to a judge in the city,
and asked for his help.
But as soon as the judge realised
the woman was both powerless and poor,
he sent her away.
The woman didn’t give up though.
As often as she could,
she returned and asked the judge
to give her justice against her opponent.
The judge kept refusing -
but the widow wore him down -
until finally,
for no other reason than her persistence,
he gave in to her request.

He said,
“Though I have no fear of God,
and no respect for anyone,
I will grant her justice,
so that she may not wear me out
by continually coming.”

When Jesus told the story he finished.
And 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 grant them justice quickly.

The stories Jesus tells
are about persistence in prayer,
about praying for the kingdom,
praying for God’s purpose to be fulfilled,
praying for the constant, every-day necessities
and realities of living.

It doesn’t look like Jesus prayed
for instant results and miraculous intervention -
he prayed to establish
and develop a relationship with God,
a constant, daily, continuing conversation,
in which Jesus found the courage
and hope and peace to keep going.

We even know
that Jesus didn’t always get what he asked for.
In the garden of Gethsemane
he prayed that dying on the cross
would not be part of his life’s purpose,
but it was -
and his prayer gave him
the strength and courage to face it.

For many people prayer is a last resort.
It’s something they try
after all other avenues are exhausted.
But when we get to that extreme
praying is really a bit like swearing -
it’s a desperate appeal
that we really don’t expect to have answered -
it’s more a way to vent our grief
and express our fear and frustration
than any attempt to find assistance.
If we pray only in times like that
we’ll probably find our expectations fulfilled -
our prayers will come back empty and hollow,
because they’ve lost connection with our souls.
If we’re entirely convinced
we’re ultimately alone in the universe,
whatever prayer we might construct
will probably confirm it.
But for people who have prayed
with persistence and discipline;
for people who have established and built up
a deep and rich connection with God
through days and weeks
and months and years of prayer,
the experience seems to be different.
They don’t always get what they ask for -
but they do find they’re not alone -
and that connection they find
keeps them going
when others simply give up.

It’s no accident
that the leadership of movements
for peace and justice
all over the world and through history
has come from worshipping
and praying communities -
both Christian and non-Christian.
It’s no accident
that the people who continue to fight
against illness in themselves and in their society
instead of giving in,
talk about how important prayer is -
not as a quick fix-it,
but as the place
where strength and hope come from.
It’s no accident
that people who have been most effective
in bringing positive change
to the way their societies
have worked and cared for people
have been praying people,
who have found the vision they followed,
and the determination they needed,
kept fresh and clear through their prayer.

I don’t know exactly how God uses prayer
to change things.
I believe it’s partly by empowering
and encouraging and freeing people
to be the answers
to the prayers that they pray -
but that’s not the whole picture.

There are times when God’s movement
is much more
than the combined effort
and energy of God’s people.
There are signs and gifts that God gives
to confirm our faith
and encourage us in the work we have to do.

But however it works,
prayer is central to the Christian faith,
and even when we don’t see our requests in prayer
answered as we’d like,
God uses our faithfulness in prayer
to bring peace, and health, and justice.

The woman who had prayed to die for 5 years
finally let go of life and was taken home -
and at her funeral
the staff who had cared for her
spoke of her patience and gentleness,
her strong faith and clear spirit,
and the powerful impact
her faith had had on them.

The woman whose son had leukaemia
held him in her arms as he died -
and just before he died
he told her of a vision he’d had,
a glimpse into a place
of light and peace and wholeness
where he would be free of pain and illness.
She and her husband
established a support group
for parents whose children have died
and for many years they gave their wisdom and care
to help frightened and desperate families
find a reason to keep going.

The practice of prayer is powerful.
The results are not always as we expect,
but praying itself makes things happen.
When we pray, God works for healing,
and through our prayer,
the realm of God comes near.