Persistence in Prayer, October 20th, 2013, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alameda, CA
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20th, 2013
Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alameda, CA
Genesis 32:22-31 Psalm 121 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8
Persistence in Prayer
All three lessons today are about persistence in prayer, a stick-to-it-ness that finally brings about personal as well as social blessings. Jacob struggles with the angel. His prayer is more than just verbal; he’s like totally involved in his prayer, even physically all night. His prayer is a wrestling match. He is actually wrestling with God the whole night, until the day is breaking and the frustration of the man makes him hit the socket of Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint. That stops Jacob, but he still won’t let the man go. “I’ll not let you go unless you bless me.” That prayer of Jacob used to be in every liturgy just before the blessing at the end of the service. In German, “Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn.” Jacob got the blessing out of his father by cheating his brother out of it. Now he wrestles his blessing from God, who does not tell Jacob his name, but changes Jacob’s name to Israel, the one who wrestled with God: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed!” He becomes crucial in God’s whole plan of salvation, because his twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel and they go down with Joseph to Egypt into slavery and come back
with Moses through the wilderness into the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.
The letter to Timothy we read, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is judge of the living and the dead, and in view of the appearing of his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, convince, rebuke, and encourage, with utmost patience in teaching.” The writer of that letter is encouraging teachers, evangelists, and pastors to keep at it, to stick to it with patience. How long does it take to teach a little child how to read? Every little step along the way we have to have patience and the child needs much encouragement. In a new program, new teachers become the apprentices of tried and true outstanding teachers and now their teaching is experiencing new break-throughs. New teachers should not be thrown into a classroom and always have to reinvent the wheel alone and by themselves again. The teaching art and skill has to be mastered with apprenticeships, journeying for new skills, – like into the marvelous schools in Finland, doing that in order to master the art and craft of teaching once again. In the old days you had to master a craft by first becoming an apprentice and then a journeyman. That training is now being used for teachers. It should also be introduced for pastors, don’t you think?
In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, who does not fear God nor have reverence for people, her prayer requires persistent pestering of that judge, because like an uncaring and impersonal system, he does not respond because he cares about her person, but because she does not stop pestering him for justice. So you see how all three lessons are about persistence in prayer, so that personal and social blessings result.
Martin Luther advised us that prayer is the hardest of all work. I have a book of his prayers and in reading them I’ve gotten a glimpse into his soul. No matter how many obstacles were stacked up against him, no matter that he also knew that he himself was a sinner, he kept on praying and God rolled up the sleeves of that divine shirt and reformed a church in head and members that had been struggling for centuries to do so and could not prevail. Prayer brought the accomplishment, when it was humanly impossible, while for God all things are possible.
Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you for the work of the divine, involving what the strong arms of God can do, (“It is no secret what God can do!) bringing about our transformation because of our access to the miracles of God’s omniscient mind and miraculously mature and perfect personhood.
Prayer makes a way for us where there is no way. Like John the Baptist, God makes a way for us, changing us as we march on that royal highway, so that we become new, more and more mature persons through prayer, so that our congregation receives growth and renewal, so that our society gets a taste of heaven. Because we pray: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These are not empty words, when we are persistent pestering God with our prayers. We will only attain a foretaste, of course. I like to say that concerning heaven, we can’t get the feature presentation, but we can see the previews of the coming attractions! On the other hand, some places on earth, like Syria, are getting pretty much a feature presentation of hell. We need to pray for the people there.
Max Weber said that bringing about a new policy in the government for the common wealth of the people was like trying to drill a hole through a board made of very hard wood. It took persistence in drilling and drilling and drilling until you broke through that thick hard wood board for the people’s benefit. I used to say that the only way through it is to get through it. Weber wrote about the vocation of politics and said it required persistent drilling as the only way to accomplish good things for the people. In Germany Otto von Bismarck introduced universal health coverage in 1883, unemployment insurance for workers in 1884, and old age and disability insurance in 1889. We holler socialism for such legislation over here. Bismarck did it there to prevent socialism from spreading and to prevent so many Germans from emigrating from Germany to America. When Bismarck would introduce this controversial legislation, the House would erupt into disorder with all the representatives shouting in anger. He would take out a newspaper and read it until they calmed down once more and continue reading his legislation.
Germany had been made of hundreds of little principalities and free imperial cities and with his single-minded persistence Bismarck put them together under Prussia as one empire. That Germany became so powerful in the heart of Europe was problematic, we know two world wars resulted, but now in the center of the European Union it can hopefully play a more positive role.
Persistence in prayer brings the human break-throughs we need. Shutting God out brings us nothing. God will only provide the blessings we seek though prayer. I think that the unjust judge stands for a society whose leaders don’t fear God or care about the people and the widow stands for all those suffering injustice. In the online commentary, Brian Stoffregen writes:
In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable [about the unjust judge and the persistent widow]and gave a one-sentence interpretation: “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” …
Now a Black Senator Cory Booker was elected representing New Jersey, joining the other 98 White senators (Mo Cowan was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts for John Kerry is the other) and he is only the fourth African American who has ever been elected to the United States Senate. The prayers of that old Black minister brought Barach Obama and his lovely wife, Michelle and his two daughters into the White House. The fact that he has such a lovely family is completely ignored by many who have always championed family values. We have to be aware that much of his opposition comes merely because he is Black. We Whites love the delusion that we’re superior. The Affordable Health Care Act was a Republican idea and first implemented by the Republican Governor Mitch Romney in Massachusetts. While doing everything to destroy this new initiative, the argument is that it doesn’t work. That’s like breaking somebody’s legs and blaming him for not being able to walk, let alone work.
Being persistent in prayer is the point of this parable and it does not only represent the good things God can do for us on a social and political level, but also on a personal level. Prayer is speaking with God and allowing God to speak with us. Imagine speaking with the president of the United States? What an incredible honor that would be. Well, that does not hold a candle to speaking with God. If you could speak with someone whom you consider the greatest person that ever lived, who would it be? (ask for names) Well, speaking with God is someone greater. Imagine speaking with Jesus Christ! Well he taught us how to pray and helped us by saying, pray this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” So we can come before God and speak with God like God’s children. We can come to God’s table and eat God’s bread and drink God’s wine, which becomes the body and blood of Jesus. We are changed because his body becomes our body and his divine blood starts to flow through our veins. We become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, his sisters and brothers, children of the living God.
So keep on praying so you keep having faith so that Jesus comes back and finds you full of faith, while moving among us here on earth and continuing God’s creation. We should not only take time during the day to pray, but also say prayers inside ourselves whenever we have meetings or need to have an important conversation with someone or have to face anything crucial. Like before writing this sermon, I prayed, “O God, put the words in my sermon that Immanuel people need to hear! Words that will comfort, help, and sustain them and words that will also challenge them.” Or when I go to a Bible study. “O Lord, I know I’m a talker and I talk way too much. Guard the gate of my lips. Help me be a good listener!” When someone is working something through, it is always possible to pray for them in our hearts, so God can give them a break-through.
I’ll end with Luther again. His barber, Master Peter wanted Luther to teach him how to pray. So Luther wrote a long pamphlet explaining for him how he prayed. He would pray the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, the whole catechism in different ways. He always tried to get into the mood to pray and he always tried to pray in his own words. He would pray out loud just like a child and pour his heart out to God. Say he was going through all the petitions and their explanations from the Lord’s Prayer in the catechism. Let me read you his own words:
You should know that I do not intend for you to recite all these words in your prayer… Instead I want you to be stimulated and instructed as to what thoughts should be grasped in the Lord’s Prayer. When the heart has become warm and longingly in the mood for prayer, you can express these thoughts well in many different ways, with a whole lot of words or just a few. I do not bind myself to such words and syllables; I speak the words one way today and another way tomorrow, according to my feelings and what mood I’m in. Nevertheless, I stay as close as I possibly can to the same thoughts and ideas. Often it happens that, in one part or petition, I lose myself in such rich thoughts that I let the other six petitions go. And when such rich, good thoughts come, then one should forgo the other prayers and give room to those thoughts and listen in silence. Then by all means, make no hindrance, because the Holy Spirit’s divine self is preaching to you, and when the Spirit preaches, one word is better than a thousand of our prayers. In this way I have sometimes learned more in one prayer than I could ever have gotten from much reading and thinking.
Those are words Luther used to teach his barber how to pray, but they also encourage and help us. Of course, Jesus, next to whom Luther can’t even hold a candle, Yes, Jesus taught us even more and reminds us to be persistent. So keep on keeping on. Take time to pray. Let’s live in an envelope of prayer even wrestling with it in the night even physically like Jacob; and keep on praying inside ourselves. If we envelope ourselves in prayer, then inside that envelope, let’s have a letter, and let that letter also contain a prayer. Let’s live not only a continual, but even a constant and continuous prayer, so that the real presence of Christ completely surrounds us, who become living prayers. Amen. Amen. Let’s keep on keeping on praying, until the light of God floods our path and all the people around us fill us with love and we finally see the way. Amen.
 Peter and Philip Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 221. Note that if you compare this translation with mine in our book, I have improved this one.