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Sermons from Emmanuel Presbyterian Church - Nashville

Sep
01
2019

Praying or Fainting

Posted 43 days ago ago by Scott Huie

Luke 18:1-8 

Scott Huie 
Emmanuel Presbyterian Church 
September 1st, 2019 

There is no question that we live in a world that craves instantaneous response and gratification—from the fast food hamburger to microwavable pop corn, from Instagram to the supersonic airplane.  We want things our way, and we want things now.  And to a large degree, we get it.  With 21st Century technology and organization, it is so easy to believe that it is we who are in control.  And yet, as a person of faith, I sense, the more I live, the more I realize that I am not in control—that there is a reality beyond myself that has far greater power than I could ever hope to have—and our call as people of faith is to let go and rely on that greater power.  

Jesus makes that point crystal clear from the outset of this morning’s parable.  He doesn’t always do this.  At times he leaves his listeners pondering the meaning of his words.  But here he lays it all on the line.  He tells them a parable “about their need to pray always and not give up.” Another translation, “Pray always and not lose heart.  Pray and not “lose heart.”  Pray always.  Don’t lose heart.  Or as the King James translates it—I love this one—we are to pray always and not faint.

To faint means, quite simply, to be paralyzed, to be weak, to be worthless, to feel the force dying and the vigor passing, to be beaten, to be broken down and helpless.  Jesus puts his philosophy of life in very black and white terms.  There is no middle ground here: to pray or to faint.  Of course, people of faith are called to pray.  We are to talk to God, sharing our deepest selves.  We are to listen to God, yearning to hear that still small voice that speaks ever so softly.  We are to pour ourselves into the One who made us and who loves us as his very own.  We are to pray always.  

I don’t think that means that we are to bow our heads and close our eyes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  There is not much reality in that.  Rather, the constant orientation of our lives is to align our will with the will of the Father.  As it states in the letter to the Colossians, we are to set our minds on the things that are above, where Christ is, and not on things that are below.  We are to yearn for the things of God.  We are to pray and not lose heart.  We are to pray and not faint.

That brings us to our story.  It is, as I once heard, the story of the powerless banging on the locked door of power. There are two in our cast of characters.  First we have the widow, who has a serious grievance against a neighbor.  This widow was a symbol of all who were poor and defenseless in society.  She had no clout in the community.  She didn’t know the mayor of the town or any of the county commissioners who might pull strings for her to get her case on the docket.  The only thing she had in her court was her persistence, her will, her passion.  Perhaps a picture of an undocumented immigrant from Central America comes to mind.  And second, we have the judge, described as unjust, a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  Obviously, he was powerful, he was pagan, he was corrupt, and he was lazy. 

At first, the widow tried to play by the rules, but it wasn’t long before she realized that the rules were not just.  All she could do was to keep going back to the judge and hounding him.  She simply would not let up.  She wanted justice, and she would not be denied.  She probably followed the judge everywhere: to the parking lot, to the market, to the synagogue, to his home.  She probably could be called a stalker.  Her strategy was a little like Chinese water torture:  drip, drip, drip, drip.  It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.  

I suppose we all know a little about this strategy—about the power of persistence.  The negative spin on it is the power of nagging.  A small child has his heart set on a new toy.  He saw it advertised on the Cartoon Network. He’s already got 30 just like it, but he’s got to have this special, new one.  He asks you for it.  You remind him his birthday is next month.  But he wants it now.  So he asks again and again and again.  “Please, Daddy, please, daddy, please,” he shouts as he pulls on your pants leg. His asking becomes pleading, which becomes nagging, which might even evolve into a full-fledge tantrum.  So, admit it, at times when defenses are down and the will is weak, you give in and get him his toy.  Now mind you back in the day that never happened in my household, but maybe it does in yours. 

Parents can nag too.  “Eat your vegetables…clean your room…brush your teeth…take the trash out…find new friends to hang out with…just say NO.”  Often what youth hear is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s annoying, but let’s admit, deep down, the wisdom of those words do sink in—maybe not until we’re adults, but they do sink in.  Persistent nagging is not always pleasant—in fact, it seldom is—and often it backfires, but, let’s admit, sometimes it works.

It seemed to work in our story this morning.  “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” said the unjust judge, “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” Or as another translation puts it, “…so that she won’t give me a black eye.”  And so her case is heard, justice is served, and she wins her case.

So what’s the message here, the squeaky wheel gets the oil?  Ann Landers said that the squeaky wheel gets replaced.   But is the message, nagging pays off?  The nagging person gets rewarded and the patient one doesn’t?  Could that be the lesson here? Or maybe, what is operative here is not the action of nagging, but it is the powerful persistence of desire.  There is a desire for change, and the desire fuels the nagging.  So what is to be emulated here is not so much the nagging as the desire.  There is a deep desire by this woman for justice to rule, for God’s ways to win out, and she just can’t stop until justice is served.

It reminds me of a powerful scene from that 1993 Tom Hanks Oscar winning movie, “Philadelphia.”  Hanks plays lawyer Andrew Beckett, who is unfairly fired from a top Philadelphia law firm once it is learned that he suffers from AIDS, so Beckett takes his case to court.  The lawyer who defends Beckett, Joe Miller, played superbly by Denzel Washington, is an African-American who goes through a conversion experience of sorts over the course of the movie as he overcomes his bigotry against gays.

The characters in the movie are like those in the parable: the good are very good and the bad at least consistent in their badness.  The law firm traditionalists are as unrepentant as Luke’s Unjust Judge.  It is not their kindness or change of heart that finally wins the day of justice for Beckett, but rather his dogged persistence and his deep faith that the rightness of the law will prevail in the end.  Let’s see what happens when the lawyer questions his client in court…

(SHOW CLIP that starts with courtroom scene, “What do you love about the law, Andrew?” “I…many things…uh…uh…What I love the most about the law?”  “Yeah.” “It’s that every now and again—not often, but occasionally—you get to be a part of justice being done.  That really is quite a thrill when that happens.”) 

As a once successful lawyer, Beckett still has faith that justice can prevail, a faith that sustains his unlikely cause through the painful reality of his failing body.  The persistent widow in our parable had a similar faith, but without any of the background, knowledge, or privilege that would make such faith reasonable.  

Yet this widow surely would have understood and appreciated the homespun wisdom of Jesus, who, as one preacher put it, observed that vultures are as predictable as death, just as smoke goes with fire, and lying with dogs will get you fleas.  Jesus’ point is that the Kingdom of God will come just as surely as vultures come with death, and that justice will flow down just as surely as injustice exist today.   Jesus’ point is that God answers prayer.

Sometimes, let’s admit, we wonder about that. “Where are you, God?” we pray.  “Why doesn’t our pain and our heartache go away?”  And Jesus tells us to be patient, as hard as that is to take sometimes.  Jesus said, “You see how the unjust judge responded to the widow’s persistence. Will not (our just and loving) 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 justice to them.”

I am reminded of a little boy named Timmy, who was having a hard time falling to sleep.  So he called downstairs to his dad and asked for a drink of water.  His father called back up Timmy, “You already had a drink.  Now go to sleep.”  Timmy said, “But Daddy, I’m still thirsty.  Please may I have another drink of water?”  “No,” his father answered.  A long pause.  Then Timmy again spoke up, “Daddy, please, I’m really, really thirsty.”  Timmy’s daddy said, “For the last time, no.  And if I hear another word about it, I’m coming up there and giving you a spanking.”  Another long pause.  Then Timmy spoke again, “When you come up to give me a spanking, could you please bring a glass of water with you?” You know what the father did then.  He brought his son a glass of water and didn’t spank him.  

Jesus tells us not to give up praying if God doesn’t give us what we want right away.  Sometimes God says YES, and sometimes God says NO.  Often, God wants us to wait a while before answering.  Maybe it’s not the right time, or maybe what we’ve asked for isn’t really what we want at all, and God is giving us time to figure it out.  Whatever the case may be, God hears us and God responds. 

And finally Jesus concludes his story pretty much similar to where he began.  He turns it back on us: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In other words, will we be people who faint, give up, and lose heart, or will we be people who pray—who pray persistently, not for a red Corvette or the latest iphone, but that justice will reign and truth will win out and oppression will be overcome?

It was a message and a challenge that Jesus’ disciples needed to hear.  As they approached Jerusalem, they didn’t know what Jesus knew—that hardship, betrayal, and even death awaited them.  Would they lose heart and faint, or would they pray and trust in Jesus?  It was a message that the early Christians of Luke’s time needed to hear.  A generation had passed and Jesus had not yet returned as promised. Disappointment was beginning to set in, especially as Rome was beginning a rather brutal persecution of Christians.  Where was God’s justice? they wondered.  And so, the question loomed, would they lose heart and faint, or would they trust in Jesus and pray?

It is also a message that we need to hear today.  Look around, and surely you can’t help but ask, where is the justice?  Read the papers, watch the news: government stalemate, runaway deficits, militarism, terrorism, sexism, classism, racism have all run amuck.  Look around: global warming, crime, gun violence, mass shootings, poverty, divorce, drugs threaten the very fabric of our lives. Where’s the justice? we ask. Where are you, God?

In such a world, we can do one of two things.  We can faint—that is, lose hope, die on the inside, rely solely on our own power, sleep in, read the paper, and play golf on Sunday morning, give up, lose heart.  Or we can pray—that is, turn to very source of all life, bear our souls, listen intently, love and serve, and stand up for God’s justice in the world.   

It gives me great delight when I see this church not fainting, but praying.  Yes, praying with our eyes closed and our heads bowed, but also praying with the way we live our lives in standing up for justice: helping the hungry and homeless as we do when we serve at Downtown Presbyterian Church’s breakfast for the homeless, volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank as we are doing later this month, assisting with the local Habitat for Humanity build as we are doing in two weeks.  My friends, if you want to be more than a Sunday morning pew-sitter Christian, if you want to put more meat into your faith, then come join us in these and other ministries of prayer and outreach through this wonderful church.

Jesus is coming, my friends.  The scary question is whether or not he will find a warm welcome.  Will he find people who through their lives of prayer have been asking for his return all along and so, when he shows up, will heave a sigh of relief that finally their prayers were answered?  Or will he find people on the verge of fainting, who stopped asking for his return long ago, relying instead on their own ingenuity to get ahead in life and who will therefore be shocked when he shows up again?  The widow in our parable made a fool of herself in order to get justice.  May we likewise be foolish in the world’s eyes as we bow our heads and live our lives in prayer.

As the prophet Isaiah said so beautifully hundreds of years ago:
Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31).

Amen.