Sunday, October 16, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 23:27; sermon starts around 28:43)
(From outside the sanctuary)
(Gradually moving into the sanctuary)
Oh hey, there you all are! You guys really shouldn’t wander off like that; it’s so weird.
Hehe, evidently enough of you played that game as kids – or had kids of your own who played it – that you remembered how it goes. For the sake of anyone who might be totally confused right now, could someone offer an explanation of what this game is and how it’s played?
[Marco Polo: it’s a kids game named after a 13th century Italian explorer (for some reason), usually played in a swimming pool. A variety of tag – one kid is “it” and has to tag the others – but unlike regular tag, whoever’s “it” must keep their eyes closed; they locate the others by calling out, “MARCO!” to which other players must respond, “POLO!”]
Exactly – it’s kind of a call-and-response sort of game, a swimming pool version of tag or blind man’s bluff. I don’t know if kids still play it much these days, but when I was growing up, it was definitely a summertime staple.
It’s a goofy thing to bring up in a sermon – especially in mid-October, when I think I can safely assume that no one around here is playing Marco Polo right now. But, weirdly enough, I found myself thinking about it as I was reading through our gospel story for this week. Marco Polo is a game where the kids playing have to call out to one another constantly in order to find one another. I mean, if you’re the kid who’s ‘it,’ you can’t just yell out “MARCO!” once and expect to win the game. You have to keep on yelling, over and over and over.
In our gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples this parable about calling out constantly to God in prayer. And we know that that’s what this parable is about, because Luke tells us so right there in verse 1! He writes: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” (And we know that “them” here is the disciples because that’s who Jesus was talking to at the end of chapter 17.) Jesus teaches his followers to imitate the example of the persistent widow in his story: this woman who refuses to give up, even in the face of this jerkwad judge who keeps refusing to help her.
This theme of persistence is also echoed in our second reading, from the second letter to Timothy: a passage that urges us to persevere in living out our faith, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” This naturally includes prayer. The message of both readings together is clear: for the life of faith, it’s just not enough to yell out “MARCO!” only once. Instead, Jesus encourages his followers to be downright relentless in living out their faith through prayer.
Now, a valid question to ask here is: why? At a quick glance, the answer to that question is troubling. If we are supposed to be like the widow in this parable, who is persistent in crying out to receive justice… then the implication seems to be that God is like this hardhearted judge who literally has to be annoyed into doing the right thing. Yikes. (And the unfortunate truth is that there probably will be terrible sermons preached this morning, proclaiming that God only responds to prayer when we can prove that we really, really want it.) But that just doesn’t add up with who we know our God of love to be.
And if you keep reading what Jesus says here, it’s clearly not what he’s trying to say either. Jesus says to his hearers: “Listen to what the unjust judge says.” Here is a guy who doesn’t give a crap about this widow or about anybody else – yet he decides to give her what she wants, purely because of her sheer persistence in asking him for it. If even this jerk of a judge will respond to the persistence of someone’s pleas, just imagine how much more God will do so. “Will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night?” Jesus asks, “Will God delay long in helping them?” Of course not. “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” Jesus’ words clearly point us toward a God who is eternally ready and willing to respond to our prayers with care and compassion.
I suspect that this call for us to be persistent in prayer has less to do with the unjust judge and a lot more to do with the verse at the end of this reading. Jesus ends his parable with a rhetorical question about faith: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The point of being persistent in our prayers to God isn’t that we fear that our prayers will go unanswered otherwise – if we’re not bugging God about it constantly. No. We persist in prayer because we have faith in God’s goodness, faith in God’s good will and abundant provision for us. Every single time we pray, we declare our belief in God’s faithfulness – sometimes even in the midst of hardship, as our second reading alludes, sometimes even when our prayers aren’t answered the way we hoped. Our continued prayers are a witness to others – and a reminder to ourselves – that God is good; that God has come through for us and for those who came before us, time and time again. Our prayers witness and remind us that, come what may, God will never fail us nor forsake us.
In fact, if any of the characters in this parable Jesus tells points us toward what God is like, it’s got to be the persistent widow herself. No matter how relentlessly persistent any of us humans might manage to be in lifting up our prayers, we’ve got nothing on God. Our seeking of God is at best a pale imitation of the ways that God is continually seeking us out and calling out to us.
We’ve spent the last couple of months talking about spiritual gifts and vocation – about the paths that we are called to both as individuals and together as a congregation. And I’ve heard some of you share awesome stories of being invited into things that overwhelmed and excited and even just plain scared you – stories of that quiet, insistent pull on your heart that just kept drawing you in. Most clergy I know – present company included! – have call stories about the Holy Spirit being downright obnoxious in repeatedly calling us toward ministry. I have heard more than one pastor or deacon compare their call story to that of Jonah – which is probably the most famous biblical example of just how relentlessly persistent the call of God can be.
God says: “Pfft, you think this widow is persistent in bothering this judge guy? Hold my giant fish.”
Even as we lift our prayers to God, God is continually speaking right back to us – calling us into our vocations, calling us back into the center of who we are. Neither God’s call nor our prayers are meant to be a one-way street of communication. The practice of prayer is a conversation. The life of faith is an ongoing constant conversation between ourselves and God. It’s a continual call and response that we can hear, if we take the time to be still and listen.
At its heart, this call to be persistent in prayer is a call to relationship, a call to allow ourselves to be drawn ever more deeply into relationship with God. Our praying and our listening help us to orient ourselves toward God – for us to find one another – kind of like children in a swimming pool shouting “MARCO!” and “POLO!” to each other. Even when we struggle to see our way forward, prayer helps us to feel out our way to where God is calling. And the more we do it, the stronger our relationship with God becomes.
I invite you to consider that this week, whenever and however you make space to pray. Dig back into your childhood self (however far back that may be!), and each time you pray, imagine your prayers reaching out to God like that childhood shout of, “MARCO!” And then open your heart with faith to listen – because the response will come echoing back to you: “POLO”