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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 29, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 17, 2010

Luke 18:1-8

Aligned to another kind of power’

In his “mongrel memoir” published last week, singer-songwriter Paul Kelly recounts praying to/through Sister Mary MacKillop for the healing of his father, enduring Parkinson’s disease. Kelly’s childhood account is that of a believer, in a family of believers. He remembers that his father needed a miracle and that Mary needed a miracle, too! Prayer was a means of reaching out in love and concern – reaching backward and forward, in time and space.

Not surprisingly, the canonisation of Saint Mary MacKillop raises questions about intercessory prayer. “Only medical miracles count these days. Pioneering service and/or a messy death once qualified saints to be saints … Now all saints must cure” (David Marr). “At the time Mary MacKillop answered the prayers of a woman dying of leukaemia, there was a lot of static in the air. In China 43 million people were dying of starvation in one of the world’s worst famines. Thirty years later in the 1990s, when MacKillop answered the prayers of a woman dying of lung cancer, 3.8 million were dying in the Congo wars, 800,000 in the Rwanda genocide, a quarter of a million in the Yugoslav wars” (Adele Horin). These are good questions.

Jesus tells a parable today about “praying always and not losing heart”. Constant prayer requires faithfulness. The content of the prayer petition reflects the quality of the faith. If the content is merely self-serving, the petitioner places herself above God and treats the divine as a servant gift-giver. If God answers, “Wait,” will the petitioner have the strength of faith to persist in prayer? This is Jesus’ concern.

Deliverance is promised, but in God’s time and in God’s way. Will we wait for God?

Persistence here has to do with praying and with justice. The parable holds these two in tension. Lest we succumb to a simplistic notion of prayer as petition only, as asking only after what we want, the image of the homeless widow draws us toward those whose needs are most urgent. We are really praying with the widow, with Paul Kelly and Mary MacKillop, with disadvantaged kids in schools, with Josephite sisters in isolated ministries, with the Chilean miners, their family members and rescuers, with all victims of war, and on behalf of all, that God’s will be done.

Constantly praying for God’s will builds up not only faith (trust in God), but hope (in God’s will) and love (concern for all God’s creatures). Praising and thanking a good God strengthens trust, which, in turn, gives hope. Interceding on others’ behalf deepens bonds of friendship and love. Prayer petitions based upon these other prayer types – praising, thanking, interceding – tend to increase faith, hope, and love.

Let us seek God first in prayers of praise and thanks, and place others’ needs on an equal footing with our own. In this way, we can grow in our prayer life.

There is another meaning to be made of this parable. The key is the word translated as “coming” in verses 3 and 5 with respect to the widow’s “coming” to the judge, and in verse 8 with respect to the “coming” of the Promised One.

It’s worth asking as to the presence of God in a parable. Which of the characters represents God? Jesus often employs familiar authority figures in godly roles – kings, landowners, judges – and then subverts these in subtle or not so subtle ways. What difference might it make to read the parable assuming that the widow (not the judge) represents God – that we are called to persistence in prayer because God is persistently at work in the world and in us – that God is persistently working to bring justice? The widow is, like Jesus the Promised One, undeterred by the hard-hearted judges of this world, and determined to see justice for the weakened and the outcast. The widow is, like Jesus the Promised One, so keenly and so fervently at prayer at Gethsemane – “not my will but yours be done” – aligned to another kind of power.

Such meaning evokes a fresh contemplation. Let’s not knock so loudly on God’s door that we don’t hear God’s gentle knocking on our own! The Orthodox insistence on the life of inner prayer is a useful counter to any let’s-knock-God’s-door-down approach we may be tempted to take, or encourage in others.

I think of the signs of conversion, of justice on the way, in our public life. Judges agreeing to speak on the record – Chief Magistrate Jane Culver reminding herself that it is not about her, but about “the people for whom this is one of the worst or best or hardest days of their life”. We read that judges feel “tied in knots by the sentencing laws state Parliament has passed in response to ‘law and order’ election campaigns”. We read that the bench is now a “broader church”, as Justice Anthony Whealy puts it: “less formal, less hierarchical, less Anglican and less school tie.”

I think of higher community standards in regard to sexual harassment in the workplace.

And I remember, in light of our juvenile justice forum on Tuesday night, when it was that a godly persistence on the part of homeless young people in this city first opened my heart to a faith I had only thought I’d known. Somehow I came to be working as an art and music teacher with an agency called St Vinnies for Youth, and somehow I was then fortunate to work as the guitarist in the St Vinnies rock band. The young musicians (15 to 18 years) wrote hundreds of songs, persistent about learning, performing, recording. Their songs were much better than mine, too. And, songs that quite rightly pass for prayers – expressions of thanks as well as pain, hope as well as keen awareness.

When I think about “praying always and not losing heart” I turn again to these songs, and to the songwriters who shared with me their faith in a God of persistent love. I pray that I might be found close to them.

Praying with another may be likened to running with another. On my own it is easy to lose heart. Supported by others, my prayers are encouraged. When have we learned from someone the meaning of this kind of persistence that is also a hope for justice?Amen.