Saturday, October 19, 2013

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Back in the 1980s Terry Waite was a lay Anglican working for the then
Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Waite had had a lot of
experience working in Africa – in Uganda during the Idi Amin years,
and in Sudan – and had travelled extensively in the Middle East where
he had worked as a hostage negotiator. In 1987, Waite travelled to
Lebanon to try to obtain the release of four hostages – but on this
trip he was himself kidnapped, and held as a hostage for five years –
nearly four years of which were in solitary confinement. No
information on his whereabouts or survival reaching the wider world
for over four years. During his incarceration, he was blindfolded,
beaten, and subjected to a mock execution. He lived much of the time
chained to a wall in a room without natural light. In the final months
of captivity he suffered from a severe chest infection which almost
cost him his life. He was finally released in November 1991 Since
his release, Waite has been active in a variety of humanitarian
causes, including working with prisoners, former hostages and
prisoners of war, and international aid. I recently read an interview
with Waite conducted a few years ago, in which the interviewer very
carefully asked him about those years of captivity. How, he wanted to
know, did you survive? Waite told him, 'You're sitting on the floor
in a dark room with no books and papers for a long, long time and no
communication with anyone or with the outside world … And you have got
to be able to discipline your mind, because everything is lived from
within'. And Waite said:

I was fortunate, firstly, because through life I had been an avid
reader and therefore I had built up a store of books, poetry and prose
in my memory. Secondly, I'd been brought up as an Anglican—I'm an
Anglican Christian—and had been brought up with the Book of Common
Prayer. The language of that was very, very helpful. I had
unconsciously memorised it as a choir boy. If I can just give you an
example of what I mean from one of the great old collects of the
prayer book:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night . . .

That is very, very meaningful when you're sitting in darkness. That
collect not only has meaning but it also has poetry and rhythm. There
is a relationship between identity, language and prayer; somehow they
help you hold together at your centre.

Waite survived, he said, because he recited – snatches at first, then
whole chapters – of the scriptures and other long-forgotten books, and
because he prayed the Book of Common Prayer.

Our reading this morning from Luke's Gospel is about prayer, but it is
also about life on the margins, about living with integrity in
situations of discouragement or alienation. Luke is writing his
Gospel a generation or so after Jesus' crucifixion, and he is writing
for a Christian community who are feeling discouraged. They are tired
of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to
fulfillment. They are tired of being persecuted as a tiny little
minority in a great big, powerful empire. They are anxious and
suffering. Today's passage is about that waiting and about not being
discouraged, not losing heart. Somehow, however, along the way,
Christians have learned to read it more as a recipe for nagging God
with repeated requests, until God, like a weary and worn-down parent,
eventually caves in and gives us what we want. But it's not that at
all, I think. It's about learning to rest in God's arms.

As he so often does, Jesus uses a character familiar to his listeners
as an outsider, someone poor and powerless. The Hebrew word for
'widow', almana, is derived from the root word alem which means,
"unable to speak". Widowhood made these women silent – without voice.
Unable to legally inherit their husband's property, and without a
husband to speak and act on their behalf they had no voice, no legal
rights, and no recourse against injustice. A widow faced a future of
frightening defencelessness and vulnerability. So in this story, the
one who has no voice is acting outside the normal bounds when she
finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it's because she
knows that there's a special place for her in the heart of God, as the
Bible often says. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament we
read that widows, orphans, and refugees – dispossessed aliens - are
especially close to the heart of God and the focus of God's concern.
We might ask ourselves who "the widows" are in our own time: who are
the ones in our own society without a voice who speak up anyway in
protest of injustice?

Anglican Bishop Barbara Brown Taylor gets inside the story and
explores the heart of this woman. Society may have told her she was a
nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence
helped her hold on to that knowledge: "She is willing to say what she
needed – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it
or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was
how she remembered the shape of her heart…".[1] Claiming your
identity through prayer, through the remembering of your deep
connection with the one who created you, is in more ways than one,
good for the shape of your heart.

Listening to the way in which Terry Waite used prayer, through the
years of darkness and disorientation, as a way of grounding his own
knowledge of himself in his deepest God-given identity – and listening
to today's parable about the persistent naming of her needs by the one
who lives on the fringes of tolerance – remembering that Jesus offers
us this parable as a model for our own prayer - I wondered about the
state of my own prayer life. How many of us – as Taylor expresses it,
'pray like we brush our teeth – once in the morning and once at night'
– perfunctorily and out of habit? What would it take to pray rather
like we breathe? allowing the breath of God to fill us and flow
through us and oxygenate us every moment, waking or sleeping? Shaping
us, and helping us to remember who we are and what we are for,
aligning us with the intentions of God?

So, yes, the lesson is about prayer, but it is also about the nature
of the God in whom we find our very being. Jesus uses one of the
creative teaching methods of the day, in this case making a point
about God by using as an example someone who is rather un-God-like.
For goodness' sake, he says, if even an unjust, disrespectful judge
who's afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow
just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading,
well, then, how much more will the God of justice and compassion, the
God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our
names are carved – how much more will that God hear the prayers of
God's own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and
their need?

Yet Luke – the Gospel writer – is concerned with a Christian community
losing heart, unsure any longer what it is waiting and working for –
and the situation today is not that different. Why are we a Church?
Why are we a parish? What are we waiting and working for, and have we
begun to drift away? And Jesus finishes this story with an admonition
to pray constantly and never lose hope, and then he says – how little
faith you have! – you, who say you are waiting for the fulfilment of
God's promises. Jesus, in this story, is talking about justice, and
God's priority for justice – and it is easy for us to relate to that,
especially if - as we all of us sometimes do – we are feeling
overwhelmed or alone or powerless. But he is also talking about
faith, and therein lies the key.

It's a funny word, 'faith' – and we often use it and think of it as
though it meant that we believe the right set of catechisms. That we
sign up to the right set of statements about Jesus, that we don't
believe in anything heretical. And of course that makes it passive –
if you can believe what you have been told, or what you read in the
Catechism or yes, the 39 Articles at the end of the Prayer Book, or
the creeds of the Church – then that's it, really. But that's not the
way Jesus uses the word, not by a long shot.

A few years ago at St Michaels we had a study group in which we read
through Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity. And Borg
reminds us that we can believe all the right things about God and
still be unhappy or unloving. What you believe with your head, Borg
reminds us, doesn't change you from deep within. So instead, Borg
talks about faith as having to do with relationship and with radical
trust. He draws on the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish
philosopher, who says that "faith as trust is like floating on a deep
ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If
you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually
sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float." Borg expresses it
this way: "Faith is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting
in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being." [2]
Children, I think, get that way easier than adults – because children
are closer than adults to the first and most powerful lessons we learn
in this life about trust.

Terry Waite understood that the reality of prayer is about buoyancy,
about learning to float and trusting God to keep us and to hold us.
Trusting also that in the sea of unknowing that is God, we find all
that we need and all that God needs us to become.


[1] "Bothering God" in Home by Another Way.

[2] 'Faith, the Way of the Heart', in The Heart of Christianity