October 20, 2019
The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
(2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8)
She was an elderly woman. About 50 years old. Moderately well-preserved, although a bit dried out. Not likely to attract much attention.
Granted, 50 is not so old - unless you're living 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. This 50-year-old woman was found in 2000 in burial chamber TT-95 in the Egyptian necropolis at Thebes-West. For someone who'd been buried for three millennia, she looked remarkably well-preserved. Yet even to archaeologists, she was not likely to attract attention because she appeared to be an average, everyday, garden-variety mummy ... until someone noticed the odd-looking big toe on her right foot. It was totally artificial.
It consisted of three pieces of carved wood fitted onto her foot with leather straps, making it the world's oldest known prosthesis. The wooden toe still looked ready for use, still lashed to the patient's mummified toe by a textile lace.
For paleo-pathologists around the world, this big toe was big news. X-rays revealed that the Egyptian woman's actual toe had been surgically removed, perhaps because artery disease had cut off circulation to the toe. Soft tissue and skin had overgrown the site where the toe had been taken off, and then the prosthetic toe had been added.
She must've been a persistent woman to go to all the trouble! Evidence shows that the device must've worked. Scuff marks on the toe's underside indicate that the artificial toe had assisted the woman for some time while she was alive. Without it, she would have had a very difficult time walking like an Egyptian.
Two millennia ago, there was another persistent woman of record, who evidently didn't have trouble getting around like Mummy did. Say what you want, but she was persistent. A pain. A pest. And Jesus uses her for an instructive lesson. Like a terrier at your cuff, she sunk in her teeth, snarling to the judge handling her case: "Render a just decision for me against my adversary."
Finally, the judge couldn't stand it anymore. "I neither fear God," he admitted to himself. He even confessed that he didn't care for people. "because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her." He simply wanted to get her out of his hair, because she was wearing him out with her continual griping. The widow's pleas were like a big wooden toe, one that kept jabbing and jabbing and jabbing away.
"Enough!" shouted the judge. "I get the point!" And, in a sense, so does God. "Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?" asks Jesus. "Will he be slow to answer them?" Of course not! "I tell you," Jesus insists, "he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily." Jesus is saying that if a corrupt and uncaring judge responds to persistent pleas, then certainly a holy and loving Lord will do the same.
Yet Jesus adds a nuance here easily overlooked. Whereas the earthly judge delays, God will act quickly. God does not need to be browbeaten into submission before he hears our prayers. Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.
As I have stated a few times in the past, prayer was never meant to be a way to manipulate God into doing what we want God to do. Prayer isn’t about changing God; we pray to change ourselves. We are always looking for God to rescue us from our problems, but God doesn’t always rescue. God doesn’t rescue us from every problem or suffering. Rather, God walks with us in the darkness. However, saying this, we must still pray in faith, because Christ made it clear that we not only should pray, but that we should pray in faith that God will indeed grant our desire. That is the point of the parable in today’s Gospel.
That's why prayer is not a prosthesis, a kind of a crutch for people to lean on as they try to keep their faith from falling over. Prayer might be the big toe of faith, but there's nothing artificial about it, and we don't need to use it to be kicking God in the shins trying to get his attention. Prayer is rather the critical stabilizing faculty that keeps our faith upright, that keeps us in the game, that positions us to receive from God what he wants us to have.
Prayer is a practice that connects us to a power that is much greater than ourselves, a power that can fill us and change us and strengthen us and guide us. Prayer is a practice that is perfected by persistence - by disciplined determination to be in an ongoing conversation with God.
Prayer is like the movement of a wave in harmony with the great ocean that supports it and sustains it. Individual waves can make a splash now and then, and even beat themselves against the rocks - but they are most majestic and powerful when they are rolling in harmony with the ocean that creates them, day after day after day.
Kevin Burke, a social worker from here in California, was not a religious person, and he was discouraged from discussing religion in the hospital where he worked. But at San Francisco General Hospital in the early 1980s, he saw several patients who seemed to fare better because of their spirituality.
Now, years later, Burke has studied the effects of religion and spirituality on mental health and found a distinctive result: Those who say they feel "closeness to God," which Burke defines as spirituality, fare much better according to a standard research tool, the Rand Medical Outcome Survey.
Burke traces his research to his days in San Francisco. He remembers one patient, an undocumented worker from Central America, who was suffering from spinal cancer. Because Burke could speak Spanish, the man went to him for help. Burke brought the man a prayer card.
"He thanked me profusely," Burke recalls. "He just started talking about how important it was to pray. All I did was listen." Before the man died, his pain lessened. He required less medication. Doctors asked Burke what he had done. Burke became known as the prayer-card counselor.
The people he interviewed for his doctoral study were in similarly poor health. "All of these people had a number of chronic conditions. Physically, they were very sick people," Burke says. "Persons who were close to God tended to have very high mental health scores, independent of how bad they were physically. They tended to cope much better."
Here prayer is reduced to pain-killing, mood-enhancing theological Prozac dispensed at the hands of a "prayer-card counselor." Is this what feeling close to God is all about? Take a little prayer in the morning, get some rest and call me in the morning?
There's no question that the person who walks with God, the big toe of faith functioning as it should, is in a stronger position to endure the calamities of life than one of little faith. But you don't ignore God all your life, and then take a prayer card and slip it under the door of heaven asking for help.
Get serious. The faith walk of the Christian is strenuous and demanding. We need strong legs, and healthy feet for the journey. Without a muscular faith that has been well-conditioned, we'll be reduced to someone who thinks he's okay if he has a bed pan and a prayer card handy.
St. Augustine has said this regarding prayer, and it is so true. He said: “Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers.”
Ever since I returned to my daily prayer of an hour a day, I feel better emotionally, even though the physical and other things are not where I would like them to be. I can’t recommend it enough to set some time aside each day and spend it with our heavenly Father. You will be glad you did. I can’t wait to have my private chapel and my tiny tabernacle with the Body of Christ set up again like I used to have in Louisiana – I was more at peace then. I have years to make, but I take it one day at a time. So, get praying!
Jesus had great respect for the feisty woman in our Gospel reading. She knew how to walk the talk and talk the walk. Her persistence was rewarded. She was no wave lapping up on the shore of Existence; she didn't need a prayer card. She had what she needed.
May her tribe increase! Even Jesus wondered whether "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
It's a good question.
Will he find, in each of us, the Big Toe of Faith?
Let us pray.
That we may persistently call upon God in our times of need and remain open to be changed by His love. We pray to the Lord.
For our families where there is loss of faith, division or struggles: that God’s loving care will embrace and unite them. We pray to the Lord.
That all will defend true justice and the common good in order to shape society according to God’s wisdom and order. We pray to the Lord.
That all who have abandoned the practice of faith, that the grace of Christ will soften their hearts and move them to cry out to God. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to persevere in prayer, confident that God hears and answers us. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Loving God, we place our offerings in these plates, we place our faith in you, we place our confidence in the Spirit's power, and we place our hope in the ongoing work of Christ's church. Father, we thank you for the power of prayer, which is simply the power of your love. Give us the joy of knowing that love all the days of our lives. Help each of us to pray more fervently and frequently. Help us to experience you more deeply during our prayer times with you. Help us to know that we do not need to be like celebrated saints who were mystics in order to feel your presence, we merely need to make a discipline in our lives to draw close to you, and you will do the rest. We ask all these things in Jesus' name. Amen
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA