Genesis 32:22–31; Psalm 121; Luke 18:1–18

It’s a pleasure to have so many people here for Virginia State Day, and we hope you may find some relief. It sounds as if things have gotten pretty stressful across the River. I just saw in the Washington Post a report about Mona Shaw of Manassas, Virginia, who was having some problems with her cable company.

Company technicians failed to show up for their scheduled installation of a new service. Then two days later they came but left with the job half done. Two days later they cut off all service. Determined not to give up, 75-year-old Shaw and her husband went to the local call center office to complain but were told to wait on a bench outside in the August heat. Finally, after two sweaty hours the customer rep leaned out the door and said the manager had left for the day. “Thanks for coming!” he said.

Do you know the experience—when it seems as if you’re dealing with inscrutable corporate powers that are treating you like a nobody?

Well, Mona Shaw decided she wasn’t going to take it any more. The next morning she gathered up her husband and a solid claw hammer and said, “C’mon, honey, we’re going to the cable company.” And then when she walked in the office things got a little out of control. BAM! She smashed the keyboard of the customer’s rep with the hammer, then BAM! She hit the monitor, then BAM! the telephone was next. People scattered and screamed, the police showed up, and off she went to the police station.

I have to say, you Virginians are a scrappy bunch!

My guess is that Mona Shaw is a lineal descendant of the widow we heard about in our gospel lesson this morning. This widow has her own problems, dealing with a crooked judge who couldn’t care less about insignificant people like her. We don’t know exactly what brought her to the judge. To be a widow in that society was about as vulnerable a position as you could be in, and chances are she had lost her house or property. But this pushy, pestering woman was going to fight for what was right.

“Grant me justice,” she demands again and again. She bothers the judge, irritates him. She pursues him on the streets of the city; she hounds him until he can’t take it any more. She insists on what she believes is right, until finally the judge gives her what she demands. Her chutzpah carries the day.

Jesus told the disciples this story, our gospel lessons says, so that they “would pray always and not lose heart.” If a mean-spirited, crooked judge will finally give in to a pushy widow, he was saying, how much more will a loving God respond to our prayers?

I don’t know about you, but for many people prayer is one of the most confusing parts of faith. Does God hear our prayers? If so, why does it so often seem that our prayers go unanswered? What difference do our prayers really make? And what about all the prayers thrown at heaven down through the bloody stream of history—what ever happened to them?

Praying puts our faith on the line. Is there a God or not? Does this God really listen and care? Can or will this God respond to what we pray? Some have suggested that even if prayer doesn’t change God, it can change us. Is that it? Is prayer only a way of talking ourselves into a new attitude and trusting things will work out for the best?

Recently many people I know have been praying for a close friend with cancer, and still he died three weeks after the cancer was diagnosed. I have prayed for broken marriages to be healed, for illnesses cruelly afflicting young people to be cured. And at least so far those prayers have gone unanswered. People around the globe have prayed for peace in Iraq and an end to the killing in Darfur. Not much progress there.

We could all make a list of unanswered prayers. Somerset Maugham in his autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage movingly portrays his main character Philip, born with a clubfoot, coming across one day the text from Mark’s gospel that says, ‘Whatever you ask in my name you will receive it.’ He thought immediately that he could be healed. He imagined the freedom he would have at last to play soccer, how fast he could run, how people would stop staring at him because of his strange limp. And so he got down on his knees that night and prayed with all his heart to be healed. And then as he woke in the morning he hopefully touched one foot to the other and realized that nothing was different. That was the night his religious faith ended.

Earlier this week the Cathedral offered an interfaith Pray for Peace concert with rock stars such as Jackson Brown and Graham Nash, and leaders of the major faith traditions. In a press interview before, a skeptical interviewer asked an obvious question. “Why is this a prayer service? Do you really think these prayers will help bring peace?” It’s a reasonable question. Haven’t people been praying for peace for years now?

Of course, many people report that in fact their prayers have been answered—some 41% in a U.S. News and Beliefnet.com poll. But why are some prayers answered and not others? A couple from India miraculously escaped down the stairways of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and after that converted to Christianity, with the husband becoming an evangelist. But what about the prayers of the other 3,000 who perished?

There are plenty of guesses about why prayers seem to go unanswered. Maybe we are asking for the wrong thing, or maybe sometimes our faith isn’t strong enough, or maybe God is giving us something another way instead. Maybe God is doing us a favor by saying ‘No.’ C.S. Lewis once suggested that we will spend most of eternity thanking God for prayers that were not answered!

In fact the Old and New Testaments are filled with accounts of prayers that were not answered—from Moses and David to the prophet Jeremiah, to Jesus himself, who in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed that he would be spared the death he faced. Prayer is a mystery.

Still, Jesus saw it as essential that we pray and not lose heart. Biblical prayer is like the prayer of that old widow—aggressive, demanding, insistent, shameless. Theologian Walter Wink says it’s more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite lists of concerns we usually offer in our churches. It is Mona Shaw without the hammer. It is Jacob in our Old Testament lesson wrestling all night with the mysterious God-figure, insisting that he won’t let go until he receives a blessing.

Yes, prayer means haggling, arguing, pushing, demanding. But here’s the strange part. God already knows what’s on our minds and hearts. God already wants for us more than we can ask or imagine. But the haggling is our way of being with God in the struggle of our days. Like a child with a parent, we pour out our needs and hopes and wants—not to give God new information, or to get something out of a divine Santa Claus. We do it as our way of being with God in it, working with God, sharing in God’s own ache and struggle over our world.

For the sake of our freedom and dignity, God chooses to be limited in power and not to treat us as pawns in a chess game. What life would this be if every person’s wishes and desires were answered? Instead, God calls us to live in a world where random events happen both beautiful and terrible—a world of Mozart and Hitler, of beautiful sunsets and destructive hurricanes, of healthy children and the daily deaths of thousands of children from AIDS and hunger. And it’s a world where God’s will is often not done—because of our human greed and selfishness and violence.

God responds to prayer, but with baffling unpredictability. Presumably God could act alone without us, or, on the other hand, could leave it all up to us. But instead God seeks to work with us, within the world, and within our own spirits, to lead us and bless us and respond to our heart’s desires. God is not a divine potentate, but a Loving Parent, a companion and friend, who wrestles with us and for us.

Prayer matters. In our prayers we open a new space, a new way for God to work in the world through our love, desires, and actions. It opens up a new force field, a new way for God’s Spirit to move.

When I pray for my friend I am God’s companion, God’s co-worker, caring for my friend. When we pray for peace, we envision a world that has not yet come, and we join our yearning with those of others across the world. And in doing that we become small islands of peace and hope ourselves, and small channels of God’s love that can become rivers and then floods.

Prayers take time to be answered, sometimes years, even centuries. I know parents who have prayed fifty years for a troubled child. They do not lose heart. Who can count the prayers of American slaves over their nearly two centuries of slavery, or the prayers of Native Americans as they lost their land, or the activists in the Civil Rights Movement, or the Christians in the Gulag in Siberia, or the native people of South Africa living under apartheid? They knew God was with them. But the forces arrayed against them were overwhelming. Still, they prayed and didn’t lose heart. They called out to God, they found in God grace and strength to carry them. And ultimately over decades they prayed their way to freedom. Every prayer was an act of defiance—tough, shameless, demanding—an act of trust that the God of the universe was in their struggle with them.

And it is important to remember that we do not pray as deists or theists to a remote and abstract God beyond us, but as Christians who believe in a God in heaven who is also physically present on this earth inside human beings. And that means that our prayers will have real power to the extent that they lead to our own concrete actions.

We have to “put skin on our prayer,” as someone has put it. If our friend or colleague is going through hard times, and we offer a prayer for her, but never pick up the phone to call her, we will be praying as theists, not Christians. How is God supposed to heal her? By sending an email from heaven? If we pray for peace, but do not forgive those who have hurt us, how can God actually bring peace? If we pray for the homeless, but make no effort to better their lives, that approach is theist, not Christian.

Writer Philip Yancey reports traveling around the world seeing Christians involved in remarkable ministries—in prisons and rehab centers, as surrogate mothers to children with AIDS in South Africa and as health workers specializing in leprosy in Nepal. In Wisconsin, he attended a conference fighting sex trafficking and a Salvation Army conference for what is the third largest standing army in the world, only this one is mobilized to help the poor. He visited a vast complex in Roanoke, Virginia, that through the help of sixty churches grew into a shelter, education center, and clinic. Yancey interviewed the leaders of these ministries and learned that many of these projects began with what he calls “a crisis of prayer.”

“God, why don’t you do something about the AIDS orphans in Johannesburg, or the homeless in Roanoke? Don’t they break your heart?” they prayed. And inevitably, they found themselves echoing the prayer of the founder of World Vision: “Lord, may my heart be broken by what breaks your heart.” And those that prayed that prayer became the answers to their own prayers.

In a few moments we will offer our prayers for today. They are part of our haggling, pestering, wrestling, with God and for God, for the healing of our world. Let’s pray them with all our heart. And then let us pray, “Lord, may heart be broken by what breaks your heart.”

The key is that we pray always, and do not lose heart.

[Thanks especially to Philip Yancey in his wonderful book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? for helpful ideas and illustrations.]