29th Sunday in Ordinary Time year C 2022
St John’s Upper Norwood
In her trail blazing commentary on Genesis Karen Armstrong reminds us that humanity has always longed to restore the intimate friendship that many religions believe it once had with God in the Paradise Garden. Jacob dreams that the hand of reparation is offered to him, when he sees angels trafficking between heaven and earth, and hears the voice of God proclaiming that he will always be with him, protecting him wherever he goes. So there is a longing in God as well to love and guide us. Later in the story we hear that Jacob, a wily operator if ever there was, meets an angel on the road ,( this is a traditional OT way of saying that God has arrived on the scene) and Jacob has to wrestle with the angel all night, and at dawn is left wounded by the encounter. But this struggle has gained him a new identity, and he is given a new title of honour- “Israel” a name which means “The one who wrestles with God and prevails.” Karen Armstrong suggests that Jacob was feeling the power of God working within him, opening out his flawed and often devious personality, bringing about maturity, and that this points to the struggles we all will inevitably have in our relationships with God, and other people; times of trail which lead us further into wholeness.
Then we hear one of 5 chunks read on Sundays this year from Saint Paul’s 2 letters of encouragement to his disciple and faithful co-worker Timothy. Paul had arrived in Lystra, and converted Timothy to the faith. But now Timothy is leading the Church in Ephesus. Clues in the letters tell us that Timothy was quite young, and sometimes timid. We hear Paul asking Timothy to remember his first introduction to the faith, what he had been taught; and what was to be expected of a Christian believer, courage and energy. He was to keep and defend his faith, build up the Christian community where he served, and help his congregation to lead godly lives.
Today Paul is reminding him how much the scriptures and prayer will feed and nourish his faith. “Pray without ceasing” he often urges us. Prayer is a gift that will sustain us in season and out of season, in good times, but also in the times of trial.
Again it is this theme of persistence and humility in our believing and praying and living, in all times and seasons, which Jesus speaks about in one of 2 parables on prayer found only in Luke’s Gospel. He is concerned to encourage his disciples to pray. They have already seen in his own lifestyle that prayer is at the heart of his being. We hear how he would withdraw to commune with his Father, often before dawn. His preparation for the bustle of the day ahead began by drawing strength and guidance from the renewing of his relationship with his beloved Father. Now he works to ensure that his followers put prayer at the heart of their daily lives too.
I am sure that not for the first time we see Jesus’ sense of humour as he gets across his message, with this tale of a nagging woman getting what she needs through sheer persistence. The fact that she is directed to a single judge, and not to a more formal tribunal, means that this is probably a financial arrangement that needs to be settled. As a woman, and especially as a widow she is vulnerable, even insignificant in her society, She appears to have no male family member to support her. That means that she is at the mercy of an official who may be far too ready to ingratiate himself with a wealthy and influential male opponent, rather than pass over her rightful inheritance. She might even be a teenager. Engagements and marriages were often settled when a girl was in her early teens. She obviously has no money to bribe the judge with. That often was the way forward. The judge has no conscience at all, but finally gives in to her demands because of her sheer persistence. Jesus assures the disciples that God is nothing like that. He hears, and he will answer,
But there are trails to overcome. The events in the Lord’s own life remind us that prayer may not always be answered immediately, or in the way that expect. Think of Jesus desperate prayer in the garden of gethsemane on the night of his arrest. He ends his prayer, as always, with an acceptance of his Father’s will. “Nevertheless your will, not mine , be done.”
Prayer opens us up to the beams of love, mercy and healing that God longs to give us. Prayer opens up new possibilities to us, as it did for Jacob, and for Timothy. But we need to pace ourselves, and remember that opening ourselves up in prayer to God will change our living. Mary Healy, a Professor in Scripture in Detroit reflects on todays Gospel and remembers praying for relief from eyestrain and migraines, but discovered that the Lord was leading her into the “deeper layers of healing” that she needed. She learnt to give herself space and time, “less stress, more trust.” She concludes, “Often there are hidden spiritual or psychological mountains that need to be removed before healing can take place.”
Practically making time and space for ourself is often at the heart of renewing our prayer life. We learn from the Gospel, and from Acts that Jesus and the disciples kept the 3 times of daily prayer that Judaism called for. The psalmist says ‘As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. 17 Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.’
Each of us will find different times of day which are better for us to set aside for prayer, but to make it a regular time each day helps a lot, You could come to morning and evening prayer or meditation here – or get one of us to direct you to the Church of England Daily Prayer app. And there are many other prayer apps online to help. It might be good to take some time away at a retreat house or religious community, where prayer is at the heart of the day. Perhaps it might be good to talk to one of us about finding a soul friend- what used to be called a spiritual director, (Danny our parish Pastoral Auxilairy is training at the moment with ‘Spidir’- the Diocesan resource which provides help for people on their spiritual journey), Making a prayer corner at home often helps, a quiet place away from the noise, with a cross, an icon or candle, where you can quieten down.
The Anglican priest poet George Herbert sums up the many faces of prayer in a wonderful poem- sometimes peaceful, sometimes storming- honest are persevering. at-
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.