Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the movies I used to watch with Adam when he was young was “Angels in the Outfield.”  In this movie, a young boy who is living in a foster home invests his hopes and dreams in the fortunes of a losing baseball team.  The boy’s biological father (who has abandoned him) promises before he leaves that when this baseball team (the Angels) win the pennant, he’ll come back for him and they’ll be a family again. So, the boy prays to God for help in making that dream come true. Also living in this foster home is a boy of around 8 years old. His name is PJ. PJ also dreams of having a family and shares in his friend’s confidence that the Angels will one day win the pennant. Faced with these unlikely dreams, PJ is told at every turn that it will never happen. That he will never be adopted and live with a “real” family. That the Angels are a hopeless bunch of misfits and can never have a winning season, let alone win the pennant.  But PJ’s response to these nay sayers is always a hopeful and defiant “It could happen.”  As the story progresses, PJ’s hope in the future never wavers.  We hear over and over “It could happen.”

PJ, like the rest of this movie, is filled with hope. Not just hollow optimism, but a real confidence, a real hope in the future. Or, perhaps it would be more fitting to say that PJ has faith. Faith in the Angels. Faith in people. Faith in the future. And faith in God.  And like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, PJ is persistent in proclaiming his faith, confident that in the end, his prayers will be answered. The kind of hope we hear in PJ, and the kind of faith we see lived out in the life of the widow is, I believe, a kind of hope we need for today.

In his book, Violence Unveiled, Humanity at a Crossroads, the author and scholar, Gil Bailie, speaks to some pressing issues which we face in our society. Though his work was published 23 years ago, I find it as relevant today as it was when it was published.

Why, Bailie asks, are we faced with so much violence? Why do so many people seem to crave events or gatherings that focus and magnify anger, even rage, in a public setting? Why are entertainers who project images of destruction and hatred so popular? Why, Bailie probably would wonder if he was writing today, is so much of our body politic seemingly fueled by anger? Well, Bailie believed then (and I believe it is just as if not more relevant today) that these are merely symptoms of a far greater problem. That problem, he says, is that the very fabric of our society is being torn apart because we have no outlet for our feelings of resentment. It is resentment, Bailie says, that turns the happy love of admiration into the unhappy love of envy. In our search for individual fulfillment, we end up wanting what we cannot have and trying to become something other than ourselves. The old phrase, the grass is always greener, becomes a metaphor for personal growth. What we are, the way God made us, never seems to be good enough because we’ve learned to define ourselves by comparing ourselves with others. And the biproduct of this process is resentment on a societal scale.

As I read Mr. Bailie’s words, I couldn’t help but think, how many of the problems we face today might be solved if we could help people feel better about themselves. Give people hope again. If people, especially children, could feel a sense of self-worth that expresses itself not in a boastful ego, but in a confidence that frees us up to think first of the needs of others, imagine how different the world would be. If we could give people hope for the future, a faith in the future and in their future, how much closer we could come to helping people realize that the Kingdom of God is already a reality that we can come to know today.

So, how do we do that?  How do we encourage these kinds of changes in people’s lives?  I believe, as I think Mr. Bailie does, that it is staring us straight in the face.  It’s there in PJ’s mantra (“It could happen”) and it’s in the parable of the widow and the judge. “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” God is calling us to believe in the power of prayer and to be examples to the world of how that power is the power to change lives. Because, you see, like hope…prayer is contagious. If a widow can sway the mind of an unjust judge with her persistence, how much more will a God who loves us more than we can ever know, the God who gave up his only son for us, hear our prayers?

The question remains, however, will we be faithful? To paraphrase the final verse of today’s reading, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find anyone on earth proclaiming… “It could happen?” My answer to that question is yes, because I know people who have a steadfast faith and hope in God and I’ve seen the difference it makes in their lives and the difference it made in mine to witness their faithfulness. I know people who truly live out their discipleship. I know people who have a faith that says God is here and with us in this place and at this moment and specifically because of that fact, anything is possible. It’s the kind of faith we hear throughout the scriptures. The kind of faith modeled in the life of Job. Or the faithfulness that Ruth showed to Naomi. The kind of life-long faith in the power of prayer that we hear echoed in the Song of Simeon. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.” After a life of confidence in God’s faithfulness, Simeon calls out to us to be vigilant in our own prayers, for God has shown us salvation.

Of course, there is one problem. And it’s a very human problem. Remaining faithful is difficult. We forget. We lose patience. We get anxious. I used to have a difficult time with Jesus’ response to the disciples when, after returning to the garden at Gethsemane, he chastises them for falling asleep.  As one who myself finds it exceedingly difficult to function when I’m really sleepy, I always found Jesus’ reprimand unreasonable. But then someone pointed out to me that if the disciples had taken turns staying awake–if they had slept in shifts–they could have prayed without ceasing.

God does not call us to bare more than we are able to, and God does not ask us to be alone in our faithfulness. God calls us to rely on each other in our struggle to be faithful. Sure, living a faithful life is difficult. Ceaseless prayer with full and total intention and integrity sounds almost super-human. So, where do we turn? Where do we find what we need to shore up our faith, to persist in a prayerful life? Well, we find it here. In this church. At this table. With these people. We find faith in a community of faith. Faith, the commitment between God and those who pray to God without ceasing, and the relationship that forms between us and God, is the answer to the ills that we face. It gives us hope for the future and confidence in ourselves. To live out that faithful life, though, we need each other. We need to be part of a community of people like this one at Christ Church. When one of us forgets to pray or just can’t bring himself or herself to pray for whatever reason, we have others to pray for us.  It’s why we have prayer lists and prayer groups and corporate prayer. It’s also why the commitment of time and talent and financial resources which went into building this church and which are pledged to maintaining it every year really do matter. This space is here to inspire us when we can’t inspire ourselves. It’s here to remind us of God’s presence when we can’t remind each other. At the times when we feel that no one can understand our pain or disappointment, we have this place to remind us of God’s faithfulness. We can walk in the garden and meet God. We can pray at the altar and meet God. We can listen to the amazing music we have at Christ Church and hear God calling to us.

In the letter to Timothy we are urged to live out our faithfulness. We are called to proclaim, to persist, to convince, and to encourage with patience. But we have to proclaim to someone. We have to persist with someone. We have to convince and encourage someone. We are called to live a prayerful life, but a prayerful life together until we live that life so fully that our very lives themselves become a prayer to God.

As the 17th century priest and poet, George Herbert, once wrote:

“Thou that hast given so much to me,

Give one thing more, a grateful heart,

Not thankful when it pleaseth me

As if thy blessings had spare days;

But such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise.

Would that we could so integrate our prayer and praise to God into our lives that it would become as much a part of us as the beat of our hearts.

My prayer this morning is that we all may come to know how cherished each one of us is in God’s eyes, how hopeful the future can be, and that we will continue to be a community that shows that the power of prayer is limited only by our ability to have faith in God’s love for us.

“It could happen.”