The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24 (Year C)

“Trust in the Lord”

A sermon by Deacon Erika Hagan

In the name of God: the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer. Amen.

I have had a very busy weekend, full of the Holy Spirit and Joy! On Friday I went to a clergy luncheon at our cathedral in Hartford, which included a conversation with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and our new Bishop, Jeffrey Mello.  On Saturday I got up early and drove to the convention center in Hartford – my son was an acolyte at the Bishop’s ordination and consecration service and he had to be vested and ready to go at 9am for a run-through before the 10am line-up of the vast processional party, and the 11am start of the service which began more like 11:20 and lasted until 2:30. The ordination service was beautiful and inspiring – I highly recommend you go to the diocese’s YouTube page and watch some of it, especially the sermon. That sermon was fire, and I’m still energized from it.

These things were wonderful on the high and lofty spiritual plane for sure…but it was also really great to see people I haven’t touched base with in a while, especially my cohort which I was ordained with back in June. Lots of hugs and checking in. Everyone asked me over and over “How is Christ Church Tashua? How is your curacy going? What do you think of your new congregation?”

I told them that, honestly, we hardly know each other yet. It takes time to build relationships. We’ve only been on a few dates, you and I. Early days.

But, I told them, there are a few things I know for sure. One is that I love this church building. I love how old and how beautiful and how loved and lived in this space is. The other is that this community here in Christ Church, you all really pray. You can tell, when we say “Let us Pray” that everyone sort of leans in. I noticed it my first Sunday here, when I was sitting in the pews, checking out this new place where I might be working. “Wow,” I thought, “they really pray here.” In our Episcopal service, the prayers of the people are sort of collected and then said in common – and often this can lead to a sort of call and response, a familiar automatic rhythm you can kind of coast on.

But here, in this space at Christ Church, there’s something special in the prayers of the people. We offer ourselves first – our worries, our thanksgivings, our fears, our joys. We vulnerably lay them out and then we all hold them together. We pray the written words, sure, but the energy with them! It’s special. Do you all know how special you are? I’m so lucky to get to pray with you, in this place, on these Sundays. I feel restored after praying with you.

And I wish I knew why.

I’m the kind of person that likes to know how things work. I like to understand the systems, the processes. My Sunday School teacher gave me a card when I was in the 5th grade, and on it is printed Proverbs 3, verses 5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. You have no idea how often I have to hold that card – I still have it – and remind myself that it is not my own understanding that matters. The Psalm today reminds us that our help comes from the Lord…not from our own strength, our own wits, our own intelligence, our own understandings.

But oh, my friends, I wish I understood how prayer worked. Why some prayers seem to be answered and some do not. Why sometimes I feel God right there with me when I pray, and sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself. How our prayers in this mortal human life are heard by an omnipotent God who loves us and created us and moves within us who already knows what we’re going to say anyway. What is this prayer system? What are the processes?

I loved the story Ginnie told last week in her sermon, about the person going to heaven and seeing the room where prayers are processed, and where they are answered, and that sad room where the prayers of praise and thanksgiving are received with hardly anything in it. I imagine how nice it would be to get a notification, maybe a confirmation text, when I pray. “Erika – your prayer has been received. It is number #967 in the cue. We appreciate your patience as it is a virtue.” And then “Erika, your prayer cannot be answered as submitted, as it works against God’s plans for you he made while you were still in the womb – see attached plans for reference.” Or “Erika, your prayer will be granted, but not until the year 2034 when it will best be received by you. Trust in the Lord.”

Or, the one I honestly feel is happening more often than not – “Erika, we are not answering your prayer at this time because the resilience and skills and spiritual growth from your struggle is important to the work God has called you to do. You are not alone.”

I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to know the rules, the gameplan. In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells his followers that it’s important to pray always and not to lose heart. In the gospel of Luke, the end of the 17th chapter before this section, Jesus has just finished telling them about the end times, which wasn’t a real pick-me-up, so maybe he sensed they needed this instruction now more than ever. Pray always. Don’t lose heart.

I sense that maybe now, in these times we’re in, we need this instruction more than ever too. As I drove to the Bishop’s ordination yesterday, I heard on the news that President Biden and his administration are concerned about the potential for Putin to use Nuclear Weapons in the conflict with Ukraine. And I thought, “sure. Why not. Everything else is falling apart. Let’s add that to the list of things to worry about.”

I don’t need to list them for you. You know. If you take a breath and start to count, I bet you can come up with all the things you’re anxious about. Your family, your work, your church, your country, your health…things are unsettled. And Jesus sees us, sees our reactions, and reminds us – pray always. Don’t lose heart.

And, I think, maybe the parable he tells is a little kernel of comfort for people like me who like to know how it all works. It works a little like this: There is a woman who keeps coming to the judge, saying “grant me justice.” Grant me justice. Grant me justice. Over and over. Grant me justice. Day after Day. Grant me justice. And the unjust judge who at first refuses to hear her, refuses to help her, refuses to grant her request finally says “enough. If I give her what she wants, she’ll stop coming.” And she gets her justice.

This goes against how we’re taught petitions should work in a polite, just, society. We’re supposed to ask nicely, only once, and through the proper channels. The judge is supposed to hear us impartially. Justice should be blind. If our case is moral and the judge is fair, our petition will be granted.

And Jesus says, God isn’t like that. Don’t be afraid to pray and keep praying. To ask and keep asking. Give me justice. Give me healing. Give me peace. These things are things God wants to give us, these things are the elements that build up God’s kingdom. Justice and healing and peace. The prophet Amos says that in God’s kingdom justice is rolling on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! When Jesus taught his people how to pray earlier in this gospel, he teaches them to pray “thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we pray for justice, for healing, for peace – that’s what we’re praying for. God’s kingdom come on earth.

In this parable, Jesus explains that not only isn’t God like that impartial neutral judge who doesn’t know us, God really isn’t like this unjust judge who only grants the woman’s request to get her to stop asking. God knows us. God loves us. What we ask for, and keep asking for, in prayer isn’t out of line – it is what God wants us to do. And when our prayer is answered, in whatever mysterious way it is answered, it is God’s will not our own that is that response.

I’m not a proponent of the prosperity gospel. I don’t think if you’re good enough, or saved enough, that God give you whatever you want, rewards you with good health and material wealth. I don’t understand how prayer works, but I know it’s not transactional. It’s not, if I do this, then God does that.

Jesus says pray always. Do not fear. And, I add on for myself and people like me – trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

I invite you to take a moment right now. Take a breath. What injustice is on your heart today? Where do you need justice, or healing, or peace – for yourself, or a friend, or a family member, or your town, or country, or Christ Church, or The Episcopal Church, or the world. When you say “give me justice,” what are you talking about?

Take a moment. Breathe.

When we move into the prayers of the people after this sermon, when we come together and collect our prayers into our midst, when we all hold them together, when we do this thing you here at Christ Church have taught me to notice and to do, bring your longing for justice in. Say it out loud, or only in your heart, but please, put it into the room, into this beautiful space, into our collected prayers.

And then keep praying it.

When you start the car, say “give me justice.”

When you sit down to eat, say “give me justice.”

When you take a shower, say “give me justice.”

When you hear the news and your heart breaks – give me justice. When your day is so long and so stressful – give me justice. When you worry about your loved ones – give me justice.

Jesus says to pray always, but I invite us to try praying this way for this next week, in this time in between when we pray together on Sunday. Let’s keep this collective energy going – Lord, give us justice. We won’t lose heart.

And then next Sunday, let’s do it again.