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A Turn to the Future
a sermon based on Luke 18:1-8
by Rev. Kerstin Barnes

Some do it on their knees. Some do it standing. Some do it bowing down. Some do it twisting their bodies. Some close their eyes. Some keep them open. Some stand still, some thrust up their arms and heads. Some do it every day, others only in emergencies. Some like to be by themselves when they do it; some like a partner; some a whole big group of people. Some do it quietly, some do it with loud voices. Now what could that be?

I am talking about prayer (of course; what did you think?). I think it is fascinating how many ways human beings have found to connect with God. There is no right and no wrong in the manner we pray. What matters is: there is communication between God and us. No matter, what body position or which setting we prefer, it is that signal: God, I am ready for you, which is important.

From the moment humans started to revere deities, there has always been the desire to communicate with the gods. In the very early days, it usually was a petition for a rich harvest, for rain, for fertility of the life stock. The gods of nature had to be appeased, so that people could survive.

Things have somewhat changed over the millennia. People came to realize that life is not just about bare survival; there are many more dimensions to life, a good relationship to God being one of them. In the book of the Old Testament, we find testimonies of folks having this relationship with God - which is not always easy, but alive and vibrant. In the book of Psalms and elsewhere, we find prayers of praise and of despair, prayers which accuse God, and prayers which express an utmost trust. Prayers which make requests, and prayers which are a pure offering. It’s all there, the whole nine yards of human experiences.

People brought it all before God because they believed: it matters to God. I matter to God. I can come to God with my gripes and fears and hopes and wishes and joys. God hears me. You could also call that faith. God is there for me.

Now there are many ways in which faith can be weakened. Since the age of enlightenment, many have substituted faith with knowledge. I can explain the world, so why do I need God? Karl Marx said, Religion is like opium for the people - it drugs them, gives them cheap and deceptive comfort, keeps them subdued and under control. Of course he was saying that in times when the churches did not have the best reputation as defenders of social justice.

Jesus knows the greatest enemy of faith: the loss of heart; the loss of hope; discouragement when going is tough. Jesus knew what was ahead of his disciples and the other followers: as long as he was with them, everything was great. Yeah, there was an occasional setback for Jesus and his message, but the crowds just soaked up Jesus’ presence and words and deeds like a dry sponge. They were in the "hosanna" mood as long as Jesus lived. But as soon as they saw their hopes and dreams die with Jesus on the cross, most of them fled and went into hiding. They lost heart. The story about Pentecost Day is so powerful because the Spirit moves the disciples to exchange their fear for hope, confining walls for public places, muteness for the proclamation of the Gospel, darkness for light.

And what great comfort the first generations of Christians must have felt when they heard Jesus’ words: pray always and do not lose heart. In times of oppression and persecution, in times when they lost heart, in times they needed the reassurance badly: God will grant you justice. God is listening to you. If an indifferent judge gives in and listens to a nagging widow, how much more will God listen to his children.

People need hope in order to be open to be connected with God. Why would somebody pray if there was no hope? Would we pray for world peace if we didn’t have the hope that, some day, the lion will lie next to the lamb?

Now there are many people today who have their problems with prayer. Some of them don’t even bother. Well, yeah, I believe in a higher being, but I don’t need a personal relationship with him or her. Prayer doesn’t really change anything, anyway. People still get sick, have gruesome accidents, lead wars, and die. Why should I pray?

Even quite a few church folks have prayer rather low on their priority list. There might be different reasons for that, but I guess one of them is the sense of security: well, I belong to God, why connect with him?

When I was about my daughters age, 8/9 years old, each night I would pray to God. The more I learned about the world and all the needs, the longer my nightly list of petitions became. It was important to me to bring to God’s attention that I was truly concerned by all the things, and mainly the bad things, that are going on in this world. But since the prayer had become really long after a while, one night I decided to summarize it: Dear God, you already know everything, amen. A little while after that stage, I stopped praying at all, because God knows everything anyway.

I did not realize that I lost something - I lost a deep connection with God which only true conversation can give. God became much more distant for me, and I am still working on getting that kind of relationship back that I had with God in my childhood days.

What would happen if you married folks just took your spouses for granted, "O well, he or she should know me by now, why do I have to communicate everything?" You know, along the lines of that song "If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me"? Or maybe I should say: what happens when you take your spouse for granted and just assume or expect certain things instead of communicating what you need?

What happens? Well, I can tell from my marriage that the relationship gets really strained. Unspoken expectations go unmet, frustration builds up, and at some point, insults and accusations fly through the air. Has anybody here ever been in that situation?

Now imagine what happens if God and you stop talking to each other…

The widow Jesus uses as an example in today’s Gospel is very verbal about her needs: Grant me justice against my opponent! Help me! And she doesn’t just say it once, but many times. She is persistent to the point of being a nuisance, maybe even a threat. She doesn’t just assume she will get what she needs, but communicates it, loud and clear. The question of the parable is not: is God like the judge, but: are we like the widow? Do we trust that God will hear us? Will we be persistent in faith and prayer? Will we stick with communicating with God, no matter, what? Do we have enough hope?

German scholar Gerhard Ebeling said: "Prayer is the turn to the future". Prayer is not just about griping to God what we need or what we wish for; prayer, opening up to God, helps us to leave the past behind us and look towards what is to come.

I never really understood these words until a new Christian, whom I had accompanied through a long phase of searching for God, and who in the end got baptized, told me about the turning point in his spiritual life. "One night," he said, "I finally got myself to pray. I had never prayed before. And it was not just in my mind, but I was talking to God. I just told God everything, about the burdens that I carry, about the hurt I’ve felt for most of my life. I said it out loud, and the weirdest thing happened - I felt a presence. The more I talked, the more the burden was lifted from my shoulders. I don’t know if I had any specific expectations when I started to open up to God; but in the end, I knew I was not expecting any quick fixes for my problems. I did not need them. I found comfort in the knowledge that I could leave the past with God; that God is present to carry the burden with me; and that God will be there to listen to me. I have found my peace with the past - and can look more confidently toward the future now."

Let me tell you, I had never gotten such a good teaching on prayer before. Jesus told a parable about the need of his followers to pray. This is how today’s Gospel starts. We need prayer. We might not be aware of it. We might belittle it. We might neglect it. But prayer is one of the spheres where God touches us; where we experience God Immanuel, God with us and for us. Prayer in an expression of hope for the kingdom of God; and so we pray: come, Lord Jesus. Amen.