One of the complaints frequently levelled at the Church of England as an institution today is its fondness for adopting management tools from the secular world, often some time after that world has moved on to another, different approach. Thus, when I was training for ordination I experienced not only Myers Briggs and Gilmore Freyling, but also the Belbin inventory. What I learned and whether it has made a difference is perhaps open to debate, but it was always at the very least INTERESTING to discover more about oneself. The Belbin test is designed to help people find their preferred style of working within a team...Individuals answer various questions until their preferences are clear – and are then given a score depending on what emerges. A healthy team will include a variety of preferences - visionary planners, people with a critical eye for detail, those good at implementing the ideas of others...and more. You might find it entertaining to consider which of your clergy might have which preferences, and which might be most useful around the place on a day to day basis. The options include those styled "completer/finishers" who find their satisfaction in a job done thoroughly and well. Completer finishers are well worth having on your team if you hope ever to see a project through to a successful conclusion – but I regret to inform you that the last time I was asked to do a Belbin interview, produced a score for this category that was so low it was almost in negative numbers!
I may be fine at having 6 great ideas before breakfast, but when it comes to sticking with projects from launch to completion, I'm probably not your woman. I get bored quite quickly as the unfinished tapestries and knitting projects around the house testify … so perhaps it's not surprising that when I first looked at today's readings my heart sank.
That heart sink was compounded when I reflected on all the dearly loved and surely well-deserving people whom I know, who are currently having truly torrid times, in a wide variety of ways. Of course I’ve prayed for them, as I have for this countryand our government, for the planet and those most grievously impacted by the climate crisis, for peace in Ukraine, for a place of warmth and safety for all those who seek shelter around the cathedral campus overnight as the temperatures fall, - and so the list continues. I’ve prayed and prayed again, a heart-felt cry of “HELP!” and thus far the results have not been encouraging.
It would be extremely tempting to give up, or at the very least to berate God soundly for not falling in to line with my longings for some quick and effective fixes. Perhaps you know the feeling?
Couple all of that with an habitual anxiety that I should NEVER be a bother, and you can see why this morning’s parable is a tad tricky to preach with integrity. Working with my favourite question “I wonder where you are in the story” I cant easily cast myself in the role of the widow, whose relentless appeal for justice, against the odds, won her the day. But that’s EXACTLY the invitation…
All this talk of the unjust judge might seem unsettling at first. It's easy to jump to conclusions, and presume that Jesus is equating God with that hard-hearted judge who neither fears God nor respects people... the kind of God who ears seem deaf to those cries of HELP that resound across the universe. I have heard intriguing interpretations (by reputable scholars, including Sam Wells) that invert the parable so that we encounter God as the widow, relentlessly pleading with the unjust rulers, the governments that exclude, disadvantage and oppress, but I’m not sure that’s where Jesus is going with the story. For once, this parable is not setting out to explain an aspect of the Kingdom – but to show us how we should be in our life of prayer.
We’re given the interpretation before we even hear the story, just to make sure we land in the right place
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
Those communities for whom Luke wrote that orderly account of his were confronting all sorts of challenges to life and to faith, - it was ever thus – so in setting out the agenda of the story Luke is acknowledging that. You can imagine him saying to himself “I know it’s tough for them…and hard times can make belief almost impossible, just when you need it most. I won’t let them be in any doubt…they need to keep at it….stay in touch with God even when God seems to be looking in another direction.
In a certain city…Jerusalem, perhaps? Or maybe even Coventry? For like all parables, this is OUR story too
In a certain city there lived a judge…
A judge, eh? One who holds the power of freedom or imprisonment, sometimes life or death…One we need to know is kind and wise and humane. Except that he’s not. He sounds, frankly, a nightmare…but he’s the only route to justice that there is, so you either give up and go home or….Well…
Christmas is coming and already advertisers are intent on harnessing what they call “pester power” - the way that children can and will continue to nag, badger and entreat until their adults give in and provide the “must-have” toy, game or garment of the day.
This parable is ALL about pester power – and it makes no bones over asserting that it should be a recognisable element in our prayers.
God won't mind – I promise!
God loves it when we turn to him again and again – when we bring to him those people and situations about which we care most deeply.
Despite my reticence, we will never EVER be a bother to God.
This is the same God who, in our OT reading, speaks with compelling hope of the day when God’s people will have such a close relationship with God that they will have literally nothing to learn about him. “They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest”….They will live in harmony with my law, til it becomes the very rhythm of their heart-beats.
OF COURSE we can’t be a bother to God. OF COURSE God listens to our prayers.
Yes. I know it’s tricky
I'm willing to bet that we have prayed for world peace on every Sunday of your Christian life – and mine.
Week after week after week...
And we know that there isn't a day when someone somewhere experiences just how short of peace the world remains.
We've prayed, day by day, “Your Kingdom come” - but struggle with the evidence of a world still gripped by powers of selfishness, violence, corruption, greed.
But – does that mean it's time to stop praying?
Of course not!
Yes - we can be discouraged.
And often, we lower our expectations...
We have learned by experience that prayer does not work like a slot machine, - prayer in, desired result out – and so gradually we may allow it to become a fairly meaningless duty, or we pray so vaguely that it is impossible to discern what an answer to prayer might look like.
We lose hope and lose heart.
But prayer is surely about tuning our wills to God's
It's not about changing God but about changing US.
Spending time with God, growing our relationship...holding on tight through thick and thin to the God who loves us.
Think back to the spring, when we were constantly confronted by Jacob wrestling with the angel.
Think of that persistent widow
It won't always feel easy – remember the cry of the psalmist
"How long, oh Lord, how long?"
"Day and night I cry out to you, but you don't answer me"
But even as the psalmist complains, he addresses that complaint to God. He keeps the relationship going
It’s the same for us. We need to cry to God day and night. we need to hang on, we need to wrestle for our own particular blessing.
Please do try to take that seriously…Whatever it looks like, believe that God is listening, and that keeping close to God no matter what is always, without exception, the best policy.
It may seem that prayer achieves little…but please don’t give up.
Listen again to the final question that Jesus puts in our gospel today
“When the Son of Man comes – WILL he find faith on earth?”
Will he find faith in his church? In each one of us?
If we really believe what we say about God – that He is a God of love, compassion, and endless grace...a God who makes all things new and heals the broken-hearted – then surely we will make our relationship with Him our priority, trusting that though God’s ways are not our ways, that sometimes it seems that we’re getting nowhere, yet nonetheless, it always makes sense to stay close, to pray, and not to lose heart.
It’s not long now until Advent, when we wrestle with that sense of Now and Not Yet that is our current experience of God’s Kingdom. Many of our prayers land in that same territory, -prayers heard but not answered as we might have hoped. Nonetheless, they are the cords which bind us to God, that keep our relationship active and current, that give our hopes and our fears, our griefs and rejoicings, somewhere to go
We NEED to pray and not lose heart because it is through those prayers that we draw close to God – and there is nowhere better to be.