The Spirit of Persistence

Sermon preached the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost + Lectionary 17 + July 25, 2010

I found myself wandering the new grocery store, so I walked down the nearest aisle to the front of the store to get my bearings, and reorient myself.  But it was in that aisle that I had a window to the Gospel this week, a glimpse into what it means to be persistent. 

For there was a mom and her four year old daughter shopping as mother and child often do in the cereal aisle.  The little girl had placed a colorful, sugar filled cereal in the shopping cart and mom had just taken it out. “Pulllease MOM, I want that one!   The refrain repeated all the while the mom found the cereal she was looking for and placed it in the cart. 

Persistence, we often think about it as a nagging, negative, whiny, squeaky wheel gets the grease, my way or the highway kind of way.  But there at Shop-Rite was the creator parent firmly but lovingly listening and providing,    not what the petitioner was asking, but offering what was needed unconditionally only as a loving parent can.  God the Father in the cereal aisle answering the prayers of you and me, children of God who often act like four year olds.     Persistently listening to our persistent pleas, providing the daily bread we need for today.

So where have you experience persistence this week..?

Perhaps it was learning how to ride a bicycle… taking the training wheels off and trusting that the person holding on to you doesn’t let go; or practicing a song again and again until is was just right; or completing another job application, making another call, or sending off another resume? 

For me I’m reminded of a summer vacation twenty-five years ago when I tried to master, well okay, just stand upright on a windsurfer; and more recently listening over and over again to the aleph-bet song and vocabulary words on my ipod as I persistently worked on Hebrew my middler year in seminary.  Both of these persistent experiences left me unhappy with the results. 

It is easy to focus only on results, and when we get tired of being persistent, we procrastinate.  We are called to be positive people, patient and persistent,   but we are impatient and often perceive persistency as a negative experience. 

So where in the texts do we see persistence?  In Genesis, God does not angrily say “I am going down to the city of Sodom to smite them.”  Rather God says “Wow the cries of the victims in Sodom and Gomorrah are deafening and the sin there is overwhelming.  I’m going down to see for myself to see if it is as bad as it sounds.”

Abraham, concerned about these places and that God would lump the good and bad people together punishing them all, remarkably stands in God’s way and persistently confronts God.  Abraham has experienced his relationship with God as Abraham messing up again and again, and God forgiving him again and again. 

But Abraham senses something big at stake here and jumps in literally standing-up to God and begins to bargain.  Now bargaining with God is how a lot of people approach their prayer life and relationship with God. 

“Okay God, if you do this for me, get me out of this jam, find me a job, heal the cancer in my Mother, keep my son safe while serving in the Army… well, I’ll be a better person, I’ll go to church, I’ll volunteer, I’ll donate, I’ll…well fill in the blank, we’ve all bargained with God making our relationship an exchange, you God do something for me and I’ll do something for you.                             

We do this in our relationships with one another as well. We do this with our faith communities as well, holding back our authentic selves, resources, time passion and compassion… all in the name of persistent selfishness.       

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It is Abraham’s persistence  that reminds God of God’s commitment to justice.  In this way Abraham is a faithful example for us.  Abraham, and God’s persistence in loving and forgiving us challenges us to seek and pray for justice with faithful persistence.  This is hard to do in an unjust world, but like Abraham our relationship with God    is about persistence.

 We are persistent because God is persistent in being in relationship with us. 

  • God loves and forgives us no matter what and stays in relationship with us, even when we shut God out of our lives. 
  • God pursues us persistently, so much so that as God came down to see firsthand in the Genesis story with Abraham.                                                                       
  • God came down to see in Jesus.
  • God with us and stays with us through the Holy Spirit… a perpetual persistence and presence in our lives.

As godless a society as we seem at times, we long for a relationship with God.  We pursue relationship with God so much that we reach-out and try to connect in well the ways of our high-tech, instant communicating, Google world.  In fact this week if you searched for “prayer” on the web, you would have found: 

  • 11,800 news links,
  • 431,000 video links,
  • 12.8 million blog links,
  • 16 million book links, and
  • 21.7 million images for prayer on Google. 

We long to connect with God and in the Gospel this week, Jesus tells how… for us to pray for God’s kingdom to come.

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As a kid I was fascinated with the arcade game, the claw.  A glass bin vending machine that when you paid the price allowed you to operate a crane mechanism with a claw to grab any of the tempting prizes sitting in the bin.  Prizes range from stuffed animal, to toys, hats, dolls, shirts, jewelry and electronics.  One year I tried to do my Christmas shopping from one, but even with flashing lights and music to enhance the experience, I like most who stuff these machines with coins, came away empty handed. 

Many of us think about prayer in the same way.  We plug the divine with coins of prayers usually hopes and dreams of prizes for ourselves.  But prayer as Jesus taught was a plural, communal prayer for all, not just for my will to be done, my needs met, my sins alone forgiven. 

Prayer as Jesus taught is about persistently and boldly asking God, pleading with God, almost telling God: you be holy, you come, give us, forgive us, and do not bring us.  This boldness echoes Martha telling Jesus what he should do last week and Abraham standing up to God this week.             

+        +          +

Jesus responded to the disciples request to learn how to connect to God by teaching them this prayer, telling them the parable of the friend at midnight, and talking about persistence.  

In the parable Jesus tells a story of a selfish man who doesn’t answer the door and help a friend.  The man is blessed with the ability and called by peer community expectations to help this friend in need but does not.  Jesus points out that even in the man’s sinful selfishness, he gets up and provides bread because of the friends persistence.

How does the selfish man pray?  How do we pray? We pray with words as Jesus taught, but are also called to pray through actions. How could the man, or you and I ask God to give us each day our daily bread, and then not answer the call to share that bread to friends and other children of God that God tells us to share with?

In addition to the teaching on prayer and the telling of the parable, Jesus talks about being persistent. Ask and it will be given, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.  This follows the story about a man knocking on his neighbor’s door, asking for a bread loan, and seeking to provide hospitality to the guest who has arrived on his doorstep. 

This talk about persistence is about our call to live together in community, praying outside of ourselves in true relationship with friends, neighbors and God. Jesus teaching, telling and talking this week centers us right in the center of community.  It is easy to focus on our needs and keep score on what we pray for. 

But Jesus reminds us that even in our moments of sinful, selfishness we are to treat our neighbor with the same love and care we know how to treat children with. 

God is persistent, so persistent that God gave us Jesus who:

  • Teaches, tells and talks to us about praying with our lives as well as our lips.
  • Invites us to see the world as he does:
    • Worldly wounds that are opportunities for asking and advocating for justice, healing and reconciliation,
    • Worldly needs that are opportunities to seek out and experience relationship with friends, neighbors and God in community, and
    • Worldly hungers that are opportunities to open the door to God’s abundant blessings by sharing the bread we have been given.
  • Reminds us that God is persistent:
    • Wants us to ask, seek and knock persistently, and gives those who ask the Holy Spirit, whose name is persistence.   
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