"Pray Always"-Sermon for Proper 24, Luke18:1-8
When I was a freshman in college at the University of Texas, I was required to memorize a poem to join my fraternity. The poem was written by one of our more illustrious members…the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. As far as I know, he was likely the only illustrious member of our fraternity…and memorizing the poem was likely the only productive thing we had to do to join. But…I digress…the poem is called “On Persistence” and it reads:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
And, of course, the poem popped into my head as I began to pray over today’s gospel reading from Luke…because the reading includes the parable commonly called “The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge”. As a reminder, Jesus’ says, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And, I believe both the poem and parable actually need little interpretation by the preacher. For they both suggest, perhaps obviously and as simply as I can say it, that persistence matters. Or, as the Rapper and Song Writer, Macklemore, croons in one of his hit songs, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot.”
Perhaps you recall in his book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell popularized what is called the “10,000 Rule”, which summed up suggests that to become an expert in any particular field or occupation one needs to spend 10,000 hours in practice or apprenticeship before you get really good at it…whatever it…is. In response to some fair criticism of his work and research, Gladwell sought to clarify his words writing, “There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in “Outliers”. Practice isn't a sufficient condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.” And when I look at the handful of things, I am only just beginning to become good at in my own life, at the most basic level, I agree with Macklemore, Gladwell, Coolidge and way before any of them, agree with Jesus’ who said it first…that persistence matters…a whole awful lot.
Yes…natural in-born talent, intellect, and learning, all three of which Coolidge mentions specifically in his poem, are key ingredients in accomplishing important and good work and to eventually become entirely proficient in things we do with our time…whatever challenge it is that needs resolving…whatever healthy habits we hope to form…whatever vocation or avocation we hope to master. But if talent, intellect and learning are not coupled with some real persistence…some good old-fashioned elbow grease…with the whole “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” motto…that is if our natural inclinations, giftedness and education are not then followed by persistent and intentional practice over much time and with much effort…lasting change almost never follows…who we hope to be is never fully written on our bones and in our hearts and what we hope to be truly great at never becomes habitual. We never will actually become proficient at that which we hope will become second nature for us.
And, of course, all of this applies to things like beloved hobbies…like, in my case, mastering fly-fishing or the cast iron skillet. And it applies to things like our chosen professions…like, again in my case, say preaching or administration or pastoral care…and feel free to insert your own hobbies and professions here. But, following Jesus’ teaching, moving forward I want to apply persistence specifically to matters of the heart and spirt…to matters of being and becoming more and more the people that God in Christ has created us to be. For Luke prefaces Jesus’ parable on persistence and sort of defines its purpose by writing, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” So, indeed, Jesus suggests our persistence in spiritual matters…really matters…again, a whole awful lot.
For, daily prayer, time intentionally set aside each day to open ourselves up to God’s loving will for our lives, sounds straightforward, worthy, and maybe even relatively easy…but that’s not actually always my experience. Carving out a small percentage of our annual income to support and further God’s work in and through the church and other meaningful non-profits sounds straightforward, worthy and a realistic commitment…but that’s not actually always my experience. Making time with friends and family a priority on our calendars sounds straightforward, worthy and doable…but that’s not actually always my experience. Creating the time and space to come to know on a personal, heart level those who live, love and believe differently than we do sounds straightforward, worthy, and, if less easy, still possible…but that’s not actually always my experience. And, being optimistic and hopeful and positive, seeing only the best in the others, and living life replete with gratitude sounds straightforward, worthy, and reasonably easy…but, again, that’s not actually always my experience…and so as Luke writes…we often lose heart.
Instead, I am sorry to say, all of this…and the myriad other spiritual dispositions, attitudes and practices that I could mention…take time, attention, and sometimes some pretty hard and committed work. That is incarnating them…embodying them…and becoming ourselves as God sees us and has made us by his love to be…requires intentional persistence. So, I want to now share two ideas that are I believe are essential to empowering persistence within us, and two more ideas of how to support our persistent efforts in matters of heart and spirit, in particular, once begun…whatever it might be that we are persistently working on.
So, the first two ideas that empower our persistence, and I will mention that I am leaning on Brené Brown here and her work we are studying together in the Daring Way™ on Tuesday evenings…so, again, the first two ideas that I believe are essential for empowering our persistence are, one, understanding and naming our deepest held values and, two, practicing self-compassion. As to understanding our values, Brown writes, “There are no guarantees in [life]. We will struggle. We will even fail. There will be darkness. But if we are clear about the values that guide us in our efforts to show up and be seen, we will always be able to find the light. We will know what it means to live brave.” So…failure is not an option…not meaning that we can’t or shouldn’t fail…but that we surely will. Whatever spiritual practices we desire to fully embody, we will surely at some point fall away from or, at the very least, struggle with…daily prayer, weekly worship, regular financial giving, loving those different from ourselves, living hopefully, practicing gratitude…and so on. Yet, we are cross and resurrection people. Thus, we most of all should embrace our spiritual failings…recognizing that death is the path to new life, which allows us to see failure not as a measure of our worth…but something to learn from and grow through. And, when in the darkness…reeling from our last experience of failure…it is our values that illuminate the path forward. If we know what we believe most…hold most dear…desire more than anything else…even when we fall and struggle…it is our values that help us to once again see…to envision…to dream of where we want to be and who we want to be, which can do nothing other than inspire our persistent determination to try again…and again and again.
And the second idea is, again, self-compassion. Brown writes, “I commit to practicing…self-compassion, screwing it up, and circling back.” Being compassionate with ourselves…forgiving ourselves…daring to believe that God and others can and do forgive us…gives us the courage to, indeed, persistently circle back and try again. Without self-compassion it would just be too easy to give up…to believe the lie that we can never be who we want and know we really can be. Self-compassion is not an excuse for failure. Instead, it provides the space to own our mistakes…to name them…to learn from them…and to have enough courage and patience with ourselves to, again, persistently begin again…and again and again. Thus, our deepest held values and the practice of self-compassion are the birth place of persistence…what drives us determinedly along…especially when we struggle…especially when we need to start over…especially in our own tomb like moments.
And now on to the two ideas that can support our persistent efforts once we have begun…or begun again…to embody, habituate and fully live into the spiritual practices that grow us closer to God and one another…that make us more like Jesus. And I will do my best to sum them up quickly. The first is to start simple…to prayerfully determine one or two spiritual practices or dispositions or attitudes that we want to make a regular, on-going part of our life. Choose your own adventure…maybe in this Season of Giving Thanks it is about practicing gratitude and journaling your blessing or working on your budget now to make room in your financial life to share from your abundance with God’s work in and through the church. But, whatever it might be, again, start simple. Trying to take on in your daily life all of Jesus’ teaching, say in the Sermon on the Mount, would be like literally trying to climb a mountain…like Everest…with no training or oxygen. Success breeds success…so start small…choose one thing…maybe two…and then persistently pursue that one or two spiritual practices with your whole heart.
And the second idea to support your persistent efforts is to invite someone else in. When I determined to run a marathon, I told pretty much everyone I knew…so I couldn’t quit. Now that is likely overkill…but the point is accountability is powerful. For example, if you want to work on daily prayer…tell someone you see every day about it…someone who values prayer…and invite them to lovingly ask you how’s it going from time to time…invite them to try it with you…invite them to share their own experience of prayer with you. We are each other’s best forms of support. As I like to say, I need you and you need me if we are ever to fully become the person who God in Christ has made us to be. I am sure a psychologist could explain this way better than I can ever hope to…but what I know is that living persistently requires support…we need each other cheering us on…we need each other checking in…we need each other’s gentle and loving accountability. Thus, starting simple and inviting others to join us on our journey fuels our persistence.
And a final thought, Jesus places persistence before us today not to add work to our very full lives. But, because persistence leads to joy…to a life lived fully alive…a life full of purpose and meaning. For a life persistently fueled by prayer binds us to the very source of the love that formed the universe and makes the world go round. A life that persistently shares from its abundance reminds us of the freedom that comes with simplicity, reminds us of what enough really is, and provides for those who really don’t have enough. A life lived that persistently makes room for other people…friends and strangers alike…makes our hearts warm and provides companions for our journey whether celebrating or suffering. A life lived with persistent gratitude and hope sustains us, buoys us up, when we inevitably suffer and struggle and experience our own times of want. Thus, Jesus reminds us today that persistence matters…it is worth our effort…it leads to a life worth living…to becoming the very person we were made from before time to be…and really nothing can take its place. Amen.