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“Prayer Warriors”– Jeremiah 31:27-34, Luke 18:1-8 –Oct. 16, 2016

Clergy are prohibited by law from making partisan political speeches from the pulpit. It puts their congregation’s tax-exempt status into jeopardy, though some have argued that it’s a limit on their freedom of religion. Other than to urge you to vote in this November’s election–a right people have died for–, I will not be delivering any partisan, political sermons today or in the weeks to come, but I have to confess that I don’t think ignoring the political context in which we gather for worship each Sunday and live our lives the rest of the week is particularly helpful or even possible. Unless you watch only the Weather Channel or Home Improvement shows, you can’t turn on your television without hearing or seeing something about the political campaigns. You certainly can’t go on Facebook or any of the other social media outlets without seeing at least one post about some candidate. It’s almost as though it’s in the air we breathe, and I don’t have to tell you, the air has gotten pretty toxic. It has gotten into our bloodstreams, our bodies have absorbed the brutality and ugliness of the rhetoric, old and new traumas have been unearthed. One can barely imagine such a thing as a “purple state,” because red and blue seem so irreconcilable. Without downplaying or denigrating the horror and trauma of bomb-and-blast places of war, like Aleppo or Mosul, it feels at times as though we are living in a war zone.

Nancy Rockwell, a UCC pastor and blogger in Exeter, NH, writes about a friend of hers who is a professor of theology at So. Methodist University and who is an active member of her Methodist Church. She’s also African American. When asked if she thought a Catholic priest should be sent in to do an exorcism on one or both of the campaigns, she jokingly replied that in her church, the Prayer Warriors would be on top of this.

“African Americans, in my opinion,” Rev. Rockwell writes, “have learned more about the power of prayer and its practices than any other Christian group.” You’ll recall the powerful witness of the people of Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC after the shooting of 9 members of their congregation by a white supremacist. “No liturgy, moving and eloquent as they can be,” Rev. Rockwell writes, “no silence, profound and revealing; no beloved Book of Prayers can come close to being surrounded by a group of black women who have put on the armor of faith and are operating as prayer warriors.” [biteintheapple, 10/9/16]

If you have been prayed over by a group of faithful prayers, maybe even had hands laid upon you in prayer, you’ve had a taste of this power. Or maybe in the midst of a health or other crisis, when you’ve thought to ask for prayer or your community has simply known you needed to be held in prayer, you may have experienced an inexplicable sense of being held, or loved, or being at peace. Rev. Rockwell writes, “Too often, this power [of prayer] gets focused on small personal details in individual lives. These deserve prayer. But not a war of praying.”

“Where is the circle of Prayer Warriors surrounding Donald Trump for the sake of the 40% of the nation who believe in him? [she asks, and then laments, ] No powerful evangelical has taken on the position of Campaign Chaplain….Doesn’t he need their support,… to heal his campaign?” And what about Hillary? we might ask. Doesn’t she need a circle of Prayer Warriors surrounding her, healing her campaign?

“While I’m on the subject,” Rev. Rockwell writes, “I’d like to see a gang of African American prayer warriors march into Hillary’s HQ, surround Bill, and promise to keep him occupied from now until the election, anytime he isn’t giving a campaign speech,” (and also while he’s giving a campaign speech, I might add). “Who more than Prayer Warriors believe in redemption? Believe that a man [or woman] can change? Believe that God can use the worst of us, to bring out the best in us? Believe that justice can, at last, be won?” (Ibid.)

Isn’t it time to send in the Prayer Warriors?

The widow who kept pestering and waling on the unjust judge was a prayer warrior. The word in Hebrew for “widow” means “silent one,” “one unable to speak.” [John Pilch, Cultural World of the Gospels] Jesus uses this person on the margins of society as a model for persistence in prayer, and prayer here is the relentless demand for justice. She is anything but silent.

The judge in the story, translator Mark Davis says, is a man with power who is living as if there is no moral order to the universe and as if life has no divine purpose, meaning, or consequences. [leftbehindandlovingit, 10/9/16] The widow keeps coming, day after day, demanding that he “grant [her] justice against [her] opponent, [her] adversary,” which literally means, “anti-justice.” She is not only annoying, she is fully in his face, not only “wearing him out,” but “making him black and blue.” She is focused, determined, fearless.

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” Luke sets up the story. But again, we have to be careful about too neatly assigning roles here. Is God really like the unjust judge whom we have to keep pestering to grant us our prayers? Or is God more like the widow, relentlessly seeking justice, never giving up?

Tracy Farmer, a physician who has worked tirelessly to bring health care to the poor of Haiti and who wrote the book Mountains beyond Mountains, picks up a term from JRR Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring Trilogy, in which the Elves of Lothlorien admit they are losing their battle for their forest lands; yet they are committed to staying in the “long defeat.” Farmer acknowledges that his efforts too are a “long defeat”–”I have fought the long defeat [he writes] and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. [that was before this last hurricane which devastated Haiti] I don’t dislike victory…We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.” [cited by Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus, 10/16/13]

Glennon Doyle Melton, whose blog momastery and her books Carry On, Warrior and Love Warrior, have inspired and given hope to many women, states that we need to stop pretending life, parenthood, and friendships aren’t hard. Like M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled which was a best-seller back in the 1970’s, and which began with the revolutionary sentence, “Life is hard,” we have too often been led to believe that life should be easy. That bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. That life should be fair. So, it’s tempting to misunderstand, minimize, or explain away the things that don’t go well or easily or fairly.

“We are born to be warriors,” Doyle Melton writes, “strong, powerful, and brave; able to confront the pain and claim the love that exists for us all.” Words not often enough directed to or believed by women especially. The challenge, she says, is “how to use crisis as a springboard to truer identity and a better life….how to enter the fire of our lives and transform it into fuel to light the world…” to become “Love Warriors.”

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord [through Jeremiah], when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…[and] this is the covenant that I will make…: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah prophesied in a time not so unlike ours as you might think. The nations were in turmoil, the leaders making alliances with almost anyone but God, a gap of literally hundreds of desert miles between the elite in exile and the poor left behind in the rubble of cities and villages.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord” Jeremiah cries, “when I will make a new covenant with the people….and I will put my law within them, and I will write it–etch it–on their hearts.” God’s law, which, as Bruce Epperly says, is not oppressive or rigid, but “liberating, encouraging creativity and care for each other, transformative, present as our deepest reality,” written on our hearts. God’s law–not our own, self-centered, my way or the highway law; God’s law–not some imposed, dictated, outside law; but God’s law–in which I discover my truest self, my deepest joy, my own well-being aligned with the well-being of the planet.

“Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” The widow who kept pestering the unjust judge – “Grant me justice against my adversary”– this woman who was supposed to be the “silent one, the one unable to speak”– she spoke what was in her heart day after day, over and over, “because [as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it] saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart.” [The Long Way Home, cited in Weekly Seeds, UCC, 10/19/13] The law of God had been written on her heart, had shaped her heart. And courage, by the way, originally meant, “telling the true story of your heart.” [Brene Brown] “Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

It is that courage, that persistence, that hunger for justice, that love for God and this achingly beautiful world and incredibly blessed country that we desperately need at this critical time. We need people who are called to be Prayer Warriors to keep Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and every other person running for offices of leadership and responsibility surrounded and infused with the fierce love of God. We need Prayer Warriors to pray over our fragile planet. We need Prayer Warriors to pray our community rife with addiction and despair. Can you imagine if those Prayer Warriors devoted themselves and trained themselves like the men and women who are called to be warriors in our nation’s armed services do? Can we even imagine what such a training and devotion would look like?

Even those of us not called to such a commitment can still add our energies and intentions to the healing and guiding of our nation, can still refuse to add to the ugliness and hatred and deceit being offered up, can send love and compassion toward those whose opinions and positions differ so profoundly from ours, for our own sake as well as ours. For though prayer is a mystery, it changes the prayer if not the prayed for. For the truth is, we must live together, or we shall die together, at least die to the vision that once formed the nation. May the fire of our lives and the crisis of our times be transformed into the fuel that can light the world and remind us of our true identities. In this battle, whether it is the long defeat or the ultimate victory, may we be found strong and brave and true.

Amen, and amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark


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