“Absurd Claims of Our Faith”1
Exodus 16:1–4, 13–15, 31–32
2 Timothy 4:1–8
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the importance of prayer, because sometimes prayer is all we’ve got. We wondered aloud why would we need to, or dare to, feel the privilege to or even want to pray to our God if our God knows everything, is everywhere, and controls all of creation. We heard scripture’s response from the Apostle Paul, who tells us that the Holy Spirit hears us in our weakness. The Holy Spirit interprets our weak thoughts and translates them from common words into prayers brimming with hope and possibility. This has the radical effect of holding the world together and the potential effect of healing for us all.
Our message today is that God wants us to persevere in our prayers, just as God wants us to persevere in life. Our message lifts-up God’s call for persistence in prayer knowing that God will give us what we need for our journeys, and in our persistence – our shameless perseverance before God – in our un-modest conversations in our life with God, we will eventually come to know a better reality. As we begin to work through one of the most crushing issues of our day, we will learn how our persistence in prayer can motivate the world to become a more perfect embodiment of the beloved kingdom if not through our deepened, individual understanding of God’s motivations for our lives then through the benefits our brothers and sisters realize from others who are serving God through their prayers and vital work for what is good and right and just.
Read 2 Timothy 4:1–8 and Luke 11: 1–13
I have a good friend from my doctoral program who prays in earnest seven times a day. He’s a member of a Benedictine order and he’s committed to praying the hours. Even at first encounter, anyone can feel how his life of prayer has transformed this ordinary man into somewhat of an otherworldly presence. When you leave his company, there is no doubt that you will be remembered in his prayers. If you’re eager to find a way to pray, praying the hours is a beautiful structure for prayer that offers us to sit quietly with God throughout the day and night, resting in the goodness that God has to share, knowing that our persistent prayers lead us toward more fruitful life in the Lord and a more just and peaceful life for all.
I’ve observed how such persistence in prayer is not unlike a heartbeat that enables one to luxuriate in relationship with God. At times, I’ve wondered if it’s not an innate longing that God grants only a privileged few. I’ve even excused for myself that persistence in prayer is more easily affordable when you finally find yourself in a settled place, surrounded by loved ones and supported in every way.
However, I’ve come to experience that persistence in prayer is granted when we’re going through some of our most difficult patches rather than some of our most comfortable ones. It’s what enables us to confront pain and suffering in our own lives. It’s what gives us solidarity with those who have the potentiality of anguish and persecution at every pass. God’s encouragement that we persistently acknowledge that something or someone greater than ourselves has it all under control can become our way of bearing for ourselves or others in God’s beloved kingdom filled with pain and anguish another day of two steps forward and three steps back.
Two steps forward and three steps back: that’s how it was for the Israelites on their march out of Egypt. “Why didn’t we just stay in slavery?” they questioned. “At least we got our three squares a day.” The Israelites prayed, and they pleaded, and they complained while they forged ahead through the wilderness with their guide. Moses took their case to God who offered them a little bread for their journey. You remember about that bread, don’t you? It’s what was left every morning after the dew evaporated and quails flew away? Call it what you will, but folks who study this stuff have concluded that it was simple and plain, dried bird droppings. And these bird dropping are what satisfied the Israelites the whole way to the Promise Land.
“Give us each day our daily bread.” It’s odd to me that Jesus would’ve chosen this image from the Israelites’ exodus at the center of his formula on prayer, but it’s borne out each day. We follow our guide. We persist in our prayers. We plead with God for some answers to the problems of our day. To those of us who never seem to make it out of the wilderness, it seems that all God’s going to give us are bird droppings. We begin to wonder, “Is this all I can expect of God?”
We are a hungry people living in a hungry world. We are hungry for a solution to homelessness. We are hungry for immigration reform. We are hungry for a process to stop the erosion of the ozone layer. We are hungry to keep our children engaged in what is safe – maybe even a little bit spiritual . We want a formula for how we can be fed. Jesus tells us that persistence pays off and we want to believe it. We want to believe that if we pray a certain way, keep asking for what is right and good (from our vantage points, at least) that our shameless perseverance will eventually reach God’s heart. In the end, we’ll get what we hoped-for. In the end.
But this text can become problematic if we’re counting on it as a formula for getting us exactly what we want. – Because Jesus doesn’t promise us exactly what we want at all. Expecting that our prayers will get us what we want could lead us to question the very goodness of God when the goodness of God doesn’t seem to be coming your way. Even more, this could lead many to believe that “good” just might be struggles and questions that feel markedly bad.
The great black liberation theologian, James Cone, might call this one of the absurd claims of faith: that we are to pray to a God who seemingly allows the great atrocities of life to have a place. This has been an experience of the black community whose voice has been otherwise silenced and whose validity has been oftentimes negated by a white culture that has implicitly understood simply by the physiological truth of our whiteness that we have had a right to dominate those who are not. It was out of an excruciating experience of such oppression and injustice against African Americans and Americans from the island colonies of the Caribbean American that black liberation theology was born. Through black liberation theology, “the oppressed can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”2
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Dr. Cone’s latest work on the hideous injustices against black people across America, he shares stories of his childhood growing up in Arkansas. This was the Jim Crow South when the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy ruled. It was also a time when black people across the whole country – the north, the south, the east and the west of the United States were treated violently by white supremacists in the name of what is right. Friends and family were confronted by lynching mobs that would act on a “whim…to have some fun with a Negro.”3 I was shocked to read that one of our late US Senators boasted of his leadership in lynch mobs. I was more shocked to learn that even our beloved “26,” President Theodore Roosevelt, refused to oppose lynching. Lynching: A cold reality that pressed upon the black men, women and children across America leaving not one of us safe from its affects.
Cone offers one story of how, as a five year old boy, the President of Morehouse College in Atlanta had to watch his daddy take off his hat, and bow down and praise a gang of white men in order to save his family and himself from the potentiality of the worst. But he says that this could’ve happened in Mississippi, New York, Arkansas or Illinois, or, I would add, Ohio or DC. He describes how blacks had to “watch their step” no matter where they were in America. He wrote in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “To be black meant that white could do anything to you and your people, and that neither you nor anyone else could do anything about it.”4 Doesn’t this sound too recent and familiar?
Out from the stifling air of horror and the breezelessness of pain, Dr. Cone recalls the intensity of the “Hallelujas” and “Amens” of his rural black church, as the preacher proclaimed the victory of the cross. Here, he said, “the powerful, living reality of God’s Spirit transformed them from nobodies in white society to somebodies.”5 Here, his black community was empowered to internalize that “the kingdom of God is a black happening…that does not involve the destruction of their personhood.”6 “The kingdom of God is what God does… as a response to God’s liberation.”7
In this lies the power of our persistence in prayer. “If we, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” Because it’s in the intensities of the Hallelujas and Amens that we can realize first hand the power of the cross as the victory of eternal goodness that we know will triumph over evil.
It is absurd to believe that you and I can rest from the scorching heat of every day injustices in the shade of the cross above our heads without recognizing the hard, cold reality of the lynching tree that continues to impose violence upon the prosperity of people of color in our nation today. – The lynching tree that takes its shape from a common belief that any black man with dreadlocks could be a drug dealer, or that any brown skin man in a half-cocked snapback is a gang member, or that groups of children of color playing in the Georgetown fountains are soaking off of our welfare system, or that darker-skinned professionals have secured their positions to the detriment of more qualified, white men and women, or that any boy wearing a hoodie is a potential killer.
I think that this is very reason we are called here today. We are called here today as a people of hope who are in touch with the injustices of our day that threaten to deny others even a dose of goodness to come. We are called here today to begin again our perseverance in prayer for the day-to-day problems in life, knowing that there is someone right now whose only hope is the possibility that there might be somebody out there praying to help. But our prayers are not prayers of the optimist who despairs each day that something good hasn’t come our way. Our prayers are not those that are laced with pious assumptions. Our prayers are ones that are filled with a very practical theology. They are the prayers of a people who have a grasp on the most challenging realities of our daily life, understand that it is our job, in the midst of the horrors of the night, in the understanding of something very wrong in this world, to take a stand and work on behalf of those who are being afflicted all of the time.
From my vantage point as a white woman raised in a fully white community of the Midwest, it is implausible that I would have been taught the extent of the atrocities that have confronted people of color all over our nation. Simply out of my privileged experience as a white person in the United States, it is impossible for me to fully grasp the day-to-day discrimination against those who are not of my race and ethnicity. Sitting in my comfortable corner office in this West End of Washington, DC, I only witness the effects of racial profiling and discrimination as I watch hundreds of capable men and women of darker colored skin waiting to be served their daily bread at Miriam’s Kitchen. But I know that white privilege is as alive and strong. I know that white privilege is as alive and strong in our nation’s capital as it is in Sanford, Florida. White supremacy is epidemic, nationwide.
Now is the time for each one of us to widen our eyes to see the grave injustices of the world and in expanding our view, expand our hearts in persistent prayer. Ours are not empty prayers. Ours are shameless prayers that affirm our fundamental dependence upon God. Ours are shameless, persistent prayers in solidarity for the ones upon whom grave injustices are being served. Ours are shameless, persistent prayers that become the foundation and motivation for our advocacy and actions to reverse the pain that people of color in our nation have known. To participate in black liberation from injustice is not only our right but our privilege as a people of God intent upon realizing a faithful experience of God’s beloved kingdom on earth. Author, poet and composer James Weldon Johnson would say that while this will translate into the “saving of black America’s body” it will also translate into “(the saving of) white America’s soul.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.
1 Cone, James H., The Cross and the Lynching Tree. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011).
2 Cone, James H., A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986). p v.
3 Cone, James H., The Cross and the Lynching Tree. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011). Kindle version.
6 Cone, James H., A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986). p 124.