St. Alban’s Mission, Antigua, Guatemala
The Rev. Brian Gregory
October 20, 2019
Church Year C: The 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Good morning. It has been a couple of months since I have been on this side of the church, and it feels good to be back serving as a priest. I feel like I need to introduce myself. I’ve been a new face with a new family around here for the past month or so and have met most of you, but not shared a lot about who I am or what me and my family are doing in Guatemala.
I am a priest from the Diocese of Olympia, Western Washington in the United States. My wife and I have lived in the Seattle area for our whole lives, and that is where our kids have lived until now. I first came to Guatemala with my seminary program in 2014 for a “cross-cultural immersion,” observing culture and context through the lens of the questions: “Where do we see Jesus? What is God doing here? How is God’s kingdom present and growing?” We spent most of our time in the Ixil triagle, around Nebaj and Cotzal, and were confronted by the realities of the civil war. We visited with pastors to hear how they seek to be a part of God’s work of reconciliation. We spent time with families and received their hospitality, and, even though in our eyes, they had little to nothing available to share, there was always an abundance.
Before we headed up into the highlands, though, we spent a few days in Guatemala City. On one of those days, we took a half-day tour of an organization called Safe Passage – an organization a number of you are familiar with. Safe Passage works in the community around the Guatemala City garbage dump, offering school programs for around 550 children and their families. In doing so, it provides education, hope, and opportunity beyond the dump. There are adult literacy programs for dump workers, the majority of whom have little to no formal education. There are social entrepreneurship programs for women, offering job training and economic opportunity beyond the hazardous conditions of the dump. As I reflected on the guiding questions of that first trip: “Where do we see Jesus? What is God doing here?” it turned out that Jesus was in the Guatemala City garbage dump. Walking into one of Safe Passage’s three school buildings surrounding the dump is like walking into an outpost of God’s kingdom, literally emerging from a valley of trash. I returned to Guatemala two times since that first trip in 2014 to partner with and support the work of Safe Passage, to encounter Jesus in others, and to discover the many other ways God’s kingdom is growing in zone 3 of Guatemala City.
The last time I was here, in 2017, I began to sense a quiet call to join ever more deeply in the work God is doing there – whether through Safe Passage, through the Episcopal Church, or through the countless other individuals or organizations active here in this beautiful country to make God’s dreams for the world come alive – a dream we call God’s kingdom. Long story short, two years later, here we are, working at Safe Passage and, thankfully, assisting Mother Nelly here at St. Alban’s, hopefully playing a small part in what God is doing here. But I’ll come back to that. In the meantime, we have a parable from Jesus that calls for our attention.
When I used to pray, whether asking God for something big or small, I tended to end my prayer with, “but Thy will be done.” Not necessarily a bad thing to say to God – after all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” But as I reflected on that tendency, I began to wonder why I added that. I suspect it was not just a way of deferring to God’s authority, but rather a way of couching my hopes, being timid, uncertain even, about whether my prayer would even make a difference. Because do we really think that prayer works?
There is a website called Postsecret that allow people to send in anonymous confessions on postcards. Reading through them, they are funny, heartbreaking, and everything in between. Since it was launched in 2005, more than half a million secrets have been shared and six books have been published containing the secrets. The idea behind this, I think what we would call viral phenomenon, is that it gives people the opportunity to get something off their chest without vulnerability. But we have to ask if confessions or offers of forgiveness really change anything or anyone if there is no one to receive the confession or accept the forgiveness. It really is just about “getting something off one’s chest,” and that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be back on the chest tomorrow…or the next day or the next.
I wonder if this is ever how we approach prayer: maybe hoping that God is listening, but regardless, saying what it is we need to say just in order to put it into words…to get it off our chest. Perhaps that simply comes from a place of uncertainty. Perhaps it comes from a place of being let down a few too many times in the past. Regardless, the question persists: do we really think that prayer works? Is it effective at more than making us feel better, if even for just a moment?
Back home in Seattle, I served as a hospital chaplain in addition to my parish ministry. I worked a regional trauma center so we saw more than our share of catastrophic injuries, dire circumstances, and vicious illnesses. One of the hardest things for me to do was often to offer the prayers families asked for: prayers for miraculous healings, prayers for complete recovery, even when medically, there was absolutely no hope. I’m not sure if my discomfort was more about my own belief that there was no way out of death for these patients, or if it was about my secondary concern for the family gathered at the bedside…wanting to protect their faith from the very likely disappointment and grief that was to come. Regardless, my prayers then – and if I’m honest, very rarely ever – look like the prayers of the women in Jesus’ parable before us today.
Because what God asks of us is boldness and persistence. Whether God invites us to fight with him, God can certainly handle it. Prayer is not just about getting something off our chest to feel more at peace – though that can be true as a result. It is not just about deferring to God’s authority. Prayer is about wrestling with God, aligning our hearts and hopes with the heart and hopes of God, yes, but also aligning God’s heart with ours. Take the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God, for example. Jacob was persistent. He fought for what it was that he wanted. He would not take “no” for an answer, even though that is the answer he kept receiving. And when God realized that Jacob was not giving up, God relented. Or the scene from Exodus, after the Israelites had been freed from captivity, crossed the Jordan, and found safety and rest at the bottom of Mt. Sinai. As Moses went up the mountain to meet God, the Israelites became restless. So quickly, they forgot who it was that had protected, sustained, and freed them and they turned away from God to gods created from their own hands. Do you recall God’s response? It was a commitment to wipe them out, to start over, again, just as God had done with Noah in hopes of finding people who weren’t so fickle, but this time with Moses. But Moses argued. He reasoned with God, reminding God of God’s promises. Some translations of Scripture say that “The Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.”
If we take this parable from Jesus, the story of Jacob, and the story of Moses and ask the question, does prayer work? Does persistence pay off? then the answer very well seems to be “yes.” We are called to pray hard, to wrestle, to fight, even, with God to align God’s heart to ours. But, and this is important, we need to remember that the outcomes, the results of our or anyone else’s prayer, is not a measure of faith. It is not a measure of how hard anyone has prayed. Because the reality is that God’s will will be done. And God’s will is good: wholeness, restoration, reconciliation. Peace, justice, life abundant. That doesn’t mean our temporal circumstances will always be rosy or the inevitable cycle of life and death won’t afflict us. But in the end, God’s dream of a world that is very good and whole will no longer be just a dream.
This parable and what it teaches about persistence and faith is true and important to hear, but it can also easily lead to bad theology. We can easily miss something equally important: it is not just about prayer.
I read an article this week about legislation that is pending in the state of Tennessee in the United States. If passed, this law would expand healthcare coverage to include 300,000 of Tennessee’s most vulnerable residents who live just above the poverty line – unable to receive assistance but also unable to provide for themselves or their families. The governor of Tennessee proclaimed a “Day of Prayer and Fasting” for the state as this bill sits on his desk. A group of churches and clergy responded by calling for a day of “Prayer and Action.” That is the point here. Prayer works, prayer is vital to how our faith works and how we relate with God, but prayer doesn’t let us off the hook for actually doing something. It is like the chorus of “thoughts and prayers” that arise after incidents of violence and disaster around the world. Pray, yes…but do something, too. There is too much hurt, too much injustice, too much oppression, too much discrimination around the world and it is not the result of someone not praying about it. It is the result of the actions and inactions of people.
Think of Christians in Syria today. Do we think they don’t have immense faith to persist in the face of unspeakable terror and violence? Do we think they haven’t prayed until they have no breath left with which to pray? Or the children and families I encounter daily living around the Guatemala City garbage dump? Are we willing to say they haven’t prayed hard enough to change the oppressive systems that keep them stuck in poverty? Or the countless others in this country, many of whom some of you work with and encounter in your own work and ministries?
It is easy to become overwhelmed, cynical, even, with the thought of our world fundamentally changing for the better. There is so much that is broken that it can become hard to imagine it all being made whole. But God’s kingdom is coming, my sisters and brothers, on earth as it is in heaven. Wholeness, justice, peace, reconciliation…these things are emerging in our midst. They are emerging in ways both big and small. They are emerging in places where we least expect to find them like a garbage dump. They are emerging even as all that runs counter to God’s kingdom persist around us as well. And one day, God’s kingdom will be here completely. But that will not happen only through our prayers. The growth of God’s kingdom in our world invites our hands, our feet, our lives, and our work as we join in the work God is doing to make God’s hopes for the world become reality. Pray, yes. Pray hard. Pray with conviction and persistence. But when you are done praying, don’t forget to get up and act.