Persistent Prayer

Last weekend, I delivered the homily at my church, Sts. Clare and Francis here in St. Louis.  The text is below, as well as a link to a video of me preaching.  Here is the gospel text it was based on:

“As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
“Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. 
But he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me.”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.”
He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. 
Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” 
The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.” 
Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” 
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.” – Mark 10: 46-52


When I was little, I loved playing basketball.  By the time I was in third grade, I was on a community league team with my brother.  All the other players were boys.  I spent hours practicing on my family’s outdoor basketball hoop, trying to perfect my shot and my dribbling skills.  So of course, in sixth grade, I reported to my dad that I was joining the school’s basketball team.  He looked at me, sort of loving me and helpless at the same time and said, “Er… you can’t.  It’s a boy’s team.”  Logically, I said, “so?  I want to play.  I’m pretty good.  I’m gonna join the team.”  He continued his, “Erin, you just can’t do that, you’re not a boy” spiel, to which I said, “Ok fine.  You start a girls team, or I’m going to play on the boys’.”   Exasperated, and being the lawyer he was, he tried to stall me by saying I had to get a petition signed by other girls at the school who wanted to play, and if I got enough signatures, he’d think about starting a team.  So, you better believe I marched myself around the playground at recess, getting all the girls in school to sign the petition.  That year, St. Bede elementary school had our first girls’ team, and my dad went on to coach it for the next 10 years.

That’s when I began to learn something about persistence, about simple insistence on what’s right, and what can happen.

In the gospel today I’m drawn to one line in particular—“And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent, but he kept calling out all the more.”  HE KEPT CALLING OUT ALL THE MORE. 

Does this sound familiar to you, as it does to me, in our current culture of Me Too, Black Lives Matter, the cry of the earth, the cry of the poor, the continued quest for justice among gay, lesbian and especially transgender members of our society, the cry of migrants seeking a better life for their children?  The cry, my friends, is loud right now, almost, I would say, at a fever pitch.  The calling out is piercing, gut wrenching at times, the persistence so insistent that something, something, MUST be shifting.

In this Christian salvation history thing we are a part of, we stand in a long and robust tradition of insistent persistence…

Just in the gospels alone, there are many stories of this kind of persistence.  There’s the story of the Syrophoenician woman.  In this story, because she’s Greek and not a Jew, Jesus in essence refers to her as a “dog”— the other, outside of the fold, unworthy of his time and healing.  She pleads for healing for her daughter, insisting, saying, “even the dogs eat the scraps.”  Jesus’ response is extraordinary, because we get such a human,  honest peak into who he is, into the most appropriate, loving and just response —HE LISTENS TO HER, and he is converted.  He sees her faith and is caught up short.  SHE teaches him, and the healing moves through them.

Another story is that of the hemorrhaging woman, a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, which in that day meant she was unclean, cast out of society and basic human interaction.  In great courage, trembling, she not only approaches Jesus, she touches him, in all of her uncleanliness and unworthiness.  Yet here’s what happens– power rushes into her—from him—an anointing of sorts, a healing.  Jesus does something totally counter-cultural—he points to her, he lifts her up as an example of great faith.

And then there is the classic example, the persistent widow, a woman so persistent in her request that Jesus responds, “will not God then secure the rights of the chosen ones who call out to God day and night?  Will God be slow to answer them?  I tell you, God will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.”  (Luke 18:7-8)

The theologian and pastor Henri Nouwen says that every deep desire is a prayer…every fierce and fiery longing of our hearts already a prayer, breathed into becoming in our speaking of it.

We are in a time of loud and persistent prayer, of piercing desire, when those who are suffering are coming forth in great numbers, insisting with their whole being—no more, no more, no more!  They are calling our world into the justice Jesus embodies, they are calling each of us to conversion.

Perhaps we—you—are the one calling, the one tapping into your own desire, the fire of your pain, your longing for change, for healing, to stand in your full dignity and, like Bartimeaus, to stay silent no longer.

I hope you, and those all those in solidarity with you, can really hear what Jesus is saying here.  Each time a healing occurs in the gospels, each time someone’s persistent prayer bubbles out from a heart and a life so ready for change, for justice, for redemption, Jesus turns it back to them.  He does this in two ways– First he asks them what they want—asking them to name and to claim the desire of their heart, their true prayer.  Bartimeaus says, “I want to see.”

Then Jesus looks at them with so much love and says some version of—your faith has saved you, your belief has healed you, you have what you are looking for, you ARE the change you seek in the world.  So often we mistakenly give the power to Jesus, but in truth, he is giving it RIGHT BACK TO US, em-powering us, trying to help us see—YOU have what it takes to make this change, YOU are powerful beyond measure.  You are sight.  You are liberation.  You are freedom.  You are life.  Your longing, your desire, your persistent insistence for justice IS the very energy, the power, the catalyst that BECOMES this in the world, especially, especially when combined with the force of the longing of others, of community, in solidarity.

In these times, we are being asked listen to and to follow the persistently insistent, those who are calling out, again and again, for change.  It is the suffering who know the way, because they are the ones who long most deeply for change, for the new, for healing, for life.  They know to their bones what is needed, because THEY need it, to survive, to stand in their dignity, to flourish as a human being on this earth.  Again, if you are that voice, that one who has suffered or is suffering—I pray you have the courage and persistence to keep using it, to never allow yourself to be silenced or made small, to let your truth through, no matter how much you tremble.

But if you are not the one crying out, if you have managed to exist in the safety of privilege, if you are part of the crowd, wondering what all the noise is about, then I invite you into a place of deep listening and of solidarity—to listen to and stand with those crying out.  Jesus shows us the way— he too, had to be opened.  He too, had to be converted.  The crowd in our story today had to shift their perspective.  I invite us into relationships with others who are different than us, who are suffering by the injustices of the world we have created, who can open their hearts to us and us to them.  I hope we have the courage to seek this out, especially when it makes us nervous or afraid.  I pray that instead of postures of defense and protection, we might find ways of softening, of receiving, of opening and turning to a new way of being in this world, where true healing is possible for ALL, and all are truly welcome at the table of life.

The persistent prayers and pleadings of those suffering are like a spotlight, pointing out places of still needed healing and justice in our world.  My friends, we are IN the cry, right now.  A solution has not yet come, an answer to this cry not yet realized.  Healing has yet to be.  How are YOU hearing the cry?  What is the persistent prayer of YOUR heart, right now, whether in suffering or in solidarity?  How is this moving you into action?

Change comes not from places of privilege and shallow power, but from places of suffering, of possible transformation, of true power.  Let us look there, go there, BE there, as the suffering or those called into solidarity, to see them, hear them, believe them, affirm them, follow their lead into true conversion, meaningful action, and real and lasting movements toward life.



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