Three days ago, I stood at the edge of the 9-11 Memorial in New York City, staring down into the void below what was once the north tower of the World Trade Center. The largest human-made waterfall in the world rushed into the abyss, and I remembered how it was just a big, ugly hole when I visited eleven years ago. A few steps away is the “Survivor Tree.” My son pointed it out, and I took a photo of the tree that looks quite unremarkable but is extraordinary when you consider its story. The small pear tree somehow survived despite its proximity to the World Trade Center on 9-11. It was planted in the 1970s, and when it was uncovered after the towers fell, it was severely burned and had only one living branch. The tree was relocated to a nursery in the Bronx where it was cared for and where it showed new growth the following spring. Several years later, it was uprooted by a storm and then successfully re-rooted. Mayor Bloomberg stated at the time, “Again, we and the tree refused to throw in the towel. We replanted the tree, and it bounced back immediately." One year later, the tree was returned to the World Trade Center site. A man named Keating Crown, a survivor of the attacks, said, "It reminds us all of the capacity of the human spirit to persevere."
The tree survived because of a persistence that is rooted in life itself. It hung on despite the odds, and over time it once again became a strong, healthy tree.
What does persistence look like for you? Are you by nature a persistent person, or are you more likely to fold up and give up when faced with challenges? I suspect that there are a lot of survivors here today who have persisted under difficult circumstances to overcome obstacles and achieve great things.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about a person who persisted in a request of a neighbor until receiving what was needed. The parable is part of an extended text that begins with Jesus’ disciples asking him how they should pray. He replied by giving them some words that most of us know as “the Lord’s Prayer.” The prayer is followed immediately by a parable and then some further comments by Jesus on the nature of God and the effectiveness of prayer.
I’m sure that the first prayer I learned started with the words “Now I lay me down to sleep.” It’s a grim prayer about possibly dying before waking that was first printed in the New England Primer for children and sold over 2 million copies in the 18th century. Lots of children learned to pray that way. The disciples of Jesus were interested in knowing the best way to pray and asked Jesus to teach them. He responded with a prayer that most of us also learned at a young age and we say together here every Sunday. What’s interesting to me is how the writer or writers of the Gospel of Luke chose to pair the prayer with one of Jesus’ parables. In contrast, Matthew’s Gospel includes the prayer in the midst of the ethical teaching that make up the Sermon on the Mount. The context is entirely different, and Luke uses the prayer to teach a lesson about how we should approach the act of praying.
The parables of Jesus have historically been given names like “The Good Samaritan” and “The Prodigal Son” and “The Lost Sheep.” The parable that follows the Lord’s Prayer in Luke is known as “The Parable of the Importunate Neighbor.” “Importunate” is a not frequently-used word in our English language that means “urgent or insistent in solicitation, sometimes annoyingly so.” The gist of the story is this: a person with an unexpected guest who needs to be fed goes to a neighbor’s house after midnight and asks for bread. The neighbor has no interest in leaving his bed or giving his bread, so he says no. The one who needs bread keep asking, though. Again and again. And finally the annoying importunance causes then neighbor to throw off his sheets, storm downstairs, raid his pantry, and throw a loaf of bread into the street before returning to bed in a huff.
The problem with this story is pretty obvious. If Jesus is telling us to be like the person who knocks in the middle of the night with persistence, the implication is that God is like a grumpy, sleepy neighbor who only responds after repeated pestering. Jesus’ words immediately after the parable are pretty well known: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. What’s not stated as clearly in his comments is the implication of the parable that a whole lot of asking, seeking, and knocking is necessary to convince God to act.
We often say that we take Scripture seriously, but not always literally. Sometimes I think it’s helpful to not even take Scripture so seriously, in the sense that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously, either. Since body language is such a large part of communication, we are missing a huge part of this parable by not seeing Jesus’ face and gestures when he delivered it. Some of Jesus’ stories are clearly meant to be funny, and this is probably one of them. I imagine him laughing with his disciples when he described the angry man coming to the door half-dressed in his nightgown. The humor doesn’t end there, though. It continues as he asks, “If your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will you give a scorpion?” Those are great lines! Jesus probably had to wait for the laughter to die down before he asked, “If you human parents know how to give good gifts, how much more will your parent in heaven give you what need?”
Jesus’ story of the annoying friend isn’t a comparison that equates a grumpy neighbor with God, it’s a contrast showing the generous mercy of the one who created us. But that brings us back to the matter of persistence. I admit that I have difficulty with the idea that only those who persist in prayer like one who knocks endlessly in the night will see results. And I don’t think the passage needs to be read that way, though it often is. If God is not a stingy neighbor, it follows that God’s generosity means that our simple, heartfelt prayers are enough. Buried in those questions and possibilities, though, is the action of persistence itself. I like the story’s emphasis on perseverance in the face of resistance. If prayer and action go together, as they should, then the image of the annoying neighbor is actually pretty great.
Since my last Sunday with you, we have witnessed the shootings of unarmed black men in Minnesota and Louisiana followed by the murder of five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. Terrorism has taken many lives in Nice, France and Kabul, Afghanistan. More lives were taken through gun violence in Munich, Germany. A twelve year old girl was shot and killed this week while walking with her friend on the Pine Ridge Reservation where our CUCC team worked last month. How can we be importunate neighbors, annoying the heck out of the powers that be to move our communities, nation, and world from this spiral of violence to a more just and peaceful planet? A man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and he responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. This morning’s parable reminds us that being persistent is a neighborly quality. Praying and acting and not giving up for the sake of our neighbors around the world is required of us.
I was honored to be the United Church of Christ Chaplain of the Week for the week of July 9 at the “other Chautauqua,” meaning the original center for education, religious, and the arts in New York State. The theme of the week for morning and afternoon lectures was “Moral Leadership” which seemed especially timely. The diversity of speakers in the Hall of Philosophy was remarkable. One afternoon, the lecturer was Jim Wallis, who founded Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to social justice and peacemaking. He spoke with grave concern about the state of moral leadership in our nation in regard to the poor and otherwise marginalized. The next day, Ralph Reed Jr., a primary leader of the religious right, outlined qualities of moral leadership on his way to Cleveland for the RNC to support the presidential candidate. I am sure that both of these men pray, and I wonder, in light of the parable of the persistent neighbor, whose prayers will result in needed change in our country?
On Monday night, I heard a nationally publicized prayer from Cleveland that made it very clear which candidate is the enemy of God and also who God favors in the upcoming presidential election. It has been described as the most partisan prayer in political history. Two days later, a less partisan preacher prayed these words from the same podium: “We are not here to ask you to bless what we have designed. We are here to ask you to transform us: To Make us better. Make us courageous. Make us tireless in seeking a more just nation for all who live in this land.” Prayer is more than just pestering God with our own demands or assumptions about what is best for us. Tireless effort for justice goes hand in hand with asking and seeking and knocking.
Jesus gave us a prayer that reminds us of the wider realm of God (“Thy Kingdom come”). It encourages us to pray for our needs, but its power hinges on the words “Thy will be done.” May we pray importunately, with confidence and persistence, knowing that God desires what is best for us and also what is good for all our neighbors.