A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

By: David H. May, Rector


The parable of the Importunate Widow, as it is often called, seems pretty straightforward. Look, if even a coldhearted judge who doesn’t give a hoot about what God or anybody else thinks will eventually hear out a pesky widow’s complaint and grant her justice, how much more will God – who is all goodness – respond to the cry of his people. That seems clear enough; til it doesn’t. Like, what am I supposed to do when God seems to be silent, when someone I love still suffers or some awful thing in the world keeps being awful? Am I not pesky and importunate enough?

The word importunate, by the way is an adjective that means “troublesomely urgent or persistent”. The verb, ‘importune’, means “to beset with insistent requests”. Aside from those scary times when serious illness or danger comes upon us or upon someone dear to us, when is our prayer troublesomely urgent or persistent? And even if it is, do I really think God hears us when we cry to him? Prayer seems to be just as likely to be met with silence as with a word we can see and hear from God. And besides, I don’t want to be a pest. Who am I to pester God?

Like all of Jesus’ parables, at first we think we get it, that it makes a straightforward and clear point. And then suddenly we discover we are in a thicket of questions that don’t have easy answers.

Fortunately with this parable, Luke gives us a compass to help us find our way through the thicket. He says that this is a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. This parable is about prayer and not losing your heart.

Years ago, we lived next door to a man whose name was Adio Manicini. Mr. Mancini was a 90-year-old widower when we first became his neighbors. He died about five years later just before his 96th birthday.

At first, I was delighted to have Mr. Mancini as a neighbor. He was such a character. He was about 5 foot 5; bandy legged, with large hairy ears, and a big voice that had never lost the accent of the streets of the Bronx where he grew up. Mr. Mancini also cussed when he talked. He absolutely peppered a sentence with expletives. And not just the mild ones, but the full-bodied spicy ones too.

Mr. Mancini was on sort of a mission in these his latter years. His mission was to give you all the advice he had to give about almost any subject you could think of. Mr. Mancini was not shy about telling you how you were doing something wrong and how he knew exactly the right solutions to your various shortcomings, failures, ignorance and outright stupidity. Mr. Mancini never stepped back from reminding me of how I was raking leaves all wrong, or how my diet was going to kill me, or how my ignorance of how the stock market worked was destined to doom me to penury.

And honestly, it was not his penchant of pointing out how astoundingly dim-witted I was about so many things that bothered me. No, what came to bother me a lot was how long it would take for Mr. Mancini to tell me what he wanted to tell me. If he spied me cutting the grass between his house and ours, he would walk right up, yell at me to turn off the lawn mower, and then spend the next – I kid you not – hour and a half describing what I was doing wrong.
Eventually, it brought out the worst in me. What I mean is I started hiding from Mr. Mancini. I would sneak to a window to see if he were outside before going out back. If he came out while I was outside, I would figure out some way for him not to see me, or I’d pretend like I didn’t see him. I know that’s wrong, but he was driving me crazy, and besides, he gave me the same four or five stories over and over again. Little by little, I ceased to be Mr. Mancini’s neighbor. I withdrew behind a stoic distant unavailable half-smile or perfunctory wave as I hurried away from him.

Mr. Mancini may have been importunate, troublesomely besetting me with his insistent requests for my attention, but I was becoming something worse. He started becoming invisible to me, because I withdrew my heart from him.

Till one day. I was outside and Mr. Mancini must’ve seen me and hurried out of his screened-in porch. He hadn’t lectured me in weeks, so he headed at me with a full head of steam. Seeing him, I gave him one of my perfunctory waves and tried to make a beeline for anywhere but there. Then I heard him shout at me, “who do you think you are, Hitler?”

Stunned, I stopped in my tracks, faced Mr. Mancini as he walked up and said, “what?”

“That wave you give me, that wave you always give me, like this,” and he demonstrated, “it makes you look like Hitler with his little zeig heil.”

Before I knew it, Mr. Mancini had me. He hurriedly covered familiar ground, the way I cut the grass, the fact that I wouldn’t install gutter guards like he had told me a million time, the fact that I was dooming my kids to the poor house because I wouldn’t listen to his plan for investing. Then he said, “come inside, I gotta show you something.”

So he had me. And he had me on so many levels all at once. Inside, in his kitchen he opened his freezer and showed me the special steaks he had just receive special delivery and how if I had a lick of sense, which obviously I didn’t, I’d order my meat from the same guy he did. Then he told me about how he invested his money, where I could get gutter guards, and how to get free straw to protect the grass seed I had just put down.

“Come in here,” he said and led me into his den. I glanced at my watch and realized that he’d had me for going on an hour already with no end in sight. I decided just to give in.

Then, in the den, Mr. Mancini – who was always on to the next topic – lost his stride. He sort of wandered around his den a little. It was odd, he always was onto the next lesson that I needed to learn, but here he was faltering.

He stood by his mantle and stared at the framed pictures perched on the broad wooden beam. “See this,” he said. But he wasn’t really waiting for an answer from me. He was staring at a very old framed black and white picture of a middle-aged couple. “That’s my mom and my dad,” he said. I stepped forward to stand beside him and was going to say how handsome his dad was and how beautiful his mother. But before I could say a word, he said, “you know what I do every night just before I go to bed? It’s how I say my prayers. Every night I start right here at their picture and I tap right here seven times.” He indicated right in front of the picture and sure enough, there was a tiny place where the wood was worn where he had tapped, persistently, importunately, night after night, year after year. “And then I go to this one, my wife, and I tap right here seven times too, and blow a kiss.” And he did. “And then I come over here to this picture on the shelf, right here, see? That’s my boy. He died when he was eleven. But here, see, with him I don’t tap seven times. I do, but then I add one more, like this,” he said tapping, “that extra means, ‘I’ll see him soon’.”

Mr. Mancini in a thousand different ways had been banging on my door for a long time so he could finally show me these people he had loved and lost and how he hadn’t lost his heart.

And I had tried to make him invisible.

That’s why Jesus says to keep praying day and night. Because only prayer can keep the world around us the God who loves it, that is knocking on our door, from going invisible. It’s how we keep from losing our heart. Amen.