Here is the sermon I preached yesterday. I’m hesitant to post it, to be honest, because it still feels very incomplete and undeveloped, and it emerged only after quite a lot of wrestling through the night, which I suppose is appropriate given the texts. But I will swallow my pride and post it anyway. Credit for the final paragraph must go to a kind friend; sometimes sermon writing is a late-night corporate activity!
Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘That same night, Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Jacob said to the man, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”.’
‘Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. And he asked them, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”‘
In one sense, the compilers of our lectionary were quite clever in pairing the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling the angel with this story of the widow and the unjust judge. They are clearly both stories of tenacity and persistence.
But in another sense, the stories seem to me to sit directly in tension with one another.
In the gospel, we have a determined woman seeking justice against an unknown opponent. She is vulnerable, a widow, without a man to present her case for her, and yet she will not give up railing against this powerful judge.
In the reading from Genesis, Jacob might be vulnerable, but much of it is of his own doing. He is a trickster and a cheat. He has been wrestling all his life: he wrestles with his brother Esau in the womb, and that jostling for position and power continues as he swindles his brother out of his inheritance. He then manipulates his equally deceptive father-in-law Laban for his own economic gain. His very name means ‘overreacher, supplanter’.
The widow is the more sympathetic character, perhaps. But Jacob is the more complex. The widow walks away having received the justice she sought. Jacob walks away changed, with a new name and bearing a new wound. The story of the widow and judge says something about the nature of God. The story of Jacob speaks to us of the nature of humankind.
And therefore I feel uncomfortable with reducing the ‘theme’ of today’s readings simply to persistence in prayer. We risk misunderstanding prayer as a kind of obsequiousness or pestering, a nagging and giving in. And we all know from our own lives that prayer really isn’t that simple.
Instead, I think what placing these two readings side by side actually encourages us to do is consider what prayer is, not only what it is for, but what it feels like. Because what these readings show us is the experience of prayer.
We are called to see the world with God’s eyes, and in prayer we seek to align our wills with God’s, to become a part of God’s unfolding kingdom.
What often happens in prayer, however, is that our view of the world and God’s view of the world collide. We want God to see the world from our perspective, to know our view of the injustices around us. We treat God like an unjust judge as we come back again and again to recite a litany of all the imperfections of creation. We call out to God without ceasing in a broken and fearful world because we know no other way.
Jesus assures his disciples that God is not the unjust judge, that God’s will grant justice quickly, but still God’s people cry out. ‘How long, oh Lord, how long?’ the psalmist demands. ‘Day and night I cry out to you, but you do not answer me.’
Our complaints and laments and pleas are met with silence. We feel ourselves alone like Jacob.
But as evening falls on yet another day of lament, a divine stranger appears through the darkness; a stranger who will not speak, who refuses to relinquish control by refusing to be named; a stranger who is not gentle, who is not timid; a stranger who grasps us and will not let us go. The more we confess our own needs, our own inability to let go of our agenda, the more tightly we are held in a deeply intimate and yet profoundly disturbing encounter.
And we cling on as we speak our prayers, our desires, our truth, our perspective. In what is both struggle and embrace, we feel the silence of the stranger, so close we can see nothing else, we feel hot breath against our cheek.
It takes a mixture of courage and foolishness to wrestle with God, not simply because God is God and we often treat God as untouchable. But because in calling God to account, we risk the intimacy of the struggle. We risk the possibility of being hurt, of having to admit who we really are.
John Donne expresses this intensely physical image of prayer so well:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
We learn to pray hoping for love, hoping for justice, hoping that though God may be silent, God is not absent.
And like clay in the hands of the potter, in the act of prayer we find it is us being reworked, reshaped, our true selves emerging, our true name being spoken to us over and over as we are blessed into being. It is painful. We are wounded in the process of being remoulded, and we will always bear the scars.
Our prayers do not constitute so many unanswered pleas; rather, they become our participation in the life and love of God.
So, when we pray, ‘thy will be done, thy kingdom come…’ we are hanging on for a blessing, like the widow hoping against all the odds, like Jacob wrestling despite the pain it is causing, like all who speak back to God. Because when we do we are giving ourselves over to the God who will not let us go. And the persistence is not ours but God’s unshakeable, everlasting, love for us and for all creation.