a sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29]
Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8
The night was dark. Melinda had picked up me and our oldest child at church and driven us home after a late evening meeting because my car had been in the shop. The three of us came home to find there had been a scuffle between the other two kids, who had been left at home, we had thought, in a peaceful way.
The details of what had actually transpired were hazy. It involved some kind of rough-housing over a stuffed animal and a 6-year-old who wouldn’t go to bed. In an attempt to gain authority over him, his sister had somehow wrenched the toy from his clutches and, in so doing, had had dislodged one of his top front teeth. We found them both in the bathroom. He was bloodied, scared, and defiant, She was apologetic, confused, and worried. We found the tooth on the floor, calmed the opponents down, and moved them along to bed. But now a huge, empty tooth socket punctuated his smile. We had expected it would fall out eventually, but now a night of adversity and struggle had left its mark.
It is also dark the night of adversity and confusion that leaves Jacob forever changed. It is not an empty tooth socket he stands there with on the banks of the Jabbok River, but a busted hip socket, an injury that will mark the way he goes through life from then on. Jacob, too, had wrestled with an opponent, a mystery figure who refuses to be named, who appears in the middle of the night and catches Jacob when he’s alone.
What a strange scene—there is nothing like it! It’s dark, the two men can’t really see each other, and perhaps most peculiar of all: Jacob actually seems to have the upper hand. He has lived a life of perpetual deal-maker, a swindler, and here he forces a blessing out of his wrestling opponent. You can’t get much more earthy, more intimate and shocking than this scenario, especially when it seems the mystery wrestler is God himself—or at least Jacob comes to understand it is such a divine experience that he feels this what living with God must be like, especially after a life of constantly tussling with almost everyone he knows. It’s so significant of an encounter that Jacob claims his new name, Israel: “He who wrestles with God.”
Let me ask you: have you ever thought of God as a wrestler, someone who comes into the ring looking for a fight like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, or the Nature Boy Ric Flair? It’s quite the image for God for us to contemplate, especially when so often God gets cast in the movies or in books or maybe in our mind as some aged figure with a long white flowing beard, or sitting aloft some clouds like the actor Morgan Freeman. But if the name of your people, your tribe, if the core of your identity was literally “One who wrestles with God” it would probably be difficult for you to picture God as a fragile, distant, elderly man. If would be tough to imagine God as a shapeless, formless entity. You would think of God as someone you strive against. You would think of Jacob by the Jabbok, never giving up against his opponent, and how in the midst of being given a blessing you were changed.
At some point in his ministry as they near Jerusalem where Jesus will face his own dark hour of struggle, Jesus tells this story about another person who never gives up against her opponent. This time it is a widow who comes to berate a judge to bless her with justice that she deserves. Wrestling on a riverbank may be a bit out of our frame of reference, but this parable of Jesus’ certainly paints a relatable picture, doesn’t it? Every day there are people enmeshed in our nation’s legal system pleading for justice and mercy—tenants doing everything they can to prevent from being evicted by landlords, parents fighting for custody for their children in a series of court appearances. On TV Judge Wapner and Judge Judy listen to countless tired arguments from people who just want someone to hear them out. And even our former President this week, no stranger to judges and juries, tried another last-ditch effort to have the Supreme Court overturn a case that would help give him some time to reframe his argument.
In Jesus’ parable, the widow is relentless with her arguing and eventually the judge grants her request mainly because he doesn’t want her to give him a black eye with her persistence. By the end of Jesus’ lesson we know that the judge in the parable is not a stand-in for God because God is merciful and compassionate and this judge is a jerk but nevertheless we are left with this heroine who just doesn’t give up.
In both cases—Jacob by the river and the widow by the judge’s bench—we are presented with the reality of what life with God is like. God is there to be wrestled with. God is there to hear our cries. God lives in order to engage with us, to get dirty with us, to be a hotline where some compassionate expert is always waiting to pick up the phone and listen to our emergency.
I don’t know about you, but I find these to be extremely challenging images and scenes. The way God appears in the psalm this morning is usually more my style—that is, the powerful but removed God who never slumber nor sleeps, who keeps watch over me like the policeman patrolling our parking lot this morning. God is always looking out for me, but he or she is over there, at a distance, between me and the sun and the moon, letting me do my thing over here. Too often I am tempted to let my relationship with God become passive like that.
But in actuality God sees a wrestling partner in us. God wants to get on our level, down in the mud, even. God is expecting us to turn to him, to plead if we feel like it, to open up and let loose with what’s bothering us. God might want me to demand a blessing or justice, but ultimately God wants to be engaged all the time. These stories, and plenty others like them in Scripture give us the strong sense that God wants to be near us and know what we know. As Jesus says, we are to pray always and not lose heart and this is challenging to me because I often just take prayer for granted.
In the book H is for Hawk, British writer Helen MacDonald tells the story of how she turned to falconry after her father’s death as a way to help her grieve. She chooses a goshawk to rear from infancy to adulthood, realizing full well that goshawks are the toughest type of raptor to train and live with. She struggles mightily with the hawk, whom she names Mabel, and her friendship with it takes her on many hikes and adventures across England’s fields, but she makes an astonishing discovery about her grief process when she rides the train home from the memorial service held for her dad. By training the hawk she had tried to seek solace in nature, and had tried to make sense of her father’s memory in solitude, but she finds the true healing came when she forced herself to take part in the community at prayer together and as people wrestled with their grief before God and one another. “Hands are for other human hands to hold,” she writes, confessionally. “They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much air can corrode it to nothing.”
Two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic had already been raging for six months and the promise of a workable vaccine was still not on the horizon, I found myself in a really dark night. Unsure of how much longer we could continue as a congregation that couldn’t do much of what kept us alive, I became angry, sad, and bitter. Eventually I sought counsel with a therapist, and our conversation proved very enlightening to me. She helped me see that in the scurry of trying to keep things going at church and at home I had inadvertently laid aside my regular practice of writing in a journal for thirty or forty minutes at a time. “I’ll get around to it when I need it and when I have time for it,” I had told myself at the beginning of the pandemic when there were so many other pulls on my time and energy.
But I had only gotten around to it occasionally, and in piecemeal fashion. The counselor suggested I go back to a set time each week, which is what I’d been doing for 20 years or more. My journaling, I remembered, was intense prayer. It was my wrestling with God, my showing up at the judge’s bench each week to air my concerns. It wasn’t a chore or a luxury. It was the way God had been blessing me in much the way he’d blessed Jacob and refraining from it had left me lonely. And that week I restarted that blessing. It put a limp in my week, for sure, because I had to take the time to do it, but it was amazing how quickly my mindset changed and how closer I felt to God.
And then I thought of all of the people in the congregation who had seen the early days of the pandemic as a time to pray like never before. So many of you found ways to wrestle so faithfully, whether it was in your private lives or through online prayer moments or worship gatherings. In fact, the habits became so beneficial and well-formed that we included livestreaming to our Sunday options and many more of you join us in prayer each week, some while we’re doing it, and others save it for viewing later.
Hands are for other hands to hold. Indeed. It sounds so obvious, and yet we forget it, even as Jesus hangs there on the cross, still in prayer, still pleading with God because he loves us so much, receiving in his dialogue much worse than a busted hip. Prayer should be our first language, and yet we put it off or resort to it only when we need something. But both wrestling and court petitions are something that take constant work if they are to change anything, and the anything is typically us.
When Jesus wonders aloud with his disciples that day about how the Son of Man will at his return be aware of the presence of faith on the earth, he doesn’t suggest that it’s by all the large church buildings they’ve constructed, or by how fun and attractive their youth programs are. Neither does he initially link it, surprisingly, to the number of people who’ve been served and definitely not to which political party is in power or what laws have been enacted. Jesus links the presence of faith on earth to the amount of wrestling he finds. He links the vitality of faith to the number of people who walk differently each day with that out-of-socket hip. Or with an empty tooth socket, as the case may be.
Whatever your blessing of choice—God is here, always ready to listen, always eager to meet us face to face.
The question is: Are you ready to rumble?
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.