DARING Sermon Series – N – Nagging Prayers: Broken Butterflies & Weak Trees

Genesis 32:22-31

22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Psalm 121 1I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

2 Timothy 3:14—4:5 14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 4In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Luke 18:1-818Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so let us pray.

Holy God – there is so much that comes at us that it seems to be easier to just shut down and hide. But you do not call us to a life of stoic acceptance – but rather to the boldness of DARING – to accept that our Debts have been paid, that we are to be about the work of ensuring ALL creation has Access to the Kindom of God, that the gifts of God are to be Received and nurtured, that the Spirit fills us with her power and Inspires us to live powerful lives of faith, and today we lift up that we are active in our faith, cocreators with God in making the world as it is intended to be, even to the point of nagging and wrestling with the powers of this world that would seek to defeat us. Lift us from our complacency and fear to push the world to become the place it is meant to be. In our God-breathed, DARING faith, we pray. Amen.

One of the most helpful things I learned in my years in academia was the directive that before you begin a conversation, you have to be sure that everyone involved in that discussion is using language in the same way. So although it can seem tedious, one of the basic starting points of any good engagement is making sure that we all agree on the meaning of our words and the concepts they represent. Given that, what do you hear when you hear the words “the Will of God”? Well, to be really clear about this, we have to begin with who we believe God to be. Who is God in your understanding?

(pause for some answers; love, creator, Saviour, judge, Father)

And I am not going to make you sit here for four hors but if we were really being rigorous about this – we would spend time unpacking all those words for God as well. To take one as an example – there are some for whom God as father is beyond complicated and actually makes more difficulties. If your only experience of Father has been an abusive, destructive, mean spirited being, then calling God “father” is going to build a wall between you and the Divine that may just lead you to give up on God altogether. This was brought home to me when my own father became a volunteer at the women’s shelter. He came home one day profoundly shaken. My dad was not really a personally reflective kinda guy, so it never occurred to him that he might be having an impact beyond the practical help he was offering these women. But at a group meeting, he was lifted up by several of the women as a person who just by his presence and persona was redeeming for them what a man could be. They told him they really hadn’t believed there were good men in the world until they met him and saw the consistent kindness he brought to every situation. Their compliments humbled him, but also made him aware of the importance of being a faithful role model. Dad’s simply being Dad changed their beliefs about what a man could be.

So, like the women at the shelter, we are  part of defining who God is begins with looking at what we see God doing. And if we really look at the witness of the Bible, we are probably going to have some challenges to the assumptions we have made about God, and we are going to have let go of some things we have believed about who God is. One of the main things that has come to many of us is that God is far more concerned with the letter of the law than with us as God’s children. But again and again, the Biblical witness tells us something completely different. Let’s look at Jacob as an example. There is nowhere in Jacob’s backstory that points to him becoming the good guy. He’s a mama’s boy, a schemer, a cheat, a liar. Now we also know that as his life has unfolded, he has had a few moments where he himself was cheated, and maybe he has begun to earn some character – but even so, his life still seems to have worked out pretty well. He’s got wives, children, property – he’s coming to his reunion with Esau with stuff to lose. And he is so worried about the loss, he sends them across the river while he goes to meet Esau alone. Maybe he’s planning on faking Esau out again – “Oh, I ain’t got nuthin’ you’d want, brother.”

But then. He doesn’t get a come uppance or a judgement – he gets a wrestling match. Various scholars have different ideas about who Jacob wrestles, but it seems pretty clear that if this opponent is not God incarnate, it is someone sent by God. And there IS a confrontation, but think about what it is – not a knock down drag out fight, not smiting swords or lightning bolts – but a wrestling match, and not the WWE kind but the striving, pushing against, straining your muscles combat that is all about being tested. For maybe the first time in his life, Jacob is in a fight in which he can’t cheat. As a matter of fact, it may just be God who cheats here. Listen to this 2008 blog post from Beth Carlson-Malena:

… a man meets Jacob in the dark and starts wrestling with him. It’s not until daybreak that Jacob realizes he’s wrestling with God. The match is lasting forever, and no one is winning. …

This gets kind of technical, but bear with me, I promise it will get good… My professor, Dr. Provan, started talking about the Hebrew words that are translated “socket” (“kap”) and “hip” (“yarek”). He explained that elsewhere in Genesis and in the Old Testament, these are actually words associated with flesh and muscle, not bone (eg. “yarek” is translated “thigh” in Gen. 24:9). It’s hard to tell exactly what parts of the body the author is referring to. The custom it describes (not eating parts of the meat) didn’t even make it into the Jewish law – this is the only mention of it. The word translated “tendon” is “gid-hannasheh”, and this is the only place it’s used, so it’s impossible to know exactly what it means, but it seems to be some sort of “fleshly appendage”. At this point, the less mature students in the class (including me) were already giggling.

So Dr. Provan has a theory, unprovable, but very appealing, in my opinion. Instead of talking about hips, sockets and tendons, he thinks that this passage is euphemistically talking about Jacob’s genitalia. Basically, he thinks God kicked Jacob in the groin. That’s why he limped. … God sort of cheated. Which makes sense, because if you know Jacob, you know Jacob is a cheater, and it would be poetic justice for Jacob to be kicked in the crotch by God.

Is this the God you expected? A God with a sly sense of humour and irony? A God who would be willing to cheat in order to teach you a lesson? Jacob is blessed – but he is blessed with a limp! And he finally gets, on the eve of meeting the brother he so shamelessly tricked, that there are lasting consequences for your choices. God gave Jacob in his striving and his actually embarrassing can’t be hidden limp – the strength to meet his brother in honour and truth. Doesn’t mean he isn’t scared, but he is unmasked and ready to receive Esau’s love in honesty and vulnerability. And that’s a very big part of the blessing that God has given him.

Now we pivot to the New Testament and yet another set of unexpected interactions with God. The compassionate God we meet in the Genesis text who provides Jacob with something to push against in order that he might be made stronger, does not seem to be here at first glance. If we are locked into seeing every authority figure in the Bible as a stand in for God, then the God we meet here seems like a jerk! But the story actually isn’t actually about the judge – he isn’t the main character; the main character is the pushy widow. And if that’s the case, then we aren’t being told something about God’s character but rather we are being told something about the persistence of our prayers. David Lose, former president of Philadelphia Seminary, writes in his commentary:

The focus in this reading is on the judge’s description of his own motivation for settling the widow’s claim. … When he explains why he relents, … he utters a description of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him that most translations dilute. A more literal translation of the judge’s grievance (18:5) is that the woman “is giving me a black eye.”

Like all black eyes, the one the widow’s complaints threaten to inflict has a double effect … the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him physical harm but also risks publicly embarrassing him. For this reason, he says … he relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behaviour results in justice.

Did you hear that? Being a good, nice person didn’t move the dial – in dealing with the world it took “insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behaviour (that) results in justice.”

Many of us have been raised to believe that being nice will result in nice things happening to us and for us. But here we are seeing that sometimes to get justice we have to drop the nice and raise a stink – we have to strive! Now I want you to recall that this parable is told in Luke in the context of prayer; Jesus starts the story by saying “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Sometimes our prayers meet hard and seemingly unmoveable situations – and it is then that we wrestle and push. In that wrestle and push, we become the people of God who are strong enough to carry God’s will for love and DARING into the world. Striving does not mean we are in the wrong place – in nature, we know many examples of how striving actually gives life. A butterfly emerging from its chrysalis HAS TO crack it open and push its way out in order to properly develop its wings. If one cuts it out or helps it out, it remains a deformed caterpillar and dies, never fulfilling its purpose.

In another example, Dennis Meritt-Jones writes:

A huge glass dome (called the biodome) was constructed to house an artificial, controlled environment with purified air and water, healthy soil and filtered light. The intent was to afford perfect growing conditions for trees, fruits and vegetables, as well as humans. People lived in the biodome, for many months at a time, and everything seemed to do well with one exception. When the trees grew to a certain height, they would topple over. It baffled scientists until they realized they forgot to include the natural element of wind. Trees need wind to blow against them because it causes their root systems to grow deeper, which supports the tree as it grows taller.

In our understanding, we often forget that the striving is part of what makes us who we are. We were created to put down deep roots that will allow us to withstand the wind. To break free from our previous crawling caterpillar lives and grow wings of delicacy and beauty.  And if we define God as love, we come to see that what happens in that striving is not God bringing us the struggle but rather God sustaining us in that struggle. Bringing that struggle to God in prayer reminds us we are not alone. And that is the very best definition of our relationship with the Divine – Emmanuel: God With Us.