Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
1st Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
God has a generous vision for us, that we read about in the scriptures, the Bible, a vision that we would look out for the most vulnerable among us, that we would share all things in common, that we would have enough but not be greedy, that every tear would be wiped away.
Jacob wasn't that confident in God's generous vision. He stole his brother's birthright and spent the next 20 years running from his brother. Jacob's name means heal grabber, because he was born clutching his twin brother's heal, and also trickster. When we get to this story, he has not only tricked his brother, but he has more recently tried to trick his father in law and leave without telling him goodbye or letting him tell his daughters and grandchildren goodbye. Jacob is headed back toward his brother, when he encounters this man? Angel? God? And wrestles with him there at the crossroads, the ford of the Jabbok.
Jacob is wrestling with a lot of things. He's wrestling with his guilt and shame at having tricked his brother out of his birthright years before, with the help of his mother impersonating his brother and receiving the family blessing and inheritance. He's wrestling with the relationship with his father-in-law who tricked him into marrying his older daughter Leah when he was promised Rachel, and then having to work 7 more years on top of the 7 he already worked for Leah before he could marry Rachel. Then he wrestled with the rivalry between his wives and finally with his father-in-law who he tricked into giving him most of his flocks. Now, he's about to see the brother he hasn't seen in 20 years. The last time he saw him, his twin brother Esau was threatening to kill him. Now, Jacob sends his wives and children and flocks ahead of him like a coward, and hangs back, maybe to spend some time in quiet thought, maybe to see how things would play out between Esau and his family, maybe to pray.
So on the river bank he wrestles. He's all in knots. He's a mess. But when the day breaks, it is clear that he's had an encounter with God. Where this sparring partner comes from is unclear. His identity is a big question mark. The two “men” seem to recognize each other's strength. Jacob asks for a blessing and receives a new name, Israel, which means “striven with God.” At that point, if Jacob didn't know before, he now knows this is God that he's been wrestling with. God who doesn't tell Jacob God's name, has revealed it in another way, by renaming Jacob. And Jacob passes by two places named “the face of God,” Peniel and Penuel, probably the same place.
Jacob seems to always be wrestling. His wrestling does not go unnoticed by God, who meets him there by the crossroads, which is what Jabbok means. And like a father wrestling with his young son, God goes easy on him. God knows that Jacob needs to work a few things out, and God lets him win, while still leaving him with a limp, a little reminder of their encounter to carry with him throughout his life.
We wrestle with plenty ourselves. We wrestle with personal relationships. We wrestle with the right thing to do in certain situations. We wrestle with God, wondering about some of the big questions about life and death and meaning. We wrestle with our society, that this world often doesn't reflect values of love and sharing and compassion and care for the poor.
God doesn't leave us alone, but joins us in the wrestling, helping us work through all these things. And God encourages us to take our wrestling moves to our society to make it more just, more equitable, especially for those who usually get left out.
This story of Jacob continues after this: He crosses the river to meet his brother. Instead of finding someone who hates him, he finds his brother embracing him, loving him, forgiving him. And Jacob says again, “Truly to see your face, Esau, is like seeing the face of God.” There it is again, the face of God, Peniel, Penuel.
What do we see when we see God's face? We find generosity, forgiveness, love.
One very important way to see God's face for us, is to read the Bible, the scriptures. We look there for God's face revealed in the words that have come down to us from the earliest believers and those who knew Jesus. 2 Timothy invites us to look there for instruction, teaching, and training in righteousness, to get equipped to wrestle with whatever is on our minds, and equipped to wrestle with the powers of this world that do not fit God's vision of justice.
It is easy, when we are wrestling with the powers of this world to give up, when we are wrestling for justice, because sometimes it seems no progress is being made. But I have to admire this widow in the Gospel reading. She is powerless, seemingly, except for two things, she is arguing for justice, for what is right, for God's vision for this world, and secondly she is persistent. She shows up every day in court. She follows this judge to the grocery store and the opera and every other place he goes. It makes me wonder if she physically follows him, or if maybe like Jacob wrestling on the banks of the Jabbok river, it is his conscience eating away at him, her memory haunting him. In any case, she makes him, the last person in the world to care about someone like her, wrestle with doing the right thing, just to get her off his back.
Sometimes it seems God made us to wrestle, to struggle, to work things out. And it isn't a bad thing. We wrestle with ourselves over the right thing to do. We have choices to make and not many of them are clear black and white. They all have consequences, both good and bad, and God doesn't make those decisions for us, but gives us free will to wrestle with them and make our own decision.
We also wrestle with God. Isn't this an apt description of prayer? Prayer is relationship. Prayer is listening, thanking, pleading. It is communication with God. It shapes us and our desires, hopefully to align more with God's vision for us, but also the Bible shows us that prayer shapes God, too. God cares about us, intensely, and hears our prayers. And God grants justice. When we see justice being done, that is God's action, God's Kingdom entering our world.
People of faith ought to also wrestle with the powers of this world. We have voice and influence. We have power. When we pray, we place our concerns in God's hands, not so that God will take care of them for us, but on the one hand to let go of what we have no control over, but also to take up what we do have the power to do, to lift up our voices to speak to those in power on behalf of the widows, and first of all to listen to their concerns and know them, so they aren't going alone to the unjust judges of our world.
The Social Justice Group, in cooperation with Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, have been investigating how to help the homeless in our congregation. Shelters and tiny houses are some possible stop-gap measures until affordable housing can be built. But we want to be sure to hold our leaders accountable in the meantime and not let them think that churches will take care of the problem and they can focus elsewhere. We don't want them to think they can drop the ball on making our neighborhoods more equitable and liveable. We don't want them to think that just because some churches might be able to shelter some people for a while that they don't have to get busy building a lot of affordable housing. Many of us are already planning times to go down to Salem and talk to our representatives and state senators about justice issues, about greed, about laws that protect the most vulnerable. We'll bring stories from members of our congregations and stories from pantry clients, and we'll be there following them to the grocery store and the opera if we have to, until justice is done. I hope you'll join those efforts in the coming year. We'll give you lots of notice that they are coming up.
I read an interesting take on this Gospel reading yesterday, and that is that maybe God is the widow and we are the unjust judge. Maybe God is appealing to us day and night to do the right thing and grant justice and we have no fear of God nor respect for people. Maybe we have the power to grant justice but instead we mostly ignore those in need. However God is not going to give up on us and will nag us until we relent. How different God is, quickly granting justice to those who cry out in need.
When we go to God with our justice concerns, we know God is listening and surely will ensure justice is done. And when the poor and hungry go to God with their justice concerns, God will surely hear their cries and bring justice, not with a magic wand, but with the persistence and power of God's people who see that vision, who know what is right and what isn't, and who speak up and use our power to change this world to better match God's vision.
In the Gospel lesson this morning we read, "Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart." Just before communion each Sunday we say these words: Lift up your hearts, we lift them to the Lord. Lifting our hearts is continuing to have hope, continuing to pray in hopes for healing and life. When we lift our hearts, they are vulnerable and open, helpless, but also brave and ready to do what needs to be done. When we lift our hearts, we are ready to face whatever powers stand in the way of God's vision, and lift our voices and our power in the service of God's vision, and ensure God's blessing goes out to all who all who wrestle.