The story we heard from Genesis a little bit ago is probably my favorite Jacob story, although that’s not saying much. Jacob is such a trickster, he’s just not my favorite guy in the bible. He does have some cool dreams; the angels on the ladder thing was pretty great. And this story … well. I am glad to know I am not the only one who only seems to catch sight of God in the rear view mirror … isn’t that how it is for most of us? We only recognize God was there sometime after the fact?
Who among us has not been in Jacob’s dusty shoes, sleeping on a stone pillow, tossing and turning in fear over the coming day of reckoning? Wrestling all night long, desperately seeking peace of mind, body and soul?
Genesis says Jacob was wrestling with a man … Jewish midrash says it was an angel … on the morning after, Jacob swears he was wrestling with God’s own self, and has survived … although he’s walking away out of sorts, and limping.
I’ll say this for him; Jacob doesn’t give up. When his sparring partner hollers calf-rope, says “Let me go, it’s daybreak,” Jacob says “Nope. Not until you bless me.”
Which may be why we get this story with today’s Gospel reading … Jesus is telling a story to say something about prayer, a story with just this kind of insanely stubborn persistence.
“Pray always. And don’t lose heart!” Well. We’ll come back to Jacob. But let’s hear Jesus’ story.
“In a certain city, there’s a judge –” … who is not doing his job. The judges in Israel are supposed to be fair, and dispensing justice, especially for folks who can’t get a break. But this judge doesn’t fear God and doesn’t respect the people. So, we already know he’s not a good judge … maybe not a good guy at all.
And there’s a widow. Again, Jewish tradition has a lot to say about widows, all of which Jesus’ listeners would have known. Deuteronomy 10 gives it to us straight: God is the one who executes justice for the orphan and the widow and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. In other words, in a patriarchal society where you need a man to protect and provide for you, and you have neither, somebody has to be looking out for you. If the community doesn’t do it, God has to. Right?
So, this widow comes to the judge and says, “Give me justice against my opponent.” And then she comes and says it again. And again. To this judge who doesn’t fear God … or respect the people. We might guess what would happen; in this case, we might be wrong. This judge says, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her what she wants.”
Not because her cause is just. Not because she is a human being. Not because God said to look out for the widows and orphans and strangers … but because she is bothering him.
You might be wondering … is that it? That’s the story? That’s going to teach me something about prayer? That I have to pray and pray and pray and God may give me what I want so I’ll stop being such a bother?
I don’t much care for that. I don’t like thinking I’m a bother … or that that’s how God feels about me … or that God is someone I pester to get what I want. I’m honestly not crazy about that God … or that interpretation.
Well. Maybe thinking about the Jacob story for a minute will help. Remember, Jacob only saw God in the rear view mirror. Maybe we don’t always recognize God … or even know where to look.
Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino has a word about this. When you are trying to find God, and wondering where God is, look for the crucified ones. Just as God was present in Jesus Christ crucified, God is present in and with the ones being crucified today.
In natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew, it’s our poorest folk – whether in long-exploited Haiti or down-east North Carolina – who are flooded, lost, sick, crucified.
It’s our black youth, profiled from kindergarten on, excessively suspected and arrested and investigated and incarcerated, or just plain shot … crucified.
It’s our queer or otherwise different children, shamed, bullied, suicidal … crucified.
It’s our trans kindred, attacked, mocked, dehumanized … crucified.
Who is praying for and with and in the crucified?
* * *
Now. With Sobrino’s eyes, look again. Where is God, in the story of the widow and the judge?
With the widow. In fact, by Jacob’s logic, in seeing the widow, we have seen God.
God is the one crying out for justice. God is the persistent one, praying up front and out loud.
So … then … you might be wondering … who is the judge?
Whoever does not fear God, or respect people.
I confess … there have been too many days I have sat on that judge’s bench.
* * *
At the end of this story, Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”
Yes. Yes, actually, he will. Because there is faith on earth. We see it wherever we see people praying like this widow, and not losing their hearts to fear or apathy or pity.
I think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who walked and worked with Martin Luther King, who said after Selma: “I felt my legs were praying.”
Are we praying with hands and feet, hearts and minds?
Many of us are … Binkley folk are working for living wages and against gun violence, caring for children and elders, caring for the earth itself. This is faith on earth.
I think of Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, African-American women, two of them queer, who founded Black Lives Matter after the death of Trayvon Martin. In the words of Patrisse Cullors, “When you are working with people who have been directly impacted by state violence and heavy policing in our communities, it is really important that there is a connection to the spirit world. For me, seeking spirituality had a lot to do with trying to seek understanding about my conditions — how these conditions shape me in my everyday life and how do I understand them as part of a larger fight, a fight for my life. People’s resilience, I think, is tied to their will to live, our will to survive, which is deeply spiritual. The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight,” she said.
Are we praying to understand our conditions? To save our lives?
Many of us are … we study what it means to be safe allies and anti-racist white people, because we don’t want there to be anyone we can’t love. No one out there. And no one in here. This is faith on earth.
I think of Southern Freedom movement leader Ruby Sales, who says she “doesn’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying [at] a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today. As a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”
Are we praying to become fully human?
Prayer that is full of courage and full of faith sees those who are hurting, even when we are hurting too, and seeks their justice loudly, persistently, disrespectfully if necessary, because while the arc of the universe does bend toward justice it does not bend without all of us leaning on it and putting our backs and our hands and our feet into it, until we rise from our prayers limping because we have wrestled our way into our better natures, and our better future, the one we all need, the one God promised us.
Pray always. Don’t lose heart.