Sunday, October 21

Sermon: Wrestling with God

Proper 24 (29), year C
October 21, 2007
Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell, preacher
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Today’s gospel is an equal opportunity message.

Because if a widow, a powerless person in 1st century Palestine, could plead her case and win over a crooked judge, then surely you and I have a chance with a loving, just God. The widow in Jesus’ parable finally wears the judge down with her persistence. How much more quickly will God grant us justice, says Jesus. Especially if we put our whole selves into communicating with God.

Our Old Testament lesson is onto the same thing. Jacob wrestles all night with God and won’t let go until he emerges with a blessing. This too tells us something about God. If God made a covenant with Jacob based on that wrestling match, that suggests God has good tolerance for feisty combatants who grab on and worry him like a dog on a bone.

These lessons counter-balance the many Scriptures that focus on God’s power and might, and our need to bow down before the Lord. Today’s Scriptures show us a different kind of relationship with God, where we don’t have to be obsequious, we don’t have to kowtow. We can strive with God, and refuse to back off until God has blessed us. We can be stubborn cusses.

Faith isn’t about being passive. We’re called to speak up to God as needed. “At any time, any place, in whatever is of concern to us – God offers us the right to be heard.” The determination of the widow is a good thing. Jacob’s persistence is effective. One writer calls it “holy chutzpah.” (Synthesis, Sedgwick Publishing, October 2007 issue).

Chutzpah is a Hebrew word that’s successfully worked itself into English. It literally means “insolence” or “audacity.” In Hebrew, chutzpah “has an overwhelmingly negative connotation, epitomized by the story of a man who kills his parents, then begs the judge to take pity on him because he’s an orphan.” (Ibid., p.4).

But when Yiddish borrowed the word chutzpah from the Hebrew, it took on much more positive connotations. In Yiddish, it means a healthy gutsy-ness and assertiveness, “guts bordering on the heroic.” (Ibid.)

Today’s readings call us to have holy chutzpah in our relationship with God, in our prayer lives. Jesus tells his disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.

Some theologians argues that through prayer we can change the outcome, even change God. The neo-orthodox Karl Barth believed this. Walter Bruegemann believes it. The process theologians believe it.

Does this mean we can manipulate God through prayer?
No, because God has free will. But through prayer, through communication with God, we can affect the divine will. God listens to us. And God answers. That’s what Bruegemann, Barth and others assert.

I’ve experienced changes in my life because of prayer and I can bet most of you have too.

For me, the times of change have occurred when I threw my whole self into prayer – when I have been radically present to God, no holds barred. No pretenses. Or when I have been the recipient of passionate prayer on my behalf.

But prayer is mysterious. It’s complicated. There’s not a one-to-one correlation between what we pray for and what happens. If we pray with all our might for a loved one to survive and they don’t….does that mean we didn’t pray hard enough? That we just didn’t have enough faith?

I don’t want to go there. Many times people pray as hard as they can, their faith communities pray as hard as they can, and they still lose the loved one. It’s hurtful, even abusive, to suggest they just didn’t have enough faith.

Prayer doesn’t always give us the outcome we wish. But sometimes…it can. I think we have to wrestle with that ambiguity and complexity, and not pretend we understand all the mysteries of prayer.

I am certain that we have a much better chance of changing the outcome if we pray with our whole hearts and minds rather than in a wimpy or vague way. If we pray with chutzpah.

And I’m convinced through prayer we are able to change ourselves. To become more and more conformed to God’s image. And that regular devotions can change our landscape, our possibilities.

There’s a story about a student who had been visiting a spiritual master. He became discouraged and asked the master: “Why has my stay here yielded no fruit?” “Perhaps,” replied his master, “Because you have lacked the courage to shake the tree.”

When we persist in prayer from the heart, we shake the tree. Sometimes it’s God’s tree that we shake. But very often it’s our own tree, the “one we ourselves have been given to prune and tend.”

Prayer can transform us. And this is a joyful as well as demanding process. Jacob emerges with a blessing as well as a limp, after wrestling with God. He is no longer called “Supplanter” or “Cheater,” which is what Jacob means. Now he has a new identity. Now he is called “Israel,” which means “one who strives with God.” Jacob limps into the sunlight, into hope, into a new beginning.

Prayer is relationship. And relationships change us. Prayer is real engagement with the One who created, sustains, and redeems us. It’s active. And we need to make time for it, just as we make time for other people. We have to put God on our calendars. Place ourselves before God, time and again, as the widow keeps placing herself before the judge, as Jacob pits himself against God.

We’re called to be radically present to God. To be an active dialogue or sparring partner with God. We can nag God. We can wrestle with God! And not just thumb wrestle. We can give God a body check from time to time.

We’re called to be real with God. Being real isn’t always all sweetness and light. Holy chutzpah means we don’t need to walk on eggshells or stand on ceremony with God. We can tell God how it is, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We don’t have to keep all our feelings inside because we’re afraid or we feel unworthy.

The same principles that operate in human relationships are at work in our relationship with God. If we don’t express our needs to those around us, they often aren’t met. If we hold back feelings and experiences from those we love, we often cease to be close to them. If we dissemble, trust dies. Love evaporates. We build walls and dams and before we know it there is no relationship.

That’s not what God wants. God’s all about the relationship. God wants a relationship with our whole being. God wants real engagement. God wants to shape and mold us. And today’s readings suggest God also permits us to shape God.

Today’s images of God run counter to how I usually think about the divine. I don’t usually think I can be so direct with God, or that I can influence God that much. But Scripture does give us other examples. Like Abraham bargaining with God so that God won’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, who shames Jesus into doing the right thing and healing her daughter, even though she’s not an Israelite. Like the parable about God as a neighbor who finally opens the door and feeds you, if you persist in knocking. These vignettes from Scripture show a relationship of mutual accountability between God and humanity. They show us a God who wants us to be actively engaged and radically present. These stories show that when we behave with chutzpah in our relationship with God, the landscape can change for us. And even God can change.

We can bring our whole selves before God. Time and time again. Nag God for justice. Wrestle with God and not let go. We may limp a little, but we will walk away into the sun, in hope, with a blessing. Amen.
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