Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost 10.20.19

When it come to prayer, are you more of a wrestler or boxer when it comes to prayer?

What do you think of prayer? Is it a snooze? A chore? Boring? Would you rather do ANYTHING but pray? Be honest. Is it something you do as a last resort? “Well, I guess I can always PRAY about it . . .” For some people though, prayer is like getting pure oxygen.

How IS your prayer life? Is it robust like a boxer’s or are you more of a wrestler when it comes to prayer? Prayer can be strenuous. Today’s readings suggest God most enjoys people when they are strenuously engaged with God. Wrestling with God; boxing with the Creator: The texts today suggest God DELIGHTS in us when we take him on. God can certainly take it.

This activity we do that we call religion can be such a head trip. Lutherans and other denominations have wonderful scholars and theologians, which might give you the idea that you need to have a doctorate in theology to really get it right. Or maybe God only pays attention to fancy words and language. Not so! God is looking for WHOLE HEARTEDNESS as the only criteria that matters. Do it with everything we have which may include our bodies.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we may wonder, why wrestling? I’d say that Jacob wrestling with God is how God shows MERCY to Jacob. God GRACIOUSLY assumes human shape and limitations so Jacob can go one-on-one with God.

Toe to toe. Head to head. Head locks, hand holds; wrestling is something Jacob would understand.

Jacob is about to meet his brother, Esau, and he is nervous. This is the brother who he cheated out of his inheritance. What will Esau do to him? Jacob’s prayer takes the form of wrestling throughout the night with a mysterious stranger. Not fancy words, no up in the sky difficult theology, but brute force. Jacob understands BRUTE FORCE. He pushed aside his brother Esau to get the inheritance.

God graciously gets down to Jacob’s level and they wrestle it out. Jacob doesn’t give up, it’s this mysterious stranger who wants it to end.

We all NEED physical contact in our daily life. Touching, feeling, grasping – we get that. Wrestling in the reading points to how we understand our lives. We come together on Sunday mornings in this beautiful physical space. There are things for us to look at and touch.

Jesus knows our need for physicality, and gives us himself in bread and wine that we touch and taste. We shake hands with each other at the sign of peace. Often our unspoken prayer is Lord, make your love real, make it tangible, I need to see it, touch it, I need to feel it, hear it. Then our mission is to go out into the world, as the Body of Christ, making the love of Christ, real, seen, felt, heard, tangible. Our world is hungering and thirsting for love that can be SEEN and FELT.


            Where have we recently seen how important physicality is? We saw it when the brother of the man who was killed, Botham Jean, asked the judge if he could hug the killer of his brother. Brandt knew that words of forgiveness, difficult, though they may be are easy, compared to making it SEEN. A physical display, a hug, says, I MEAN IT. His hug put things on a higher plane. That was the hug seen around the world. That was a word of forgiveness made flesh and physical for everyone to see. Hearing is not always enough. Sometimes we have to wrap our arms around another human to get the message across.

Wrestling and boxing – believe it or not, we see boxing going on in the gospel reading; the judge is afraid the widow is going to give him a ‘black eye’ if he doesn’t give her what she wants. The Greek translation for hypopiazo is to give a black eye. Our translation cleans it up, but we lose the sense that actually the woman is a combatant.

She’s a player. She’s not backing off from her rights. She will be HEARD! And Jesus’ message is: GOOD! Go for it! Don’t let up. Be like her! Keep at it! Don’t give up.

This widow is supposed to stay invisible, silent, and let the powerful people walk all over her. The expectations for widowed females would be to tolerate the injustice.

Jesus says DON’T! Don’t let them! God doesn’t just enjoy a cheerful giver, God enjoys a person who is ready to give a black eye in order to get justice. We’ve got skin in the game – so go after the justice. She’s a troublemaker for justice.

The judge should have been the one to give justice, he must have seen it was obvious that she had been wronged, but – maybe she couldn’t give him a bribe. Maybe he just didn’t feel like doing the right thing. He says he doesn’t “fear God or care for men.” That’s a recipe for abuse of power. We see plenty of that kind of disdain for the little person in our world. A lack of fear of God or care for people is a recipe for injustice.

What’s a person to do? The gospel today says, get agitated and go after the big guy. So, this widow had to rely on her mouth, brain and tenacity. This woman wears him down. We may be tempted to think God is like the judge, but God WANTS justice, so God is more like this woman who won’t stay silent and who won’t give up.

There is another side to prayer – prayer can also change us. Prayer – when you are relentless, when you grab the Word of God or the Word of God grabs YOU – something shifts inside of us. When we STAY with it in prayer. When we hold that WORD –  it can be like radiation therapy, and it’s going to either illuminate everything, or it’s going to shrink what doesn’t belong. We become more this and less of that. We HOLD that WORD close and it does a powerful work on us.

There may have been times when your prayer for something was strenuous. You weren’t going to let your issue go. You were like Jacob, wrestling and wrestling and wrestling and wrestling, until you made it BLESS you. And in your strenuous praying, YOU were changed. Over time, something shifted in you.

And. Don’t lose heart. Keep asking. Keep wrestling. Keep boxing. Keep at it.

In the next breath, Jesus says, when he comes back, will he find faith on this earth? It’s too easy to give up. We don’t get our prayers answered quickly and we can get discouraged. We don’t get our prayers answered the way we like, we say where is God? We think we can manipulate God with prayer and when that doesn’t work, we may be tempted to say there is no God. Or we can’t trust God. Or take a break from our spiritual lives.

When I worked at United Cerebral Palsy, at the end of the day, we would take the participants downstairs to wait for the bus that would take them to their home – which was a group facility. We would line them up in their wheelchairs. I would wait with them and the other teachers, and I would look over at the most disabled of all, whose family members and teacher could see signs of a personality, but since I wasn’t around her at all, I didn’t.

What I saw was a profoundly disabled person who needed help with absolutely everything: feeding, bathroom-ing, transferring from chair to bed, everything. And I’d think, OK, Jesus, NOW is a good time, if you are going to return, NOW is a good time to come back, if you want to see any faith on this earth, it’s here in the love and care these disabled people are receiving.

The parents and family members of this person were people of color, very poor, and Pentecostal. Invisible people to most eyes. Looking at their family member, how loved she was, was seeing their faith in physical form. I was impressed by their faith and tenacity, by how they loved their daughter, and I am still touched by it, even now. You could see their faith and love in their daughter.

            Here at St. John, what form will our prayers be answered? It may not be the way you want – but even now prayers are being answered. WRESTLE with the big issues – low numbers, and smaller finances. Start looking for signs of the Holy Spirit at work.

Lord, help us to not let discouragement stop us from wrestling with you. Strengthen us for the difficult times when answers and solutions don’t come quickly. Bolster our faith. Thank you for the times when your love is physical and can be seen and touched. Encourage us to have the tenacity of boxers to fight for justice. We pray this in the name of your son, Jesus Our Lord.