Richard Maxwell

Proper 24 C
20 October 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So how are ya with God?  Like this?  Everything great?  Couldnít be better?  The best of friends . . . inseparable?  Do you have the kind of relationship with god thatís like a friendship where you know what the other personís gonna say before they say it?  Or . . . .

Is your relationship with God more like one with a distant relative . . . someone who lives across the country, maybe on the west coast?  Is God kinda like a distant cousin in southern California . . . someone youíre not quite sure about . . . maybe someone a little nutty . . . or a little difficult . . . someone you talk to a coupla time a year . . . at Christmas and Thanksgiving . . . but otherwise keep your distance from?

How are ya with God?

Itís a pertinent question, given todayís readings.  From the book of Genesis we heard the story of Jacob, who, having prayed for God to deliver him form the wrath of his brother Esau, wrestles with an angel in the night . . . or perhaps, so the story goes, itís God he wrestles with.  From the Gospel of Luke we heard the story of the persistent widow who badgers an unscrupulous judge for justice an exchange with Jesus clearly compares to our relationship with God.  When weíre honest, we all admit that we wrestle with God from time to time . . . at least metaphorically.  And we certainly know that we badger God occasionally.

But we may also be a little uncomfortable with this wrestling and badgering . . . suspecting that if we were better, holier people we wouldnít have to do these things . . . suspecting that we really SHOULDNíT have problems in our relationship with God . . .suspecting that weíre somehow ďbadĒ not to be in perfect sync with God.

The details of todayís stories may help us with this.

Looking first at the Gospel of Luke, consider the heroine of the story, the widow.  Have you thought what it meant in 1st century Palestine to be a widow?  Itís a pretty awful situation.  The word for Ďwidowí in Hebrew mans Ďsilent oneí or Ďone unable to speak.í  In the ancient Mediterranean world, only men played public roles.  Women did not speak on their own behalf.  A widow without a son is in a terrible situation.  You see, widows in ancient Israel were not included in the Hebrew laws on inheritance . . . and because of this, widows were often exploited and oppressed.

Because the widow appears alone in todayís story, we can assume that she has no male family member who can appear on her behalf.  She is truly alone and therefore in a very vulnerable situation.  At the same time, given the mores of the tie, she must be desperate to do what she does.  She appears again and again before a judge asking for justice . . . shocking?  Sheís not supposed to behave this way.  Remember, such appearances are not private audiences; they are very public events.  The entire community regularly watches and witnesses appearances before the local judge.  And here is this widow . . . a literal nobody . . . making a public spectacle of herself . . . demanding to be somebody.

Sheís courageous and daring . . . but even so, why does the judge give in? . . . a judge with no fear of God and no respect for other people.  Our text says that he does not want this woman to ďwear him out.Ē  ďTo wear him outĒ . . . thatís an interesting phrase . . . and probably a bad translation.  Literally translated from the Greek, the judge is saying that he does not want this widow ďto give him a black eye.Ē  The Greek word in the verse is borrowed from boxing.  Now, the Greek language also uses this word figuratively, as in to ďblacken oneís face,Ē which meant to shame a person publicly . . . and thatís probably what is really going on in todayís story . . .the judge gives in because he does not want to be shamed publicly by this widow . . . but I like to consider the possibility that he actually IS worried that she might sock him in the eye.  And she gets what she wants . . .she IS somebody.  This womanís tough.

But certainly no tougher than Jacob.  Turning to this morningsí story from Genesis, Jacobís an interesting character isnít he?  Iím sure you remember that heísí a trickster . . . he tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright . . . he tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esauís blessing . . . and yet God favors Jacob, God blesses Jacob repeatedly.  As I mentioned earlier, in the book of Genesis, just before the story we heard this morning, we learn that Jacob is returning to his homeland . . . and heísí afraid of his brother Esauís wrath.  He prays for Godís protection.  And then in the night a man wrestles with Jacob until daybreak.

Now, thereís a great deal that can be said about this story . . . itís a very rich one . . . but Iím only going to mention a couple of thins.  When Jacob asks for a blessing from the person heís wrestling with, his opponent asks Jacob what his name is.  Jacob tells him.  And the man tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.  On the spot he changes Jacobís name to Israel?  And Jacob DOES receive a blessing.

Whatís going on here?  Well, names are powerful things.  If youíve every changed your name, earned a new nickname, taken a new last name, you know what Iím talking about.  Our sense of identity is somehow wrapped up in the name we call ourselves, and changing this name forces us to consider our identity . . . forces us to consider if who we are fits the name we use.  In the ancient world, this sort of thins was understood very well.  In todayís story form Genesis, underlying the requests by Jacob and the angel to know each otherís name, is the idea that such knowledge brings power over the one who is named.  In other word, by telling his opponent his name, Jacob is granting the angel . . . or God . . . knowledge of his identity . . . and so power over him.  In response Jacob is renamed . . . he is given a new identity . . . he is transformed.  All this makes a great deal of sense when you consider the story allegorically.

Jacob wrestling with the angel can be seen as representing an aspect of our relationship with God.  Thatís pretty obvious, isnít it?  We all struggle with God and with our faith from time to time.  And what happens?  If we commit to the struggle, if we donít give up, if we refuse o let go . . . something very important happens.  We inevitably reveal ourselves . . . we reveal our identities.  I think that when we struggle with God, we are also struggling with ourselves . . . weíre struggling to understand who we are in relation to the Almighty.  In the struggle we reveal ourselves  . . .not only to God . . . but to OURSELVES.  When we wrestle with God we learn at least as much about ourselves as we do about God . . . and in the process we are transformed.  Thatís what happens to Jacob in todayís story . . . he is transformed . . . and his identity is revealed to HIMSELF.  He is given a new name:  Israel.  And do you know what the word ĎIsraelí means?  It means, Ďhe who strives with God.Ē

So . . . how are ya with God?

Wrestled lately?  Struggled?  Badgered?  Donít worry . . . it seems to be part of what it means to be human.  Donít worry if youíre not always in perfect sync with God . . . thatís impossible?  Our striving with God is nothing to be ashamed of.  But stick with it.  Donít give up.  Donítí turn God into an odd relative you keep at a distance.  Keep going back to the judge . . . you can even threaten him with a black eye!  Donít worry that youíre too small . . . to inconsequential . . . a nobody with no voice.  Youíre NOT!  You are most definitely a SOMEBODY with a voice God heeds.  Jesus himself tells us so.

So donít give up. Donít let go of the angel.  So what if youíre less than perfect . . . we ALL are.  So what if youíve plated a few tricks in your life?  Hold on tight to the angel, even if youíre wounded.  God wants to be in relation with us . . . and God knows itís not easy for us!  Whoever you are, you are precious to God.  You are Godís beloved.  And as Jesus promises us, God WILL grant us justice . . .god will not delay in helping us.  Oh to be sure, Godís schedule does not always jive with ours . . . but God DOES care for us . . . God WILL care for us . . . and through our striving, through our spiritual struggles, we will be transformed . . . transformed into who we really are . . . Godís very own.  We will be blessed.

Hold on tight!

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