by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 32:22-31, Luke 18:1-8
One Sunday a month we devote a worship service to prayers prayed in various ways. We do so on the assumption that prayer isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice and because prayer of some type is critical for spiritual depth and emotional/mental health. We experience and practice prayer in varied ways to offer options that might meet different needs of different people.
Prayer looks simple, as simple as this prayer I was taught as a child:
“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Did anyone else say that prayer while kneeling at your bedside?
Kinda lovely and deeply creepy. A theological wrestling match takes place inside that little ditty between the God who offers peaceful sleep and assurance that one’s soul is in God’s keeping and the God who nevertheless has the power to take your soul from your dead body that very night.
As I reflect on Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel (or was he fighting God’s very self at the river Jabbok?), I recognize that much of my prayer life is a struggle: a struggle just to take the time for prayer, a struggle to connect to an elusive God, a struggle to name God because the old names don’t seem big enough any longer. (Note that Jacob demanded the name of his sparring partner, which to the ancients was considered a way of gaining power over another, but Jacob was never told that name. We do NOT have power over God. Our Jewish brothers and sisters, in fact, are so respectful of God’s holy name that it is not uttered aloud.
Let’s now turn to today’s Gospel reading in which Jesus teaches us about the need to pray persistently like the widow who persistently pestered an unsympathetic judge for justice. The parable’s point is not, of course, that God is unsympathetic but rather, through exaggeration, to emphasize that if even the callous judge will eventually help with widow if she persists long enough, surely God who loves us will be all the more eager to support just causes. Through hyperbole, artful exaggeration, Jesus impresses upon us the need to persist in prayer. But is that persistence necessary for God to work justice or for US to engage in actions for justice? Like all Jesus’ parables and like prayer itself, struggle is necessary for any deep encounter and outcome.
Prayer can bring us more tension than peace if we overthink it, but it is dangerous if we don’t think through what it means to us. Prayer can include an internalized struggle about who we are and who God is. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think God honors that seriousness and honesty. But prayer must also open us to peace, to a place of unknowingness that allows us to rest in God.
And so I think we may need a balanced diet of prayer: silence as well as song and scripture, anguished challenging of God and humble acceptance, individual prayer in our “prayer closets” and congregational prayers with those in our faith community, prayers written by others and prayers written on our hearts. And maybe now . . . prayers that we enact with our very bodies as well as our spirits.
O God, teach us how to pray.
1. Some read Psalm 121 as assurance that God will rescue us from every dangerous circumstance or evil. But clearly reality demonstrates that is not literally true. What kind of help do you think the Psalmist is affirming here? Note how the writer images God as the one who “keeps” us from/for something. Does this psalm ring true for you? Using the paper provided, rewrite this psalm by creating your own affirmation of God’s help, perhaps using different metaphors for God’s help or with examples from your own life of a way/ways God has been the one who helps and “keeps” you.
2. Genesis 32 honors Jacob (Israel) for struggling with God and “prevailing.” Have you ever wrestled with God? Afterward, did it feel as if you had won or gained in some way? Do you, like Jacob, feel authorized to struggle with God, or do you experience some sense of guilt in questioning God or expressing anger to or toward God? If you have wrestled with God in some way, what new name would you claim for yourself to represent how you emerged from that experience? If you wish, write on the poster a word or phrase that represents a new name for yourself reflecting the outcome of your struggle with God.
3. Luke 18 insists that God, who is far more just and loving than the judge in this parable, will grant justice to “his chosen ones.” But the meal we share each Sunday reminds us that Jesus, The Chosen One, did not receive justice before Pilate and his prayer that “this cup [of suffering] pass from” him was not answered, or so it would seem. Too often we enter into the sacrament of Holy Communion with formal words and recurring imagery as if we’re confirming answers to the mystery of God. Too often we assume the liturgy is logical and the ritual has one set meaning. Let us approach the Lord’s Table today with openness to questions and to the expansiveness of what the Open Table offers us. Come and receive the body and blood of Christ with faith in that which is beyond us.
4. With our offerings let us pray for justice, for it is in doing justice that we pray best. Through our church and through our denomination we support various causes and organizations as we try to wear out the unjust judges in our world. Pray for Open Table as you give for these causes and as we continually try to discern how best to work for justice, advocating for all those who are “widows” in need of justice. Thank you for your prayers and offerings.