October 20, 2013
You may remember my best friend from high school, the Rev. Mary Gean Cope, who visited us two months ago, from Texas. Whenever I spent the night at her house when I was in high school, I always ate breakfast facing a little wooden sign that hung in their family’s kitchen. In large letters: “All things come to those who wait,” and in smaller letters below, “if they work like hell while they wait.” I was such a church girl that I was always a little shocked by that sign. But I also knew that my friend’s family were strong Christians. It was a puzzle to me, because I thought the first half of the statement was a faith statement—certainly one that I learned in Sunday school and youth group. I equated waiting with prayer. All things come to those who pray, or at least those who pray with great faith. The second half of the sign seemed like an anti-faith statement. I thought it was saying that you couldn’t count on God, so you’d better do the work yourself. You only get what you work for. It didn’t make sense to me when I was a teenager, but Mary Gean’s father was an attorney. By vocation, he fought for justice, and that sign was a reminder that you always have to be prepared and work hard when you seek justice. I’ve heard that called active prayer.
We have two examples of active prayer, or prayer that works, in scripture. But first, let’s talk about prayer that doesn’t work—at least in my experience. God is not a genie in a bottle, there to grant our every wish. God doesn’t magically change situations to our suit our will. Let’s start with the story of Jacob. Jacob was the second twin born and, according to custom, his brother Esau, only a few minutes older, received the birthright, his father’s full inheritance. It’s a fascinating story of parental favoritism, cunning, and deceit. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger one day to get Esau to sell his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew. Jacob and his mother tricked his father into giving Jacob his dying blessing, as well, the blessing intended for Esau. So furious was Esau at being robbed a second time, that he threatened to kill Jacob and Jacob had to run for his life. He ran to his uncle Laban’s house where he fell in love with his beautiful cousin Rachel. He worked seven years to win her hand in marriage only to be tricked by his uncle who substituted Rachel’s older sister Leah. To marry Rachel, Jacob agreed to a second seven years of labor. By the time we pick up Jacob’s story today, he has tricked and been tricked, deceived and been deceived many times, and always worked hard. Twenty years have passed and he and his large family, servants, and flocks are going home. First he sends greetings of peace to his brother Esau. But when he hears that his brother Esau is coming to meet him, he is afraid—and with good cause. So he divides his camp in two hoping to at least save half if he is attacked by Esau. Then he divides out of his many flocks a very generous gift for Esau and sends servants ahead with 550 animals: sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, and cattle. Jacob is praying hard, and working hard toward a making peace with his brother. We find him spending the night before he meets his brother alone on the banks of the River Jabbok wrestling with an unknown man. Jacob simply cannot win. He is between a rock and a hard place, between the wrath of two men: his uncle, a day’s ride behind him, and his brother, a day’s ride ahead of him, both of whom believe that Jacob has cheated them and stolen from them. Jacob, the deceiver and the deceived, begins to pray and finds himself wrestling. As strong and clever as he is, he cannot defeat this stranger in the night, but he will not let go. As dawn comes Jacob finally yields but demands a blessing from the one he names as God. When daylight comes, Jacob limps toward reconciliation, a changed man with a new name: Israel, one who strives, or struggles, with God. Having grown weary of a life of deceptions, he is ready to make amends with his brother so that he can live in peace. Jacob’s prayer did not change Laban or Esau. Jacob’s wrestling in prayer changed Jacob. So did sending ahead, as a gift to Esau, a large portion of the fruit of his twenty years of labor as a way of making amends for stealing Esau’s birthright. Part of the blessing that Jacob received was a new name that acknowledged his new self-awareness. Jacob was a deceiver and he was deceived. Israel was a man who had to struggle mightily within himself to do the right thing—to be in right relationship and to be just.
Jesus tells a similar story in short form. An unjust judge who fears neither man nor God finally grows weary of hearing the persistent demands of a poor widow. There weren’t many in Jesus’ time who had less power than a widow. She had no male in her family to plead her cause, she had no money to hire someone to work on her behalf. But she kept at it, returning again and again after the rascal of a judge refused to grant her justice. She prayed for justice and she knocked on the judge’s door until she wore him down. That’s active prayer—prayer that works. You have to wonder if the judge in this story spent a sleepless night wrestling with God before he finally judged in the widow’s favor. God has a way of working with us when we work for fairness.
If we pray for justice, for ourselves or others, our prayers should call us to some form of action. Notice that Jesus does not suggest that the woman’s persistent prayers to God changed the heart of the unjust judge. No, it was actively pleading her case before the unjust judge that brought the justice she longed for. The way this parable is often interpreted is that God is in some way the unjust judge and that we need to pray persistently to change God’s mind. Jesus never impugns the character of God. Jesus is telling his listeners that if they want justice, they have to be persistent in working for it because justice is God’s will. There is an African proverb that is a part of the image on the cover of your bulletin, “When you pray, move your feet.” That is true whether we are thanking and praising God (really, we can move our feet when we sing) or when we are praying for change in our lives, a relationship, or the world. Prayer that works involves action and commitment. In prayer, God transforms us so that we can transform the world. And when we pray together for justice—with our spirits, voices, and feet—just watch what happens!
Let us pray.