Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 16, 2016
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 24C
It will come as no surprise to any who know me well that I am neither an athlete nor an ardent sports fan. However, when I began my tenure as a teacher and chaplain at Saint Mark’s School twenty years ago, I felt obligated to attend all manner of athletic competitions, especially those involving any of my handful of student advisees. And so, at the tender age of forty-five, I saw—believe it or not—my very first soccer, hockey, lacrosse, tennis, and wrestling matches. This “brave new world” of athletic competition came to me as quite a revelation. I can vividly recall my horror and alarm as I watched my first hockey and lacrosse games: young men with sticks engaged in what appeared to be savage battle with one another. The real eye-opener, however, came at my first wrestling match. At first, I completely recoiled at the sight of wave after wave of grimacing young men apparently mauling and choking one another. Yet, after that first shock of horror, I suddenly realized that in slow-motion, this fight might easily be misconstrued as a loving embrace. In fact, all of these sports—but most especially wrestling—involved both struggle and intimacy: the cornerstones of any significant and meaningful relationship.
My foray into the “wide world of sports” prompted me to hear and to understand this morning’s reading from Genesis about the wrestling match between the angel-messenger and Jacob with entirely new eyes and a new heart. I no longer viewed the story as Jacob’s struggle with a superior, capricious, and threatening proxy for God. Instead, I heard it for the first time as an opportunity for intimacy and communion through which both beings are changed and enlarged in this visceral struggle between a man and a supernatural being who condescends to visit the human condition. Jacob’s dogged persistence results in a blessing, and just on the brink of his final confrontation with his brother and adversary Esau following many years of bad-blood between them. God’s unfailing and eternal disposition toward steadfast love and compassion is expressed once more in blessing. Both God’s “messenger” and Jacob have the opportunity to express the very best of their very different natures, and they discover their intimacy and communion only in this arena of mutual struggle and concern. When the writer of Genesis tells us that Jacob’s name is changed to “Israel,” which literally means “the one who struggles with God,” we sense that both contestants leave the encounter exhausted, but satisfied, and that the circle of love, intimacy, and communion has been closed and strengthened once more by the willingness of Jacob to persevere in his struggle until it results in a blessing. This change of name and status before God is so important that Jacob, “Israel,” will carry both the name and the encounter’s wound forever. Indeed, the whole testimony of the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis to Job, is that the “people of God” are destined to interrogate and to wrestle with God until the end of time.
We humans often experience our prayer—especially petitionary and intercessory prayer—as a mad struggle for justice and blessing. And yet, it is through the agon of prayer that we forge an ever deepening relationship with God. God is not a cosmic talisman that we rub in moments of crisis, or a vending machine into which we place our deepest desires and gravest concerns with the expectation of a particular outcome. At its deepest level, prayer is a relationship of struggle and intimacy between two persons of radically different natures, drawn into deeper knowledge and union through faithfulness, exclusivity, and perseverance.
Jesus gives us the quintessential example of prayer as relationship—prayer as an occasion for deepening our love and communion with God, no matter its form or purpose—in this morning’s parable of the “unjust judge” and importunate “widow” from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. If a corrupt judge, with no due reverence for God, and little personal concern with justice, finally hears the widow’s plea and grants her suit for justice, “Will not God,” Jesus asks rhetorically, “grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” In other words, an impassioned, personal God, intimately involved with Creation and our human condition, is always faithful. Jesus’ real and pointed question to his audience and to us this morning is: Are we? Are we willing to bring our doubts and confusion, our burning questions, and even our righteous anger to God in our prayer? Are we willing to hang on and persevere until we receive a blessing—even when it seems to tarry or to take an unfamiliar shape? And so Jesus rightly asks his disciples, using his messianic title: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” If the Messiah were to come to Trinity Parish this morning, how faithful and honest and persevering would he find you and me? How willing are we, the “people of God,” to wrestle with God and hold firm in prayer until we receive a blessing? Are you and I willing to enter that arena of struggle and intimacy for the prize of a deepening relationship and union with God in Christ, especially in shape-shifting forms?
There is a disposition in our world these days—even among believers—to question the value and importance of prayer, especially petitionary and intercessory prayer. Why, many rightly ask, do we need to pray for others and ourselves when God already knows our desires and needs before we articulate them? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then surely God doesn’t need our prayers.
Now, this is all quite true. And, as I am often fond of telling those who come to me for spiritual direction, God is neither informed nor enlarged by our prayers. Yet, our readings this morning show us that this is NOT the real issue with prayer. Once we understand prayer as fundamentally relationship and communion forged in the crucible of struggle and intimacy, it becomes an opportunity, through divine condescension, for us to become more deeply connected to God, that Horizon of gracious and loving Mystery. God may not need our prayers, but God surely wants them because we need them so much. Any opportunity for conscious, intimate relationship with God, and with others in God, makes our actual words of prayer far less significant than our desire to be related to God and to our sisters and brothers in Christ. In the life of prayer, motivation and intention—what Judaism calls “kavvanah”—are everything. As Saint Teresa of Avila, that great sixteenth-century doctor of prayer has written, “Prayer is never destroyed by the lack of attention, but only by the withdrawal of intention.” So, while God may not need our prayers, God surely wants them, and we need to pray them because they are a priceless opportunity to grow in love, intimacy, and communion with God and with our neighbor. And this, God wants very much—and not for God’s sake, but for ours.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, God knows that we have no power in ourselves to become human persons fully considered unless and until we are consciously and intimately related to God as the Ground of our being, the Hidden Ground of Love. Each and every time we raise our minds and hearts to God in prayer for ourselves or for others, we take another decisive step toward becoming who we truly are, and everything that God intends us to be, by deepening our knowledge and mutual relationship of love and trust with God and with each other. And it doesn’t matter whether we pray with words or without them in the silent, wordless “prayer of loving intention” or the “prayer of the heart,” otherwise known as “contemplative prayer.” It only matters that, in the words of Saint Paul, we “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance.” And, once again, we are assisted in this undertaking by the good advice of Saint Teresa of Avila when she admonishes us never to worry over the trial of distractions in prayer. She wisely tells her spiritual children: “Just let your mill clack on as you grind our wheat.”
We need prayer most of all during times of struggle, crisis, confusion, doubt, and during those all-too-frequent dry seasons when it seems that God is absent, silent, or not listening at all. In fact, those are the most important times to persevere in prayer, like Jacob and the widow of the parable, because, as Jesus reminds us elsewhere in St. Luke’s Gospel, our heavenly Father always gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask. This life-creating “Ruach” or “Breath” of love and truth, the Comforter, Teacher, Counselor, and “Paraklete”—the “one who walks beside us”—unfailingly gives us the good that we need, even when we don’t know what that good is or, more likely, when we think that we do. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I, for one, give thanks to God every day for the many requests that God, in God’s infinite, loving providence and wisdom, God did not grant me, along with the many false choices and apparent goods from which God mercifully spared me. For very often, God is merely waiting for our readiness to listen and to hear and to receive our real good before God responds. Once again, St. Teresa of Avila, our wise mentor of prayer writes, “It is not our unanswered prayers over which we should worry; rather, it’s our answered ones!” And, what seems like God’s silence or delay is really God’s patient, persistent, dogged pursuit and cultivation of our alert receptivity, what the Anglican poet T.S. Eliot called “the purification of our motives in the ground of our own beseeching.” When we have the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, we have everything that we could possibly want or need, because the “gifts of the Spirit” are “wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and due reverence for God.” And, according to Saint Paul, the “fruits of the Spirit”—which are the fruits of all our praying—are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, endurance, and faithfulness.” Can we conceive of desiring anything more than these gifts and fruits of the Spirit from the struggle of the life of prayer? So, we must never despair when, in our doubt or anger or confusion, we have no words, or cannot find the right words, to approach God in prayer. A wise monk once told me that, very often, the best prayer of all is just the three simple words: “God help me.” I can’t even begin to count the times that I have simply cried out to God in my frustration, rage, or confusion with only these three little words: “God help me.”
God is always yearning and searching for us, more consistently and ardently than we search and yearn for God, just as God awaited Jacob on the north shore of the Jabbok River in Genesis. And, as Jesus reminds us through his parable of the widow and the unjust judge in today’s Gospel, God wants to fill us with every true good, but we must be willing to persevere in the life of prayer and to open our hands to God in faithfulness. We must desire to step into the circle of the covenantal, mutual love, intimacy, and communion that is the very inner life of God, a life that Christians haltingly call the “Holy Trinity.” And when “we dare not, or in our blindness cannot (BCP)” find words to ask God for God’s will for us, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is groaning and praying within us “with sighs too deep for words,” as Saint Paul expresses it. Prayer is relationship, and it is only necessary that we be willing to show up with what the Cloud of the Unknowing calls “the naked intention for God,” mindful that, as the great German mystic Meister Eckhart has written, “God is always at home. It is we who have sometimes gone out for a walk!”
Let us pray, then, this morning for the true and abiding gift of prayer, remembering God’s pledge of the Holy Spirit to help us, and Jesus’ promise that “everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”