October 20, 2013, Pentecost 22 – Hang On
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I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. +
There is a popular misconception about children that you often hear, that children have short attention spans. But anyone who has had children, or who has ever spent an afternoon entertaining a child, knows that children have a very, very tenacious attention span, and that it is rather us grownups who get bored quickly and lose interest. Any mother can testify to this if she has played the high chair game with her toddler. (And if you’ve had a toddler, you have played the game.) The rules of the game are this: the toddler, who has been given a toy by his busy mother to keep him occupied while she prepares the meal or gets the dishes washed, drops the toy on the floor. And the mother stops what she is doing and picks it up. That’s it, and the longer you play the more fun it is – at least if you are the toddler.
That toddler is modeling a very young and very playful form of faith for us, and if we are wise we’ll be humble enough to learn from him. He trusts that his mother, as busy as she is – and he doesn’t really have a good feel for that, of course – but he trusts that when he drops his toy she will pick it up for him, the first time and the second and the fiftieth time. And he doesn’t only trust that she will keep on playing, but when she gets tired of the game – and she gets tired way before he does – he trusts her enough to demand her attention. If she delays, or if she puts the toy away, he will squawk loudly and express his sense of injustice, because he trusts that she will listen and respond to him, even if she does have a disappointingly short attention span for his fun game. His faith is persistent.
We have that persistent faith when we are born. As small and helpless as a baby is, she is created to bond with her parents. She hangs on to a finger, or to a lock of hair, tightly, instinctively. She cries in faith, when she is hungry, or cold, or uncomfortable, or lonely, and she trusts that her mother or her father will come and make things right. She has faith because she is born with the knowledge that these people whose voices she learned to know in the womb, and whose habits and scents quickly become familiar to her, are able to do all that she needs, to help her in every trouble. She has faith because she is born with the instinctual knowledge of what a mother and father are supposed to be. But we lose that faith, sometimes very quickly, because mothers and fathers are human beings. They are never perfectly worthy of trust, and some parents are so untrustworthy that they destroy faith, suddenly, or bit by bit, as a child grows into adulthood.
The truth is, though, that whether we have had trustworthy parents or not, there comes a time when we all need to discover for ourselves, as mature individuals, the true object of our faith, because we are created to bond, we are created to live in a relationship of trust. We all need to know, who can I be sure of; who will be there for me when my enemies are pressing hard against me? Injustice wears a multitude of faces: our enemy might be a person oppressing us like the widow’s opponent in the court, or it might be the injustice of circumstances or the dark oppression of our own failures. Whatever the injustices we meet with as we grow up, our childhood trust in our parents tends to be replaced over and over again, by so many little gods campaigning for our faith. We have found ourselves putting our trust in other people, or in success, or in money, or in power; in our reputation or our talents. We are told by the world that we are the most pathetic of creatures if we do not trust only in ourselves. And when all else fails – and all these little gods do fail us eventually, no matter how powerful they are – we sometimes find ourselves putting our trust in things that comfort us and dull our fears, if only for a little while, food or TV shows or chemical substances or minesweeper, anything to dispel our terror that in the end there really is no hand for us to hold onto, and that when we cry out in fear or loneliness, when we beg for justice, there is no one there to hear us.
And so Jesus told the multitudes, who came by the thousands to hear him, helpless and afraid, like sheep with no shepherd to guide and guard them – he told them a story to show them that they should always bring their needs to God and that they should never lose heart. He told them this story about the persistent widow, who cried out over and over and over for justice, so that even the hard-hearted and godless judge gave her the help she needed, just to shut her up and get her out of his hair. And of course, the point of the story is that Jesus is drawing a stark contrast between the unjust judge, who comes to the aid of the widow because he is sick and tired of hearing her, and our God, who is a loving Father, who never tires of listening for the cry of his children day and night, who hears his children gladly and who will always come speedily to help us.
We were created to live in a relationship of faith, created to grow up as mature sons and daughters of God; that’s why Jesus came to us as the Son of God, so that we could see with our eyes and hear with our ears and touch with our hands the one who lives in a perfect relationship with the Father. Jesus came to teach us the joy of being God’s children. And he came to show us that faith is more than just passive dependence. Sometimes, lots of times, faith involves a lot of work on our part. God hears us and he will bring justice speedily, but like the toddler waiting for his mom to pick up the toy, speedily doesn’t always feel so speedy to us. Sometimes faith means crying out day and night, as Jesus said, knocking at the door, over and over again, with the persistence of the widow, not because God is ignoring us or doesn’t care, but because it is hard for us, his children, to wait upon his timing, and keep faith. It is hard to not lose heart.
We read about Jacob today in the story from Genesis, when he was traveling home. He had run away years before for fear of his life, because he had tricked his own brother, Esau, and stolen his inheritance and the blessing of their father, Isaac. And now Jacob was approaching his childhood home, knowing he would be meeting his brother again, aware of his danger, and he spent the night all alone, wrestling with this man who Scripture tells us is really God himself. Jacob wrestles the whole night through, and when the morning comes he refuses to let go of the man until he gives him a blessing. One of the interesting things is that when the man is ready to go all he has to do is touch the socket of Jacob’s hip and dislocate it. He could have overcome Jacob effortlessly, but he kept Jacob engaged in their struggle all night long. When it says that Jacob prevailed, it doesn’t mean that he was more powerful than the man; it means that he didn’t give up, he hung on. And at the end of that long night God gives Jacob a new name – Israel. Israel means “he wrestles with God”, and Israel becomes the name, not only for Jacob, but for the whole people of God. We are called the new Israel, it is our name, too. We are the children of God, who are called to live in an active relationship with our Father, to wrestle with him in faith, and never let go.
Like a really good parent, like a perfect Father, God wants his children to have enough trust to come boldly to him. He wants us to wrestle with him, not just to bring him a laundry list of needs, not to turn a blind eye to suffering, and not just to meekly come with our “Thy will be dones”. He wants us to keep crying out for justice, day and night. Like a little child, he wants us to run to him with our needs, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, when we are grieved and afraid of the pressing evils of the world around us. God will bring justice speedily, Jesus promises that – but God’s timing is not ours. Like our own children, when we tell them “soon”, and it feels like forever to them, sometimes God’s “soon” feels anything but soon. That’s why the Psalms are full of wrestling – “How long, O Lord!” “Have you forgotten us entirely?” “Why are you so far from us?” Those are the words of people of faith, people who know the pain and injustice of this world, but who remember who it is that is the only one to go to.
Faith is not the opposite of Atheism; it is the opposite of despair and apathy. Faith is not some unwavering sense of confidence and peace, some warm fuzzy feeling, faith is the hard work of keeping our eyes on the Father, and wrestling with him, crying out to him day and night, because like Peter we have learned that there is no one else to go to. And today Jesus asks us all, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” “Will the children of God keep wrestling and not lose heart?” And the answer is “yes”, because he has put his own Spirit into us, the Spirit who cries “Abba! Father!”, who cries out to the Father on our behalf when we run out of words, with groans too deep for words. We will be found faithful because Jesus Christ has adopted us as his new Israel, his brothers and sisters, who wrestle with God on behalf of the world around us, crying out day and night for the justice he will surely bring, holding on tight because we know that he is our good and loving Father.