29 Ord 2019 • Gen 32:22-31 • 2 Tim 3:14-4:5 • Lk 18:1-8 • Oct 20, 2019
“Beware, O traveler, for the road is walking too.”
This wonderful line from Rilke resonates with the rapid and profound changes happening all around us. The weather is behaving in new ways. The media is utterly unlike its old self. Government and business—if they merit two separate words any more—rewrite their own rules day by day. The ground truly is shifting under our feet, even as we pursue our own journeys over that ground.
The ground was shifting under Jacob’s feet as well. After twenty years of living with his father-in-law, who had kept changing the rules on him, he was headed back to Canaan for an uncertain reunion with his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated of both birthright and blessing. A violent welcome was not out of the question. He began the night knowing Esau was coming to meet him—with 400 men.
What happens to your sleep ahead of an event that could go well or very, very badly? Once you turn off the light, what invisible, looming possibilities claim your attention and keep you up till dawn? When you finally stumble out of bed in the morning, what inward or outward limp reminds you through the day of the night you’ve had? What are you wrestling with?
Jacob’s antagonist never does identify himself. His behavior through the night makes him seem like an enemy. Yet in the morning, he implies he is divine and gives Jacob a blessing. The road walks under our feet partly by fooling us about the badness or goodness of what’s happening to us, to our bodies and souls. Jacob shows great wisdom and insight in asking the stranger, while they are still fighting, for a blessing.
My wrestling partner these days, hard to pin down or name precisely, has to do with the accelerating devastation of our Earth. The loss of species and ways of life and beautiful places; the weather extremes, resource depletion, and suffering creeping closer to our comfortable corner; rage at those I hold most responsible; conflict about my own role as despite my best efforts I consume and pollute the birthright of other peoples and species; most of all a great shake-up in my sense of the where and how and why of God in all this.
Though I am still wrestling, blessings have begun to emerge. One is waking up to my first-world sense of entitlement and attachment. So much of what I’m horrified at the thought of losing, a large chunk of the world already does without, such as reliable power for heating and cooling, a steady supply of daily necessities, healing greenspaces. Where at first I reacted to the threat of loss with a kind of personal outrage—why me?—I now remember the Benedictine rule of humility, which includes relinquishing insistence on special treatment. Why not me? Why should I, or we, be exempt from what is happening to so much of the world? This shift in attitude is uncomfortable, but it is a blessing, a bit of spiritual growth.
A second blessing came through a practice from St. Ignatius called Take and Receive, in which one offers back to God all one has been given. The song with its archaic wording goes: Take and receive all my liberty… my memory, understanding, my entire will. I tried singing things like Take and receive all the trees I see… my comfort, my well-being… animals and birds. The song continues: Give me only your love and your grace; that’s enough for me. I noticed how not-enough God’s love and grace felt in reality—how attached I am to the things I tried singing goodbye to.
And then I realized: if it’s so hard for me to let go of my relatively few worldly pleasures and securities, it must be even harder for the wealthy, who have so much more to lose. For the first time, I felt a bit of empathy for the fossil fuel and other CEOs I’ve most blamed for the environmental crisis. I began to understand why they insist on influencing our elected leaders against adapting infrastructure to contain the damage. They’re gripped by the same dread of loss that I am. My dualistic, dehumanizing judgment of them began to melt just a bit. This, too, is a bit of spiritual progress.
As I tried returning to God the things I love and fear losing, I discovered a new gratitude for what I still have. This is a third and very great blessing.
Finally, I remembered Jesus’ attitude in the face of his own worst fears and death. He didn’t swear and rant against God or even the Romans. He asked that the cup be taken from him if possible, but he did not ask for exceptions to the laws of nature or the ways of human culture. He accepted the fundamental vulnerability of being human. He stood by his message and his relationships, and let everything else go.
And just as Jacob’s long, rough night ended in blessing, Jesus’ crucifixion and death ended in resurrection. This could not have been foreseen or explained from a human point of view. These stories are holy carriers of a perspective beyond our understanding but not beyond our capacity for faith.
That brings us to today’s Gospel, the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I never liked it because I thought it depicted God, like the judge, as uncaring and moved only by convenience. But a commentary to which Sr. Lynne steered me says that many parables are not strict analogies. Rather, they embody a traditional Jewish form of reasoning using the leverage of “how much more.” If even an unjust judge, who cares only for expediency, responds to the persistence of even a marginalized petitioner who isn’t related to him, how much more will our loving God, whose chosen people we are, respond to our own persistent prayer?
This is not to say we’ll get what we ask for. We don’t always have the perspective to ask wisely. So Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” When it was his own turn to be afraid, he himself prayed, “not my will, but thine, be done.”
Jesus also told us to say, “Thy kingdom come.” And he said not to look for that kingdom here or there, but on the inside. Maybe the changes within us are the whole point. Living in a time of extremity creates spiritual opportunity. Desperation drives us to deepen our connection with God, and that connection becomes a fountain of living water, a tree whose fruit never fails. That connection is the ground from which the surest wisdom arises about what we are each called to do. And that connection is the blessing hidden in the wrestling match with extremity.
What are you wrestling with? What road, that you are walking on, is walking too? May you find blessing there.