What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Never give up?” A
bunch of different images come flooding into my mind. Harry Potter in his
quest for Horcruxes. Henry Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion and his
family motto: Never give an inch. ….. Scarlet O’Hara, saying “As God is my
witness, I’ll never by hungry again,” Jacob wrestling the angel. The persistent
widow talking to the unjust judge. Jesus’ words to his disciples, to pray
always and not lose heart.
These stories confront us with some of life’s persistent questions.
Does God ever actually answer our prayers? Is anyone listening? Why does it
take so long? How come there’s still such suffering in the world? What can we
do about it? What kind of faith does Jesus hope to find when he returns to
earth? And what kind of God dislocates someone’s hip?
Usually when we read the parable we heard this morning we focus on
the judge—is he supposed to be God? (I don’t think so.) Or we focus on the
widow: are we supposed to be like that? What Luke says first is most
important: Jesus told the disciples a parable about the need to pray always
and not to lose heart. This is the teaching, thisis more important than the
details of the parable. Do notlose heart. Never give up.
The story we hear about Jacob provides an illustration of someone
who never gives up. Jacob’s name means “trickster” and his whole life is
defined by taking from others what they think rightfully belongs to them. He
tricks his brother, his father, and his father-in-law. When we find him today
on the Jabbok River he’s in a scary place, preparing to meet up with his longestranged brother Esau. Jacob has spent his life scheming or running. He
sends his family and all his possessions ahead of him as he waits for a
showdown with his brother. Instead, he has a showdown with a mysterious
They wrestle until daybreak. The stranger, whom Jacob later identifies
as God, will stop at nothing to overcome Jacob, including dislocating his hip.
What kind of God does that? The kind of God who uses any means necessary
to prevail. The kind of God who, like Jacob, never gives up. The kind of God
who likes us when we’re wounded. It makes us vulnerable and it’s sometimes
in our vulnerability that we’re best able to align ourselves with God.
I’m not saying God hurts us on purpose. I’m saying that this story of
Jacob wrestling with God may also be a story about the need to pray always
and not lose heart, and a story about trusting God’s presence even when
we’re hurting. Think about your own experience of God; I imagine it
sometimes feels like a fight, and sometimes a blessing.
Neither Jacob nor God gives up the fight. I will not let you go, says
Jacob, until you bless me. And Jacob gets his blessing and a new name: Israel,
one who strives with God. This name change does not necessarily signify a
change in his character, but it marks him as who he has always been:
someone who never gives up. The wrestling there on the banks of the Jabbok
River binds him to God and brings him closer to the self God calls him to be.
Jesus ends today’s parable with the somewhat perplexing question:
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will Jesus find us
praying and not losing heart? Will he find us wrestling and refusing to let go
without a blessing? Will we be faithful in a time of injustice? Will we continue
to fight, pray and work for justice even in the worst of times? We live in a
time when it would be easy to lose heart, and to give up. Don’t get me started.
The world feels wounded and vulnerable. At times, I feel wounded and
vulnerable. And yet, we are told over and over again: do not give up. Pray. Do
Fighting with God puts us in a vulnerable position, like the widow
with the judge, like Jacob. But persistence in the fight is a sign of hope. Hope,
in turn, makes us vulnerable and invulnerable. If we are full of hope, we
cannot help but persist. If we are persistent, it is hard not to hope.
Generosity, including generosity to keep at it with those we love and those
with whom we struggle, is a sign of hope and an act of persistence. And
generosity, like hope, makes us vulnerable. (This is probably why the judge is
stingy, and why Jacob lived for so long as a trickster.) Last night’s auction was
a humbling, hope-filled outpouring of generosity, but generosity has been in
my mind all week.
Sixteen years ago I was part of starting a small outreach ministry in a
rough area of east Portland. I think I was able to be part of that ministry
when it began because of my own woundedness; more than anything else, I
wanted to create a safe space for the most vulnerable women. We started
with about five volunteers in a dingy parish hall on a dark and rainy
December Friday. We walked up and down the street with giant golf
umbrellas, handing out hot coffee and condoms and inviting women we
found there to come join us. The first night, one woman came in. The next
week, two. Then four. Then seven. Then three. Then six. It was kind of like
starting a church. We felt incredibly vulnerable being on that street, but not
nearly so vulnerable as the women who came in for a meal and some
company. Some of them came in for a fight, or they left with the strength to
continue fighting. They lived scary and violent lives, but for some of them, the
most vulnerable thing they did was cross the threshold into that church
Today there are eighty to a hundred women crammed into that same
parish hall every Friday night, supported by a couple dozen volunteers from
all over Portland. Last Thursday, I was at a fundraiser for this organization,
which is still run mostly by volunteers. The fundraiser was very casual, but
there was something like a paddle raise. First, the executive director gave a
stirring talk about the vulnerability of the people involved in that ministry.
Then the board chair said: “I’m going to make myself really vulnerable right
now…” It struck me what an act of vulnerability it is to ask for money in that
setting and in that way, and that responding with generosity is a way of
saying: I will never give up. I will not lose heart.
What does it mean to you, to us in this place, to pray always and not
lose heart? What does it mean to fight for God’s blessing, to let God make us
vulnerable, and never give up? I hope that you’ll think and pray about this
over the coming weeks as some of us make ourselves vulnerable by asking
for your money, and as the vestry then begins to build our budget. While it
may sound mundane—even crass—to end a sermon with a sentence about
our budget, our budget is perhaps the most heartfelt and tangible expression
we—collectively—can offer to God of our vulnerability and our never giving