I spent a ponderous five minutes looking over the alarming statistics about the state of Christianity in the US, in between scrolling back and forth over the twitter feed of the now two weeks past Evolving Faith Conference. It produced a curious mental mashup—sure, no one is even Christian any more, and worse, is the little that bothers to identity itself that way even in that category? Does self-identifying as religious, or spiritual, or whatever, count for anything? If you can say, and have tweeted, something like, “Those who try to make their faith secure will lose it. But those who lose their faith will keep it,” or, “I freaking LOVE that @— is using they/them pronouns for the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8,” and claim to be a Christian, does that word even have any meaning at all?
Anyway, the gospel this morning is about the kind of person everyone says they care about the most. A widow who has an enemy, who has been wronged, who wants her case, in some Dickensian frenzy, brought to a resolution by those who actually hold power. The new ACNA lectionary sets this bleak little parable alongside Genesis 32, the account of Jacob wrestling all night with a man in the same, though more chronologically compressed, frenzy of desperation. In the morning he will face his brother, Esau. He is sure it will go badly. He sends all his flocks and herds and wives and servants, and even his children, on ahead, hoping to spare his own life.
He is very rich, and the widow is probably very poor. One keeps going to explain to the judge over and over and over. The other has only a short night to hang on for dear life. Both want a blessing. Both want it all to turn out in the end no matter what.
They are both pretty nice pictures of the kind of desperation most of humanity feels. Everything is not ok. Life is not really in order. The mind and heart are beset by the worst kinds of anxiety—not the kind that can be sorted through in a doctor’s office where you realize there’s something sort of wrong chemically, or hormonally, and a little adjustment of medication will make it ok again in a few weeks—but the kind that can’t be treated or coped with because there’s an actual enemy out there over whom you have no control. In the morning, you will face the enemy whether you want to or not, and maybe he will kill you. Or, as with the widow, you’re spending all your money trying to resolve something and a powerful man, who could put an end to it all, just won’t bother because why should he? Either way, you can’t control what’s going to happen. The sun will come up in the morning and maybe you will die. Actually, that’s the problem with every kind of anxiety—the looming feeling of doom—whether there’s a discernible reason to be feeling it or not, there it is.
Luke doesn’t set the scene for this little parable in any detail. Jesus had been on the way to Jerusalem. Did he get there? He’s had an altercation with the Pharisees. Are they still here? The last section was about the apocalypse, and Luke says he was talking to his disciples. But where? He tells them this parable in order that they may “always” pray and “not lose heart.” Which cuts right against the grain of every human person, disciple or otherwise. We don’t usually think of praying, certainly not “always,” and losing heart is the thing we do best, especially when contemplating the apocalypse.
It’s a curious and unhelpful idea of the Evolving Faith Conference—that dismantling faith, or throwing it away, or reworking it so that it suits you better, would produce a more sustainable result. It’s a way of trying to exert control over that which is uncontrollable. Instead of saying to God, “I will hang on for dear life,” you say, “I will remake you according to the outcome I am most willing to live with.” But God won’t be remade. The best you can do is tuck in to the wrestling match, or the lawsuit if you prefer. The person who is remade is you, not God. You come away limping, and poorer. God—though he invites you to try—has already made up his mind.
Which is to help you. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” You ask yourself, knowing that you need any kind of help. You ask into what feels like an immense void, to a God who feels like an uncaring person, someone who you know can control everything, can put everything to rights, can heal your limp, can answer your prayers, but why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t he sort it out when you know he could?
The psalmist answers his own question quickly. “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” God is good, in other words, and you can trust him. The world looks on quizzically and thinks that’s a specious claim. We all know God exists, what we don’t know is if he’s good, if he will bother to help, if there’s any point.
Try me, says Jesus. Keep asking. Grab on and don’t let go. You aren’t in control anyway, why keep pretending? Why not appeal—over and over and over and over—to the one who doesn’t sleep, who knows what you’re doing and why at every moment, and who keeps your life safe in himself no matter the danger, real or imagined, that presses in on every side?
The disciples cock their heads in wonder and blink their eyes. The Pharisees sneer and wander away. The evolving faith conference goes in for another round of new pronouns. The Southern Baptists wander away to argue more about women. The Anglicans smooth down their robes and grow bitter about the margins of their new prayer book. The Syrian Christians draw up their courage to die. And you? Or me? Why not give it a try. Ask, pray this morning and do not lose heart. Cry out all day and into the night to the one who keeps your going out, even with a limp, and your coming in, this time forth and forevermore.