Place names usually have good stories behind them. This area is no exception. I did a bit of research on names of places in this area. Depending on which legend you believe, Cabin John either got its name from an old hermit named John whose ghost still haunts the place, or a pirate named Captain John who buried his treasure there and killed all who came after it. Cabin John is derived from Capt’n John. Gallows Road was where they took the condemned from the courthouse (near Courthouse Road) to be hanged. Frying Pan Road was named either for the utensil left behind by soldiers from the war of 1812 or for the natural formation of a small run which emptied into a larger pool. We assume that Old Ox Road was once where oxen pulled carts and wagons.
Our Old Testament reading is a story about how a place got its name. The name is Penuel. Before Jacob spent the night wrestling with a complete stranger the unnamed location had been but a wide spot on the Jabbok River. Jacob wrestled all night. Threw his hip socket out of joint. And before this marathon wrestling match was done Jacob had come to have so much respect for his opponent that he he said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” Maybe, by this time Jacob realized that he had been wrestling with God? Who knows. But it was then that God blessed Jacob by renaming him Israel and transforming him into the embodiment of an entire nation. Jacob was not just renamed, but was transformed into something greater. And, in return, Jacob renamed the wide spot by the river. He called it Penuel. In Hebrew Penuel means, “face of God.” It was where he wrestled with God face to face.
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ parable is about a widow who had a verbal wrestling match with a corrupt judge. She wanted justice against her opponent and she bugged the judge until she got justice. I mean she hassled him, harassed him, annoyed him, and irritated him until the judge just gave up and just gave her what she wanted. If todays reading are about nothing else, they are about persistence. About keepin’ on keepin’ on. About tenacity, focus, and just plain stubbornness. Persistence. But often these readings are interpreted to mean persistence in prayer – and maybe it is. But that might be too narrow of a focus. Or a misplaced focus. Here’s why.
Prayer isn’t about pestering God until you get what you want. “Oh, I’ll just keep on dialing his number until he answers. Keep knocking until he comes to the door. Keep texting until I get a reply!” That’s not what prayer is. Do we somehow think that God sits in heaven granting or denying wishes like some medieval king on a throne? Does God somehow answer prayer on the principle of, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease?” I like the way Soren Kierkegaard said it: “Prayer doesn’t change the mind of God. It changes the mind of the prayer.”
Also, improving our prayer life isn’t just about being more intentional about the traditional way of praying – of taking more time out to fold our hands, look heavenward, and say some words to the almighty. Now, that may be helpful to do. But often it becomes like flossing – something you know you should do more of, but just can’t find the time. Something you lie to your dental hygienist about. “Oh, yeah! I do that twice a day!” Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to be more intentional about traditional prayer. We should all pray at family meals. Kids should pray at night. We should all pray at night. But Luther prayed three times at each meal – before, in the middle, and after – and was still nagged by the worry that, somehow, it wasn’t enough. And that was just mealtime. Luther pestered and pestered God until he had his own Reformation – his own enlightenment as he read Romans again almost like the first time and came to the realization that we are made right with God by the grace of God and not by works that we do. Prayer had become a work. Grace changed everything.
Jacob found God in that with which he wrestled. He found himself literally wrapped up in a very human thing – wrestling – and found in that encounter with skin, muscle, and sweat – the divine. And I am wondering if that isn’t a key for us. I am wondering if prayer is so much more than taking a few minutes of time here and there to do personal liturgy. I am wondering if prayer can be finding the divine in the things with which we wrestle on a daily basis – finding the divine in the people with whom we wrestle on a daily basis.
Genesis tells us that we all are created in the image of God. Now, I know that you know some people in whom you can see the image of God very clearly – people who are gracious, kind, loving, forgiving. People who put others first. People for whom justice isn’t just a thing – it is the only thing. I know a few people like that and when I am in their presence I can sense the image of God and, in those times, it becomes more like dancing than wrestling, but in that relationship I am communicating with something more celestial than earthly – and in all that there is prayer.
Or when you look in on your children an hour after bedtime and they are sleeping quietly and your heart is filled with love and thanksgiving for that great gift in your life …. why can’t that be prayer. Or, conversely, when you come to church on Sunday morning and are panhandled by a homeless person and, from the parking lot to the church door, you spend your time wrestling with your reaction to the incident and wrestling, in your mind, with the problem of homelessness and the church’s response to it … why can’t that mental wrestling be prayer. Can we find the divine in the people around our plaza?
If, every day and every moment of every day, we were to seek the divine in each and every person we encounter, each and every situation we wrestle with, each and every person we come in contact with – would we not come face to face with God? And would that not be prayer? Sure, go ahead and find more time to say prayers. But, when your entire life becomes a wrestling match between the sacred and the profane then all of who we are and all of what we do and all of what we think is prayer. And I would bet that, if every minute of every day we were to confront the profane things with sacred hearts and minds that we would come face to face with the divine. We would see God. Maybe then our ordinary places would all be Penuels, places we would name “the face of God.” Work would be Penuel. School would be Penuel. The gym would be Penuel. Places we wrestle.
We are a congregation which likes to wrestle with theological questions and that is one of the reasons I love it here. I think we come face to face with God more often or more deeply when we ask questions than when we are fed answers. We are already a wrestling church and I am just suggesting we take those matches outside these walls.
God wants us to wrestle with him (or her). I mean really wrestle. And I don’t mean Grecco-Roman wrestling. Maybe it should be more like Big Time World Wide Federation of Wrestling – you know – the kind with moves like the “body press, the double axe handle, and the scissors kick.” Yeah, I think God might like for us to get down-and-dirty with him/her.
Don’t be afraid to ask God, “Where were you when my loved one got sick? Why don’t you do something about the children separated from their parents at our southern border? Why is there death? Why is there evil.” Wrestle. Use the backhand chop, the clothesline move, even the headbutt. Wrestle until the sun comes up. Then you name that spot, “Penuel,” because you have seen God face to face.
Text: Genesis 32: 22-31