First preached at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on October 20, 2019.
Relevant lectionary texts here.
This story of Jacob wrestling with God in our Genesis reading today is a favorite among queer theologians. And with Jacob as the main character, it’s not hard to see why. The character of Jacob is set up earlier in Genesis as a foil to his twin brother, Esau. Jacob is the soft, femme, pretty boy, Twink-type, who is described in many ways as the opposite of the hairy, musky, stereotypically masculine, skilled hunter. Throughout their lives, even before birth, Jacob and Esau were often in conflict with one another. And when it came to their fights, what Jacob lacked in brute strength when compared to Esau, he made up for in cunning. Twice Jacob stole from his brother – a blessing and a birthright – and he did it through clever trickery. People on the underside of power dynamics tend to be gifted in this way. We’re scrappy.
But now, many years later, Jacob was coming to meet up with his brother Esau again, and he was terrified for his life. Jacob tries to strategize and come up with ways to make this uncertain reunion safer. He divides up his family and his property and the gifts he is bringing for Esau, thinking that maybe if they travel in several groups that if one group is attacked, the other might have a chance to run away. He puts his house in order, putting his favorite wife and child in the back and cowering behind them, hoping that being in the rear of the caravan might offer some protection. And finally, he sent all of his family and all of his belongings across the river for the night and he was left. Alone.
This story of being up all night, alone, tormented, wrestling, is a universal archetype. Who hasn’t been kept up at night with anxiety or worry? And for those of us who are queer, the idea of wrestling with the things of God is painfully familiar. I remember just before the 2009 ELCA decision regarding human sexuality, crying out to God, wrapped in the shadows of night and with an achingly wrenched heart, telling God that I couldn’t take it; God either had to change me or change the church. And my story is not unique, nearly every LGTBQIA+ Christian I know has a similar one. For too long and too often, scripture and the church had been weaponized against us, and we were wounded and left limping. Some of us were lucky enough to pin the divine down for a moment and demand that something good, something liberating, would come out of our tradition for us too. Queer Theology and Queer Biblical interpretation has been that blessing for me. Some of us were reborn into something new. Like Jacob now Israel, our identities were formed or altered or changed.
It’s this complicated relationship with scripture that had me so initially frustrated with our reading from 2 Timothy today. Those verses about how all scripture is God breathed? Those were the same verses literalists used to tell me that those queer-antagonistic “clobber passages” were directly from God. The verses about everyone following false teachers who just told them what they wanted to hear? I have quite literally had that verse thrown back in my face in hate mail about my public writings. And the verse about enduring suffering? It felt like a missive from the white, upper midwestern culture I was raised in; quietism that told me to be silent about my pain, taught me that standing up for myself or my loved ones was wrong, that speaking honestly about my experiences was disruptive, that it was better for me to shut up.
These verses are some of the parts of scripture I struggle with because of the ways they have been applied. But if we read them through the lens of Jacob’s wrestling and the widow’s persistence, we definitely do not see a message of a non-confrontational God who thinks it better to quietly avoid conflict. In Jacob’s story, God pursues Jacob for a night of tug-of-war. In Jesus’ parable, the unjust judge is worn down by the widow – the Greek here more literally uses a boxing metaphor and says that the judge is afraid the widow will “beat him black and blue” with her persistence. And even with the letter to Timothy, this instruction is written between members of an oppressed and persecuted group; not from a representative of the Empire to someone crushed under the empire’s reign, but as a father figure who knew personally the reality of religious persecution, who knew the threat of imprisonment or martyrdom, and was encouraging and looking out for the next generation. So with these stories in mind, then, what does it mean for us to endure in suffering?
With the social context of Timothy being religious persecution of Christians, I am reminded of a quote by Tertullian which said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Or, put another way, the Mexican proverb popular on contemporary protest signs which says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Enduring suffering does not mean a sort of passive acceptance of injustice. Instead, enduring suffering has an emphasis on “endurance.” It is a message of hope. It says those of us who have been oppressed? We are tenacious where they tire out. We are creative where they are rigid. We can outlast them. Our suffering has bred in us grit and determination. Our suffering is fuel for defiance. Like the Jewish song birthed in the face of genocide during the Holocaust, as the Nazi commander cruelly ordered them to sing to their own execution, the Jewish people began to sing, “We will outlive them.”
I saw this same phenomenon play out in St. Louis when I was active in the Ferguson Uprising under the leadership of brilliant Black queer activists with endurance unlike anything I had ever seen. In November of 2014 we had been holding vigil with 24/7 protests, waiting for weeks for the announcement from the Grand Jury about whether or not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown. The prosecutor’s office released that afternoon around 1:00 pm that the announcement would be made that day. People began to gather and wait and wait and wait. I was in front of the Ferguson Police Department, armed with scarves for the cold and homemade tear gas kits we had assembled earlier on the high altar of the Cathedral, in company with what I imagine was over a thousand people. The prosecutor kept us waiting, he waited until after after dark, after we had been gathered in heightened tension for hours. Near a white car painted with phrases like,”We the People,” “No Justice No Peace,” and “I Am Mike Brown” there were speakers set up to listen to the announcement, surrounded by the crowd. A hush fell over all of us as we listened to the prosecutor say, “The Grand Jury found no probable cause to charge Darren Wilson…..” The sound of wailing from Mike’s parents pierced the air. There was a heavy pause, silence. And then a chant rose up, “I believe that we will win!” And the armored police advanced on us and the air filled with tear gas and even as we were running, the streets echoed with the steady sounds of drums and, “I believe that we will win!”
That determination, that refusal to give up hope, that battle cry, that belief in winning in the face of such heavy loss …that is endurance in the face of suffering.
The letter to Timothy tells us today that we are to be persistent in faithfulness and hope, whether the times are favorable or unfavorable. There are a lot of times when I look around and it really feels to me like these are unfavorable times. It was only a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court began hearing cases arguing and debating the personhood of LGTBQIA+ people. It is hard for me to feel hopeful in these cases. There are so many examples of unjust systems and unjust judges, people in power who neither fear God nor have respect for anyone. We know that our systems, including our justice system, are built upon a foundation of cis-hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. We know that the arbiters of justice are unjust.
Jesus knows that too, he paid for the reality of unjust criminal justice systems with his life. Jesus tells us about the judge who refuses to listen to the oppressed widow and Jesus says, “Your God? Your God is not like this judge. Your God? Is just.”
Parables are not like the more modern allegories we are used to hearing in our own culture. There aren’t necessarily direct symbols or characters that link or line up exactly to other real life people. But I do think parables are tools for reflection. We can ask ourselves, in any story, where am I? And where is God? Sometimes I feel like the widow in this story. Organizing and faith life are full of times where it feels like we are losing, like we are just screaming into the void and nothing will ever change. Other times? I am the unjust judge in this story. I have set myself up to unfairly judge other people, I have surrounded myself with people who tell me what I want to hear, I have refused to hear the righteous cries of the oppressed. Sometimes I am the widow and sometimes I am the judge.
But Jesus is clear that this isn’t a story about a God who will only listen if we pray hard enough. The point of this story is that God is NOT like this unjust judge. God is not like the judge in this story, and again, parables do not function rhetorically as direct metaphors. So where, then, is God? If God IS anyone in this story? God is the widow. God is the widow railing against unjust systems, wearing them out by continually coming. God in solidarity to widows and in opposition to unjust judges. God moves towards justice, which, in an unjust world that uses violence to enforce domination and control, moving towards justice inherently means towards suffering.
God does not suffer for the sake of suffering, as if suffering in and of itself is inherently a virtue. God doesn’t suffer to serve for us as an example, to tell us that we should all quietly suffer. No, God suffered because She knew we were already suffering….and She didn’t want us to be alone.
Our job then? Is to suffer outloud, and in public, like this widow. To wrestle and refuse to let it go, like Jacob. When we feel defenseless, like a widow against a judge or an LGTBQIA+ person struggling with the divine, our charge is to refuse to wander away towards the myths of helplessness and instead to carry out our ministry fully and reclaim our power. And part of that work is about how we conceptualize our finances and organize our money. In this season of generosity, my favorite thing to think about is how we might use some holy mischief to shock and defy and ultimately usurp the unjust judge through the generous ways we share our resources. What ways might we wear out these systems by continually coming at them with persistence and faithfulness? What ways might we encourage and sustain the widows in our communities? In what ways will the unlikely survival of the things that capitalism seeks to destroy – like solidarity, like thankfulness, like generosity – give us endurance to do even more than we might have imagined alone otherwise? Let’s use this season to wrestle together with how the ways we use our money might be used to build power and confront unjust systems.
And when we are up against so much and we aren’t sure how we can outlast these systems, we come together here. We tell each other these stories. We are refreshed by water. We are fortified by bread and wine. These things convict us when we are like the judge and encourage us when we are like the widow. And either way, we are transformed and made new. This new life God grants us in the struggle gives us the strength to build the power that is necessary to take on these systems, both out in the world and in our own hearts and minds. And we do it together.
Thanks be to God.