A couple of years ago I got a little prayer book simply because it piqued my curiosity. I like prayer books, but this one was unusually titled: Body Prayer, it’s called. (by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill, Waterbrook, 2005) It’s by a local author, and it advocates using certain "prayer postures" – and its thesis is that prayer is not, or should not be an activity of the heart or mind only, but of the whole body. I like what part of the introduction says about certain traditional postures during prayer: "for ... early believers, folding their hands during prayer was a statement that they would not hold onto anything else when they were praying. It was a physical way to say to God, "Your kingdom come, your will be done in my life." (Did you know that?) Or how about this? "The custom of kneeling and bowing one’s head in prayer is strengthened by the imagery of a person approaching a king to make a request. When doing this in prayer, the subject puts herself at the mercy of the King by exposing her neck, an act which shows her complete vulnerability to the Sovereign’s power." (p. 4-5) (What do you think of THAT?) With that in mind I’d like to try a couple of easy prayer postures right now. First, there’s an easy prayer. You put you palms up, like this – this is a prayer for healing. Let’s try another one – If you are able, fold your hands and stretch them above your head. This is a prayer for enjoyment. Or, if you stretch your arms over your head, that is the posture for a prayer for courage. Finally, let’s do a traditional posture – let’s all fold our hands, and as we fold our hands, think about holding on to God – and what that means..
Holding on to God. That’s what Jacob was doing, in that strange lesson from Genesis we just read, wasn’t it? Holding on to God. Although he didn’t know it at first. And at first it was more than holding on, it was wrestling. It’s a pretty radical prayer posture – holding on for dear life, and spitting out the words, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." But it’s a kind of a prayer, isn’t it? A desperate prayer, a prayer from a wounded man, an exhausted man. "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And he doesn’t even know – at first – who he is praying to.
It helps to have a little background on this character Jacob. What do you know about him? I recently heard someone say, about Jacob, that he was "addicted to blessings." And based on his life – that assessment doesn’t seem to be so far off. Jacob, you see is a twin – he and Esau are twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah – only sons. But Esau, as the older twin, by rights, is heir to his father’s blessing. And to receive a blessing meant everything in those days. If Isaac would say to his son (as in fact he did), "May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine..." it was as if it had already happened. A blessing was not "just words".
So Esau was older, and he should have gotten his father’s blessing – but somehow – Jacob, the "blessing-addict" got it instead. How did he do it? He tricked his father, his old, half-blind father, into thinking he was his brother, and he stole his brother’s blessing. So... not such a nice guy. And his brother was, as you can imagine, angry, so angry he vowed to kill his brother, so that Jacob had to run away, to a far country.But now – now he’s coming back, coming back to face his brother, his brother whom he cheated. He’s coming back with flocks and servants and wives and children, a wealthy man. He has been blessed. But he doesn’t know what he will see when he sees his brother’s face. And so that night, as he prepares to meet Esau, and perhaps, as he’s awake in the night, he even prays, wondering what will happen to him.
But one thing we know – that night he wrestles with a stranger, and he ends up holding on to God. And just a daybreak, exhausted and crippled, he pants out the words, "I will not let you go unless you bless me," and the stranger blesses him. Again! The stranger blesses Jacob, the cheat, the liar, and the wrestler: the stranger blesses him. And the stranger turns out to be God. That body prayer seems to work for Jacob.
In a way, Jacob and the widow of our gospel have something in common. Neither of them know who they are dealing with – and yet they persist, yet they hold on. Jacob wrestles with a stranger. The widow persists in demanding justice from an unrighteous judge. As far as Jacob knows, the stranger could just as soon kill him as bless him. But he asks. And he holds on until he gets it. Because somehow he understands it is important. The widow, as well, is dealing with a judge who, by his own admission, does not care about her or her situation. And yet she persists because whatever else she knows about him, she knows that he has the power to grant her justice. And in the end, he blesses her. That’s what a blessing is, you know – the words that make a promise real. A blessing is a word that changes reality from someone who has the power to do it. When the judge says, "You are innocent. You may go free", you are free. When the IRS says you don’t owe any more taxes, you are paid in full and free. When the pastor says, "Your sins are forgiven, for Jesus sake," you are forgiven. A few years ago, we got a phone call shortly after Christmas. The caller said that we had won a contest (a contest we didn’t even know we entered) and that we had won a gift certificate through AAA to use for travel in the next year.
We were pretty suspicious – but then we asked where the person was calling from. "Plymouth, MN" he said. (It might be true!) And when we got the tax form from the IRS saying that we had to pay taxes on our prize – then we knew it was real. A blessing is word of promise from someone who has the power to make it happen. A blessing is the word that gives the widow justice. And a blessing is the word that makes Jacob righteous — and that makes him "Israel" – the father of a nation, and a blessing to the world.
One thing about Jacob – he never does anything half-way. He lives life to the fullest. He puts his whole self into everything he does. So perhaps it’s no surprise to find him wrestling all night – wrestling with God. And perhaps it’s not surprise as well to discover that he got what he was looking for. People like him, people who reach out and grab and take – often are the ones who get. But Jacob got more than he bargained for. Because Jacob was dealing with God. So Jacob received his blessing. But he received as well a mission – to become a blessing to others, to the world. To become Israel, the father of a nation, a light to the world. His life, however imperfect, would be a prayer. How could this be? How could this scoundrel, this cheater, this liar – be a blessing?
I think of Oscar Schindler, in the movie Schindler’s List. He is, in many ways, not so different a character than Jacob. He has a reputation as a cheat and a swindler. He’s used in engaging in shady business deals. That’s the way he lives his life. And yet – in the time of crisis – he saved the Jews that worked for him. He did it the only way he knew how – by cheating the Nazis. And he became a blessing for many people. Because of what he did, many people lived, and had children and grandchildren. God blessed Oscar Schindler’s imperfect, struggling, limping life – and used him to be a blessing to others. That’s a kind of body prayer as well – when our actions, as well as our words – bless and save others.
Body prayer – it is prayer as if our whole lives depend on it. Body prayer – it is a prayer to receive a blessing – but it is also a prayer to be a blessing to the world. And we pray to the one who has the power to do both things. We pray – with our own imperfect hearts and our limping bodies – to the one who both blesses us and makes us a blessing. We pray to the one who can make our whole lives a prayer, the one whose whole life WAS a prayer. On the cross, Jesus forgave his enemies and promised them paradise. But these were not just words. It was a body prayer that blessed and saved the world – including you and me. We too have been blessed – and given a mission. We have been sent out armed with words and actions, sent out to bless the world.
So we pray – with our hearts and with our hands:
we pray for healing (palms up) and that we might be healers.
we pray for for couraged (arms outstretched) and that we might be encouragers
we pray holding on to God -- as God in Christ holds on to us. AMEN
The Hymn of the Day was #722 from our new ELW. I love the words!
O Christ, Your heart, compassionate, bore ev'ry human pain
Its beating was the pulse of God; its breadth, God's vast domain.
The heart of God, the heart of Christ combined in perfect rhyme
to write God's love in human deeds, eternity in time.
As once you welcomed those cast down and healed the sick, the blind,
so may all bruised and broken lives through us your help still find.
Lord, join our hearts with those who weep that none may weep alone,
and help us bear another's pain as though it were our own.
O Christ, create new hearts in us that beat in time with you;
that joined by faith with your great heart, become love's open doors.
We are your body, risen Christ, our hearts, our hands we yield
that through our life and ministry your love may be revealed
O Love that made the distant stars, yet marks the sparrows fall,
whose arms stertched wide upon a cross embrace and bear us all:
come, make your church a servant church that walks your servant ways,
whose deeds of love rise up to you, a sacrifice of praise!
Text: Herman G. Stuempfle Jr