Get out your pencils and turn in your readings insert to 2 Timothy 3:16: All scripture is inspired by God… I believe that, and I hope you do, too. Unlike some Christians, I don’t believe that every word is literally true. The Bible was written and interpreted by imperfect human beings! The characters in its stories are human beings just like us. Human beings, as experience teaches us, are constantly tempted toward self-interest.
But the power of God’s word is not in finding some advantage for ourselves. The power of God sustains us through hope, and hope leads to gratitude, and gratitude inspires us to service. God’s word invites and challenges us, in fact, to give our lives away for the sake of others. Week after week this is what we hear.
Today, for example, our first reading is the story of Jacob’s wrestling match. Who was it that Jacob wrestled with—an angel? God? Verse 24 says only that it was a “man.” Jacob demands a blessing from his opponent. I will not let you go until you bless me, he says. On the face of things Jacob seems to be serving his own self-interest. And certainly, Jacob is famous for pursuing his self-interest. Earlier, he had stolen his older brother Esau’s rightful inheritance. But in this story, Jacob is afraid. He’s heard that Esau is coming to meet him and Jacob is afraid that Esau will kill both him and his family. In this story Jacob is not seeking a blessing simply for himself. He’s an advocate and protector for his “two wives, two maids, and eleven children.”
Notice v.24: After sending his family ahead of him, Jacob was left alone. An advocate is someone who risks speaking out for the sake of those who have no power. Advocacy involves risk. It requires courage. Jacob was seeking protection for his family; he gets what he asks for, but at a price. He walks away with a hip out of joint!
It’s with this in mind that we turn to Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge. Here also we find an advocate. Only this time it’s not Jacob, the master of a household. It’s a widow. Widows in the Bible represent someone with no power, completely dependent on the generosity of others. In this story, a widow’s persistence pays off. Like Jacob, she walks away with a blessing.
What do you notice in this story? Is there anything that surprises or disturbs you? Sometimes it’s helpful to look for not just who’s in the story, but who’s not in the story. For example: Where is the widow’s family? Where are her friends? Where is her faith community? Like Jacob, she is alone. But why is she alone? Unlike Jacob, she has no power. Jacob advocated for his extended family. Where are the widow’s advocates? She had no Jacob to speak out for her. The tragedy of this story is that she’s left to advocate for herself!
In today’s second reading from 2 Timothy, Paul writes, For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires. Our human impulse is to “accumulate for ourselves”—not just stuff but ideas that protect our self-interest–as Paul puts it, whatever suits our own desires.
Christians choose a different path. Our primary concern is not to “accumulate for ourselves.” Instead, we are advocates for the sake of others, especially those who have no voice. We hear the story of the unjust judge, the persistent pleas of the widow for justice, and we remember that we do not live “every man for himself” or “every woman for herself.” And, although we may begin with advocacy for our own family and people like us, Christians advocacy expands beyond what’s familiar and comfortable.
Christians look for opportunities to advocate for people with less power. We listen to the stories of those who, like the widow, are pleading for justice. In our own time, for example, we might listen to the stories of grocery store workers who are asking for fair wages. If they go on strike tomorrow, these workers are asking us not to shop at Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Safeway and QFC stores. Inconvenient, right? But then we remember that advocacy sometimes demands a price; Jacob walked away with a limp. We listen to the stories of people without health care and their need for justice. Do we have the persistence of Jacob, or the widow, to stand with people who have less power.
These are opportunities to serve our Christian vocation as advocates. But we pay just as much attention to opportunities right under our noses. Our faith community is our practice field. So we advocate for people with less power and less voice by providing transitional housing on our property or temporary housing for homeless men, free lunches during the summer. We look for signs of God at work in our neighborhood, and find advocates such as our sister church Bryn Mawr Methodist, who are once again hosting Tent City. We participate in Living Water, the Run for Hope, Mayor’s Day of Concern for the hungry. And on this day, we join with quilters in their good work of advocacy.
In what other ways do we advocate? Today, congregations across the country are observing “Children’s Sabbath.” Sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, this is an opportunity to remember that our spiritual work as advocates includes supporting laws and policies that protect the present and future well-being of children. One of the great opportunities to advocate for children is to advocate for care of the earth. Climate change will have a huge impact on their lives. The attitudes and choices we make in regard to care for the earth may indicate whether we are advocating for or against their future.
But being advocates might mean something as simple as welcoming children as full participants and servants at worship, which you do! It might also mean asking parents how we can support them in nurturing their children and raising them up to one day be faithful advocates themselves. Notice this verse from our second reading: from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you.
This morning the examples of Jacob, and the widow, call Christians to our vocation of advocacy. But why do we do this work? Is it out of self- interest? No, it’s out of gratitude. We are advocates for people in need because we ourselves have an Advocate. The author of 1 John writes these words: My little children…we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And in John’s gospel, before he leaves them alone Jesus offers assurance to his disciples with these words: When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.
Our Advocates before God, according to the Scriptures, are Jesus himself and the Holy Spirit, who assure us that we are beloved; we are worthy. These Advocates give us an example of how we are to live in relation to one another, how to show love for one another. We pay attention to human needs of mind, body and spirit, and advocate for whatever tends to the needs of those with less power and less voice.
Advocacy is not just good works. It is a form of prayer. Jesus told the story of the widow and the unjust judge to emphasize the importance of persistence in prayer. Maybe you’re someone who feels like you’re not very good at prayer. But prayer is not just words from our lips or even the thoughts of our hearts. When you practice advocacy for people in need, this is part of what it means to live a life of prayer. Actions are often more powerful prayers than any words we might speak.
So, people of God, look around you for signs of our Advocate working through us and among us. See how the Spirit is using our gifts for the sake of those with less power and less voice. Give thanks for new opportunities that come our way. Remember that we are blessed…to be a blessing!