Trinity: Jazz Mass, "The Struggle of Prayer"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

“You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” That is what Jacob did and for struggling with God and with humans he was named Israel. The name which points to the people of God, also tells us that as the people of God we must struggle with God and each other.

What is our struggle? What confidence do we have that we will prevail?

I wonder is our struggle personal? Is it debt, or the cost of heating? Or for health or concern for our family? Is our struggle about the Church? Is it the media’s obsession with shrinking congregations? Is it that the voices of the Christian community we hear in the media embarrass us? Is it the church’s apparent obsession with sex? Is our struggle about injustice in the world? The homeless and the hungry? The inequality in the world? The existence of slavery and sex trafficking?

We find ourselves as individuals, and as a community, enslaved to debts and injustices of all kinds. Where is our God in all of it? And perhaps that’s the greatest struggle of all, faith when the chips are down and we can feel in our gut that things aren’t right.

The bible tells us we are not alone in feeling this way. Jacob wrestles with the divine, If Jacob is chosen, why must God resist him? The Psalms demonstrate an ancient medium in song and liturgy of calling out to God: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come?” And today we are told by Jesus to be persistent in prayer, in crying out to God with the injustices which afflict us, with what enslaves us.

Jazz developed out of Blues music and like the Psalms, this music provided a medium in which to express frustration, to cry out about the bad things in life, frustration at injustice. But we are told Jesus’ parable is about two things, ‘to pray always’ and ‘not to lose heart’. The Unjust Judge, when he eventually dispenses justice, does so for his own sake, not for the sake of God, or out of respect for anybody else. How much more confident are we that God will dispense with Justice, when we know that he does it not for his own sake, but for the sake of those who are suffering.

The parable gives us license to do what Jacob and the Psalmists did, to acknowledge the things by which we are enslaved, to acknowledge that we too struggle with God and one another. But, there is also an instruction to have hope, the hope that comes from knowing that, as part of God’s creation, we are loved, and that even when everything around us indicates to the contrary, we are free and God is with us.

God doesn’t respond to our prayer because we happen to shout the loudest, or pray most often, or with the most eloquent lines of poetic verse. That too would be unjust. Like the Unjust Judge, God would be responding according to how effective the person praying is at lobbying. God’s just response comes without any prayer at all. Through prayer, however, we can become aware of God’s justice for us. God frees us from slavery to this world, and it is by prayer that we can discover that freedom.

After being freed from slavery, Israel, wandering in the wilderness, had a duty not to return to slavery, the duty was to live life as freed persons. We are encouraged to pray openly to God of all that is unjust, all that harms us and limits us. But the good news is that we should not let those things enslave us. We should live as free people in spite of those things.

It’s a kind of Blitz mentality, of the kind that saw the congregation of St Michael’s worshipping in their lady chapel on the Sunday morning after the bomb had destroyed the body of the church. -It’s the mentality that says even if our safety is in danger because of terrorism, we must not limit our own rights and freedoms or those of our potential assailants. It’s the mentality that led Mallala to speak up for the education of girls in Afghanistan even when she knew it put her life in danger. It’s the mentality that allows us, even when it sometimes seems like the church around us is against us, or that God is herself not listening to us, to come together and celebrate our communion with God, and with the whole church, in faith. It’s a mentality that should allow us to take risks, to respond to the challenges we and those around us face, a mentality that doesn’t allow us to be limited by what ‘can’t be done’ or what ‘hasn’t been done’ but allow us to act creatively and to respond to the struggles of all of God’s creation.

Though the roots of Jazz may be in the calling out, in the sorrow of the Blues, this evening the style is transformed in this celebration. The words being sung are about praise, thanksgiving and hope for our delivery from the limits of this world. As we eat we are brought together with God and with each other in an intimate way. We celebrate our being part of the people of God, an apparently heavenly people, brought together in Christ as we eat bread and wine as a diverse, divided people. Unified in this broken bread. In our persistent struggle through prayer we reach beyond that which attempts to limit us.