A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016. The lectionary readings are Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8.
The Collect of the Day prays that we might “persevere with steadfast faith.”
Many of us know the meaning of that first word, “persevere.” Some have persevered through hard financial times, through bad health, or through long programs of study. Others have persevered with difficult children or spouses, with situations in which your whole life prays for change. And then, given these final days leading up to the elections, we all probably feel like we are persevering, at best.
But what does it look like to do what our prayer suggests and persevere with steadfast faith? How do we look for God when we’re just about ready to give up?
In the reading from Genesis, we see Jacob as he is just about ready to give up. He’s “greatly afraid and distressed,” according to scripture—but that probably doesn’t even begin to describe it. He is scared because he is about to meet his brother Esau, who he has cheated twice before. In fact, Jacob had even tricked out of their father’s blessing. And so, now he’s heard that Esau has 400 men with him, and there is to be a confrontation. Jacob gets ready and tries to prepare for what’s ahead. He divides his family and possessions in case of an attack from his brother. But then, the night before the meeting, he sends everyone away and spends time alone. But Jacob is left alone with his worries, alone with his fears, and alone with his God. In that loneliness, there is a wrestling match. A mysterious figure appears and struggles with Jacob, but Jacob refuses to give in. He persists. He perseveres. In the struggle, Jacob is wounded, but he continues to fight. He presses on and eventually asks the stranger to bless him. The stranger, who is actually an angel of the Lord, changes Jacob’s name. Jacob becomes Israel, a name that includes the power of this struggle, and the stranger then leaves Jacob. He blesses Jacob, but also throws his hip out of joint, to give him something to remember the occasion.
Not only is this a great story, but it’s also an important story for the church. It’s important because it frames our struggles, and urges us on. It suggests that when we are struggling to persevere, says something about our own struggles with faith, even with God. The answer to our questions doesn’t always come easily or in the light. Sometimes we bare the wounds of the struggle for some time afterward. But we can also come to know God through the struggle. It can even feel like God is giving us a new name, a name that perhaps leaves us wounded, but in another sense, we are stronger and more driven and more directed. After all, some of the most dramatic paintings of Jesus show him resurrected in glory, but with wounds still visible.
In the Gospel there’s another kind of struggle. We don’t know the lady’s name—but perhaps we know someone like her. Maybe we know someone who perseveres and refuses to give up, who demands what’s right and refuses to settle. This judge, we’re told, fears neither God nor any man or woman. The judge is filled with himself probably, and looks no further.
And so, this woman brings her complaint to the judge day after day. The judge doesn’t really care about the woman’s case and ignores her for a while. But finally he gives up and says, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The verb that the judge uses in describing the tenacity of the woman is a verb used with boxing. It’s the same word that Paul uses in First Corinthians when he says that all of his preaching and teaching is not just a kind “boxing in the air” or aimless pommeling.”
Likewise, this woman knows her target and she’s ready to hit. Whether the judge is worried about getting a black eye from the woman, or whether he’s just worried about getting a tarnished reputation—he is worried enough that he give her what she wants. It is by her perseverance that she wins her case.
Jesus does not mean to compare the uncaring judge with God. What he’s doing instead is making an argument popular in rabbinic teaching in which he argues from the smaller thing to the greater. If this judge, who is unjust and respects no authority outside himself, hears the plea of this persistent woman, HOW MUCH MORE, Jesus suggests, does a loving, caring God hear those who are persistent in prayer.
Just as Jesus was human and divine, it makes sense that in our own spirituality—in our own prayer life (whether it is full or whether it is underdeveloped), that in our own prayer life we might reflect both the human and, with God’s grace, the divine.
We pray out of our very human hearts when we ask for what we want and need, when we persist, when we argue with God, when we struggle, when we nag, even when we whine. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, after all, prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”
But there’s also the other part of our spirit that is called to imitate Christ and to struggle with the angel of the Lord as we try to discern what God’s will for us might be, and how to pray that prayer. Jesus concluded that prayer in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And one version of Luke’s Gospel continues, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” Strength sometimes comes in that moment of giving up and over to God’s will, even when that will is veiled.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells this parable to remind the disciples that they should “pray always and not lose heart.” Both the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and the story of the woman who perseveres with the judge can make the spiritual life sound lonely, as though it is an individual path. But remember that we hear and reflect on these stories together. The story of Jacob was handed down in community, just like we hear it today. The story of the “woman before the judge” Jesus told to the disciples, and Luke tells it to the early church, and we hear it as a parish family today. All of this is to say that while we may struggle or persevere in particular ways as individuals, we are never left alone. Like Jacob, even on the darkest of nights, the entire family of faith is just over the hill.
May we be strong in our faith, and may God be merciful even as we are strengthened, that we truly may “persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Jesus Christ our Savior.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.