Sermon Seeds: Faith Persists
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24)
Worship resources for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24) are at Worship Ways
Jeremiah 31:27-34 with Psalm 119:97-104 or
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 121 and
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and
Additional reflection on Genesis 32:22-31
by Kathryn M. Matthews
By the time Luke was writing his Gospel a generation or so after Jesus died, people were starting to feel discouraged. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to fulfillment, the deepest hope of their hearts. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering.
Our passage this week from Luke is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. However, we’ve somehow read it more as an instruction to “nag” God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want.
A lesson about God
Of course this parable is really a lesson about God, about how and who God is, not just a “nice” little story about prayer. Jesus–the greatest Teacher of all time–uses the creative teaching method of using the opposite of something–or, in this case, the opposite of Someone–in order to make a point.
For goodness’ sake, he says, if an unjust, disrespectful judge who’s afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God–the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our names are carved–how much more will that God hear the prayers of God’s own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need?
Certainly Jesus is teaching us something important here about the nature of the God to Whom we pray.
Who are the ones without a voice?
Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson. John Pilch tells us that the “word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year C).
So this “silent one” is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knows that there’s a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows, orphans, and aliens are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern.
The powerful feel threatened
We might ask ourselves, then, who “the widows” are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak up anyway in protest of injustice. The recent reaction (a better word in this case than “response”) to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, is a good illustration of how the highest and mightiest feel threatened by the persistent and righteous protests of those “little ones” they would like to dismiss.
Greta Thunberg is only one example of many, however: young people outraged by school shootings have marched and organized and spoken up to the powers that be about the risk they take by simply going to school; people who live with disabilities have valiantly protested in the very halls of Congress over injustice and exclusion; LGBTQ people have to continue to march and protest and put themselves at risk every single day as progress made gets unmade; people of color face everyday disrespect and violence, along with economic injustice.
Do we hear the voices of these “widows” in our own time? Are we willing to listen?
Images that inspire us
Jesus speaks often about faith–or no faith, not “more” or “less” faith; he uses the tiny mustard seed as a wonderful image to inspire us. And it does. So does the widow, small and powerless in a society that was structured in such a way that women were usually just one man away from destitution.
In fact, if we look at the many, many references to widows in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we get a sense of their place in the scheme of things.
Widows are survivors, because they have no other choice. They have to work around the angles of their society (remember Ruth and Naomi?), because its very structure is slanted against them. And so they do what they must to ensure not just their own survival, but also the survival of those they love. They cry out from the pages of the Bible for justice, and make no mistake about it: God hears their cry.
At the heart of a woman’s faith
The great preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, gets inside this story and explores the heart of this woman. Society may have told the widow that she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that confidence: “She was willing to say what she wanted–out loud, day and night, over and over–whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart…” (“Bothering God” in Home by Another Way).
The shape of her heart: it makes us wonder about the shape of our own hearts and the health of our prayer life, doesn’t it?
Why does Luke introduce this story as being about the necessity–our need–to “pray always and not to lose heart”? And why does Jesus end his little story about the widow finally being heard, even by an “unjust” judge, not with a neat little closing statement about “hanging in there” and continuing to pray when we don’t get what we want right away, but with a question about the lack of faith among those who are waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of God?
The depth of one’s spiritual life
Several years ago, deep within the news coverage of terrible events in Myanmar (Burma), a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Thida, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there.
When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like “vitamins” to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Thida meditated 18-20 hours a day. Can you imagine that? The reporter cited her “deep engagement with Buddhism.”
Why do we pray?
Sometimes we have to wonder how many of us Christians are as “deeply engaged” with Christianity. Jesus wanted his followers to do more than pray as a habit or a requirement: “Then, as now,” Taylor says, “most people prayed like they brushed their teeth–once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program” (Home by Another Way).
Does that ring true for you? Don’t we know, deep down in our hearts, that Jesus wants much more from us as his followers? His teachings go right to the heart of the matter, to who we are. Those 18-20 hours a day of meditating must have had an effect on Ma Thida, on shaping her spirit; perhaps it helped her to remember who she was.
Our prayer life shapes us, too, and helps us to remember who, and whose, we are. It helps to align us with the intentions of God.
How would you describe faith?
In this little story about human nature and about the nature of God, I hear Jesus teaching us–as always–about justice, about prayer, and about faith, which he talks about a lot. How often have we heard him say, “Your faith has saved you. Your faith has healed you. O, you of little faith!” It makes you wonder just what faith is exactly.
For most of my life I’ve thought faith had to do with believing the right things about God. The faith of our fathers and mothers was handed down in catechisms and religion textbooks, and taught to us in classrooms. Keeping the faith was something we did by guarding a treasure of beliefs and handing them down, intact and unchanged, in a kind of lockbox, to the next generation of believers.
Faith was something that you have in your head, when you believe certain, hopefully correct, statements about God.
Understanding faith as trust
Some years ago, however, I came to understand faith in a very different way: as trust. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg speaks of faith as much more than simply believing the correct things in our head. As he says, “you can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”
Instead, Borg speaks of faith as having to do with relationship, with giving your heart and your trust, your radical trust, to God. He draws on the work of Sören Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, who says that “faith as trust is like floating on a deep ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”
He even uses the example of teaching a child to swim and trying to get the child to relax in the water: “It’s okay, just relax. You’ll float, it’s okay.” Borg describes faith as “trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being” (The Heart of Christianity is an excellent book).
The most unexpected teachers
Borg’s words on faith and trust, and Kierkegaard’s beautiful image, remind me of the person who taught me to float, to trust the buoyancy of the water to hold me up. And I wonder if it isn’t true that we adults, who keep going to our heads to figure things out, need to listen to our children to find our way back to the way of the heart.
For the first forty years of my life, I had never even floated. I had never been able to swim. I had never even put my face under water. I was so afraid that I was almost immobilized by the water, but I really, really wanted to learn to swim. One summer, when my son Doug was about ten years old, we took a family vacation at the beach, and there was a pool where we were staying. My children took to the water like little ducks; I might add that I had taken them to swimming lessons so they wouldn’t inherit my paralyzing fear.
One afternoon, Doug and I were the only ones in the water, and I was safely in the shallow end. Doug was just a little fellow at that age, and he shivered as he hung on to the side of the pool and decided that that was the day that Mom was going to learn to swim.
He had utter confidence in his own ability to teach me to do something that forty years of fear had prevented. “Mom,” he said, “If you close your eyes and hold your breath and relax, the water will hold you up. Just believe me. It works.” And he showed me how, of course. He floated there, right on top of the water.
And so I did give it a try. And it worked. I floated there, held up by the buoyant water but also by the buoyant hope and confidence–and persistence–of my own unlikely little teacher who had already gone ahead of his older, more fearful parent and discovered new experiences and new possibilities.
Faith and relationship and trust
Our children often seem to know something we have forgotten: that having faith is about relationship, about trusting in the goodness and reliability of someone more powerful than we are, a power and a goodness that will hold us up when we need it most. Perhaps it has to do with being small in such a big world.
Small, like a mustard seed. Small, like the widow in this story, powerless and yet determined to call the cranky, unjust judge to justice.
Bringing us back to prayer
And that brings us back to prayer, and back to Jesus healing people and saying, “Your faith has healed you.” Remember last week’s story about the ten lepers, and only one, a Samaritan, came back to say “Thank you”? Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
I don’t think Jesus meant, “You have agreed with certain, correct statements of faith.” I think Jesus was talking about relationship, about trust, about radical trust in God’s mercy and power. People in the Gospel stories “got” who Jesus was and gave themselves over in trust to God’s goodness and healing power, and it transformed their lives.
Faith and healing and justice
But if faith and transformation have much to do with healing, they also have much to do with justice. It seems that religious people, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, down through the centuries of church history and in the very life of the church today, are often tempted to equate “righteousness” with our prayer life, with our “piety” and “holiness,” and we could say much on how to define each of those.
However, the Bible always draws us back to a passion for justice, a hunger for, and promise of, shalom, the fullness of peace, healing, and wholeness for all of God’s children, including the widows and orphans, the stranger at the gate and the unwanted person knocking at the door.
Measuring our spiritual health
And so, we may measure our spiritual health not by how often and how well we pray but by how much we long for, and work for, justice and healing, making the world a better place for those children who trust us to be reliable, merciful and good.
Today I listened to a journalist ask former President Jimmy Carter why he is so dedicated to Habitat for Humanity, and his answer was both immediate and inspiring, rooting his commitment in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and what it means to be a Christian.
The true meaning of our faith
I actually felt tears in my eyes as I listened to such an authentic and heartfelt testimony that reclaimed the true meaning of our faith. Clearly, this man strives to “bring good news to the poor” through his work, even at the age of ninety-five. It was all so simple and heartfelt, and yet it could change the world.
We might wonder, then, about our own faith, our mustard seed faith that has the potential to move mountains or uproot trees, and ask if we have indeed heard the cry of the “widows” in our midst–including those who have been silenced–and how we have responded to their suffering and their need. We need to listen for the voice of God, calling us to true religion and true righteousness, true piety and true holiness.
A story about God
So this little story isn’t really about the persistent widow or the corrupt judge who gave in rather than get “a black eye” (that’s what the word translated as “wear me out” really means!): again, it’s about God. If this corrupt judge responds to the widow’s pleas, how much more will a loving God respond to the prayers of our heart?
Our prayer life sustains us even in the worst of times, and it keeps us close to God: “You are going to trust the process,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart.”
This reading is about God and about Jesus returning to find people who have held fast, through everything, and have persevered in trusting God. Rather than thinking it’s a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for, prayer, Taylor writes, “keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that” (“Bothering God,” in Home by Another Way).
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
W. Somerset Maugham, 20th century
“It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”
James Hudson Taylor, 19th century
“When I cannot read, when I cannot think, when I cannot even pray, I can trust.”
Jodi Picoult, Sing You Home, 21st century
“The only difference between a wish and a prayer is that you’re at the mercy of the universe for the first, and you’ve got some help with the second.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of [God’s] willingness.”
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 21st century
“Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world.”
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
Wm. Paul Young, 21st century
“Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved.”
Paulo Coelho, 21st century
“Because you believed I was capable of behaving decently, I did.”
Edith Hamilton, 20th century
“Love cannot live where there is no trust.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
For so many reasons, I began working on this reflection in need of an attitude adjustment. Whenever we focus on an overly familiar passage from the Bible, it may be only natural to feel a little bit bored with “that same old story,” or frustrated at trying to say something new or different about it. Boredom, frustration, but challenge, too, because the meaning of this familiar passage is actually quite ambiguous, even mysterious.
We also have to note the author’s use of the imagery of assault, physical or otherwise, and of course, the larger problem of Jacob, the patriarch who hardly qualifies for sainthood, to put it mildly. Part of us is repelled by the way he lies and cheats his way to success and wealth, while another part of us may feel strangely drawn toward him, and might even see something of ourselves in him.
Jacob in conversation with artists
The dramatic story of Jacob wrestling on that riverbank long ago with a stranger–God or an angel, we usually say–has been an irresistible subject for artists: painters (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin and Chagall, among others), sculptors, novelists, poets (like Rainier Maria Rilke), modern playwrights (like Tony Kushner, in Angels in America), and even musicians like the group U2, in their song, “Bullet in the Sky.” (My first time to use Wikipedia for Sermon Seeds, but I couldn’t resist.)
Psychologists, too, both professional and amateur, love to “wrestle” with this text as well, or maybe put it to rest too quickly and too simply by saying that Jacob is struggling with the inner demons of a guilty conscience. So modern that approach, and so inadequate for the text before us.
Hearing the larger story
But the greatest challenge of all for lectionary preachers is putting this text in the context of Jacob’s larger story, as well as Israel’s story, and our own, in order to do it justice, to bring it to life. Preaching and Bible study differ in some ways, but I think preachers on this text can bring some great Bible study into the pulpit this week, sketching out that larger picture, linking this story and its echoes to the stories before and after it.
Spending time with the following passages will be helpful, as we consider Jacob’s late-night struggle there, on the edge of returning home to the land he had been promised, and the future that he hoped still lay ahead: Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-33:20, 28:10-22 and 35:1-15.
Hearing from God regularly
For example, in these passages we learn that this isn’t the only time Jacob has heard from God, or the first or only time he’s named a place, or, for that matter, the first time he’s been asked who he is. And even though we may think of him as cunning and sly (and I don’t mean that in a good way), Jacob surprises us in the earlier part of this same chapter 32, when he first turns toward home and starts sweating about facing his brother’s understandable and long-standing wrath.
Here, almost home (such poignant words, so full of longing), Jacob offers a humble prayer, asking God to protect him, and admitting that he’s “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (v. 10a).
In The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts, Dennis Olson notes that this is the longest prayer in Genesis. Maybe it’s a prayer born of fear, but it does endear Jacob to us a little bit, if we can get it out of our heads that he has sent the women and children and animals on ahead, where they may face Esau’s wrath first.
Dreams and struggles
Before this evening of turmoil, Jacob may have remembered a different night (see Chapter 28), when he was on the run from home and from Esau’s anger, and had the sweet spiritual experience of dreaming about a ladder to heaven, and of hearing God’s voice making those promises of land and descendants and blessing, and most of all, of God’s presence and protection with him, always.
Frederick Buechner calls this “not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons). There, at the gate of heaven and the house of God (28:17), Jacob made some promises, too, to be faithful to God and to tithe all that he received, that is, if God would keep him safe and give him food and clothing, and someday bring him home in peace.
(Most of us, of course, have lists like this one, for God: we can almost hear the “etc., etc.” of our own prayers).
Reminders of God’s steadfast love
Jacob also named the place of this “awesome” experience: Bethel, or House of God. Ancient stories often explained where and how places got their names, and this is one of several about Jacob naming a place out of his own experience.
In the first fifteen verses in chapter 35, we read of God sending Jacob to Bethel again, and we hear several reminders that this had been the very place where Jacob encountered God while on the run from Esau, and where God answered him in his distress, and where God made promises to “keep” him and provide many descendants for him, and where God gave him a new name.
We also read once again that Jacob had sense enough to raise a pillar to mark the holy place, to give it a name, too. Some repetition in an oral culture is necessary for the memory of the storyteller, and some repetition is just plain good for us, who need to be reminded of God’s steadfast love. (“In an oral world, Walter Ong wrote, “you must think memorable thoughts.”)
Facing the music
This week’s passage is between those two Bethel bookends in the story of Jacob: here, he is in-between but also on the edge, just on the outside. The drama of his flight from home is matched by the full happiness of his later establishment at Bethel, along with wives, “maids” and children, servants, flocks, and assorted possessions, and those promises, and the new name, as well.
Here, though, on this dark and scary night, in spite of the passage of many years, the accumulation of vast wealth, and the success of besting his clever and calculating uncle (it must run in the family), Jacob is shaking in his proverbial boots. He has sent ahead herds and gifts to his brother, hoping to ease his way home by softening Esau up, but he doesn’t know that it will work.
On the edge of the river
Now, here he is, on the bank of the river, all alone in the deep of the night. Barbara Brown Taylor describes something of Jacob’s state of mind, as he anticipates Esau’s anger: “He had changed,” she writes, “but he could not imagine that Esau had” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine).
Perhaps Jacob has developed enough of a conscience to realize that his brother has every right to feel fresh anger at the return of the one who has stolen everything from him.
Demon or deity?
Rather than a sweet dream, Jacob is visited by a stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We call that stranger God, or at least an angel, but there are ancient roots in this story of another kind of being. Gene Tucker explains that the fact that Jacob’s “opponent fears the daylight and refuses to divulge his name, suggests a nocturnal demon,” and therefore it’s possible that “the narrator has taken over an ancient, pre-Yahwistic tradition…and reinterpreted it as a confrontation between Israel’s God and her ancestor.”
The significance of insisting on knowing the entity’s name is ancient as well, because even we know (and feel) that names have power, and in those days when words meant even more, knowing that demon’s (or deity’s) name, Tucker says, “was to obtain a measure of control over it” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
Older than Abraham
Frederick Buechner describes this more poetically in his sermon on this text: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife. If it means anything, what does it mean? And let us not assume that it means anything very neat or very edifying. Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
“Already old before Abraham was born….” Just think of that: what strange beauty this story begins to have, after all.
A fairer fight at last
Jacob and his visitor wrestle all night long, almost till dawn, without a clear winner. The visitor resorts to crippling Jacob by striking his hip, and still Jacob will not let go. Terence Fretheim sees a different meaning in “the man’s” insistence on leaving before the light of day, not because the daylight is a problem for him, but because of the awful risk to Jacob of seeing God face to face (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
And yet that is what happens, if we are to believe Jacob: he names the place “Peniel” (“The face of God”) because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30). At least he uses the passive voice, rather than saying that he himself succeeded in this remarkable thing. Ironically, while Jacob counts himself lucky or blessed just to have survived, his opponent declares him the winner, or at least the one who prevailed.
In either case, at least this was, as Hank J. Langknecht puts it, “finally a fair fight. No taking advantage of a hungry brother or a blind father or having to outsmart a wily father-in-law. Here it is Jacob wrestling to an honest draw” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Aware of blessings
Both Jacob and the place of this struggle are given new names, and Jacob’s is given as well to his descendants, who also will struggle with God. By the time these stories were fashioned into the narrative of God’s people, Gene Tucker writes, “The people of Israel, like their patronymic ancestor, had striven with powers both human and divine and, in the time of the monarchy, knew that they had prevailed and been blessed” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
However, while Dennis Olson agrees that “Jacob’s limping becomes a metaphor or paradigm of Israel’s life with God,” he also reminds us that Esau represents “the nation of Edom, which bordered Israel to the east,” and that “Edom and Israel were at times enemies, especially because of Edom’s aid to the Babylonians when they conquered Judah” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
We read and remember and paint pictures of short stories like today’s passage, but we rarely read Chapter 36 of Genesis, which might impress on us a greater sense of the importance of Esau and Edom, since it provides a long list of the sons of Esau and the clans and kings that descended from them.
Seeing ourselves in a new light
Several themes unfold in this face-to-face encounter between Jacob and God. Commentators like Terence Fretheim emphasize the initiative and active engagement of God in our lives, even though that isn’t always a pleasant or comforting experience. The way this story is told, God is the one who gets things started, not with a dream or a vision but with an embodied struggle, Fretheim says, “more than a dark night of the soul.”
Fretheim suggests that this is one of the ways God seeks out “openings” in our lives, in order “to enhance the divine purpose” and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges that lie ahead: “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.”
Jacob responds well, Fretheim notes, and he receives a new name that recognizes “who he has been and presently is, not what he becomes in this moment,” that is, “Jacob’s strength and capacity for struggling well” (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
The suffering of the world
Obviously, we struggle with God as well, individually and communally. One thinks, for example, of Elie Wiesel and the anguished and angry questions he had for God about the terrible suffering of his people; the slaves who were carried off and considered “property” by “good,” Bible-reading Christians; or those who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions that lose sight of the heart of God’s justice and compassion, and focus instead on their own power and preservation.
We struggle in our own lives with illness and financial uncertainty, with personal disasters and broken relationships, and most of all, with the suffering of those we love. And there is the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures, at our mercy but receiving very little of it.
Beyond the pain caused by accident, passivity, and/or human sin (think Syria, or our inner cities, or the victims of mass shootings), we are aware of the anguish of those whose lives are devastated by wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters, including for example the people of Puerto Rico, still suffering the effects of Hurricane Maria, where many hundreds lost their lives. That suffering is compounded by human indifference and inadequate response, with a loss of interest once the story fades from the headlines.
Human sin and the suffering of the world
Like Jacob long ago, we wrestle with God, with our questions, with our doubts, up close and face to face, not in detached consideration but with deep consternation. Hank J. Langknecht encourages preachers on this text (and undoubtedly others) “to give voice to anguished questions about justice or war,” for “Christians are also free to strive with God” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
I once heard a commentator on television remind us that “It is the speaking of truth that allows suffering to be heard.” Often, the pain of God’s children and God’s creation will keep us awake at night, and struggling with God.
Richard Pervo asks an important question about that struggle, and provides a good answer as well: “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even? From the perspective of spirituality, the answer is: the kind of God we need” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). What kind of God do you need? What kind of God does your congregation need?
A story of blessing
Jacob’s larger story, including this week’s short excerpt from it, is persistently about blessing. In addition to the blessings God promises him, Jacob has already stolen one from his brother, and now demands yet another from this stranger, and gets it.
James Newsome suggests that, “even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace,” and he describes grace in the “ultimate irony” that “being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Peniel, the face of God” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
Struggle and reconciliation
And Dennis T. Olson brings all of this together beautifully as he reflects on the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (33:4-11) that follows Jacob’s night of struggle with God, for Jacob’s gifts to Esau are described as a “blessing” or berakah, “the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau.” Jacob then sees the face of God, again, in his brother, his former enemy, who accepts and forgives him: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4). (This is one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in the entire Bible.)
Jacob’s response, seeing in Esau “the face of God” (v. 10), shows just how far he has come, from seeing God in that nighttime struggle, Olson notes, to seeing the face of God in his “reconciled enemy/brother who had sought to kill him. In both cases Jacob encounters the beloved enemy, one divine and one human, and emerges from the struggle with greater blessings and a more abundant life” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Family struggles: ever ancient, ever new
Two sermons on this text by great preachers will provide more ideas and approaches for exploring this powerful story, one by Frederick Buechner and the other by Barbara Brown Taylor. Buechner’s words about the theft of Isaac’s blessing that set these events in motion are exquisite and help us to understand Esau’s anger, for “we also know that words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.”
Buechner also wonders about Jacob’s ability to get away with things, to succeed through the “kind of dishonesty, which is also apt to be your kind and mine,” the kind “good” people often use to get, at any cost, what they want and may even believe they deserve.
He also touches the heart of Jacob’s desperate need by describing that last moment, clinging to the stranger: “what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – the face of love. It is vast and strong, half ruined with suffering and fierce with joy, the face a man flees down all the darkness of his days until at last he cries out, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me!'” (“The Magnificent Defeat,” Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
God will take care of things
Barbara Brown Taylor helps with another much-needed attitude adjustment when she notes our preoccupation with a comforting faith in a God who will take care of the chaos in our lives, since “it is God’s job to make it stop. God is supposed to restore the status quo and help everyone feel comfortable again,” even though the Bible, she cautions us, will not support this belief.
In working with this text, then, we can’t skip over the wrestling, even though “[w]e want to be saved, only gently, please, by gradual degrees, so that we can see where we are going and say, ‘Yes, this suits me fine.'”
We are like Jacob
Taylor helps us to see Jacob as more like us, presenting God with our “conditions for our belief in God,” and we “persist in telling God what it means to be with us–to keep us safe, to feed and clothe us, to preserve our lives in peace,” while the God of covenant provides a very different answer to that prayer, one that involves struggle, and questions that aren’t always answered, and yet always a blessing that promises God’s presence with us every step of the way.
Taylor describes Jacob’s obsession with holding onto the visitor most beautifully of all the commentaries: “According to the Midrash,” the visitor “must go because he sings in the morning choir before God’s throne, but Jacob is unsympathetic. He has got hold of someone who smells of heaven, and he simply will not let him go” (“Striving with God,” in Gospel Medicine).
For further reflection:
Shannon L. Alder, 21st century
“You will face your greatest opposition when you are closest to your biggest miracle.”
Mary Balogh, 21st century
“Was memory always as much of a burden as it could sometimes be a blessing?”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 20th century
“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 20th century
“Calvin: ‘There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”
Franz Kafka, 20th century
“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”
Ravi Zacharias, Recapture the Wonder, 20th century
“The world is larger and more beautiful than my little struggle.”
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
how I love your law!
It is my meditation
all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser
than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding
than all my teachers,
for your decrees
are my meditation.
I understand more
than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet
from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away
from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words
to my taste,
sweeter than honey
to my mouth!
Through your precepts
I get understanding;
therefore I hate every way
that is false.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
I lift up my eyes
to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes
who made heaven
God will not let your foot
God who keeps you
will not slumber.
God who keeps Israel
will neither slumber
God is your keeper;
God is your shade
at your side.
The sun shall not strike you
nor the moon
God will keep you
from all evil;
God will keep your life.
God will keep your going out
and your coming in
from this time on
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”