A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Jacob wrestles with a man throughout the night on the shores of the Jabbuk. Even after his hip is put out of place, Jacob persists, not winning the battle, but refusing to let go, refusing to lose the battle.
Jacob persists through the night because that is who Jacob is.
Jacob enters this world grasping the heels of his twin brother Esau (Jacob literally means he who grasps the heel) a brother that even in the womb he disagreed with, a brother that he will forever not trust, a brother that he will forever fight for blessings, for inheritance, for the lineage that has passed from Abraham to Isaac, that should have gone to Esau, and yet, here is Jacob, inserting himself again into the story to change the narrative of the generations that are to come.
Jacob becomes the one who struggles, who wrestles with God, that is the meaning of this new name: Israel. That is how we know this mysterious man on the shores of the river is not just a man, but God, physically present, physically intervening in the story of our creation, to understand this creation that God has created, to insure that those who have been chosen to care for this creation are ready, willing, able, to persist.
A name change from God carries a significant weight.
Abram became Abraham, through his own story of persistence and faith, when God promised him the blessing of generations to come.
Jacob earns this blessing of lineage through his own encounter with God, struggling mightily, persisting, knowing that he cannot win, but also refusing to lose. Thus, Jacob is Israel, and this is the blessing of God passed through the generations, this is the blessing of God for the generations to come that will be traced through Jacob’s house, not Esau’s the one who can claim birthright but nevertheless is continually undercut by Jacob.
What does it look like for us today to claim our faith, to wrestle with God, to persist, and what is the reward for our persistence?
Through the Psalmist we know that the reward is God’s providence in our lives.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth…The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”
The promise of God’s providence builds throughout this Psalm today, he never sleeps, he is our shade, he protects us, preserves us, he keeps us safe. We are afforded this providence through our faith and the promise that has been made throughout the generations to bless those who flow from Abraham, to Isaac, to Israel and beyond.
This is the promise that Jacob fights for today.
This is the promise that Jacob desperately seeks as he builds his family, as he takes his place as the out-of-line heir to Isaac, as he seeks an uneasy peace with Esau, all of this points to growing his family and inheriting this promise of God that flows through his family.
When we consider this promise in Psalm 121, it fills us with the strength and courage to know that we too can persist, that we too can stake our claim, that we too could even wrestle with God if the occasion called for it, in order to insure that the promise is fulfilled, to physically prove our faith, to make clear in no uncertain terms that we believe in what God offers to us through our faith.
Our practice of stewardship then becomes one very tangible, physical way we can stake our claim to our faith, one way we can grab a hold of God and persist in the faith we have that our help comes from the Lord.
The practice of stewardship, of caring for the church, should fundamentally shift who you are in terms of seeing your faith in practice, of the sense of ownership you take on in your faith, of the priority you place your faith in your life. Stewardship affords us the opportunity to make a real, tangible commitment to the church, to insuring that the church is cared for, that we persist with God and receive that continued blessing for generations.
Stewardship then is both a practice of prayer and of persistence.
We cannot engage in stewardship without prayer.
Prayer keeps us connected to God.
Prayer is how we engage with God through the words of today’s psalm, calling out for that protective shade of God. Prayer is, in and of itself, a form of persistence.
Persistence in the face of evil forces.
Persistence in the face of the unjust.
Persistence in the face of a society, a culture, a world, that places value on those things that divide and separate, that harm and oppress, rather than on those things that bring together into one family of creation.
In the face of the unjust judge, our practice of stewardship is a declaration that the church will not go quietly into the night. Just like the widow, the church, as a body, as a group of faithful believers, will continue to badger, to persist, until justice is granted.
We will rise up against the unjust and even if it means we cannot change them but we can wear them down through our continued persistence, then that is how we will fight until justice is the reality of this world.
Thankfully, we do not have to badger and wear down God.
God hears our cries for justice.
God hears us in the words of the Psalmist today, “from where is my help to come?” and it is God, through the tradition we have received, through the stories we read, through this parable of the unjust judge today, who knowing our faith, responds quickly, with justice.
But, we do waver in that faith from time to time.
We waver because the road we face is sometimes filled with danger, with challenge, with pain and sorrow.
We waver not because we lack faith, but because having faith in and of itself is hard, and the call that we have received is hard, so it is no surprise that we waver.
It certainly wasn’t surprising to Paul in the foundational years of the church that believers wavered.
In the second letter to Timothy today, Paul writes about our propensity to waver and challenges us to stand firm in the face of those challenges.
“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.”
And still further:
“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.”
Be persistent. Convince. Rebuke. Encourage.
You have known your faith from childhood, and that is a faith that can and must stay strong within us even in the face of challenges.
Know then, through all that we’ve heard and read today, that God responds to our faith, God acknowledges our faith, God knows our hearts, hears our cries, and cares for us as the faithful body of Christ.
To God then, our practice of stewardship is an acknowledgment from us that we know in and through our faith that God responds to us, immediately.
We know we have access to God, immediately, through Christ. And, this access to God, through Christ, is informed by this tradition that we have received, this tradition that we practice and celebrate here in this place, every Sunday.
A practice and celebration that is informed by today’s Psalm. That is informed by the story of Jacob/Israel, a story from the book of Genesis, the very beginnings of our collective story. That is reinforced through Paul’s letter, once more.
When we are called to walk in the way of love, it is a call that reflects this story of Jacob, these stories collected for today, and the tradition that we have received.
It is a call that acknowledges that Christ is a continuation of this story, that runs forward into our own time.
It is a call that tasks us with being persistent in our faith, that calls us to own our faith, to claim our faith, and to use that faith to better not just ourselves but all who are around us, here in these pews, here in our community, here in all places we reach.
When we live into this reality of our faith, we know that God will hear us and grant us that justice we call for.
When we live into this reality of faith, we know that the Lord watches over us, from this time forth and forevermore.