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Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 17, 2004
The Rev. Mary P. Johnson, Rector
Church of the Holy Family, Jasper, Georgia
Texts: Genesis 32:3-8,22-30; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8a
This morning, like all Sundays, we prayed together the prayer that collects all our disparate thoughts and draws them toward God and invites us to focus on just one thing that is needful for the spiritual growth and health of the members of our community. Maybe, to remind ourselves of its function, we should refer to that prayer as the Colllect, with the emphasis on the second syllable. This morning we asked God to “preserve the works of [his] mercy, that [his] Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of [Christ’s] name.”
Preserve and persevere. Two important words. We ask God to make sure that he continues to act mercifully, in order that we may continue to live faithful lives—for that is what confessing Christ’s name amounts to. In this prayer we are acknowledging that God’s faithfulness and mercy enable us to be faithful to him.
* * *
Once there was an old codger who had spent his whole adult life prospecting for gold in the back country of Alaska. After his knees begin to get stiff and arthritis set in in his hands, he decided to call it quits and go back to the Lower 48 to enjoy his wealth. He flew, with the gold nuggets he’d accumulated all tied up together in the sleeve of an old shirt, to Las Vegas. He took a taxi straight from the airport to a big, flashy casino, the Mirage; he traded his nuggets for a tall stack of chips, walked up to the roulette wheel, and plunked down his chips on one number. The wheel spun….. and he lost everything. “Oh, well,” he said, “Easy come, easy go!”
The prospector knew a lot about persevering. He knew less about preserving what his perseverance had won him.
It’s ironic and truly wonderful that the lectionary designates these particular lessons for today, my first Sunday to celebrate and preach and worship with you here at Holy Family. Who am I, a newcomer, to preach to you about perseverance and preservation? For you are the ones whose perseverance has brought this amazing parish to where you are today.
· You have persevered through the challenging early days when a small group had a vision of an Episcopal worshiping community for Pickens County.
· You persevered when you didn’t yet have a permanent home, when you worshiped in homes, even a funeral home!, in a Presbyterian church, in a double-wide.
· You persevered in bringing this beautiful, holy space into reality when you had some beautiful property, a scary debt, and a set of plans.
· You persevere now in keeping a focus on the needs you see in this community, and the gifts of time and talent that God has blessed you with.
· You persevere in preserving the beauty of this awesome site, making places for meditation, prayer, and refreshment, and offering them to the whole community.
You all know something about perseverance and preservation. I am stepping into a wonderful community. I thank God for calling me. Thank you for inviting me.
The arrival of a new rector is a time of new possibilities. It is a time, too, when things will change in unexpected ways. I will surely bump into sacred cows. You will wonder how I could be so blind, and perhaps even so inconsiderate. I will be sure to do things differently—in spite of promising the choir director, the acolyte minister, and the vergers that I will be keeping things mostly the same—and I’ll probably frustrate the dickens out of them. They—and you--will wonder how I could be so crazy. When we’re all at our wits’ ends, we will need the truths of these amazing lectionary readings we have before us today.
· We will need to remember, with the Psalmist, that our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. God, who has brought us on separate spiritual journeys to this junction where we meet, is not asleep—he’s wide awake to our needs and he is keeping us safe. The Psalm promises that God will indeed preserve us from all evil.
· We will need to remember, as we learn from the Gospel lesson, that perseverance and persistence and maybe even nagging pay of when it comes to fighting for justice. Holy Family Church has a long tradition of seeing needs and, in Christ’s name, seeking to meet them. The Food Pantry and the Good Samaritan Center would not be here if it was not for Holy Family members with a vision. We must preserve this habit of perseverance on behalf of those whose voice may need some amplification to reach the Powers that Be.
· We will need to remember, as Paul begged his protégé Timothy to remember, that we have a responsibility to be faithful to the witness of the Scriptures as the record God’s loving and generous presence among the people he created. All that we do needs to be measured by the overarching truths we find in the Bible. Paul invites Timothy to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” He challenges Timothy: “Carry out your ministry fully.” Ministry as Paul envisioned it, and as we are called to ministry today, is not just what we do here in church. It is what we do and who we are, all seven days of the week: as business people, as parents and grandparents, as doctors and teachers and volunteers. God has equipped each of us with a different subset of the gifts and talents that we need to be a faithful community. The gifts that I do not have for ministry God has no doubt given to many of you. The gifts you do not have for ministry God has given to somebody sitting near you. We truly are God’s Holy Family when we seek God’s help and when we wait for God’s guidance. Episcopalians are people who love our prayer book. But sometimes, in spite of hearing significant chunks of the Bible during our worship through the years we attend church, it’s still not very familiar to us. I hope, with God’s help, that our Holy Family will be a place where we fall in love with the Bible because the Bible is the love story between God and his people. I hope that we read the Bible with stereo vision: as a historical document, and as OUR story.
· Finally, we need to remember and emulate Jacob. I challenge each of you to find time in the next week to sit down and read the whole episode from which today’s Old Testament reading is taken. (That would be Genesis 27-33.)
In brief outline, you will remember, Jacob and Esau were twin sons of the patriarch, Isaac. Esau was the favorite son of his father, and Jacob was the favorite of his mother. Esau was a hunter, a man’s man. Jacob was a little bit softer and perhaps more cerebral. What he couldn’t get by force he got instead by cleverness or even by deception. He tricked his brother Esau out of the special blessing that a Hebrew father could give only to one son. When Esau discovered what Jacob had done, he became so angry that Jacob fled for his life.
He was gone for many years. He married. He became very rich. Yet he could not forget the brother he’d left behind, or the brokenness of their relationship. Finally it was time for him to take care of that unfinished business, and Jacob, along with his wives, his concubines, his children, his servants, and his flocks and cattle, headed home.
The closer he got, the more nervous he was about the sort of reception he would receive. Things became even worse when the messengers he’d sent on ahead brought news that Esau was coming to meet him—with 400 armed servants. Was that a welcoming party or a war party? Jacob decided to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. He put together an enormous gift for Esau: several hundred animals, and he had his servants drive them on ahead. But he also divided his family into two parties in case Esau’s intentions were vindictive. If one party was slaughtered, the other might be spared. Then night fell and he waited, all alone, for what would transpire.
And it is at this point in the story that we have that strange and puzzling verse: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” This mysterious man’s behavior led Jacob to realize that he had been in the presence of an angel of God. The two wrestled through the night. Jacob’s famous words to the angel: “I will not let you go until you bless me”—have been words that have inspired people of faith up to our own day to persevere. Jacob’s wrestling has become a key metaphor for the struggles we all experience in our relationship with God. So often we experience that relationship as a struggle: a struggle to make sense of the difficult times and circumstances of our lives. Jacob’s wrestling all night is a metaphor for perseverance, for hope and trust that at the end of a struggle comes a good outcome. Jacob emerges the next morning with a blessing and a promise, but he is changed forever. He’s limping; he’s humbled; he’s more than met his match. He’s exhausted from the wrestling match, but he has the courage to move forward. He says: “I have seen the face of God and lived” and he calls the place Peni-el—Face of God.
What you won’t see unless you keep reading beyond this morning’s lectionary reading is that this phrase: “the face of God” appears again. The next morning, armed with a blessing, a promise, and the courage to go forward, Jacob limps toward his reunion with Esau. Something amazing happens. Both men are ready to let go of the past and to reconcile. Esau forgives Jacob; Jacob sees his brother in a new way. In fact, what he says is truly remarkable. He says: “To see you is to see the face of God.”
I invite each of you today not to shrink from the places in your life that are lonely and dark. In a mysterious way, in the desolating loneliness that sometimes overwhelms even those of us who are the most wildly extraverted, we meet God. We wrestle, and we hang on, saying to God: “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
God will bless. God will show his face, and we will live, strengthened and empowered. And, like Jacob, we may well discover that where we see the face of God is in the face of our neighbor, our brother. Where we see the face of God, if we struggle and persevere, may well be in the face of the person with whom our relationships are most conflicted, even the person of whom we are most afraid.
My brothers and sisters, in our efforts here at Holy Family to be the people God calls us to be, let us persevere. Let us not be afraid to struggle and wrestle to get things right. Let our prayer to God be: “I will not let you go unless and until you bless me.” With this kind of perseverance, we surely shall look into one another’s eyes and see the face of God.