Sermon "Faithful Prayer"
The First Reading - Genesis 32:22-31
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[c] and he was limping because of his hip.
Second Reading - 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
1 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: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 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, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Gospel - Luke 18:1-8
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4For awhile he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
When I read this week’s lectionary, I thought, “No Problem” The texts seem pretty clear cut. There were not a lot of words that have different meanings in Greek or Hebrew that I had to explain because they can clarify our understanding of the scripture. I could relate to it. Who has not struggled with God? Who has not felt injustice? I tend to be a tenacious person so I could certainly talk about perseverance. I could make the text relevant to today’s society. I had a laugh out loud moment when I read the second reading. I loved the vision of itchy ears causing us not to hear the truth. I certainly had never thought that might be I living in a time prophesied in the Bible before. Though, there are times when I read the news and wonder if the four horses on the apocalypse are not just right over the horizon. I was relieved to see there were not any weird social customs I had to explain. It has not been that many years that widow’s lives weren’t precarious. In my 30’s, a friend of mine lost her husband and had a similar experience when the banks froze all her joint accounts and had to battle an uncaring bureaucracy. The message God wants us to hear is very forthright. Pray always and do not lose heart. This was great. When I taught Kindergarten Sunday School, I always would come up with a phase the embodied the lesson for the day. I would repeat it often in the hope that this little phrase would carry them through the week and when their parents asked what they learned in Sunday school today they could repeat the phrase. Although I will not be doing that, you are adults; it was nice to have something to focus on while writing my sermon. So why did I struggle with this all week? In reality it was this little non-sequitur at the end of the Gospel. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Where did that come from? How do I tie that to Jacob’s wrestling with God, our mission to be steadfast truth of God’s teachings, and praying always and not losing hope? I hadn’t found much about this verse in the commentaries. I read some sermons that did not mention this part at all. I’m sure a more learned person would have some insight into how this relates but I had nothing. By Friday night with some attempts, numerous outlines but no sermon, I decided to get up Saturday morning and just give you my thoughts about each reading and pray that something reveals itself.
Perseverance in our struggle with God seemed to be clear message in the first reading. I know I have certainly struggled with him. When I see the tragedy of the world I have to wonder, “Where is God?” But then I remember he gave me free will. He walks with me but he does not control me. I’m pretty sure war is never in God’s plan. But when I contemplated this passage, it was not Jacob’s perseverance, as Pastor Sue used to say, that simmered for me but when that when dawn broke and light shined down on Jacob and the man said, “Let me go it's daybreak.” Jacob realized he was with God and prayed “Bless me”. My friend, Sister Dianne, calls this a burning bush moment, where God is speaking directly to you. Think of the Church of Christ slogan, God is still talking. A few years ago I was suffering a loss. I don’t remember what the problem was at all but I do remember how I felt. I was angry. I felt righteous indignation. It was unfair. I had done nothing wrong but I was losing anyway. The more I did the more it became a lose, lose situation. During this time, while flipping through the TV channels, I see Sister Jean. You might remember her as the 98 year old Nun who is the chaplain of the Loyola Chicago basketball team as they made the Cinderella run to the 2018 Final Four. She became quite a celebrity. My son, Neil, had gone to Loyola Chicago. Sister Jean lived in the dorm next door and he had told us stories of how she would be out at the bus stop to encourage students as the left for classes and was often there to greet them as they returned. So I stopped flipping to watch her interview. The reported asked her if she prayed for the other team. With an impish smile she replied “Of course but I pray for my team more. Then she became quite serious and continued, “But I always pray that if the Lord sees fit to give me an L instead of a W, I have the grace to accept His will. It might as well have been a burning bush. I immediately prayed. Grant me the grace to accept Your will. The situation didn’t change but I did. I stopped praying for what I wanted and prayed for what God wanted. Thy will be done. I started to treat the other side with the love and compassion that God commands of us. And of course, there was peace and freedom from the struggle that came with acceptance. I can imagine it is the same peace Jacob felt as he prayed, “Bless me”, and his struggle was over. I have to wonder if a lot of the struggles in my life are because I am wrestling with God and not working with him.
Just as he did with the early Christians, Timothy reminds us, in the second reading, that we know the truth and we need to trust in the teachings of the Bible because they are inspired by God. I can’t tell you how many times I have shaken my head as someone holds up a bible to justify prejudice and discrimination. How do they reconcile that with Jesus’ commandment to love others as I have loved you? Holding steadfast to the truth is getting more difficult as truth has become fluid in today’s society. Spin doctors try to convince you that the sky is pink when you can clearly see it is blue. I did just laughed out loud when I read “3 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, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Is that not describing exactly the time we live in? In our modern culture we can certainly barricade ourselves so that no information gets to us that do not support our point of view. If something does breach the barricade we can simple yell, “Fake New,” Timothy recognizes that it is not easy to spread the message when people don’t want to hear the truth and wander away to myths. In view of Christ’s coming and Kingdom, he charges us to persevere anyway. In favorable or unfavorable times, be patient in our teachings, and carry out our mission fully.
It feels like every day the world is more unjust. I can pay myself a two million dollar salary and pay my employees minimum wage, subjecting them and their families to a life of poverty while I live lavishly. People don’t seem to do the right thing anymore unless it benefits them or they got caught. When I was young I used to think I knew exactly what justice looks like. No so much anymore. It’s probably all those Jesuit sermons in my past. I do know that giving justice to one person might bring injustice to someone else. Think the Middle East? I know that justice can move slowly and perseverance is required. We can only look to the 1969 Voting Rights Act and last year’s election to see that voting rights still need to be protected. We might see a glimmer of justice when people who have bribed their children’s way into prestigious universities go to jail, for 2 weeks. But God tells us in the parable of the widow and the judge that we can find justice in our unjust world. That a widow with no voice, no social standing, and if this was in modern times, no lawyer, can demand justice and get it then there is hope for all of us. God, unlike the judge, will grant swift justice to those who cry out to him. That’s hope too. The hope we’re not supposed to lose.
Many years ago, my husband and I started attending the Season of Hope concerts at the San Jose Cathedral. Every year we would make a special effort to see the Maranatha Hope and Glory Choir. They are a wonderful Gospel group that spoke to our bible belt roots. They would have performances at both 5 and 7. We would stay for both. After a few years we got to know the choir and they extended an invitation to their church. I was quite surprised when my husband said yes. As many of you know my husband is not a church goer. But he was serious. When we looked up the church they called themselves a Christian Center but having gotten to know members of the choir I was pretty sure we were walking into a good old fashion Southern Baptist service. I told my husband what I thought we could expect and off we went. He was delighted in the hour of Gospel singing but not so much in the hour of preaching. If you ask him today, some 20 years later, what the sermon was about he will tell you, if you are not getting what you pray for, you are doing it wrong. I would like to say his synopsis is wrong but it is not. The funny thing is I know the preacher repeated this many times but I don’t remember any advice on how to do it right. Although I really disliked the premise of this sermon, it did make think about my own prayer life. I certainly was not getting all the things I prayed for so was I doing it wrong? I prayed the way I had been taught; prayers of gratitude, prayers of petition, prayers for mercy, prayer for intercession. I did seem to pray more when I needed Him. My prayers of gratitude were often a perfunctory grace at dinner. Should I be like the widow was to the judge? Just bug God until I get what I want. That technique did not work for my children. No matter how miserable they made my life at times I tried to hold steadfast to what I thought was their best interest. I would expect nothing less from God. He is my father, I am his child. I do admit there were a few time I wondered why I needed to pray at all. He knows all my desires and fears, hopes and dreams without me saying a word. Did I need to pray? The bible said so. Remember, we are called to trust in the truth of His word. So, I thought about what God wants from me when I pray. I clearly had a whole list of things I wanted from him but what did He want. I’m sure the revival preachers from my past would say, “He wants you to accept Him as your Lord and Savior and to be reborn in his love.” What that really means to me is that He wants me to claim my relationship with Him. Not one where I am passive but He wants an active relationship with me. Prayer is my part of that relationship. When I realized this, as I’m sure many of you have already, my prayer life changed. My prayers became more like conversations. He doesn’t care if I tell Him the same thing over and over. He and my husband both know that I need to verbalize my problems as I work through them and patiently listen until I get it all out. I still get angry when His will does not align with mind and I struggle at times with what his plan is for me. Remember, it is a relationship with a human on one side. I often pray Sister Jean’s prayer, to have the grace to accept God’s will and to respond not matter what the outcome with grace, because I trust in His promise to work for my good. I also know that the most important prayer I pray each day is “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, because that is really the prayer I want answered.
The light has dawned and I finally do understand how that final verse fits into today’s lesson. He wants a relationship with us, an active relationship through prayer. It is this relationship that is the foundation of our faith. It is what drives us to be His hands and feet in the world, makes us want to worship and praise Him, to learn more about Him, and share our faith with others. He knows that this is often difficult. He knows that we will do all those human things. We will doubt. We will struggle against His will. We will get indifferent and let our busy live distract us. He will not let go of us. He is the constant. And when the dawn breaks, we will see Him face to face. There is so much hope to cling to. There are day break, burning bush moments of grace where He will relieve himself. He reminds us that we if can find justice in this unjust world just imagine the justice of a God who loves us, He knows we will be tempted by itchy ears and might wander away to myths. But he assures us that the Word of God is His word and the truth. We should trust in his teachings as we prepare for His coming and fulfill our mission to bring others to Christ. Truly, as long as there are people who stand up with arms outstretched saying, ‘It’s me, Lord. It’s me. I need to pray, I need to claim my relationship with You. I need to trust in Your will,” that when the Son of Man comes he will always find faith.