Pentecost 21 October 17, 2010

Genesis 32:22-31                                                                               

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5                                                             

Luke 18:1-8

 Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. – Luke 18:1

So we’re talking about persistence this morning – persistence, commitment, a life grounded in hope and in ultimate trust in God. And while Jesus is talking specifically about prayer, in a real sense all life is prayer (or should be); so we’re talking about life, the character of life lived in discipleship with Jesus.

There are two brothers, sons of a Marine officer: The elder has followed in his father’s footsteps, a high school athlete, a family man, a major in the Marines leading combat missions in Afghanistan, about to return for another tour of duty. The younger is just getting out of prison, where he’s served time for a botched bank hold-up. He’s a drunk, a ne’er do well . . . all the rest. The father has no time for the younger son. “You know what your problem is?” he berates him. “You’re a quitter. The moment things get tough, you check out.”

If this rings a bell with you, you know I’m talking about a movie, Brothers. It’s worth watching. It’s about the importance of learning persistence in life. I won’t give away the plot, except to say that in the end the younger brother turns his life around. He learns the importance of dedication and commitment, to tasks and to people. From being totally self-centered, he comes to understand that a fulfilling life is about loving and serving others.

Persistence is not something American culture instills in us. I think of the cartoon of a father changing a tire by the side of a highway in the driving rain. His two little kids are staring out at him, faces pressed to the car windows. “Don’t you understand?” he says to them. “I can’t change the channel.” We’ve built a change-the-channel culture, and we’ve done it very well. You see it in our politics. Things are rough, problems serious: change the channel. No real attempt to look – without just blaming the other party – at how things got the way they are and how together we might work, with persistence, to get to a better place. You know, we elect our officials. We elect the people who promise us an easy channel change. In the end, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

But let’s go back to prayer, to persistence in our relationship specifically with God. (And I would stress again, that you can’t really have a full relationship with yourself – or with other people – unless you have a relationship with God.) We have three wonderful lessons this morning. The story of Jacob wrestling with “the man” is one of the great archetype stories in the Bible. Jacob is there at the river crossing, about to reenter the homeland which he left years before to seek his fortune. He’s returned rich in wives, children, livestock. He’s come back to claim his inheritance, his ordained role in the history of God’s people. So this is a critical crossing, a critical passage: will he succeed, will he fail?

“Jacob was left alone,” the story says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” The “man” is never identified, but it’s clear that he’s God himself. That movie Brothers is a very good dramatization of the way in which all our fundamental struggles are really wrestlings with God as well as with ourselves. Teenagers face these struggles: adolescence is a major “river crossing.” Will they persist or like that younger son, check out? Adulthood is a series of river crossings as we move from stage to stage. At each the struggle, with ourselves and with God. I’m very conscious that retirement and then old age is one of these wrestling moments.

Now the change-the-channel mentality tells us that persistence is stupid. You’re bored with school, bored with your marriage, bored with your career, bored with church, bored with God – bored in the sense that things seem at a dead end, no excitement left for you – our culture says change the channel. Boredom, it says, is a problem with our surroundings, never with ourselves. The reading from Second Timothy puts it beautifully (for this is really nothing new). “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.” Teachers, politicians, media gurus, God . . . whatever: change the channel.

When I was in seminary, the Old Testament professor one day asked us what we thought would be different when we were priests. Someone as I remember said that he’d be able to lay his hands on a piece of bread and turn it into the Body of Christ. (This was before he’d got very far in Fr. Weil’s liturgy class.) But then someone said, we’ll have to go to church for the rest of our lives, and really pray every day, whether we want to or not. And that answer has come back to me, time after time, in my moments of dryness or discouragement over the years. Persistence. It’s really something we undertake in Baptism, not just in Ordination.

As the dawn breaks, Jacob tells the mysterious man, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he asks the man his name, his identity. That is always what we seek in our wrestlings with God (and with ourselves): Who are you really, God? Are you really, do you exist? And who am I? But in the Jacob story God withholds his name, his ultimate identity – as he always does in these encounters in the Bible. If we could pin God down, you see, God wouldn’t remain God. He’d become an idol, something we made for ourselves, a channel we could change. What God does do is give Jacob a new name. And that is what God gives us if we persist in our prayerful wrestlings with him. He gives us a new self, a larger self, as a lobster sheds its old shell and grows a new one. God gives Jacob the name of Israel, meaning “the one who strives with God” or “God strives.”

It is the ultimate blessing. In the end it is the only name that counts – for any of us. It is why we persist in gathering here, celebrating the Eucharist, striving with God.

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