Pentecost 21, Proper 24, October 17, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
I have a very persistent dog. She believes that if she can just get close enough to one she can eat a cow. She believes that any dog on the block that is talking must be answered in like manner, only louder. She believes that absolutely no one should pass our house un-greeted, and she desperately believes that there is buried treasure in my woodpile. Nothing I have done to influence her has been much more than marginally successful.
We worship a God that is persistent. God makes my dog look like a roll-over washout of a wimp. God's persistence is inexorably present, it is unmovable and unstoppable, and nothing the human race has done in the whole history of existence has managed to deflect it. Today's readings illustrate persistence.
In today's first lesson Jacob is not exactly on the right path. Jacob has been in Haran at his uncle Laban's for last couple of decades. He went there ostensibly to find a wife, but the real reason is that he had tricked his older brother Esau out of his birthright (the lion's share of the inheritance) and he was running for his life. While in Haran Jacob has managed to take control of the household flocks and herds. With Laban less than happy with him, he steals away at night with two of Laban's daughters that are his wives, and the family idols. Now he is headed back to Canaan to his father's house. He gets word that Esau has not forgotten. He is coming with 400 armed men, and Jacob is terrified. The lesson says he wrestled with a man all night long. We find out in the morning that the man is an angel. But the wrestling is not with God as much as it is with his own self, and God is a player in that struggle. But he persists and the angel blesses him.
In the Epistle lesson Paul writes to Timothy, his protégé in Ephesus. He warns him about coming apostasy in the church, and he urges Timothy in several different ways to persevere in the face of adversity. "Be persistent, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable," he writes. Timothy needs a blessing, and like Jacob, he is going to have to wrestle for it.
In the Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow. She has a case to bring before the judge, but the judge has the integrity of some of the judges in Williamson County. She is so persistent that she wears him down. He grants her justice, not because it is just, but because the woman won't leave him alone. If this is how the world works how much more eagerly will your heavenly Father grant us justice? Luke gives us the moral of the story before we begin: Prayer should be constant without losing heart.
Today, persistence is a spiritual virtue but a social vice. We live in an instant world. We want faster and faster internet connections, instant breakfast, instant oil changes, instant pictures, instant marriage and instant divorce. If it takes until tomorrow to get what I want I'll change what I want. Here is where our culture today is really quite broken.
God asks us to be persistent, not to change His mind, but to change ours. When we struggle for something and hang on through the dark nights of the soul until we emerge to a new day, something happens within us that can only happen that way. We are purged of our short-sighted impatience, and granted wisdom and blessings we cannot imagine. Cases in point: Jacob meets Esau and the meeting does not end in a bloodbath, but a reconciliation. Timothy hangs on and the church in Ephesus becomes one of the pillars of the ancient Christian world. The widow hangs on and gets justice. Jesus hangs on through the cross and the tomb to win for us abundant life—and this, ultimately, is the paradigm, the explaining model. Jesus conquers the sin and brokenness of our living by persistence through suffering, and so do we. Jesus is not teaching us to do something he has not already done in spades. He sets the example.
The example goes straight to the heart of God. Look at the whole trajectory of salvation. Adam and Eve have it good and mess it up, and God promises redemption. Think of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, the kings, the return from exile, and finally, Jesus. The whole Bible can be read as a story of God's persistence in redeeming His fallen creation.
And think how many times God has called out to you, keeping you safe in adversity and danger, granting you people to love, work to inspire and challenges that bring out the best in you? And how many times will He forgive you when you turn to him in repentance? Michael Card has a song about Jacob called Asleep on Holy Ground. The chorus says it all:
He limped away on holy ground awakened from the dream,
Having learned his costly lesson from the way of the Nazarene;
That pain's the path to blessing, love will fight us to be found,
And God remains a dream to those who sleep on holy ground.
Love will fight us to be found, over and over and over again. Can we respond with anything less?
I recently read one of the earliest reliable sources we have about the ancient Celtic Saints. If there was anything in the life of Cuthbert that traces a golden thread through his days it was persistence. As a child he was always in front. He won in sports, in school and at play, he was the best and he knew it. So when God called him to a life of prayer he was naturally going to do it with all his heart. He would spend night after night in prayer, he would submerge himself in the icy waves all night long in order to calm the fire of his passions. When things got just too worldly around him he moved to the island of Farne to set up a hermitage. There he lived out his days in virtual isolation, spending the time in prayer. And the miracles attributed to his prayer include house-fires quenched, healings, evil men converted, crops saved from devastation, ships saved at sea, and a host of other things.
We're not persistent in order for God to grant us our selfish desires, no, we're persistent because God is persistent in loving the world, and we want to be the same.