Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twentieth-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 17, 2010
I suppose we all have a button or two that, when pushed, sends us into a bit of a tailspin. This morning’s Gospel lesson reminds me all too clearly of one of mine. If you want to get me going, just mention the word “nuisance.”
I don’t remember being an especially demanding child – at least in terms of wanting THINGS – but I have some pretty clear memories of wanting attention and affection. In comparison to my mild-mannered, extremely shy twin sister, I came off as a pest – pressing my little forehead into the lap or leg or face of almost anyone at almost any time. I was a nuisance, a pest.
Pests, whatever they’re after, are annoying – like the midnight mosquito who finds its way into the bedroom, hovering above the only source of heat in the room: your body. Diving at an ear, checking out a cheek, determined to wait for the kill until your sleepy slapping arm stops waving through inky air.
While we might not be so fond of pests, it appears that God is. This little parable about the persistent widow and the story of Jacob’s middle-of-the-night fight are just two of the stories that illustrate God’s delight in those who won’t give up, those who keep coming back, those who aren’t willing to hedge their bets and leave without the goods.
In the stories of Jesus in the Gospels there were the crowds always asking for more face-time, the children who clamored for more lap-time, religious leaders who plotted for more debate time. More, more, more of Jesus – and yet rarely do we hear of him dismissing, ignoring or sending anyone to a time-out chair.
Pests show up in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. In our Old Testament lesson we meet Jacob again – one of those rather shady but important heroes of our faith – behaving like a pest too. Persistently fighting with a stranger in the night, desperate for God’s blessing. Jacob is unwilling to let go of the holy visitor – even when he’s clearly winning the fight. Unfortunately there’s no ref or ump around to invoke the mercy rule. Jacob persists in wrestling with and throwing punches – determined to receive God’s blessing even if it means living the rest of his life with a limp.
So what is it about these particular persistent pests that seems to please God? Is it what they were asking for? The end rather than the means of their behavior?
In Jesus’ parable, the widow is seeking justice. While we’re not told the details of her story – we can safely assume she had been cheated out of something that was rightfully hers – she is seeking only what is fair, what is equitable. But her pleas for justice fall on deaf ears – ears that refuse to listen until, like the midnight mosquito, her annoying buzz is too much to bear. And the judge, in order to get some rest, must throw off the covers, turn the light on and deal with her. She is persistent in seeking justice.
Jacob’s story is different. He was never one to place a high priority on justice. Having received his father’s blessing through an act of deceit against his brother, he now seeks God’s blessing.
Justice and blessing – two requests that seem to fit well within the parameters of what we believe God wants all people to experience – requests that would please God to fulfill. But there’s still the underlying theme of persistence. What can we make of that?
One thing is certain – the persistence shown by both the widow and Jacob requires connection, relationship. The parable is not about someone who simply mutters to herself about the state of her affairs. And Jacob isn’t throwing random punches into thin air. In both cases their persistence is directed at someone who can actually change things.
If we understand these stories as examples of how we are to live as children of God, our persistence in seeking those things that we believe God wants for us becomes important. As God’s children, we try to get our desires lined up with God’s desires and then we persist in asking God to act. I think that might be a good summation of some of what we do here together every week as we gather to worship.
But what if we turn these stories on their heads. Could it be that what we are invited to focus on is not our persistence, but God’s? What if we understood the parable of the widow as a picture of how God keeps knocking on our door, buzzing in our ears, crashing into our peaceful sleep asking us to consider pursuing justice? Demanding that we do the fair and equitable thing?
What if we focused on the strangers’ relentless willingness to wrangle – to fight it out until blessing is pronounced, until blessing is experienced? Could it be that God is so patient with – and pleased with – those who persist because persistence is part of God’s nature?
The Scriptures and our liturgies are full of references to God’s persistence – God’s persistent call to repentance, God’s persistent call to actions of love and justice, God’s persistent invitation to real and authentic relationships – with others, with the creation, with ourselves as well as with God? Recognizing God’s persistent invitation is an important part of our lives as God’s children. It is only when we hear the knocking, pay attention to the buzzing, recognize the one with whom we wrestle, that we can in turn, persist in being faith-filled people.
So, dear friends, do not lose heart. Instead, pay attention to the One who pursues you – and meet God’s persistence with your own. Persist in prayer and continue wrestling with the God of Jacob until you, too, bear the mark of blessing. Amen.