Genesis 32:22-31;2 Timothy 3:14-4:5;Luke 18:1-8
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
All three of our scripture readings today have the common theme of persistence.
In the Genesis story we hear of Jacob in a wrestling match. “A man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” We eventually learn that the man is actually God. Jacob wrestles with God all night long - for hours and hours on end - despite the fact that one would believe God has an advantage over him. And yet, he persisted.
God prevailed over Jacob on the mat only when God took an unfair advantage and dislocated his hip. Yet despite his being made lame, Jacob holds fast to God. “[God] said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." You see, Jacob desperately wants God’s blessing. He is returning home to Israel which he left after he stole his older brother Esau’s birthright through trickery years before. Jacob believes that Esau wants to destroy him in retribution. If he can wrangle a blessing out of God it will serve to protect him in what he knows will be an inevitable encounter with Esau. But God wants to leave without giving Jacob his blessing. And yet, he persisted.
Because Jacob persevered, God acquiesces and gives Jacob a blessing. Jacob has to be gob-smacked by what his persistence has resulted in: God’s blessing and the fact that he is still alive, for it was believed by the Hebrews that to see God face to face would result in death. In awe and wonder Jacob says, “"For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." All because, he persisted.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul advises his younger protégé to persevere in the face of adversity. Timothy is the leader of a group of churches and responsible for protecting them from destructive outside influences, as well as dissidents from within. “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,” Paul writes him. He continues, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Paul encourages Timothy to persevere in the face of strong opposition. And Timothy prevailed over his opponents, because, he persisted.
In the Gospel of Luke, we hear the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The unjust judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” I will refrain from drawing any contemporary parallels here! The widow has been wronged by someone and she keeps coming to this judge demanding justice. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she insists. But he doesn’t. This in itself is appalling. Throughout scripture, widows are counted among the most destitute members of society, alongside other vulnerable groups such as the poor, orphans, and resident aliens, or, as we call them, immigrants. Because of the precarious social and economic position of such groups, biblical texts make provision for them, saying that God calls us to ensure that they do not fall victim to exploitation by others, and are well-looked after.
This widow is one feisty woman! She has been taken advantage of, most likely by unscrupulous predators. She is looking out after her own best interest by repeatedly going to the unjust judge to demand justice. Eventually the unjust judge thinks to himself, “’because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And so he grants her justice because, she persisted.
This is an instance where the NRSV translation of the scripture takes the punch out of the textual meaning . . . literally. In the original Greek the phrase the NRSV translates as “wear me out” is the verb hypopiazo, which means “to give a black eye.” So, what the original text states is, “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming!”
Wow! The widow is a pugilist! Her persistence and call for justice are such that the judge characterizes her actions as those of a boxer. She’s Rocky! And he wants to be rid of her for fear she goes to sucker punch him. So, he gives her justice because, she persisted.
Now this imagery of the widow as a boxer, ready to take on the judge is a humorous one. It’s funny; worthy of a SNL skit. But the jokes not on the widow. “New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer rightly recognizes, the humor in this scene is not one of comic relief. The humor in this scene instead pokes fun at the powers-that-be, “lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like.” Like our political cartoons today, Jesus’ parable encourages us to laugh at those who wield their power unethically. We laugh, though, in order to challenge such figures, and ultimately, to offer a different way.”
We may initially laugh at the image of an older, frail woman as a boxer. But the one who is the butt of the joke is the judge, a buffoon who is the antithesis of God’s mercy. In God’s eyes the joke’s always on the one who doesn’t look out for widows, orphans and immigrants; on the person who makes their lives harder, more miserable by their callousness and lack of respect for people and God.
Jesus promises us that God will vindicate these “little ones” against those who inflict hardship on them, or who fail to use their power to alleviate their plight. God does not protect the property and monetary interests, or the immoral behaviors and desires, of the powerful and privileged who defy God’s ways. And God will never condone those who support those who do so.
Rather God is compassionate, ready to respond to the needs of the powerless and distressed. Jesus is crystal clear in stating this truth; the ways of God’s reign call for our priorities to be based on compassion.
To emphasize this Jesus compares and contrasts the judge to God. He tells his listeners, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” In other words, if a recalcitrant, compassionless judge who has no respect for people eventually gives what is needed, then God, who is full of compassion for the beleaguered of the world, will do so with enthusiasm. God doesn’t need to be badgered or cajoled into doing so.
In this parable God is like the widow, (and at least in her willingness to fight for what she needs, like Jacob) in her own relentless commitment to getting what is needed to gain justice. And she did so because, she persisted.
Jesus tells us to pray night and day – to be persistent like the widow, and Timothy, and Jacob – in seeking God’s guidance and companionship to bring about justice and mercy for all people. To persistently pray to God, asking that we be given the wear-with-all and the chutzpah to become persistent boxers and wrestlers against the powers-that-be who ignore the pleas of the needy and marginalized. To be willing to give a metaphorical black eye to those who defy God’s reign. To laugh at the pompous buffoons of the world, challenging them in their egregious behaviors and ultimately, to let them know there is a different way; the way love which is a power that can never be defeated or overcome because it is of God.
My companion followers of Jesus, let’s go to the mat for God, and as Paul writes Timothy in his first letter, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. [And] fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Tim. 6:11b – 12a)
In our prayers let us beseech the Creator that we become pugilists for God, and that in so doing we move God’s reign ever closer, because, we persisted.
F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 292-93.
 Brittany E. Wilson, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., Working Preacher commentary on Luke 18:1-8. https://www.workingpreacher.org.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I love the ocean! I spend ten days of vacation each August in Ogunquit, Maine, a place that has a stunning three-mile long, white, sandy beach, as well as a mile-long path called the Marginal Way, that runs along craggy rocked shore-line with gorgeous views of the Atlantic ocean. I call this time there my annual ocean fix, which is crucial to my mental and spiritual health and well-being.
Nothing like the ocean restores my weary body and soul. The sea is the Balm of Gilead for me. And like good liturgy, which I also love, the sea touches all five of my senses: the sound of the waves, the briny smell of the spray, the salty taste, the ever-changing colorful seascapes that the sun, moon and stars play upon the ocean’s surface, and – at least in Maine, where the average August water temperature is in the high 50’s – the bracing, invigorating and then numbing effect of the cold water on your skin. The ocean makes me feel alive, because in so many ways the ocean itself is alive. It is living water.
One of the joyful pleasures of on the seashore is walking on the beach and watching young children encounter the ocean – this living water - for the very first time. Have you ever done this? Watched little children at the seashore and discover the water? It’s truly one of life’s pleasures.
Watching little children, somewhere between the ages of one and four years old, encounter the sea for the first time is to remember what joy and wonderment are all about.
Now the ocean can initially be a little intimidating for the uninitiated, especially little kids. Many who are hesitant to get up close are introduced to the sea by an adult picking them up and slowly carrying them into the surf, allowing all their senses to be engaged by the water slowly and safely. Yet many children get this look of trepidation on their faces as the adult moves into deeper waters. They are unsure of what to expect and not sure they want to go any deeper . . . even safely embraced in adult arms.
Then the adult slowly lowers the hesitant child so that a foot gets wet and they feel for the first time that delicious cold salt-water moving on their skin. Or maybe a larger wave breaks and the salt spray covers the child and the adult, inducing a moment of shock on the child’s face, which quickly transforms in to joy and wonder and glee. It’s an aha moment. Before long the child wants to be let down, so that they can run back and forth as the waves ebb and flow on the shore; it’s the as if the child is playing a game of tag with the ocean.
And oh, the shouts of glee and laughter that peal forth from the child as they play in these living waters. It is a joy and wonder to behold. And I have not even mentioned the sand, sea shells, starfish, periwinkles, gulls and crabs, yet!
(At the 10:30 service) (In a few moments) we are going to baptize Fionnan Miquel into the household of God. In the liturgy we will pray one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer.
“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of
grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give him
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and [my absolute favorite phrase] the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”
That’s precisely what little children encountering the sea are doing: expressing “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” The magnificence and the beauty of the sea that God has created induces this exuberant expression of joy and awe in them. It’s the same joy and awe when a child first encounters any number of things for the first time: a bug, a fragrant flower, a puppy, a kitten, ice cream! Each brings about one of those aha moments, as the child expresses the gift of joy and wonder in all that God has made.
As we baptize Fionnan Miquel, we celebrate that gift of joy and wonder. That’s our prayer for him today as he encounters the living waters of baptism; that he retains that gift of joy and wonder in his life; even as he grows into adulthood, and the changes and chances of live threaten to wear him down, inducing cynicism and even a loss of hope. That in those moments of despair or hard-heartedness, he will reconnect to the innocence of his childhood and remember that life is full of awe and wonder and that taking delight in God’s gifts can move him from despair to renewed hope. Allowing him to laugh with glee and joy as he revels in the goodness of all God has given us. We need to pray that very same thing for ourselves, as well.
We live in very cynical times; times when the despair quotient seems to exponentially increase daily. When compared against other western nations our nation falls further and further down the happiness scale each year. The number of people who find little happiness in life grows with each depressing, seemingly hopeless, event in our national life. The lack of common decency and civility, the legitimation of hate and violence against people who are not white, straight, supposedly Christian, and wealthy, the growing economic disparities, the reckless behaviors and verbiage that put people’s lives in danger, all these and more add to our lack of hippiness, national despair and a loss of hope. In the book of Proverbs, we are told that where there is no vision the people perish. I would observe when there is no vision, there is no hope, and when there is no hope, people perish. Our current lack of a coherent and healthy vision for the future for us as a people, means we have less and less hope, and therefore we are in danger of perishing.
Fionnan’s baptism today, and the joy and awe that we witness in our children as they encounter the Creation and all of life, are the antidote to our despair and loss of hope. They can heal us, allowing us to live and thrive if we hold them as the great gift from a Creator who loves us; a Creator who wants nothing more than for us to live joyfully as God’s children; as joyfully as children encountering with awe and wonder all the goodness of life.
In our reading from 2 Kings, Naaman the Syrian general who has leprosy, is an object lesson of how we can move from cynicism and a loss of joy in life, to new life that revels in joy and wonder at all that God gives and does for us.
When Naaman is told by the prophet Elisha, to wash in the waters of the Jordan to cure his leprosy, he is not only cynical, he is disdainful. Why bother with such a simple act? Won’t it take a more elaborate process to cure him? After all, he is a general, an important man. He is so wrapped up in himself, he can’t see the gift of God being offered to him.
Wiser minds prevail and convince him to do as the prophet says. And he does so and is healed of his leprosy. We are to told, “[Naaman’s] flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” I believe that his mind and his spirit were also restored to that of a young boy, as well. Because in those living waters of the Jordan river, he rediscovers the joy and wonder of God’s goodness and love for him.
As we call down the Holy Spirit upon the waters of baptism today they will become living waters; the waters of God that heal and bring us new, authentic life in Christ. Like the living ocean waters of Ogunquit that bring such joy to children, these living waters of baptism remind us of our own youthful, less cynical selves and invite us to reclaim the joy and wonder in life that God gives to us. There is immense blessing in that. And in that blessing we can become restorers of hope, joy, awe and wonder of God’s love for us to the world. That is holy work, indeed!
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.