Genesis 32:22-31, Luke 18:1-8
I like to pretend I’m a runner. It’s an activity that I’ve been off and on with since college–I’ll spend a few good weeks lacing up and heading out, proud of my choice to take care of my body. I get excited at the prospect of being able to run a little bit further, or the potential for the cool swag (like t-shirts and water bottles) that I could get if I signed up for a race, or knowing that I could outrun a bear should one choose to pursue me (as they so often do in the city).
But then something comes along and I completely lose my mojo. My muscles get sore and my body feels tired, the weather takes a turn into cold or rain, or I just straight up remember that I like Netflix and napping better than I like being sweaty and out of breath. And then, weeks (or even months) go by when I don’t even entertain the idea of running, and the longer I go without, the harder it is to start again because I know I’ll be back at Square One. In other words, perseverance when it comes in the form of physical exercise is not something that I have much of, and the result of that is that I never get very far. Literally. Because I’m so wishy washy about my desires to keep running, I never make it more than a mile and a half at a time (and even then, I can promise you there’s some walking in there). And I have to tell you, there are no mile and a half races for adults and, with the speed at which I go, that bear would quickly gobble me up!
In the Genesis scripture today, though, Jacob is a prime example of what it looks like to have perseverance–both physically and spiritually. In the beginning of this part of Jacob’s story, he is completely alone, having sent away his wives and children in preparation for a potentially disastrous visit from his brother Esau, with whom he was on less-than-good-terms. It is in this space of aloneness and fear that a mysterious man comes to Jacob and without much of a pretext, they wrestle. And they wrestle some more. And so it goes, and while we don’t know how long it was for certain, we know the whole ordeal lasted at least a few hours, as they wrestled from deep into the night until daybreak. Even after having his hip put out of joint by this mysterious man, Jacob kept wrestling. Finally, as the sun was rising, they stop, and the mysterious man reveals that Jacob has “striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed,” and thus, we learn that this stranger is an Angel of God.
Jacob could have given up on his circumstances in so many ways. He was be pursued by a potentially vengeful brother–yet in the verses prior to what was given in the lectionary today, we see Jacob persistently petitioning God to soften Esau’s heart. And then we see him literally wrestling with his faith as he fights with this representative of God. And we see the results of what his efforts brought–it is this interaction that brought about Jacob’s new title: Israel. From this, the promise and the blessing of God’s deliverance toward Jacob is complete. This blessing, though, came with a persistent reminder of the struggle that Jacob faced to get there, though. As the story goes, he was plagued by his hip injury for the rest of his days–a physical mark that he had struggled in the darkness and overcome it.
In a similar way, the widow from Jesus’s parable is overwhelmingly persistent. Jesus tells his disciples that the woman continually went to a cruel judge, begging for aid against her opponent. By the sound of it, this judge wasn’t the best of people, as it is said that he “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” He wasn’t exactly the kind of person to put much stock into the supplications of a widow–one of the most voiceless people in Biblical society. But the widow continues to ask, and to request, and to plead that the judge intercede on her behalf.
And the judge listens, and while the dialogue says it’s because he’s getting annoyed with her and doesn’t want to be worn down anymore, the point is that she was successful. And the larger parallel to be drawn is that God is greater than this crooked judge. We have a God who listens and will grant justice to those who ask.
While she was not one to wrestle, and as I would imagine, not much of one to be a bother, Corrie ten Boom was a woman who knew a thing or two about persistence in the face of great trials. A middle-aged, spinster watchmaker who lived in the Netherlands in World War II, Corrie and her family experienced a growing Nazi presence in their country that affected every part of life from food rations and curfews to the deportation of Jewish neighbors and friends as the Holocaust raged.
An ardent Christian family, the ten Booms were unable to stand idly by in the midst of this and immediately chose to step up when Jewish strangers arrived at their door, asking for help. Between 1943 and 1944, Corrie became a leader in the underground movement in her city to protect Jews, refugees, and others trying to aid in this effort–all told, she and the network of families and individuals she worked with managed to protect over 800 people during those years by providing hiding places in their homes.
However, in 1944, the ten Booms were reported to the Gestapo, and the entire family was arrested. Ultimately, Corrie and her sister, Betsie, spent the better part of a year in prisons and eventually one of the most notorious labor camps in Germany. They struggled through famine, disease, and imagery that could fast cause one to lose their faith. But still they held strong, always knowing that what they were experiencing was part of a grander scheme–one in which God’s all-consuming love and power would be revealed, though they didn’t know how at the time. In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie reflects on the pain and fear they felt in Ravensbruck, the labor camp, through the lens of a parable her father told her as a child: “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”
Admittedly, I struggled for awhile on whether or not to include that quote in my sermon. Almost since Jenn asked me to preach all the way back in September, it had been sitting with me, and I couldn’t quite decide why. After all, the scriptures in today’s lectionary involve persistence and taking action in one’s faith in the face of struggles. How does resignedly sitting on a train, waiting for the darkness to pass relate at all? Where is the perseverance in that? The more I mulled it over, though, I realized that it’s not passive at all. Because, sure, you’re passively waiting for the train to pass through the tunnel, but most importantly, you’re also actively trusting the train’s engineer to see you through to the other side.
Given this imagery–though it may not be a fair comparison, given Metro’s current state and the regular faux pas it commits–when any of us end up on a single tracked train, caught in a tunnel, we could panic and try to take rash actions to remove ourselves from the situation. However, it is my most sincere hope that that is not any of our reactions. Rather we calmly wait, trusting the drivers of our train and the other employees coordinating, to see us through safely to our stop. And thankfully, our decision to always stay on the train works in our favor.
All of this, though–this perseverance, this faith in the face of darkness–isn’t going to be easy, and it certainly isn’t going to be fast. After all, prayers aren’t always immediately answered, or answered at all in the way we expect, and that can make it so very difficult to persevere. Even with the faith we have, disasters are still going to happen, loved ones may still suffer illness, and other tragedies may befall us.
And that sometimes makes us ask the question: What on earth God does think God is doing?! And sometimes is makes us wonder why we should even bother, if no change is going to come from our steadfast hope–much the same way as I often ask myself why should I even bother going out to run if I’m not going to keep up with it past next Tuesday.
On her blog, Pastor Dawn Hutchings addresses this concern well. She says, “Like the pleading widow, our God cries out to us for justice. Like the widow our God continues to pursue us. Prayer provides God with the means to enter our lives so that God can challenge us to change the world. Like the pleading widow, Our God persistently cries out for justice trusting that eventually we will hear God’s pleas and begin to cry out for justice with both our words and our deeds. And yes we ought to be persistent in our prayer so that our prayers can become more than just words and we can be about the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace.”
As she says, our perseverance in faith is bigger than any of us. To repeat the last phrase of her quote: “to be so persistent in our prayer so that our prayers can become more than just words and we can be about the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace.”
We must harness our ability to hold fast in our hope and to continually pray to petition God for positive change in this world, both in our personal lives and for those around us. But we have to be open to the idea that WE are going to be the way that such change arises. Much like the ten Boom family, we must be prepared that our perseverance will be tested as we bring God’s justice and love into the world through our actions.
Hal Higdon, a champion runner and coach, has been quoted as saying: “Even when you have gone as far as you can, and everything hurts, and you are staring at the specter of self-doubt, you can find a bit more strength deep inside you, if you look closely enough.” And in those times, whether we are wrestling with our faith or asking for God’s intercession, we must continue to strive toward the vision of the Kingdom, looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel, knowing that our Engineer is completely in control. Amen.