Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 18 Sunday 20 October 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
When Jacob fled from home to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, whose birth-right and blessing he had stolen, he stopped to rest for the night. In a dream he sees a ladder set up between earth and heaven, with angel ascending and descending on it. God stands over him and says, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.” When he wakes Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it……..How awesome is this place, this is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” He names the place “Bethel” – the house of God.
In today’s passage from Genesis, Jacob is returning home; with his wives and children, his servants and livestock. He has escaped the clutches of his father-in-law Laban, (a character as duplicitous as himself) but is understandably anxious about what kind of reception he will receive from Esau. Then he has another vision; a companion to the earlier one. In it he wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger; one who turns out in the end to be God.
The earlier vision at Bethel is one of the passages set for the Dedication Festival of a church. It is one often applied to places like this one. It is one which those of us who love such places respond to and echo. This is a place in which we find the presence of God; where we see a ladder set up between heaven and earth. It is what the Celtic tradition calls a “thin place;” one where the boundary between heaven and earth seems porous. Just as Jacob was strengthened for his journey by the first vision, so we come to this place, and ones like it; we come to the Eucharist or when the place is quiet. In this place where may be still and know God, we can drink in the stillness and the beauty of place and worship and music as balm to our souls. It is a place where the lamp of the presence burns to mark the sacramental presence of the Christ who promised to be with us always, even to the ages of ages. Here, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas used in today’s Post-Communion Prayer, in this sacred feast we receive him, the memory of his passion is renewed, our minds are filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
But just as Jacob has two dreams, so we need both stories, both places, both visions. There is more to prayer than a technique for stress management. In prayer, we find ourselves wrestling with God. Prayer challenges and changes us -if, that is, we persevere in it. In prayer, the Spirit searches the depths of our being; it examines our actions, probes our motives, strips away our carefully constructed defences and lays bare our deepest selves.
That is an uncomfortable process – which is why we are tempted to flee from it – why we seek distraction from it – why we will often find something else, anything else, to do or think about – even in church.
Of course there are genuine distractions. A young woman who has been worshipping and praying with us morning and evening, on her way to and from work, said to me the other morning that she sometimes found it difficult to pray when one of our sleeping guests is snoring at the back. I sympathized: I told her that is why we ask them to leave at five in the evening, so that we have one set of services each day without that disturbance. And why sometimes in the morning or at lunchtime, I will wake up particularly noisy snorers. But even when they have gone, the noise of the world can still intrude: the other evening I joked with her after mass that it had not been the snorers who had disturbed us, but the racket of the police helicopter hovering directly over us.
When I feel like this, I try to remember Archbishop Anthony Bloom’s response to someone who complained that the noise of children in church disturbed their prayers: “Start praying” he said, “and they will stop disturbing you.”
Names feature in that passage from Genesis. Jacob is given a new name: “Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” But when he in turn asks for the stranger’s name he receives no answer. In ancient cultures, to know someone’s name was to have power over them – but God is beyond any power of ours to control. That is why Jews never pronounce the name of God. That same divine power beyond human control also underlies the belief that human beings could not see God and live. But Jacob names the place Peniel, “For I
have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
A person’s name also expressed something of their being; hence Jacob becomes Israel. For Christians, the name of Jesus represents not just a historical figure but the very being of God; how God is and how God acts towards us.
Our Gospel today – the parable of the unjust judge and the importunate widow – is also one of a set of two – a companion to that of the man who needs food for an unexpected visitor and bangs on his neighbour’s door until he gets it (Luke 11.5-8).
It is not that God is an unjust judge or a grudging neighbour, but that prayer is something which demands perseverance. It also demands that we have the courage and humility to ask God for things.
This year, our Sunday Gospels are taken largely from St. Luke. One of the themes of hia Gospel is of Jesus as a person of prayer; one who is found at prayer before significant decisions and events – and likewise Luke’s portrait of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles is of a community of people who pray, who pray both together and on their own, who pray for the guidance of the Spirit.
Those of you who read our weekly parish email will know that in the latest issue, I wrote about the preacher’s wrestling with scripture, sometimes long into the night and in the early hours of the morning. The preacher must heed that solemn commission we heard in the epistle: “proclaim the message: be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable, convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching.”
But just as the preacher must preach “in season and out”, so we who are hearers must persevere in attention, to the word proclaimed and to the sacred writings which instruct us, teach us, reprove and correct us, train us in righteousness. As one theologian has put it:
“This means engaging in dialogue with the Bible—bringing our questions to it, hearing its questions to us, examining our answers in its light, and taking its answers very seriously, particularly when they conflict with our own, which will be most of the time.” —(Robert McAfee Brown)
Fr. John Gaskell, of blessed memory, once told me that when he was a curate here, one member of the congregation would say to him whenever he had preached: “So many minutes this morning.” This person never showed the slightest interest in what had been said: the sermon seemed no more than an unwelcome interruption to be endured until liturgy and music resumed.
You may be interested to know that the sermons which were being preached here a century ago and published in the Parish Paper were a good deal longer than any you hear now; even mine. That may say something about the lesser rhetorical skills of modern preachers or the shortness of attention spans attuned only to soundbites – or perhaps our willingness or reluctance to listen – lest we be changed by what we hear.
Jacob wrestles all night. We must wrestle for a lifetime. St. Teresa of Avila, that great teacher of prayer, whom we celebrated last week, tells us in her “Life” that she struggled for twenty years in prayer before receiving the revelation which would flower in her great reform of the Carmelite Order, the restoration of its life of contemplative prayer, and in her own teaching on the way of prayer.
But in that wrestling we find that we are not overcome but transformed. Encounter with God in prayer does not destroy us. We can see God and live. But real encounter with God in prayer will leave its mark upon is. Like Jacob, we will limp away from it. It will change us into the likeness of the Christ whose name we bear; who himself bore the marks of the cross, the wounds of love, on his risen body.
This place then must be for us both Bethel and Peniel: a place where we know the presence of God and a place where God wrestles with us before he blesses us. If it is, then when the Son of Man comes he may find faith in Margaret Street.