Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 21 Sunday 16 October 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm121; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” 1 Tim. 3.14
The author of the 1st Letter to Timothy reminds him of the people and the holy scriptures from which he learned the faith from his earliest days. In my own childhood, I remember such people and the sacred writings too. I can still see our teacher, Mrs. Parkin, a devout Methodist, sitting or standing at her high desk at the church school in our village, reading to us, or when we were old enough having us read aloud stories from the Bible; not just those of Jesus and the New Testament, but those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, of Joseph and his brothers, then Moses, Aaron and Miriam, Joshua; of judges and kings, prophets and priests. The stories of their faith and their failings, accompanied by the prayers we said and the hymns we sang day by day, and the example of teacher and parish priest were, I would realise later, an important element of my spiritual and moral education.
When the writer of First Timothy refers to the “sacred writings,” it is to these, and to the books of the Law and wisdom, which he is referring – rather than the New Testament which did not yet exist in the canonised form we know.
Those stories are perhaps less well-known now, even among worshipping Christians, so let’s have a quick recap on Jacob’s.
He had fled from Canaan after cheating his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Taking refuge with his uncle Laban, he found himself on the receiving end of deception and double-dealing. Now, in the passage we heard this morning, after marrying not one but two of Laban’s daughters, and prospering materially, he has successfully evaded his uncle in order to return home.
On the threshold of home, at a tributary of the Jordan, he faces the prospect of meeting his estranged brother, not knowing what kind of reception he might get but fearing the worst. He has sent his wives and children, he servants and livestock on ahead.
As he remains at the ford, we hear of this vision in which he wrestles through the night with a mysterious stranger. Is his opponent a man, a spirit, an angel or God himself? The story is told in such a way as to have allowed a variety of interpretations to be drawn from it.
Chosen to accompany the parable of the importunate widow’s relentless siege of the corrupt judge, our lectionary sees it as being about prayer – prayer as our relationship with God – prayer as more than the reciting of words, or what is now known as “mindfulness” – not that either of these is bad in itself – but prayer as involving real struggle, a wrestling with God; prayer as something which leads to blessing but does not leave us unmarked.
We would think that if God were to engage in a wrestling match with us, it would be all over in a matter of minutes; it would not go on all night. But the story speaks to us of a God who does not overwhelm us by invincible and irresistible power, but one who comes down to our level, so that we might know him. This is a story which shows us a God who rather than compelling us, engages with us, challenges us. This is the God who will make himself known in the incarnation. The God who shares in human life that we might share in the divine.
The story seems to owe something to folk tales of night spirits which cannot be in the light: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” No, says Jacob, “unless you bless me.” Jacob is asked his name and then told that he will have a new name, “Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
Jacob, now “Israel,” asks in turn for the stranger’s name, but he is not told it. To know someone’s name was to have power over them, to be able to exercise control over them. That he is denied. God will reveal his name to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am,” but that hardly banishes the mystery. God’s being is always greater than anything which we can comprehend. There is an important strand in the scriptures which says that human beings could not see the face of God and live. This is said to Moses, but we are also told that God spoke to Moses as “one speaks to a friend, face to face.”
In the Christian tradition of prayer and theology, thinking about God and our relationship with him,, we learn that God is both known and unknown. He is both:
- The one who in the incarnation has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, “we have seen his glory revealed in the face of Jesus Christ”;
- And the one who remains immeasurably greater than anything we can comprehend or define, much less control.
Jacob does receive the blessing he has asked for. Then he gives the place a name, “Peniel…for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Yesterday, the Church celebrated one of the great teachers of prayer, Teresa of Avila, the reformer of the Carmelite order which traced its origins back to Elijah to whom God revealed himself, not in the spectacular but in silence. Teresa set out to establish communities which were more than the comfortable refuges for the unmarried daughters of the well-to-do. They were to be communities marked by the call of God; which guarded silence and simplicity that they might be focused on corporate and personal prayer; communities of mutual love and support in the calling to know and serve God; sisters bearing one another’s burdens, sharing joys and sorrows. And that prayer was no mere remedy for the stresses and strains of life: it involved struggle and dryness and darkness, as well as light and joy. But severe as their life might seem to us, Teresa did not mean them to be joyless places. There was to be celebration and fun as well as fasting and abstinence. She would take up her castanets and dance. She even said, “God save me from sour-faced nuns.” God save us all from sour-faced Christians!
The blessing and the name which Jacob receives does not leave him as he had been before his encounter with God. His new name signifies the people called by God to be his witnesses in the world. The blessing he receives does not mend his dislocated hip: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.” (Since I came limping home with a sore knee from my pilgrimage in Spain, I have developed a sympathy for Jacob.)
He is marked by his encounter with God, just as Christians are marked by ours; as Paul says in Galatians: “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus Christ.” The Church and its members are marked in baptism with the sign of the cross. We are to be seen as different, changed by our encounter with God. This is not about an antiseptic piety which seeks to avoid sin by denying our humanity and the risks and adventure it involves.
When Jacob fled from the wrath of Esau, he had another vision in the night; of the ladder set up between heaven and earth with the angels ascending and descending upon it. He said “How awesome is this place, this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
He called that place, “Bethel-the House of God.”
In our tradition, churches are “Bethels,” houses of God, not that they contain God in some exclusive way, but that they are places in which has chosen to make himself known. In my brother’s village in Wales, the chapel was called “Peniel.” It was where a congregation of Welsh Presbyterians, Calvinistic Methodists as they used to be called, gathered Sunday by Sunday to to hear the sacred scriptures that speak of salvation. Sadly that Peniel, like so many such chapels is closed now. People no longer gather there to wrestle with the God of the scriptures.
A church like ours is called to be both a place and a community, in which people encounter God in worship and prayer:
A Bethel, in which people can glimpse heaven on earth, a vision of God and his creation as he intends it to be, and of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;
A Nazareth, where, as Jesus learned the faith from Mary and Joseph, as Timothy would from his mother and grandmother, we learn from our fathers and mothers in the faith;
A Bethany where, like Mary, we listen to Jesus, where we continue in what we have learned and whom we have learned it from, in attention to those sacred writings which are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and the tradition which has passed on and interpreted them;
A Carmel, in which, amid the clamour and distraction and noise of this world, we can hear God in what the hymn writer calls the “still small voice of calm;”
An Emmaus in which the Christ who has opened to us the scriptures makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread, who feeds us for the journey to the promised land;
And a Peniel in which God wrestles with us and we with God; where in struggling with our doubts and fears, questions and temptations, we find God’s blessing, a blessing which often comes to us through those who struggle with and alongside us, those who weep with us when we weep and laugh with us when we laugh;
A place in which God both blesses us and marks us as forever his own, his witnesses in the world, to be a people who have seen the face of God in Jesus Christ, and who have not only survived the experience but found in it a new life and joy.