21st Sunday after Pentecost
October 17, 2010
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Genesis 32:24-26
…proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 2 Timothy 4:2
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:7-8
This week’s Lectionary selections offer a plethora of preaching possibilities. There is enough meat on these textual bones to keep a preacher gnawing away for several cycles. But “persistence” stands out as a theme worthy of exploration. From Jacob’s stubborn unwillingness to release his divine night visitor without first receiving a blessing to Paul’s admonishment to Timothy to be persistent in proclaiming the message to the widow’s relentless badgering of the hard-hearted judge in Jesus’ parable from Luke, this idea of persistence keeps popping up, well persistently.
Why does persistence matter to God’s people? What’s the big deal? Persistence appears to be counter-cultural in our throw-away, low commitment, easily-replaceable culture. “Appears” because I believe that something else is really going on here. We still value persistence as a valuable trait, but we are soft, spoiled and pampered. We are used to having things our way – from how we want our hamburgers at the drive-thru to how we select our car-option packages.
And, naturally, we choose our churches by the programmatic offerings or level of charisma exuded by the pastor.
Who craves generic coffee with powdered creamer in a Styrofoam cup when right down the street you can order up your choice of lattes in an attractively designed narthex coffee bar? Instead of proclaiming that we’d rather “fight than switch,” a lot of us would just as soon switch and be saved the trouble of bloodying our knuckles.
Persistence, like most virtues, must be cultivated. It must be practiced. It must be valued. Persistence is integrally related to good stewardship. When it comes to cultivating persistence, most North American Mainline churches do an unacceptable job, frankly. It’s kind of hard to expect someone to be “persistent” when all that’s required for active membership is to show up, give, and/or commune once a year. It’s definitely difficult to expect new people with new ideas to assimilate into a congregational culture whose only evidence of persistence lies in how vigorously they oppose change.
Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we’ve experienced a crisis of persistence in recent months. Many good people have left their congregations, and in some cases congregations have left the ELCA over ministry policy changes that attempted to be faithful yet inclusive. The issue is whether gay or lesbian pastors may enter into committed, exclusive relationships, rather than be celibate all their lives.
Now good arguments can be drawn by faithful people on both sides of the aisle. And in many churches, faithful people are agreeing to disagree while at the same time discussing the issue like grownups. Others are drawing the line in the denominational sandbox, choosing to take their toys and leave. There are hurt feelings all around.
So much for persistence! Did folks really have to leave the playground? Couldn’t we have wrestled a little longer and figured out a way to work together, to seek a blessing together rather than splinter apart?
It doesn’t even take a major denominational controversy to see what a lack of persistence can do. How many congregations find themselves embroiled in angst and division over little stuff, such as worship-setting changes, the color of the new carpet, building renovations or the purchase new hymnals? Members withhold funds, stop showing up, resign from council, refuse to let their children participate in youth group activities, and so on and so on. Why be persistent, why hang in there when it is so easy to call it quits?
Quitting may feel good for a little while, but it very rarely solves any problems. The Bible is full of witness to this fact. Take Jonah, for example. Look where quitting got him. Moses wanted to quit, but he didn’t. I’m pretty sure most of the prophets would have liked to have taken early retirement, but that wasn’t an option. Quitting just isn’t how it works for the Christian. Look at Jesus; he hung in there until the bitter end–literally. And we’re worried about budget deficits and arguments over how loud to play the organ? Really?
Yes, persistence matters for us, dear Christian friends, just like justice matters. We are called to hang in there, to be the Body of Christ, to wrestle with the tough issues, to live in the tension, and yes, to demand our blessing. We are told to work for justice, even when our own pet idea of justice may not prevail. Sinners, saints, birthright-snatching scallywags, annoying widows, reluctant evangelists, enthusiastic young leaders, rich and poor, male and female–all belong in the family of God and all have a place at Christ’s table. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.
Maybe it’s time to talk about persistence and just why it really does matter. Better yet, perhaps it’s time to reclaim this trait, to cultivate it in our congregations, and to pass it on as a side dish to the main course of faith. Like Jacob, let us cry “I will not let you go” and mean it.