Broken and Blessed
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
October 20, 2019
Proper 24, Year C
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
Some of you may recall this story I’ve told before. In the college I attended, all freshmen were required to take a religion course that included a two-day trip to Chicago, four hours north of our school. The trip featured visits to houses of worship for many of the world’s religions, an eye opening experience for a school whose students are largely Evangelical Christian. And, being from a rural school, the trip also included a few “big city” experiences, like Sunday brunch at a wonderful Dim Sum restaurant. I recall the feeling of being both overwhelmed and tired and considerably hungry as we waited there at our massive round tables for the food to arrive. When it did, the plates were piled with steaming, delicious smelling-foods. Course upon course arrived, and being good Evangelical kids who’d been raised to wait till the food was blessed, till grace was said before tucking in, we sat and we waited. Our professors continued to engage us in lively discussion, and our stomachs growled louder and louder. Finally the nearest professor to me seemed to take note that we were all waiting, that the food had not yet been touched – perhaps he was getting hungry himself, and he asked the table “Well, aren’t you going to dig in? You all must be famished!”
“Professor,” I responded, trying to affect my most pious expression, “we have been waiting for someone to pray.”
With a slightly mischievous glint in his eye and a grin, he asked “Jered, when did you stop praying? Doesn’t Jesus say to pray without ceasing?”
Indeed, as we hear this morning, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray without ceasing. Often this passage is isolated out of its surrounding context as a call to personal piety, that kind of piety which my professor was poking ever so slight fun at. But, Jesus tells this story as one of persistence in the face of adversity, an admonition to not lose heart, to not give up in seeking justice. Faithfulness is about persistence, endurance, and trusting that God is good, even when we cannot see God’s goodness. This story is always paired in the lectionary with the story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger, another story about endurance and adversity.
Jacob, if you will recall, is on the run from his father-in-law Laban, someone with whom he has had a very adversarial relationship. He is fleeing Laban after having taken most of his wealth and two of his daughters, and he is on his way toward his estranged brother Essau to seek refuge with him. Essau, as you might remember was the promised heir and favorite son of their father Isaac. But, Jacob, in an act of shady dealing had gotten his brother to give him his birthright, in a moment of desperation and hunger, in exchange for a pot of stew. And, later Jacob tricked his blind father into confirming that birthright. So, here Jacob is, as one scholar says, between a rock and a hard place. He has sent half of Laban’s wealth on ahead to Essau to curry favor with him, to perhaps salve old grievances, and he is waiting in the dark for the response.
The image is an apt metaphor for the struggles of life and faith, no? Caught between our past and our future, prior mistakes and a hope for grace, we wait in the dark of unknowing, unable to go back, and unsure of whether we can move forward. Caught between the painful past and daunted by the pain that surely lies ahead, it can be immobilizing. Then, out of the shadows a stranger attacks, a very real crisis is visited upon Jacob in that moment of waiting. Undoubtedly Jacob wondered whether this was Laban finally catching up to him, about to exact his revenge, or it was Essau rejecting his proferred settlement, come to teach Jacob a lesson in rejection and loss. And, so they wrestle, this stranger and Jacob, in the dark, on the ground, in the mud and the muck, without stopping all the night long they wrestled and fought one another, neither winning, neither fully gaining the advantage.
In his book Sons of Laughter Frederick Buechner writes of this moment in the voice of Jacob:
“He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
…I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
He said, ‘Let me go:’
The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.
He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’
Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills.
I said, ‘I will not let you go.’
I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.
I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.
‘Bless me,’ I said. ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’
He said, ‘Who are you?’
There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.
My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.
‘Jacob,’ I said. ‘My name is Jacob.’
‘It is Jacob no longer;’ he said. ‘Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel.’”
He wrestled and prevailed. The scoundrel, defined by his past indiscretions and crimes is given a blessing and a name and a new beginning, there in the dark shadows with a new sun rising. He endured and persisted and held on for dear life, and he was blessed.
How many of us can relate to Jacob and his wrestling, the long fight through the dark night of the soul, when we are visited by the demons of past mistakes, or the grief of former losses seems to tackle us as we wait at the edge of something new. Perhaps you are there this morning, wrapped up in a fight against God only knows what, yourself, your past, the struggles you’ve endured, wrongs you have committed or wrongs committed against you, you are fighting, hoping, to make it through to a new day and a new beginning.
There is a bundle of good news in this morning’s gospel, but I want you to hear this particular piece – Do not lose heart.
Stephen Colbert, one of America’s funny guys, had an in depth interview recently with Anderson Cooper on CNN. Cooper referenced an article written about Colbert in GQ a while back, an article I think I’ve shared with some of you before, wherein Colbert shared about how he made sense of the death of his father and brothers and the more recent death of his mother – how he had wrestled with his grief and found a blessing. In that article referenced by Cooper, Colbert paraphrases the great author J.R.R. Tolkien, saying “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Cooper who has also shared some of the same grief and pain as Colbert and whose own mother had recently died asked through tears about this quote. “Do you really believe that?” he asks. What punishments of God are not gifts? He seemed to be asking, what pain and suffering and wrestling is not also blessing?
In a moment of depth and profundity that far outpaces his role in our national ethos as the jester and commenter, Colbert responded with: “Yes. It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.” He continues, “If you’re grateful for your life …not everybody is and I’m not always, but it’s the most positive thing to do, then [if you are grateful for your life] you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”
Herein is the blessing. We make mistakes, life throws challenges and real pain our way, but we persevere in it, we carry it with us like a limp, and we move forward knowing that life comes complete with the good and the bad, the pain and the joy, the suffering and the success, and when we prevail to a new day, we do so by grace. As Colbert says, reflecting on his faith, “That’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ, is that God does it too. That you’re really not alone.” That is the blessing. The sacrifice which Jesus makes, at the cross, the suffering and pain, the shame and the rejection, he went through it all, just as we do, just as you have. And that pain, that sacrifice, that dark night, we account as gift, and when we remember it, as we will in a moment, at this altar, when we acknowledge and take it into us, we do so in an act called Eucharist, thanksgiving.
We take what we have, our whole selves, our loss and our treachery and our joy and our celebrating and we offer it back as gift. We offer not out of our wholeness, but our brokenness, we give to a God who experienced brokenness because we know he does not need perfect people or perfect gifts to heal a broken world. That is the blessing. We are broken but blessed, and we bless what is broken. We carry within us, just as a limp, the recollection of all that has come before, and we give thanks for what is now, that we can give thanks for whatever awaits us next.
Like Jacob, we cling to God, unsure of whether we are wrestling with demons or enemies ourselves or with the darkness itself – and we cling, because part of us is sure that God is near at hand that it is our life and our future at stake. And we do not relinquish until we have a blessing. You see, the truth is, God is with us in and through it all, you are not alone. Do not lose heart. Do not stop wrestling. Do not stop praying. Do not stop blessing. Our God has claimed you, has spoken his justice, which is mercy, over you. You will be a blessing to a world which is broken just like you.