Sermon, October 16, 2016

Not to Lose Heart
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
October 16, 2016  
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Neighbors in Need
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; Luke 18:1-8


Jacob was faithfully following God’s way and obeying God’s word. He had no intention other than to love and serve God. Everything was going well. He had escaped a bad situation and had gained wives and children and great wealth and was coming home to the Promised Land. Then God came and wrestled with him and wounded him. Jacob fought with God all night, and when Jacob finally had endured and prevailed, God blessed him and gave him a new name.

It is a strange story, and yet it has rung true for three thousand years for faithful people who try to follow God’s way. It is a mystery why wrestling with God and emerging changed is part of the spiritual journey, but it always has been and probably always will be.

The 121st Psalm proclaims that God will keep us from all evil, and yet the Psalmist is looking to the hills asking, “From where will my help come?” The answer is, our help comes from God who will not let our feet stumble. And yet here we are, looking to God for help because we keep falling.

There is a similar irony in the parable Jesus tells. Pray always and do not lose heart, he says, and then he tells the story of the widow who had suffered an injustice. She looked to the judge to help her and found even greater injustice in his refusal. A widow in those days was a tragic figure. Not only had God failed her by letting her husband die, but the children of Israel had failed her by creating a society that broke God’s commandment to take care of the widow.

Jesus means for us to identify with her struggles and follow her example. He tells us to cry to God day and night and trust that God will speedily bring justice to us if we persevere in that faith. Yet what about widows like this one who cried out to God night and day at a husband’s bedside begging that he live? What about the Hebrew prophets who cried out to God again and again against a society that neglected those in need? Jesus says simply, keep the faith, keep on praying, do not lose heart, help will come soon.

Yet Jesus left us a task that even he could not accomplish in his lifetime. Our task is to establish the realm of God on earth, to make our society a beloved community of Christ-like compassion, mercy and love, of peace and justice for all. He sends us into the world “like sheep among wolves,” (Matthew 10:16), where not only do we need to struggle against corrupt systems and heartless judges, we will have to wrestle with God all night sometimes and come away barely able to walk. And yet he promises us that God’s help and blessing will come. We will reach the Promised Land. Just pray always and do not lose heart.

We fall frequently from our own weakness, fault or flaw, or we fall because something in this world trips us up, or we fall because God is wrestling us to the ground. We have no idea why this happens. We have no choice in it. All we can choose is our intention of how to respond. We can choose to remain faithful in our struggle, which may mean that we get angry at God sometimes, we pound on God’s chest asking why life has to be this way, we scream at God for letting us or people we love suffer. Those are faithful responses because we stay in relationship with God, believing that while there may be grief and anguish now, the journey with God will lead to help.

Martin Luther King Jr. said in the midst of his own struggle, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He lived to see the vote given to his people, he lived to see civil rights for all written into the laws of the nation. Now a man of African descent has become President of the United States, something unthinkable fifty years ago. And yet today racism is rampant, it is a controversy in the Presidential campaign, and racially motivated violence fills the news.

Great strides have been made in the last century winning equal rights for women. One hundred years ago women could not even vote, let alone run for President. Today women can be found throughout the workforce, and yet where a man makes a dollar, a woman gets paid only 79 cents. And that’s if she is white—she earns only 60 cents if she is black, and only 55 cents if she is Hispanic. The exploitation and humiliation of women has also become an issue in the Presidential campaign.

Why does life have to be so difficult? Why do we have to endure unfairness, why do we have to keep looking to the hills and asking from where will our help come, why do we have to wrestle with God when we are on God’s side? Why do we have to hit rock bottom in order to turn our life and will over to God?

And why does it have to remain an aspiration to be “a church family where everyone feels welcome and at home, appreciated and supported?” Why are we always having to work to make our welcome wider? Why does it have to remain an aspiration to “maintain healthy communication and a positive, hopeful attitude as we face inevitable challenges?” Why does that not come naturally to us as followers of Christ—why do we need to keep working on it? We say that we “aspire to respond to the Christian message by being a congregation that shines like a lighted window into the world around us, a beacon for social justice engaged in local and global works of mission…widely known for generously serving those in need.” Why do we need to keep reminding ourselves to shine more brightly, to give more generously, to serve more selflessly?

It is a mysterious fact of life that when we aspire to be like Christ, resistance becomes fierce. The more we want to walk in Christ’s way, the more comes along to trip us up.

And yet if we pray always, and do not lose heart, help comes. Transformation comes. Progress and improvement come. Justice increases, love increases, peace increases.

Thomas Dorsey was one of the great gospel song writers and singers of the 20th Century. In a few minutes we will sing, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite hymns, one that helped him endure his public struggles and nights when he wrestled alone with God. Here is some of the story Thomas Dorsey told Guideposts magazine about how he came to write it.

“Back in 1932 I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago’s Southside. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting.

“I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis…. Outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.

“The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope.

“Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED….

“When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy.

“Yet that night, the baby died.

“I fell apart…. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs….

“But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God…?

“From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief… On the following Saturday evening…. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys.

“Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one in my head – it just seemed to fall into place:

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn,
Through the storm, through the night lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.

“As the Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power.”

Pray always, and do not lose heart.

We do not need to know why God’s love and light meet such opposition in life, or why justice takes so long and seems never permanent or complete, or why we have to wrestle with God sometimes, or why we fall into suffering over and over. We do not need to know how long it will be before our church or our world finally becomes the realm of God’s love and peace on earth. We do not even need to know whether we are winning or losing, or what the results will be of our work.

Our job is the same, no matter what: pray always, and do not lose heart, knowing that “when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to his restoring power.”

Let us open ourselves to God’s presence now in silent prayer…