19 Pentecost: In Conflict with God

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Don Diego del Corral y Arellano por Diego Velazquez (a 17th c. judge)

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Texts for Preaching

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 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.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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?”

Some of you have been around
The Episcopal Church
and this congregation
long enough to remember the lament
over the absence of the 1928 Prayer Book
and Elizabethan English.
”Oh, the poetry and beauty of it all”
the sense of grief gushed.
Some even had a sorrowful sadness
about “the missing Victorian language
of these awful new hymns.”

I confess to internally rolling my eyes
whenever I heard those laments.
And don’t get me started on the King James Version
of the Bible — what a horrible translation!

Well those horses are out of the barn,
and thank goodness.

I have zero interest
in rehabilitating 16th century
British culture and religion.
In fact, the further we can outrun that past
the better.

The readings today
conjure up a basic conflict
between our British ancestors
and the Bible they corrupted.

It is a conflict between a radical 1st century
Palestinian peasant,
and the well-educated
upper class culture of Britain
that had a lust for the appearance of order.

It is a conflict between
British Enlightenment thinkers
who cherished so-called pure reason 
that defined a well-ordered universe,
with ordinary 21st century people like us
whose brains are crowded with information
and whose growing sense of chaos
pushes us to question
the supremacy of reason.

It is a conflict between
the perspectives of Biblical people,
who mostly experienced the harsh margins
of powerlessness and violence
at the hands of empires,
and Imperial England
that raped indigenous cultures
in pursuit of colonization.

Painfully, we also remember
that Colonialism had a willing partner
in the Church of England
because it confused Christian faith
with British and European civilization.

The language of worship and theology
that The Episcopal Church inherited from England
is a domesticated religion
that cleansed the conscience
and stands in conflict with the radicalism
of Jesus in particular,
and the Bible in general.

Now this is an old story,
which you have heard me yammer on about
many times before.
I can’t help it
because today’s readings require it.
I think it has an added word for us
at Trinity Place
in 2022.
More about that in a minute.)

So I am picking on our British past
but it is also true that European civilization
from the Roman Empire to German Theologians
all engaged in the domestication of Christianity.
They had to
because the Bible,
particularly the Wisdom and Prophetic traditions,
of which Jesus is a part,
is radically subversive.

Biblical Christianity
is subversive of Imperial culture
regardless of who the emperor is.

Where we would add refinement
the Bible is course;
where we would add gentleness
the Bible is militant;
where we would add reason
the Bible never considered it; and
where we would translate into proper English
the Bible speaks in vernacular.

Enter Jacob and Jesus.

Jesus, like the sages and prophets before him,
argued and wrestled with God,
and in the process
sometimes changed God’s mind.

Our Enlightenment ancestors
standing inside a windowless cube of reason,
could not imagine a God
who ever changes anything,
especially God’s own mind.

We have stopped telling
the most important stories in the Bible
except to very young children, who,
if it weren’t for the fact
they are allowed to watch “Halloween 2, 3, 4, and 5”
would be terrified
by the God in those stories.

We have domesticated the Bible
and the Biblical characters
because they are subversive partisans
who engage in combat with God
as much as they do with Pharaoh and Caesar.

So, we should know
that God expects a good fight from us
not a polite prayer
with impeccable syntax
that whimpers our neediness.

God expects a fight from us,
so we need to push back
and not accept things as they are.
God’s perspective

is just a whole lot more vast than ours,
so our little issues
do not amount to as much as a pimple
on God’s galactic radar.
That means we better be prepared
to kick up some dust.

It is all right there in the text
if we pay attention to it.
In our polite, well-educated
and culturally filtered version of Luke’s story,
the judge says:
I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by her continual coming.”

But a translation
more faithful to the Greek text, I’m told, says:
I will grant her justice
so that she will not pummel my eye.”

So she will not give me a black eye!
See how we domesticate the message?

If you are translating Luke’s story
from a position of privilege and power,
one in which you respect the arbitrators of justice,
because they are your kind of people —
then you want this parable to suggest
that the poor old widow is a nag
and the judge,
tired after a long day’s work
finally gives into her.

But that is not the emotional content
behind Luke’s story.

The judge gives in
because this widow is scrappy
and will give him a black eye
if he keeps denying her justice.

This is a story Jesus tells
with a punch line as clear as day:
our relationship with God
and our spiritual practice
is laden with conflict.
We need to be tough…spiritually tough.

We need to be like Jacob
who wrestles with God
and won’t let go without a blessing.

As I said a few weeks ago,
our very definition of faith
is rooted in that Jacob story:
Emunah, “to hold onto.”

Moses argues with God more than once,
and more than once
he changes God’s capricious mind.

The prophets
insist that God live up to God’s promises
of justice and mercy
and they do it
with some of the most passionate language
in human history.

Jesus scorns,
the frilly formal Temple worship
and the polite customs
that the educated and privileged enjoyed.
Instead he insists upon
a more earthy,
a more passionate
kind of prayer.

Our worship and prayer language
needs to become wilder
not more refined;
crazier and more passionate
not more formal and orderly.

If prayer is only an act of last resort for us
then we need to find another way to pray.

If we are afraid to put it all out there
and insist on a little justice or mercy
then we need to find another way to pray.

We need to look again at the Bible.
We need to reject the domesticated version
that upholds the pillars of polite society
and public order.
these must be the active ingredients
in our spiritual practice.

Now before I turn specifically
to what this might say to us
here at Trinity Place,

I want to put a period on the end
of this tough-guy sentence from Jesus.

It is really because once
every three years
I get to drag out a sentence of the Bible
no one ever notices.
It never comes up in the lectionary,
but it is in the Gospel
immediately preceding
today’s story from Luke.

Someone asks Jesus,
“Hey Jesus, where will the reign of God arrive?”
to which Jesus answers,
“Where the corpse is, the vultures will gather.”

“Where the corpse is, the vultures will gather”
is not one of those popular lines
Evangelicals learn to memorize
or that appears as a chorus
in Victorian hymns.

But it is another example
of the extreme difference
between the Jesus of the Gospels
and the Jesus of polite religion.

Now, how might we hear Jacob and Jesus
and the undomesticated gospel
in relation to Trinity Place?

What I would say,
is that we need to stop thinking about Church
as the model for what we are.

We have inherited a model
from the 19th and 20th centuries
that is clearly dying —
gasping for air, especially in our part of the country.
”Church” as we imagine it
is a corpse where the vultures are gathering.
It isn’t dead yet
but Church as it has existed
really is dying.
What form it takes next is not clear yet
and we may be — may be — a pioneer.

We already made a radical break
by giving up our building
and believing we could be church
without owning property.
But that was only one skin
we needed to shed.

I do not pretend to know
what travels into the future
and what gets left behind,
but I am convinced that the form
and the model we have known
and that we haven’t really let go of yet,
is one of those skins
we need to consider shedding.

Well that is a lot to digest:
A tougher relationship with God
that includes conflict,
and an even more dramatic separation
from our past
with how we do and be

But I know you didn’t come here
to be put to sleep.